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Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote


This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favor of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalise poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.

This series will be divided into seven chapters:

  1. Poetry and Politics 101: Romantic Poetry

  2. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice

  3. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote

  4. Poetry and Politics 101: Pre-First World War Poetry

  5. Poetry and Politics 101: Post-First World War Poetry

  6. Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

  7. Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts

The Chartists were a Victorian social movement, widely considered to be the first mass political movement of the working class. Critically neglected and widely unknown, the study of the Chartists illuminates fascinating revelations of the mindset and atmosphere of working class Victorian Britain. Named after the People’s Charter of 1838, the Chartists advocated for working-class rights. The People’s Charter listed six main aims: the vote for all men aged over 21; monetary compensation for MPs; annual elections for the House of Commons; removal of property qualification for MPs; a secret ballot; and electoral districts of equitable size.

This Charter was the result of ongoing crises for the working class who, according to Margaret Loose (2014), became extremely hostile to “the worsening of living conditions, family life, and the hours and conditions of labour that accompanied increasing urbanisation” (p. 5). Finding their voices unheard and unwanted, they turned to direct political action through the People’s Charter to advocate their grievances. Through political action, and even more so through their poetry, the Charter’s gave a voice to those who had long lived without it.

Simon Rennie (2016) attests to the critical neglection of the Chartists, claiming that “critical material […] is growing but much remains to be studied” (p. 1). Reclaiming the Chartists from forgetfulness is a significant study in the relation of poetry to politics. For perhaps the first time in history, a political group was almost invariably defined by their relation to poetry. The same might be said of the Romantics, though the Chartist’s direct use of poetry in their political campaign differs from the Romantics abstract and less direct political criticism. That being said, the Romantics were a prominent influence on the Chartist’s incessant use of the poetical, with Rennie (2016) confirming that the Chartists “embraced and modified the Romantics political legacy” (p. 1). The similarities, of course, are evident: both movements abhorred the growth of industrialisation and the corruption of institutions, and it might be said that the Chartists modified Romantic thought into a direct form of legitimate action.

Figure 1: Cartoon from Punch Magazine. John Leech. 1848.

Though critically ignored in the present, the Chartists did find popularity in their contemporary time. The Northern Star, the predominant Chartist newspaper of the period, “printed around forty thousand copies of their paper each week during their peak in the 1840s and favoured submission from working class readers” (Sanders, 2009, p. 11). This newspaper was responsible for publishing the majority of Chartist poetry featured in the anthologies of today. As such, the success of the print evidences the very real impact that poetry had on the political thought of the day, and authenticates many critics claim of the direct relation of the poetical and political within the Chartist movement.

Indeed, Chartist poetry had a significant amount of political agency. Mike Sanders (2009) speaks of the “unity of politics and poetry in the form of the ‘Chartist imaginary’” (p. 6), which underpinned its agency. Speaking further on the agency of the Chartist poetry, Sanders (2009) found that the poetry “served as a mood enhancer confirming or consolidating the ethos of the gathering” (p. 6). This evidences the varied role of poetry to the Chartist movement. Not only did it serve to recruit radicals to their group, it also served to strengthen the Chartist community and secure bonds, which in turn strengthened their political endeavour. Indeed, both leadership and rank were involved in the poetical process, evidencing the poetical agency to strengthen community. Sanders claim is supported by Rennie (2016), who argues that Chartist poetry existed as a “communal experience or as a means of mass communication” (Rennie, p. 1). As such, it is clear that a study of the Chartist movement would be insufficient without a study of their poetical preoccupation. This is supported by Sanders (2009), who finds that “poetry permeated the entire movement” (p. 7), attesting that “the political could quickly turn poetical” (p. 7).

Interestingly, the Chartists did not just endow political agency to the power of poetry. They found in poetry a sense of transformation, a spiritual power that had the ability not just to influence political direction, but to transform consciousness. Sanders (2009) attests to the Chartist account of finding in poetry an ability to “transform the consciousness of the reader” (p. 7). For the Chartists then, poetry was a necessarily elevated medium that had both political and spiritual agency. Endowed with many roles, the Chartist movement epitomises the relation of the poetry and the political, and the very real force that poetry can hold in influencing political direction and consciousness.

Figure 2: The Chartist Petition. Unknown. 1843.

For Peter Scheckner (1989), Chartist poetry “represents one of the most passionate, clearly focused, radical and, for its time, socially influential forces in British literature” (p. 15). Scheckner’s claim, that for the Chartists there was little difference “between the aims of art and the demands of politics” (p. 15), strengthens our understanding of the Chartist consciousness. For them, poetical and political endeavour were deeply intertwined, and this serves to authenticate much of the political use of poetry throughout history.

But what political use, exactly, did Chartist poetry serve? Both Scheckner (1989) and Rennie (2016) confirm that Chartist poetry acted as a source of propaganda for their political cause, as “agitation propaganda” (Scheckner, 1989, p. 16) that called to public attention the political inequality of the period. It provided a voice for the disenchanted working classes, who found solidarity and understanding in the pages of the Northern Star, enticing them to political support for the Chartist agenda. The emphasis on the working classes is significant. For the first time, “the middle and upper class monopoly on literature was broken” (Scheckner, 1989, p. 17), and the working-classes reinvigorated the elite medium for their own political agenda. It was a significant stage in poetry’s timeline, an era of literary reinvigoration, that, for a working-class generation becoming more literate than ever before, brought poetry into an era of mass consumption. This shift is unsurprising considering the social and political turmoil of the period. As discussed throughout this 101 series, the political state of Britain in the late 18th-19th century was unstable. As Edward Royle (1996) states:

"Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century was the scene of unprecedented economic and social change: so much so that in the 1840s Friedrich Engels could describe what was happening as comparable to the political upheaval in the French Revolution of 1789" (p. 1).

Figure 3: Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting. William Edward Kilburn. 1848.

Royle (1996) roots this claim, partly, in the shock of the industrial revolution, which saw small towns transform into cities within “living memory” (p. 3), whilst class divisions, though not new, were becoming ever more apparent in “smaller, newer towns” (p. 3). This social, political, and economic upheaval led to the disillusionment of the working class, who felt the effects of the industrial revolution more than the rest. This is supported by Royle (1996), who contends that “in the making of Chartism” there is a close connection between this crisis and “political unrest” (p. 3). Turning to direct political action to fight against social and political injustice, the Chartists also rooted agency and communion in poetry. Finding that poetry had the ability to bring together masses of working class individuals into a communal consciousness, the medium was endowed great significance and esteem to the movement.

Through their poetry, the working classes were able to present themselves as “writing people” and as “thinkers and doers” (Loose, 2014, p. 4). Their contention that all men were worthy of the right to vote and to equal treatment was, in part, justified by their ability to insert themselves, en masse, into a literary world they were once considered excluded from. In this way, the poetry not only generated support for their movement, but also served to justify it. That the working class were able to eloquently discuss matters of poverty, exclusion, and the incompetence of institutions, only further served to legitimise their endeavour toward intellectual inclusion. As Margaret Loose (2014) suggests, their writings “contested their exclusion from governance and literary tradition” (p. 4).

Ernest Jones "The Song of the Low"

The aforementioned significance of the creation of community through poetry is epitomised by Ernest Jones’ “The Song of the Low” (1819 - 1869). Presenting the working classes not as a disparate group but as a unified consciousness, provides the disillusioned class with a sense of community that intensified their want for political action. Finding their plights and grievances articulated through poetry, the sense of community ignited a greater need for advocation for political change. Endowing the working class with their own song in the title allowed Jones to immediately create a sense of indisputable community. Encouraged into a literary world that was previously denied to them, through poems such as “The Song of the Low”, the working classes were able to see the political turmoil of their generation not as individual distresses but as a universal experience that required political action.

As previously discussed, the Romantics were a prominent literary inspiration for the Chartists. Rennie (2016) discusses the inspiration behind “The Song of the Low”, which is rooted in Percy Shelley’s radical poetry that had a demotic, “song-like nature” (p. 15). According to Rennie (2016), the poem “continues Shelley’s theme of exploitation but adds a tone of ironic humour” (p. 15). The poem is evident in its demographic. Drawing on common trades, such as ploughing and sowing, growing bread, and delving in the dirty clay, Jones speaks directly to the working classes, giving them a voice where poetry had always denied it. The popularity of “The Song of the Low” speaks to the political potential of poetry, as a unifying, articulating, and rallying force.

Figure 4: Ernest Jones. Unknown. 1867.

The use of collective pronouns epitomises the poem’s attempt to appeal to a collective subjectivity. The anaphora of “we’re low” (Jones, 2019, line 1) invites the working-class reader to identify with the disillusioned “we”, and in particular, to identify against the “high” (line 3) exploitative class. The poem is essentially a propaganda poem, a rallying attempt of support for their cause. By insisting that the reader assumes themselves included in the communal “we”, the poem then encourages the reader to sympathise with the grievances of the low. Jones’s evocation of the binary oppositions high and low serves to stimulate political direction and action. By continuously aligning the working classes with lowness, Jones seeks to convince the working-class reader that their political situation is unjust, and hence change is needed. Speaking directly to his own class, Jones tells the reader “we’re far too low to vote the tax. But not too low to pay” (lines 22-23). Instead of alluding to political purpose, Jones directly addresses his political feelings within the poem. By doing so, he encourages the reader to give voice to their grievances. This poem epitomises Chartist poetry as a unifying, political medium, that directly addressed political agenda and convinced others to join the cause. As Rennie (2016) states, the poetry was an agent of political action: Chartist poetry contributed to “active political debate”, and could be said to “truly […] have done something” (Rennie, 2016, p. 67).

Jones offers hope to a disillusioned working class, and offers, through poetry, a political escape. By transforming individual consciousness into a collective subjectivity, he successfully invites the reader into a political landscape that tells the working classes it doesn’t have to be that way, and offers solution for direct political change. In this way, Chartist poetry is perhaps one of the only examples of a political group that used poetry as its predominant rallying medium. Unlike the Romantics, whose political ideas were less direct and not based around a particular political charter or course of action, the Chartists knew what they were fighting for, and wrote poetry with this purpose. As a striking example of the power poetry can hold in political intervention, the Chartist’s verse, evidenced in the popularity of the Northern Star, was a successful propaganda attempt to rally the masses.

Figure 5: A Dinner At a Cheap Lodging House. Unknown. 1859.

In conclusion, Chartist poetry epitomises the relation of poetry and politics to its highest degree, and is a shining example of the way verse can comment on, and intervene in, as an active agent, political debate. By giving to the working classes a medium through which their grievances were articulated and acknowledged, the Chartists were able to rally support for their political agenda. Few political movements have relied on poetry for their political ambitions, and few have done so as successfully as the Chartists. That a political campaign is remembered predominately for its utilisation of poetry as a political force highlights the extent to which poetry acted as an active political agent.

The study of Chartist poetry deserves the recognition it is finally receiving. In a modern age where poetry’s use and purpose is questioned, the endeavours of the Chartists reveals a purpose of poetry now forgotten: as a communal expression, a message of hope, and a call for action.

Bibliographical References

Jones, E. (2019). The Song of the Low. Poems for the Millenium, Volume Three. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Loose, M. A. (2014). The Chartist Imaginary: Literary Form in Working-Class Political Theory and Practice. The Ohio State University Press.

Rennie, S. (2016). The Poetry of Ernest Jones: Myth, Song and the 'Mighty Mind'. Routledge, London.

Royle, E., & Lockyer, R. (2014). Chartism. Routledge.

Sanders, M. (2009). The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Cambridge University Press.

Scheckner, P. (Ed.). (1989). An anthology of chartist poetry: poetry of the British working class, 1830s-1850s. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press.

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Ella Fincken

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