Chartist Poetry

Chartist poetry generally refers to verse affiliated with the Chartist Movement, 1838-1848, though some poems were published after these dates (Armstrong 193). Chartist poetry can be identified by any combination of its politicized subject matter, the poet’s established association with the movement, or even by virtue of its publication history and appearance in Chartist literature. Though much Chartist poetry was published unsigned, pseudonymously, or anonymously in periodicals instead of single volumes, some established Chartist poets include Gerald Massey, Ernest Jones, Thomas Cooper, and W. J. Linton (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 3).

Chartist poetry is a variant of Victorian poetry that is both a part of and distinct from a general Victorian poetic tradition. The two share a common “cultural matrix,” a historical and social context, which manifests itself in themes of nation construction, public and private relations, agency, labour and representation (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 31). However, Chartist poetry is also distinguished from typical Victorian poetry for its anachronistic romanticism and emphasis on the public, instead of individualistic, sphere (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 29). Martial imagery, slavery, masculinity and brotherhood also dominate the most political and radical contributions to this working-class movement (Armstrong 193).

It is useful to characterize Chartist poetry as much by its function as its content or form. As a vehicle of political rhetoric, one of the primary roles of Chartist poetry is to foster a sense of community. Chartist poetry emerges from a political oral tradition born of speeches, gatherings and rallies (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 6). In addition to simply exposing readers to new political ideas, Chartist poetry also attempted to form a new working class consciousness by proliferating a collective, affective capacity allowing the movement to “think out loud” as a whole (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 14-17). Armstrong refers to this legacy as “a genuinely public rhetoric of collective action […] and a genuinely social rhetoric of community  which derived from their own traditions – the ballad and refrain, the marching song, the Bunyanesque hymm, biblical imagery” (193). Overt localization also plays a significant role in establishing a collaborative working-class community and small town Chartist poets are aligned with “bardic” poetics in contrast to “prophetic” Romantic poets such as Byron and Shelly (Sanders, “Politics of Poetic Citation” 162). This overarching ideal of political poetry as community-making is visible not only in the poems themselves, but in their very mode of distribution.

Chartist newspaper poetry refers specifically to the verse of the Chartist Movement as it appears in contemporary, sympathetic newspapers and periodicals such as The Chartist Circular and the Northern Star. As mentioned, it was unusual for Chartist poets to publish single volumes of poetry or national recognition, so the localized dissemination of poetry through the press represents its dominant, popular mode of reception (Sanders, Poetry of Chartism 3). Considering that the primary function of Chartist poetry is to foster community, the significance of its proliferation through newspapers and periodicals should not be understated.

As a medium and material object, the newspaper is hyper-temporal and self-referential; as a commodity, it is more a communal object than a thing possessed, especially considering that the Northern Star claimed a readership of seven for each copy sold (Mussell). A fixation on urgency and current events emphasizes the newspaper’s ephemerality and even implies that the document itself, date-stamped, can expire in relevance. Newspapers are tightly bound to the formation of communities; they contribute to and sustain notions of national consciousness, largely by acknowledging an imagined community of ideal readers (Douglas 52). Not only does a newspaper acknowledge its readers, but it actively negotiates with and engages them in an “ongoing dialogic construction of national identity” (Douglas 60). Given the shared, communal possession of newspaper objects, the dialogue is not limited to that between reader and paper, but invites readers to acknowledge each other as compatriots.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Douglas, Fiona. Scottish Newspapers, Language and Identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009. Print.

Mussell, Jim. “Northern Star (1837-1852).” Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition. NCSE, 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Sanders, Michael. “Courtly Lays or Democratic Songs? The Politics of Poetic Citation in Chartist Literary Criticism.” Class and Canon: Constructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics, 1750-1900. Ed. Kirstie Blair and Mina Gorji. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 156-173. Palgrave Connect. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Sanders, Michael. The Poetry of Chartism. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

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