[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “A” for Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
ble, informed, and well-researched, this book uses considerable archives of Chartist journal poetry to advance and deepen our understanding of the role that poetry had to play in this innovative working-class movement. It will greatly interest all students of Chartism on account of the range of lesser known poets it examines, and should also enlighten anyone who wants to learn what formal and ideological features this poetry shares with the canonized poets of the day. The book is not long, but it is packed: it features two comprehensive introductory chapters that survey the literary field, an in-depth quantitative analysis of the Northern Star's poetry column over a dozen years, and three chapters exploring how Chartist poetry dealt with various historical turning points (The Newport uprising, the mass strike and 1848). It concludes with a chapter (quite different in feel from the others) on Gerald Massey's links to the "constellating" methodology of Walter Benjamin.
Sanders begins his exploration of Chartist poetry by pointing out a curious sort of apology that surfaces in a wide range of Chartist work. Even poetic accomplishments can seem to be failures, Sanders writes, because to Chartist poets "the political struggle to which they were committed required not just poetry-but the best poetry" (2). Sanders uses such statements to help explain how, at least for certain Chartists, poetry ranked beside political representation and economic well-being as an accomplishment (but a fragile and always alienable one) for any successful Chartist revolution. Sanders also argues that from 1846 on, as hopes for straightforward political transformation dimmed, poets and Chartists generally yearned to make poetry itself into a vehicle for comprehensive cultural and political change. That transformation, Sanders writes, would come only when "quantity was transformed into quality."
Chartist poetry, we learn, conceived of its audience in different ways,. As Sanders shows, previous studies of this poetry have noticed a curious doubleness in its mode of address: in 1992, for instance, Brian Maidment argued that Chartist poets addressed themselves at once to a radical base and to an impeding Government and aristocracy, who were also presumably empowered to pass aesthetic judgments. Sanders, though, aims to sound the base of Chartist poetry, to see what we can learn of its aspirations from the immense quantity of verse that made its way to the heart of Chartist publications or failed to do so (the rejection rates of different poetry editors is one important set of data). Accordingly, the heart of this book is a thorough, historically enlightening chapter on the poetry columns of The Northern Star between 1838 and 1852. That the title of the chapter --"A jackass load of poetry"-- is actually quoted from one of the many "collective rejections" that a Northern Star editor penned during the period underscores Sanders' main finding. He concludes that a wide range of Chartists, perhaps even the majority (though that could never be proven definitively), felt impelled both to express and to work out their beliefs in verse. It turns out, then, that Sanders must explore a provocative set of questions about canonicity and cultural capital-who rules on a poem's quality, and what notion of audience governs the ruling--simply in order to decide what the proper object of study for a book on Chartist poetry should be.
This is not a book of exegesis. While Sanders occasionally shows how particular Chartist poems might display a "doubleness" reminiscent of the central figure that Isobel Armstrong identifies in more canonized mainstream Victorian poetry, close reading is not his main focus. Instead, what he excels at -aside from lucidly summarizing the arguments and the evidentiary bases of his predecessors in Chapter Two, which is in itself an admirable task-is tracing the links between the poems of the "labor Laureates" (Gerald Massey, Ernest Jones, and Thomas Cooper, the much-examined Trinity of Chartist verse), and those of the great unsung, who published anonymously or near anonymously during the decade and a half that Chartism flowered as a political and cultural movement.
One accomplishment of this book, then is to replace the conventional three stages of Chartist poetry (Hope [1836-40], Struggle and Innovation [1840-47], and "reconciliation to defeat" [1848-58] ) with a timetable more attuned to the ebb and flow of verse production. Sanders' periods instead look like this: the years 1838-1841 bring an upsurge in verse, even after the setbacks of 1840; a decline from 1841 to 1843 actually coincides with an upwelling of political activity; then (and this strikes Sanders as an important result) from 1844 to 1846 the editor of the poetry column of the Northern Star makes "a sustained attempt . . . to improve the quality of literary production." . Given the rising number of poems published at this time and the movement of the poetry to prominence on page three of the journal, Sanders argues that poetry became the medium for discussing and exploring a great many key questions about the political future of Chartism. Furthermore, Sanders contends (though without quite making the case definitively), "there is a compelling cultural logic which suggests that the movement's literary decline also played a causal role in its political collapse." (86)
This large claim probably cannot be proven without more evidentiary digging than Sanders has done. But Sanders makes us see how the process of canonization serves, even for working-class poets, to exclude from the public eye a wide swath of verse in which crucial issues are being worked out. At its best, this book proves extremely astute at unpacking the manifestoes and effusions of a range of aspiring, now forgotten poets, as they work through the implications of a struggle that can be fought along poetic lines as well as picket lines. If "poetry permeated the entire movement," as Sanders says (7), then it must have served as something more than a blunt, propagandistic outlet for ideas that originated elsewhere. Furthermore, given the column inches devoted to it, a wide range of people must have preferred getting their Chartist ideas from poetry rather than from speeches or editorials.
When not at his best, however, Sanders sometimes tells us what he thinks Chartist poets must have intended rather than what they wrote."Chartism," he says, "possessed a deep seated, almost instinctual (and certainly a non-theorized) apprehension that the aesthetic was a necessary part of any resistance to utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics" (19). This turn towards ungrounded paraphrase struck me most around a claim made in several ways, but never substantiated through readings: that " the development of a more sophisticated and nuanced Chartist analysis is accompanied by a growing awareness of the fact that its intended addressees, the 'millions' or the 'people' were not an already existing entity but an imaginary formation which needed to be assembled from its constituent parts if Chartism were to become a real political force" (156). This (I think Rancière-inspired) claim is a fascinating one, but Sanders has not shown that the poetry he examines radiates a consciousness of poetry as itself the force that might imagine the not-yet-extant collectivity into being. Sanders himself contends that to invoke Chartist poetry as simply a symptom of social ills (as Carlyle did so long ago, but as many far to the left of him have done since) is to be condescending and disrespectful. Understandably, Sanders aims to credit the poets with an awareness of their own condition, and of the potential role for their poetry (not as representation but as poesis, as making a new reality). But he fails to present the evidence that would make his case.
This book deserves great credit for showing unexpected correspondences between poets well and little known. Though Sanders seldom views a particular poem through an analytic microscope, his decision to highlight the recurrence of particular tropes across a range of poets is extremely helpful. For example, when he considers how Chartist poetry and the radical nationalist poetry of Irish rebels briefly converged in 1848, yet always remained two separate streams (Chartist poetry always resisting the idea of generative or necessary violence), he is illuminating and convincing in a way he would not have been without his large-scale method of gathering evidence through repeated tropes. Like the Chartist poets he admires, Sanders has striven successfully to bring more light than heat to bear on hotly contested issues. Let us hope that his future afterlife is more like that of Jones, Massey, or Cooper than of all those Northern Star poetry columnists, plunged for more than a century into outer darkness, and now scarcely to be found even on Google Books.
Sanders, Mike. The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History. Cambridge, 2009.
Last modified 23 June 2014