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Poetic Agency: Metonymy and Metaphor in Chartist Poetry 1838-1852

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2001
pp. 111-135 | 10.1353/vp.2001.0019

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Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 111-135

Reflecting on the first National Convention, the original historian of Chartism, R. C. Gammage, commented wryly, "It did not turn out to be a perfectly harmonious body." According to Gammage, the major source of discord was the disagreement between the advocates of "moral" and "physical force" (pp. 106-111). While subsequent Chartist historiography has offered a more nuanced account of the range of opinion within Chartism, it has also confirmed Gammage's assessment that the related questions of strategy and agency bedevilled the Chartist movement throughout its existence. The intention of this article is to demonstrate the extent to which Chartist poetics participate in this central problematic -- that of identifying and representing a social force capable of securing the Charter.

Broadly speaking, the article will argue that Chartist poetry represents agency through one of two poetic strategies. The first uses metonymy and metaphor to invoke and evoke agency respectively, whilst the second identifies specific concrete groups which it seeks to interpellate as the agents of change. It will argue that these changes in poetic strategy are symptomatic of changes in political understanding. The displacement of metonymy by metaphors of natural force, and the increasingly self-conscious and sophisticated use of these metaphors combined with the emergence of a strategy of interpellation is, it will be argued, the poetic analogue of the progressive, albeit uneven, development of Chartist political analysis.

Metaphor and Metonymy

Early Chartist poetry (1838-1842) frequently represents both Chartism and Chartists in metonymic terms, with the flag or banner offered as a sign of Chartist activity. Eugene La Mont's "Universal Liberty -- The Chartist Reaction" for example begins "See the banner of freedom, now proudly unfurl'd--," whilst the chorus of Edwin P. Mead's "Chartist Song" ("Hark! 'tis the trumpet call") begins "Press around the standard, press." The flag, banner, or standard similarly stands as a focal point for, or as an index of, Chartist action in a number of other poems of the period: "Air" ("Swearing death to tyrant King,"), "Presentation of the National Petition," "Nine Cheers for the Charter," "One and All," "The Enslaved," "Song" ("Ye working men of England").

In these poems, agency is generally symbolic rather than actual. A typical example is provided by the anonymous poem entitled "Air" ("Swearing death to tyrant King"):

Swearing death to tyrant King.
        Heaven guards the patriot heart;
Join'd in hand and heart we'll sing,
        Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!
Ruin seize the tyrant knave,
        Can slavery or woe impart
Aught of pleasure to the brave,
        Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!
Bear our conquering standard high,
        Terror strikes each miscreant heart;
Onward! Still our battle cry,
        Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!
Raise the brand of liberty,
        Dare the foe, brave the smart;
Swell the chorus loud and high,
        Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!

This poem makes use of an established "radical" political rhetoric consisting of abstractions; the "patriot heart" opposes the "tyrant king," and "the brave" join battle for "liberty." Moreover, despite the use of the collective pronouns "we" and "ours," there is no sense of a concrete, collective agent within the poem. Chartists are represented metonymically by means of their "conquering standard" (which is borne aloft apparently without the assistance of human hands) and by the disembodied voices who "Swell the chorus loud and high." Similarly the second half of the poem consists of a series of subject-less imperatives: "Bear," "Onward," "Raise," and "Swell." Even the Charter itself is to some extent alienated by its translation into French, "Vive la Charte!" In short, the poem is marked by its inability to instance the agency capable of realizing its political aspirations.

However, by far the most important figure of metonymic representation is that of the "voice." Many Chartist poems either represent political consciousness in terms of the discovery or recovery of a speaking voice, or equate political strength with the loudness of the "people's voice." Nor is this a feature exclusive to early Chartist poetry. Later Chartist poetry, particularly that written after 1848, often represents defeat in terms of silence (see for example Ernest Jones's "The Song of the Future"), or...



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