Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 165-186
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Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper's The Purgatory of Suicides
When The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison-Rhyme in Ten Books appeared in 1845, its title page announced that its author was "Thomas Cooper, The Chartist." 1 Written from prison, The Purgatory of Suicides begins by translating into verse a speech for which Cooper was convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to Stafford Gaol for two and a half years. The speech, delivered in the turbulent August of 1842, counseled workers in north Staffordshire to "cease [all labour] until the People's Charter becomes the law of the land." 2 As the poem put it, "Toil we no more renew, / Until the Many cease their slavery to the Few!" 3
The Purgatory of Suicides emerged from the "three years' deliberation and serious reflection" of Cooper's prison term, during which he passed through a crucible of religious doubt and political despair. 4 The poem is a philosophical epic, Cooper's meditation on the possibilities of democratic change in Victorian Britain. Its structure is based on a pendulum movement. The beginning stanzas recount the "Slaves, toil no more!" speech for which Cooper was convicted. This introductory passage sets the pattern for the exordia of each of the poem's ten books, which detail Cooper's experiences as a "captive leveller" (II:2), the traumas of his fellow prisoners, and the larger political realities of the day. The exordia, in turn, prompt a series of dialogues among historical and literary figures, from Nero and Sappho to Judas and Castlereagh, who have committed suicide and are confined together in purgatory for their sin. Taking the form of dream visions, the dialogues explore the merits of republican and monarchical government, issues of economic exploitation and poverty, and the role of religion in maintaining social and political oppression. The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of "Knowledge" and [End Page 165] poetry.
In translating the "Slaves, toil no more!" speech into verse, the initial stanzas of Cooper's poem inaugurate his attempt to view the immediate, volatile political issues of his day through the philosophical and historical perspectives characteristic of the epic. This effort to interpret individual narrative events through the lens of political theory is a centerpiece of radical argument, and can be understood as the central goal of radical working-class poetry. In this analysis, I examine three of Cooper's core techniques for using epic poetry to explain his political moment: dialogic and open-ended structures, the epic convention of introductory exordia followed by philosophical dream visions, and recurring images of hunger. These strategies demonstrate the formal complexity of The Purgatory of Suicides, and more generally suggest the formal complexities radical poets like Cooper generated as they harnessed the unique expressive powers of poetry for their own political ends. By focusing on poetic technique in working-class verse, this formal and historical analysis explores a poem that might initially appear poetically transparent, if politically complex--but which on deeper examination proves worthy of formal analysis.
Cooper's appropriation of epic forms not only enriches his political claims but also represents a radical intervention into the high-canonical discourse of epic poetry. Given the high cultural status associated with the genre, an epic poem written by a self-educated author testified to the intelligence, even the genius, of working-class people, and underwrote their claim to be worthy of the franchise. Moreover, epic conventionally had been dedicated to telling the triumphant story of a society, as in Spenser's The Faerie Queene (whose stanza form Cooper adopted), which celebrated English institutions such as the monarchy and the established church. 5 Cooper's "Chartist Epic" appropriates the genre to criticize those same institutions. Looking to Paradise...