Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 137-163
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Slaves in Heaven, Laborers in Hell:
Chartist Poets' Ambivalent Identification with the (Black) Slave
Kelly J. Mays
Chartist leader Ernest Jones's "The Poet's Mission" (1855) opens
with a question: 1
Who is it rivets broken bands
And stranger-hearts together,
And builds with fast-decaying hands
A home to last for ever? (ll. 1-4)
As the poem's title and last stanza tell us, the answer is the "poet" or "The Bard" (l. 25), and the striking image at the heart of this initial question tells us much about Jones's vision of that poet's role and mission. "Rivet[ing] broken bands / And stranger-hearts together," the poet acts like a smith or mechanic. Yet where the smith welds together bits of metal, the poet welds together people, forging an affective community out of isolated "stranger-hearts." As subsequent stanzas make clear, the poet does so in part by "call[ing] up glories past" (l. 9), connecting people together in the present, so the poet implies, by connecting them to their history. Thus, just as the poet's "voice" defies time and death (l. 17), to "ring thro' the advancing years-- / And history--and time" (ll. 19-20), so, too, does the community he forges with that voice. As a result, the community itself may well be the death- and time-defying, eternal "home" that Jones initially insists that the poet "builds with fast-decaying hands."
In emphasizing the role of the poet and of poetry in actively creating a mutually sustaining sense of both community and history, "The Poet's Mission" arguably takes up a position somewhat like that advocated in Gareth Stedman Jones's "Rethinking Chartism." For in this well-known essay, Stedman Jones insists that we must see the language of Chartists like Jones not as merely reflecting experiential reality or as hailing a working-class community always already united by a shared "material [End Page 137] situation," but rather as actively constituting that reality and that community by organizing a particular "understanding" of both "oppression" and an "alternative" to it. 2 Because it was thus, for Stedman Jones, "not simply experience, but rather a particular linguistic ordering of experience" that inspired and shaped Chartism, Chartist language--"what Chartists actually said or wrote"--should itself be a vital object of scholarly attention (pp. 101, 94).
If "The Poet's Mission" reminds us that at least some Chartists believed, with Stedman Jones, that their task was to wield language to create a sense of community, of present-day reality, and of past history, it may also remind us of something that Stedman Jones and many other labor and literary historians tend to forget--that much of what the Chartists "actually said or wrote" took the form of poetry and that this was so, in great part, because they envisioned poetry as one of the most vital forms of what Stedman Jones calls "public political language" (p. 95 n10). In "The Poet's Mission," after all, it is not just any language that creates (political) community but that particular linguistic form called poetry. That Jones's sentiments were widely shared within the movement is amply illustrated by the ubiquity and prominence of activist-poets like Jones; by the amount of space Chartist periodicals devoted to poetry, poetical extracts, and discussions of poetry and particular poets; by the amount of time Chartist meetings large and small gave over to "mass singing ... of hymns or anthems or other forms of verse"; 3 and by the frequency with which Chartist speakers quoted from, and alluded to, poetry. In all of these ways, as Anne Janowitz notes, Chartists "used poems" not as mere representations of "political situations" but "as political interventions" of especial importance in creating "a sense of common identity" or what Ulrike Schwab helpfully calls a distinctly Chartist "we-consciousness." 4
As a result, attending to what "the Chartists actually said or wrote" should, in practice, mean investigating Chartist poetry in order to discover exactly...