- The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History
The study of Chartist literature has flourished in recent years as critics have discovered in the archives of the working-class movement for democratic reform an important new source for understanding the Victorian world. Chartist poetry has received special attention; scholars such as Stephanie Kuduk Weiner and Anne Janowitz have demonstrated the formal complexity of radical verse in the 1830s and 1840s, describing it as a late Romantic synthesis of the lyric of individual solitude and communitarian balladic forms, as well as a renovation of a republican poetics. However, these studies, like the essays in a 2001 special issue of Victorian Poetry dedicated to working-class and Chartist authors, focus mainly on a handful of "labour laureates," especially Ernest Jones, Thomas Cooper, Gerald Massey, and W.J. Linton. By offering detailed analysis of the poetry column of the important Chartist newspaper the Northern Star, Mike Sanders's The Poetry of Chartism establishes the breadth of Chartist poetry, the extent to which literature formed part of the fabric of the movement's vibrant print culture. Over the period from 1838 to 1852, the poetry column of the Star published the work of almost four hundred Chartist poets. It also reprinted poetry from other contemporary journals as well as by Romantic writers, including Byron, Shelley, and Burns. Sanders's methodological decision to focus on a periodical rather than on individual authors is daring and makes his book important reading for scholars far afield from radical studies. Like Linda Hughes's recent Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry, The Poetry of Chartism shows how different the period's verse looks when we approach it in the contexts in which it was first read: in miscellanies, newspapers, improving magazines, and literary journals, as well as in bound volumes.
The Northern Star was both the preeminent Chartist organ and one of the best-selling papers of the late 1830s. Indeed, only the Times (with its six issues per week) exceeded the Star's circulation in 1839. By Sanders's account, the Star also provided an outlet for a participatory working-class literary culture, [End Page 219] a laboratory that developed a poetics that cut against the familiar image of Victorian poetry as increasingly preoccupied with the private and psychological. By highlighting the many controversies and tensions within the literature page of the Star, Sanders avoids a common pitfall of writing about periodicals: implying a corporate author for diverse material with different perspectives. Sanders tracks the innovations pursued by the young Jacobin George Julian Harney after he became editor in 1843 and records the ongoing effort of the paper to improve the quality of its poetry. If anything, Chartist literary culture was too democratic for the beleaguered editors of the Star, who received such a high volume of submissions that they resorted to collective rejection notices printed in the paper: "The poets must really give us a little breathing time. We have heaps upon heaps accumulating which we cannot find room for" (qtd. in Sanders 72).
The opening chapter ranges over a rich tradition of Marxist-inflected criticism (from the Frankfurt School to Raymond Williams and Jacques Rancière) to theorize the relation between poetry and a movement focused on political goals. Of the many stimulating ideas in this section, probably the most important is the distinction Sanders draws (utilizing Christopher Caudwell's work) between considering poetry political based on its topical relevance, a tendency that renders poetic form subsidiary to content, and seeing the aesthetic itself as a realm of "creative potentialities and possibilities" that can revolutionize consciousness (10). The Chartists did not view poetry as one propaganda tool among many, but rather as a vital domain of humane values inextricably bound to their vision of social transformation: "Chartism possessed a deep-seated ... apprehension that the aesthetic was a necessary part of any resistance to utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics: both of which were blighting working-class lives in the 1840s and both which were notoriously hostile to notions of aesthetic value" (19). For this...