- Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy by John Gardner
This excellent, lively, and readable study begins with Cruikshank’s image of ‘The Radical Ladder’. Next to a pillar labelled ‘King’, ‘Lord’, ‘Commonwealth’ and topped with a shining crown, we have a rather rickety ladder whose rungs are labelled ‘Spa Fields Riot’, ‘Smithfield’, ‘Hunt’s Procession’ – inexorable steps towards the final stage of ‘Mob Government’. And on this topmost step stands the incongruously matronly Queen Caroline, her dress billowing, bearing a flaming torch. She reaches towards the crown, while beneath her cloak, swarming on the steps, lurks a goblin mob of Jacobins, wearing their caps of liberty. This is a powerful illustration of the guiding argument in Gardner’s study, which sets out to capture the ‘political moment of 1820’: in particular, its interconnections and the way in which one event leads inexorably to the next. He also seeks to explore the strange associations at work, reflected here by the incongruity between Caroline, in her feathered bonnet, and the grinning, grimacing revolutionaries who press upon her. Probably the most important factor in Gardner’s study is the step which Cruikshank places immediately before ‘Mob Government’: it is labelled ‘Radical Addresses’. This, in Gardner’s definition, takes the form of ‘literature that can be written rapidly and to the moment’. There is a nice Hazlittian feel about that phrase ‘to the moment’, which reflects Gardner’s interest in journalism, as well as political writing of all kinds, broadsides, [End Page 211] pamphlets and plays. There is no dividing line in this study between popular or ephemeral writing and better-known poetry; Gardner’s interest is in the ways in which literature, in all its forms, intervenes in the political events within which it is embedded. ‘In short,’ he argues, ‘poetry can do work’, and the success of his study rests on showing the scope and reach of such cultural work, and the ways in which the crisis moment of 1819–1821 prompted disparate genres, voices and characters to act together. Woodcuts and doggerel help us to understand The Mask of Anarchy; Byron’s Venetian drama Marino Faliero is read against the death struggles of the Cato Street conspirators. The pages are alive not only with canonical Romantic verse but also with Hone’s squibs and Cruikshank’s vibrant, vicious prints, capturing the anger, ridicule and strong feelings running through all levels of society. Looking at such a broad range allows, as Gardner argues, ‘a glimpse of a new kind of writing that denied the possibility of literary stratification, and, for this very reason, threatened the stratified society out of which it had been produced’.
Such readings, placing ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature in dialogue and emphasising the sociable interactions of the period, form part of an important trend in recent Romantic criticism. The stereotype of the lonely writer – the misanthropic Scythrop, the unworldly visionary – has long been debunked, and we have become much more used to appreciating the contested, crowded public spaces of Romanticism. Gardner, as he acknowledges, follows in the footsteps of critics such as Marilyn Butler, Ian Haywood and Michael Scrivener, to name only a few scholars who have done ground-breaking work in bringing together different forms of culture in the Romantic period. However, this study is distinguished by the range of the sources it examines, the care it takes in elucidating the close connections between canonical and popular texts and by its clear focus on a specific time period, which Gardner’s stringent analysis and lively narrative helps us fully to understand.
The monograph is clearly laid out and tightly focused. It falls into three parts and, like the steps of the Radical Ladder, it becomes evident how one leads to another. Part One deals with Peterloo, first outlining the background, before moving on to the myth-making following the event, in particular the poetry written by Samuel Bamford. Usually remembered for his Passages in the Life of a Radical (1842), Bamford was also a...