- The Ranter and the Lyric: Reform and Genre Heterogeneity in Ebenezer Elliott’s Corn Law Rhymes
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In autumn of 1830, an anonymous long poem appeared in pamphlet form in Sheffield bearing the title Corn Law Rhymes: The Ranter. Printed by the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread-Tax Society, the poem tells the story of an ailing and poverty-stricken field preacher who delivers his last passionate sermon to an audience of labourers on a hillside, arguing for free trade and the repeal of the oppressive Corn Laws. Despite its unassuming publication format, over the next two years the poem attracted the attention of numerous well-known figures from the British literary intelligentsia. It was recognized by most reviewers as the product of prodigious talent (at least considering its humble origins from within a Sheffield mechanics’ institute), yet there [End Page 101] was considerable disagreement over the poet’s efforts to unite politics with poetry. The first review of the poem, penned by Radical MP Edward Bulwer for the New Monthly Magazine in the form of a letter addressed to poet laureate Robert Southey, praised the poem as evidence of true poetic sensibility among the working classes. Lauding the poem’s evocative use of “gentle associations,” Bulwer claims that The Ranter demonstrates the capacity of poetry to attain an aesthetic universality that transcends political partisanship and even class. In drawing the poem to Southey’s attention, he expresses hope that the laureate “will not, in the Radical, condemn the poet” (290). Yet Maria Jane Jewsbury, reviewing a second edition of the poem for the Athenaeum a few months later, found anything but gentleness in it. Although she approvingly notes its similarity to one of Coleridge’s most forceful poems, she ultimately criticizes The Ranter for making “poetry a mere vehicle for politics” and laments that the anonymous author’s “course invective, technical allusions, and fierce denunciations … mar his claim to the title of poet” (370). The sympathetic emotion that poetry ought to promote is, for her, incompatible with the Corn Law Rhymer’s commitment to infusing verse with political argument. While Bulwer is able to imagine Elliott as a sympathetic lyricist whose poetry is easily dissociable from the realm of public action, charming the private reader with its “gentle associations,” Jewsbury reads The Ranter as a polemic. The scene of reading that it projects is for Jewsbury a scene of public protest and action rather than private catharsis.
The author of the pamphlet was eventually revealed to be Ebenezer Elliott, a Sheffield iron merchant who would become famous in Britain throughout the 1830s and 40s as the Corn Law Rhymer. Although he had been writing poetry since the early decades of the nineteenth century, it was only with the publication of The Ranter, and the two editions of Corn Law Rhymes that followed it in 1831, that he gained exposure to a national readership, along with a controversial literary reputation that persisted late into the century. Elliott was publishing his Corn Law Rhymes at the same time that working-class agitation was on the rise and the First Reform Bill was struggling through Parliament. Although Elliott was hardly working-class himself—despite going bankrupt twice over the course of his career, he managed to retire comfortably at the end of his life—his commitment to representing the hardship caused by industrial poverty, as well as his lifelong campaign to end the Corn Laws and educate the working and artisan classes about political economy, earned him a reputation as a “poet of the poor.” After founding the Sheffield Anti-Bread-Tax Society in 1830, Elliott continued to participate actively in political agitation until his death, publishing poems and essays protesting the Corn Laws in periodicals, newspapers, and broadsheets and travelling to give lectures at mechanics’ institutes, working men’s associations, and Chartist rallies.1 It was only with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1849 (and his death in that same year) that his popularity began to wane. Many of the reviews of Elliott’s...