Chartism by the political organization of the country.’1 Not

Chartism
was a social and political movement in the Early Victorian era which
aimed to express the plight of the working classes. It’s poetry was
primarily written by self-taught industrial workers as a form of
escapism from their hard, menial work, but it was also written to
inform, and to invite others to escape from it. Dorothy Thompson
defined the movement as ‘thousands
of working people considered that their problems could be solved by
the political organization of the country.’1
Not
only do these poets invite likeminded people to escape from their
poor position in the class structure, they wanted the ruling class to
read their poems too, in a hope that serious political change could
be made. Thomas
Hood’s ‘The Song of The Shirt’ was
a poem of protest, focusing
on the inhumane working conditions and poor
pay of London’s lower classes. This,
as well as David Wright’s ‘British Freedom’, examine the false
sense of freedom that the proletariat of the Victorian era were
given. ‘R’s
‘The Capitalist’ however is much more aggressive in it’s tone
regarding the British bourgeoisie. The
poem epitomises the rise of a class consciousness within the working
class, and
also
details the ‘weary labour’2
they endure to survive. But just how far do these three chartist
poems engage with social and political concerns, or invite the reader
to escape from them?

‘The
Song of The Shirt’, described by Ray Farr as a ‘complex’ piece,
‘concerning the lives and toil of women working in the British
garment industry in the 1830s and 1840s’3.
The speaker of the poem sings this song while threading her needle,
as an objection to her predicament. The
poem thoroughly engages with social concerns at the time, while
also
offering
an insight into the female perspective of
the mistreatment of the working class. Throughout
the poem the monotony
of the speakers life is heavily emphasised, through the repetition of
‘Work—work—work!’4,
and
the extended
metaphor used by Hood to show just how little she receives in return
for all her hard work:
‘And
what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A
crust of bread—and rags.
That
shattered roof—this naked floor’.

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The
poor wages of her job force her to wear ‘unwomanly rags’, live in
squalor, and starve. The long hours of her work are further
emphasised when she expresses how she works from ‘while the cock is
crowing’ until the ‘stars shine through the roof’, to the point
where when she falls asleep over her sewing, the
speaker’s
life is no different to that of a slave’s,
and
even
in her dreams she is still
working.
This is very dismal imagery and reflects the ‘dolorous’ tone of
the poem. Hood
also uses antithesis between ‘bread’ and ‘blood’, this again
emphasises how the workers are being taken advantage of.
The
poem is reminiscent of romanticism with its natural imagery in the
eighth and ninth stanzas, when the speaker remembers the ‘sky above
my head / And the grass beneath my feet’, a
stark contrast to the poor living and working conditions the speaker
is now used to..
Throughout the year, she is sat sewing ‘Till
the heart is sick and the brain benumbed’,
yearning to feel how she ‘used to feel’ in the spring, and to go
outside for a single hour to breathe the ‘sweet’ air. The
speaker has no ‘respite’ for ‘Love or Hope’, she is so
repressed that she feels she cannot even cry because ‘every drop /
Hinders needle and thread!’. The speaker is so reliant on working
to survive she simply cannot afford to have emotion.
The
speaker also
appeals to the
men
of
her time,
telling them that
‘It is not linen you’re wearing out, But human creatures’ lives!’.
Put
differently,
while sewing shirts, these women are also sewing their own ‘shroud’,
however
the speaker expresses how she does not fear death, because ‘its
terrible shape, it seems so like my own’. The speaker is withered
and ‘fasting’, she is deprived of the basic essentials needed to
survive. This
is all incredibly dark imagery and makes the reader very sympathetic
for the speaker, as was intended for when the poem was hopefully read
by the ruling elite.
The
poem does not go as far as to invite the reader to escape from
their position,
but instead invites the ruling class to hear the plight of the
speaker and many others in her position. An
extra line is added to the last stanza of the poem, a plea that ‘its
tone could reach the Rich’. This
is important because it is expressing
her,
as
well as the
other
industrial workers demand
for help from the wealthier citizens of London. This
poem is a plea for help, however many chartist poems are far more
aggressive in tone and hold
different perspectives on the ruling elite.

David
Wright’s poem
‘British
Freedom’ answers
the question of ‘are not
the people
free?’5,
by
tackling what he sees as injustices and imbalances between the
‘ruling few’ and the working class through
his use of irony & antithesis. It
differs from ‘The Song of The Shirt’ in that it details a much
broader image of poverty and the toils of the working class as a
whole, rather than being anecdotal.
This means the poem can more thoroughly engage with social and
political concerns
such
as being ‘free to fight with all our might’ in ‘whiggish’
battles, yet still be treated ‘like slaves or cattle’. British
Freedom also arguably
incites
the reader to escape from their
predicament much more than Hood’s
poem, it
is poem that is much
more provocative in tone. As
Gustav Klaus suggests:

‘the
urgency of Wright’s poem stems from the conviction that the time
for wishful thinking and palavering, perhaps even petitioning
(“appeal”), is over, for they have achieved little’6

There
is certainly an ‘urgency’ in ‘British Freedom’, a sense that
not enough has been done for too long due to a lack of real pressure
on the ruling elite to make a change. In addition to this, the poem
also offers a blunt depiction of the working class’s view of the
‘ruling few’. It is unapologetic in its comparisons between the
upper class and the working class, outlining how they are ‘free to
weep, when tyrants sleep, And starve when they are feasting’. The
poem highlights the rise of a ‘class-consciousness’ among the
working class, and their realisation of this false freedom fed to
them by the ruling elite. This poem was written shortly after the
People’s Charter was drawn up in 1838, a political manifesto
outlining the six main aims of chartism, including giving working men
a say in law making, giving them the vote. This manifesto also aided
the chartists in that it helped put forward a set of shared goals for
them to work towards, giving unity and purpose to the movement. A
second petition, of over three million signatures, was put forward to
and again rejected by parliament in 1842. The chartist publication
The Northern Star commented on this rejection, stating that:

‘the
enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The
same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of
inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is
still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.’7

The
suffering
detailed in
Wrights poem
still reigned true, the poem itself engaged heavily in political
concerns, however, neither chartist poetry nor chartism itself ever
directly generated political reforms. It
was not until 1918 that full manhood suffrage was achieved.

The
chartist poet simply known as ‘R’ published their poem ‘The
Capitalist’ in The Red Republican in October of 1850, the poem
undoubtably engages with sociopolitical concerns of the time, and not
only encourages readers to escape from their situation, but offers a
warning of a day of ‘reck’ning’ for the ‘tyrants’ and
capitalists of the country. The poem is hostile and despising in
tone, likening the ‘capitalist’ to a ‘bloated spider’. The
person being described is already ‘bloated’, yet continues to
suck life from the working classes. This suggests the ruling elite
have an insatiable hunger for wealth and power, and they use the
lower classes to achieve it. In addition to this, the connotation of
a spider conveys the speakers disgust for the ruling elite. The
metaphor is extended when the speaker portrays how ‘He throws round
his victims the iron net / Which want has wove for him’, again
emphasising how the ruling classes greed for power is fuelled by
working men. The working man is the ‘victim’ of the ‘iron net’,
the use of the word ‘iron’ here also holds tyrannical
connotations. The speaker also suggests the ruling class get a
sinister ‘joy’ from seeing the ‘seal of hunger’ on the ‘pale
cheeks’ of their workers, painting them as evil tyrants who do not
care about the health of those lower in the class system.

The
poetic form alternates between iambic pentameter and tetrameter,
meaning it is close to mimicking natural speech, as well as being
easily read and followed due to the rhythm of the poem. In addition
to this, it is important to note that the poem was published in The
Red Republican. This, and many other chartist publications such as
The Northern Star were ‘often read aloud in coffee houses,
workplaces and the open air.’8
As Kristina Navickas explains:

‘The
papers gave justifications for the demands of the People’s Charter,
accounts of local meetings, commentaries on education and temperance
and a great deal of poetry. The papers also advertised upcoming
meetings, typically organised by local grass roots branches, held
either in public houses, or in their own halls.’9

These
papers were essential in spreading the word of chartism, as well as
helping to unify the working class to work toward a sole cause. ‘The
Capitalist’ then, as well as other poems published in these papers,
without a doubt offered the working classes a form of escapism from
the clutches of the ruling elite. The poem ends with suggesting a
sinister element of foreboding ‘justice’ that is near, perhaps
alluding to a future uprising, simply saying ‘God help the guilty
ones’, when that time finally comes.

To
conclude, all three poems succeed in thoroughly engaging with social
and political concerns of the time. Despite Chartism arguably being a
relatively unsuccessful movement in terms of actual political change
being made, the poems played a huge part in raising awareness. Both
within the working class, adding to the already growing ‘class
consciousness’, and also within the ruling elite, helping them to
see an alternate perspective and perhaps spare some sympathy. As far
as inviting the reader to escape from their predicament goes, ‘The
Song of The Shirt’ I felt was written for the ruling elite to read,
so that they can have some sort of grasp on the suffering and squalor
they are inflicting on the working class labourers. ‘The
Capitalist’ and ‘British Freedom’ however are arguably the most
successful in persuading the reader that they should hold more
self-worth. They are provocative and urgent in tone, and when read
aloud to a group this would have been emphasised further still. While
tackling class inequality at the time, these poems were also very
influential in helping to push towards it.

x

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