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Poetry in the Chartist Circular
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Presumably one of the more complex embodied experiences experienced by Victorian periodical readers is that strange compound of pleasurable anticipation and impatient frustration that we call expectation.  This state, marking the interval between instalments, is not unknown to us either.  There are a number of electronic resources, in various stages of development, whose completion I await expectantly.  One of these is the launch of ‘Phase One’ of the periodical poetry database which will include details of the poems published in the Chartist Circular.  Prompted by this imminent event, I fell to thinking about the verse published in that journal’s poetry column, which thoughts (with apologies to Blake) “the world shall have whether they will or no”.

Between 28th September 1839 and 9th July 1842, the Chartist Circular (a four-page, halfpenny journal printed under the auspices of the Universal Suffrage Central Committee for Scotland) played a key role in the intellectual development of Scottish Chartism.  Designed, in the words of W. Hamish Fraser, as “a political and historical educational textbook for the autodidact, intended to complement the news orientation of the Patriot and the Northern Star”[i], the Chartist Circular also published a great deal of original poetry in its poetry column which appeared on the final page of the journal.[ii]  Indeed, the 146 numbers of the Chartist Circular published some 149 poems from as many as 100 individual Chartist poets.[iii]

As far as the poetry column is concerned, the Chartist Circular’s publishing record resembles that of the Northern Star in many important respects.  The poetry column appears on an almost weekly basis in both publications and the majority of published poems would appear to come from writers who only contribute one poem.[iv]  Indeed, in the case of the Chartist Circular only 17 poets contribute more than one poem and of these only 5 contribute four poems or more.  Three poets, Edward Polin, George Donald and ‘Argus’ (who each contribute at least eight poems) account for around one-fifth of the poetry column’s entire output.  These figures strengthen my impression that Chartist poetic production is unevenly divided between a large pool of (very) occasional contributors and a much smaller pool of potential ‘labour laureates’ or ‘Parnassian’ poets (writing poetry more regularly and often displaying a greater degree of formal ambition than their occasional counterparts).[v]  If this hypothesis is correct, it has implications for the future study of Chartist poetry insofar as those studies based on the ‘occasionals’ are likely to produce a rather different understanding of the nature of Chartist poetry than a study which focuses mainly on the ‘labour laureates’ or ‘Parnassians’.

A preliminary comparison of the poetry columns of the Chartist Circular and the Northern Star reveals that while 17 poets appeared in both publications, only 12 poems appear in both poetry columns.  The poet known as ‘Argus’ has 5 poems which appear in both columns, E. Lamont has 3 poems and Edward Polin 2 poems, while Charles Davlin and James Syme contribute one poem apiece to both journals.  It would be interesting to speculate as to why George Donald (who contributes at least 8 poems to the Chartist Circular) is never published in the Northern Star.   As is so often the case with Chartist poetry, the evidence raises as many questions as it answers: in this case, it would be very helpful to uncover the mechanisms by which these poems appeared in both publications – did the poets themselves send their poetry to both journals for consideration, or did the respective editors decide to ‘borrow’ individual poems from each other?  In this respect, to my mind the two most tantalising cases are those of Charles Davlin’s ‘Questions from the Loom’ and Edward Polin’s ‘The Toilers’ Homes of England’.  The former (which to my mind is a remarkable early Chartist poem) first appears in the Northern Star for July 28th 1838 (which is well over a year before the Chartist Circular even exists), and is reprinted in the Chartist Circular for 29th August 1840 (some thirteen months later).  The latter poem first appears in the Chartist Circular for 21st November 1840 and is then reprinted in the Northern Star for 28th August 1841 (this poem is of particular interest because it explicitly identifies itself as having been written in response to Felicia Hemans’ ‘Homes of England’).   Intriguingly, it is not possible to attribute cultural primacy to either publication as exactly half of the shared poems are published first in the Northern Star and half are first published by the Chartist Circular.

Some concluding thoughts, questions and speculations: is the poetry column of the Chartist Circular to be understood as continuous with its function as an educational journal, or is it there to provide variety?  To what extent should we read the poetry column as being in dialogue with the rest of the journal’s contents?  Is there a Scottish nationalist dimension to the poetry published in the Chartist Circular and, if so, how does the journal understand/negotiate the relationship between Scottish and Chartist identities?  Above all, there are the two questions which continue to perplex and fascinate me in equal measure; is it possible to arrive at an aesthetic definition of Chartist poetry and how do we plot the relationship between Chartist poetry and its more canonical counterparts?

[i] W. Hamish Fraser, Chartism in Scotland, (Merlin, 2010) p.71

[ii] In addition to its regular poetry column, the Chartist Circular also published poetry elsewhere in its pages, most noticeably in its ‘The Politics of Poets’ and its ‘Literary Sketches’ series.  For further details of these series see Mike Sanders, ‘”Tracing the Ramifications of the Democratic Principle”: Literary Criticism and Theory in the Chartist Circular’, Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, 8 (2010), pp.62-72.

[iii] It is possible to identify some 63 or 65 individual authors (by name, pseudonym or initials) while just over a quarter of the poems are provided by ‘Anonymous’.  Thus assuming every single anonymous poem is the work of a different author gives a maximum of 106 poets and a minimum of 64 or 66 poets.  The reason for my uncertainty is that two sets of initials (E.P. and G.D.) might well belong to two regular contributors to the poetry column Edward Polin (or Pollin) and George Donald.

[iv] The publication record for the Northern Star can be found in the third chapter of Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge UP, 2009).

[v] The terms ‘labour laureate’ and ‘Parnassian’ are taken respectively from  Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labor in the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge UP, 1998) and Brian Maidment, The Poorhouse Fugitives (Carcanet, 1992)

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