Truth Alone is not Enough

Yes, it is the old ambition to reach a language that would say exactly what it says; it is the drive and the pretention [sic] to define; it is this completely crazy idea, which inspires a trend within analytic philosophy, of making coincide beginning and definition. This is an ideology that our Hegelian training, I may say, has completely kept at bay. Despite everything, and in so far as we were raised as dialecticians, we were shaped into a way of thinking that is aware of the fact that beginnings have nothing to do with definitions, that definitions come at the end, that nothing is in itself in the word, and that concepts are only in the mode of a motion, that they are the result of a process. Already in the structuralist moment there was a clear opposition to this analytic position, but there was, nonetheless, a deep faith in writing itself too. And there was that other front as well, related to the world of psychoanalysis, this idea according to which truth is something that is written, even written on the body. This was certainly not my main aspiration back then. But when I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue, I naturally found myself very far away from such a conception of language.

Interview with Jacques Rancière (2013)

This was always going to be the next part of my thesis to be blogged but I had an experience one night this week that actually connects with issues within it, so I will preface this section with a discussion of that. I went to a meeting to argue against a motion with which I agreed in principle but also thought needed to be considered in terms of what was politically effective in the current conjuncture. Someone suggested this was basically unprincipled and we needed to consider the ‘truth’. My position was and remains that political practice is not about truth — it is what you do and say in particular contexts that is decisive. If acknowledging the facts of the many injustices that people have suffered was sufficient in itself to resolve these problems then the left would have prevailed a long time ago. We know from bitter experience that this is not the case.

That person sought me out after the meeting had ended to continue the dispute, but he wanted to do so on his terms, in a manner full of passive aggression and patronage, and including an ill-advised attempt at a piece of Socratic dialogue in which I was the naïf to be enlightened. It was very provoking, but calling him out on this was, he thought, unacceptable. He was ‘trying to have a discussion’ and I was ruining it by being upfront about the fact that we were in conflict and that I was angry with him for his behaviour.

As with my last post, I can see a connection with a social movement of the first half of the 19th century: Owenite socialism. Robert Owen was both committed to what he saw as self-evident ‘truth’ and also very strongly opposed to the expression of conflict in his own progressive social movement. The two connected in the orthodox Owenite philosophy of language — there was another strand of Owenism in which working-class Owenites had different ideas — as he thought general acceptance of the self-evident ‘truth’ was threatened by both social conflict and the regrettably polysemic nature of language, an obstacle to us understanding one another. If only we could express our thoughts without ambiguity, there would be no social conflict! Masters and men would be reconciled! (Raymond Postgate described Owen’s attitude towards industrial conflict as ‘strike policy on an avowed “class-peace” basis’: Out of the Past: Some Revolutionary Sketches (1922), p. 103.) Owen promoted this ideal as a model for discourse, both in print and public meetings. I share the misgivings that some working-class Owenites had about this mode of doing politics, for it is not really political at all.

Truth without mystery, agitation without violence

Robert Owen’s theories about how society might be changed for the better can be summed up in the two phrases ‘truth without mystery’ and ‘agitation without violence’. According to George Jacob Holyoake in his history of the co-operative movement: ‘No man had a better right than [Owen] to invent the maxim he was fond of using, “Truth without mystery, mixture of error, or fear of man”’.1 At one level, a commitment to ‘truth without mystery’ expressed confidence in the adoption of that self-evident truth by those who encountered it. An article in the Crisis, for example, explained the reason a religious sect led by Edward Irving had been allowed to use the Owenite Institution on Grays Inn Road despite Owenism’s secularism.2 It was not only charitable to give sanctuary to those persecuted by the Church of Scotland but Owenism might find converts among their number. The Christians were welcome to try to convert the Owenites but the latter, believing in ‘truth without mystery’, feared ‘no power of sect or party in opposition to this truth, expecting rather that the most intelligent among all sects and parties, will speedily perceive this truth, and perceiving will be constrained to adopt and acknowledge it’. The article’s writer opposed truth in nature to the linguistic inventions of mankind: ‘we seek truth not in any mere name or sound, but as it exists in nature’. Contact between the Owenites and believers was more dangerous to the faith of the latter than the principles of the former. This was not attributed to the superior debating skills of the Owenites, but to the self-evident nature of their arguments.

According to J. F. C. Harrison, a key historian of Owenism, ‘It would be an easy matter, though tedious, to document the use by Owenites of the key concepts of Enlightenment rationalism’.3 Owen’s thought was indeed indebted to the Enlightenment tradition and the materialist philosophers’ commitment to reason, which was associated with the clarity of ‘light’ shone into the darkness (Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 81–87). One correspondent to the Crisis predicted that the mystifications of religion were about to ‘disappear before that blaze of light which truth, supported by science and experience, is about to unfold to the world’.4 Never doubting the end, the problem for Owen was securing it via the appropriate means — education, and clear, calm exposition of the facts. In another lecture, Owen stated with confidence that:

There is no commonly rational individual acquainted with the facts connected with human history, who will attempt to deny the positions advanced. They are, when clearly stated so glaring, that the well informed in every country in the world admit them at once. It but requires that they should be clearly stated, and stated again and again.5

According to Robert Dale Owen — Owen’s son — there was ‘nothing in this world so beneficial as to call things by their proper names. Half the abuses we endure are endured only because, in the fashionable dictionary, they are called by some soft misnomer’.6 Language as it was commonly used obscured truth; the Owenites would counter this by seeking clarity of thought and expression.

Such an approach also had a class dimension and consequences for Owenism’s relation to a more class-conscious politics. For Engels, in his essay ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, this concept of truth had implications for the understanding of historical development and class conflict. For the ‘utopian’ socialists of the early nineteenth-century:

Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.7

For Engels, while such a socialist ‘appears as a representative of the interests of the proletariat […] they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once’ (p. 287). For Owen, this was not a problem at all but a positive value to cultivate.

This belief underpinned the second phrase of this chapter’s title, ‘agitation without violence’. It did not appear in Owenite discourse in the way that ‘truth without mystery’ did but I formulate it from the passages discussed below in order to characterise this other defining attitude of Owenism. In the prospectus of the Crisis’s first issue, Owen presented contemporary politics as a decisive crisis: ‘The time is immediately before us, when either reason, or physical violence of the worst character, must attain the mastery in the future direction of the governments which are now deemed the most civilized’.8 Later in the print run, Owen said of violence that it ‘does no good. Violence has brought us into the situation in which we stand to-day’.9 Progress was to be made:

by free conversation, by free publications, by free discussions; by — yes by — Agitation. But agitation, not in the violent sense of the term; by an agitation of those stagnant pools which want cleansing, and have been too long left disturbed.10

Owen’s experience in promoting his theories among the wealthy had resulted in some enthusiasm while they were generally philanthropic in character, but opposition or ridicule when he began to stress the interests of the working class and discussed sexual relations (Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 22–25, 216–18). Owen’s ideas provoked resistance from those wedded to the values of the old immoral world but this could be excused as a necessary outcome of the agitation that would stir these stagnant pools. Education was disturbing by nature, but the true Owenite would take care to ensure that exposure of error was not aggressive. Aggressive language lay on a spectrum of violence had the potential to provoke its most extreme manifestation in physical violence.

Owen intended his periodical the Crisis to counter social crisis, preventing the supremacy of violence by inculcating reason. He conceived of rationality as an intellectual exercise that was necessarily accompanied by a particular mode of sociability:

“The Crisis” will upon all occasions discourage religious animosities, political rancour, and individual contention: its fixed purpose being to promote real charity, kindness, and union among all classes, sects, and parties.11

Social change would require reconciliation as well as elucidation. The two mottoes of the Crisis expressed this policy. The first articulated the central plank of Owen’s theory of social inequalities: ‘It is of all truths the most important, that the character of man is formed for — not by himself’. Since environment formed character, the privileged were not to be blamed for their actions; individual members of the working class would act likewise had they been born and raised in that position. The second gave Owenite sociability short-term priority over the necessarily long-term project of education: ‘If we cannot yet reconcile all opinions, let us endeavour to unite all hearts’. The re-education of society would take time and was a project that could only be jeopardised by allowing discord to characterise social relations. For Owen, mystification and class conflict perpetuated error, hindering the attainment of truth and happiness. The promotion of truth, and the inculcation of Owenite values via public opinion and social arrangements, were seen as means to the end of social harmony. This particular structure of feeling required clear exposition of Owenite doctrines in an unantagonistic manner for the benefit of the uninitiated.

The most appropriate mode of face-to-face communication was, therefore, a concern for Owenites. If the Crisis espoused Owen’s social theories then the Owenite meeting provided the opportunity to put these ideas into practice. Eileen Yeo’s analysis of Owenite sociability describes the ideal for Owen: ‘All the living arrangements and social activities of the community would be patterned to embody the basic ethical precepts of “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others”’, and ‘Owen considered brotherliness and many of the London branch activities as the means of bringing about class conciliation (‘Robert Owen’, p. 85, 88). According to a correspondent, this reconciliation was:

to be done, and only to be done, by bringing the several parties in immediate contact with each other, and convincing all, that they are not severally so estranged by nature, as the present arrangements of society would almost imply.12

The ruling and working class were to be reconciled by the dissemination of knowledge and the cultivation of harmonious feeling. According to Harrison, the Owenites could not simply ignore very obvious class differences but designed their social activities as if the difference was irrelevant: ‘If members would charitably ignore shabby clothes and a working-class accent the bogey of class would be exorcized: treat all men as if they were equal and they will in fact become equal’ (Harrison, Robert Owen, p. 224). It was suggested at a ‘General Social Festival’ that:

it is evident, that the government does not intend to inflict misery on the people, if it knew how to avoid such misery. The government is to be pitied; it does not know how to make any better use of the enormous powers at its control.13

The stress on the need for clear communication of an irrefutable truth made unnecessary within orthodox Owenite theory any serious analysis or acknowledgement of the state as a barrier to emancipation and the establishment of the new moral world.

The harmony governing the Owenite meeting was contrasted with the disharmony created by sectarians. Henry O’Neill described in his letter to the editor of the Crisis the ‘violent language’ and ‘maniacal fury’ displayed by Protestants and Catholics in a recent public meeting.14 He contrasted this with Owenite sociability: ‘Thanks to the Rational System, we possess too much good feeling towards each other, as well as love of truth, to convert inquiry into dogmatism, and free expression of thought into abusive declamation’. One correspondent to the Crisis described the radical change worked on his consciousness by Owen’s doctrine:

I am a poor man, Mr. Owen, and hitherto have been a most discontented one. […] I come now to speak of the change my whole being has undergone since I have heard you […] hatred for more fortunate individuals than myself has died away, and all my angry murmurings and discontent, have given place to social feelings, and the hope of better times.15

Class difference, according to the orthodox Owenite view, was an unfortunate fact of society as it was constituted but class identity was a form of sectarianism that had to be rooted out. Both the ruling and working class needed to be educated out of the habit of thinking in terms of class difference which was only a sign of error, having no positive value. This was a spectrum of social conflict; its most extreme manifestation was political violence but aggressive language also lay on the spectrum and must be avoided.

Robert Dale Owen extolled the virtues of ‘The Power of the Eloquence of Public Opinion and the Importance of Every Other Eloquence’ in the article of the same name:

He who wishes effectually to influence the House of Commons must do so by first influencing the people of Great Britain; by arousing the millions not to revolution but to activity; not to violence or indignation, but to enquiry and to free speech; to enquiry, serious, sustained, deliberate and dispassionate; to free speech such as befits a nation, claiming to be enlightened, — to an expression of sentiment on its rights and its wrongs so plain spoken, so universal, so resolute yet so chastened by reason and good feeling, that its representatives must listen and must be carried forward.16

Robert Dale Owen stresses the imperative force of reason, the impossibility that truth expressed clearly would not result in improvement, but it is also clear that the eloquent subject is imagined to be a man of Owen’s stamp and that public oratory was a necessary evil. Other speakers in public meetings criticising taxation were rebuked in ‘Speech Making at Public Meetings’ for imagining that ‘violence of manner [was] a substitute for vigour of mind’. ‘Speech making’ was an ill created by the ‘present system of society’; when that is overthrown:

there will be an end everlastingly put to the trade, since truth alone, which will then be universally seen in its clearness, singleness, simplicity, and unchangeableness, would, if they were in existence, and dependent on speechifying, absolutely starve the whole oratorical profession to death.17

According to this position, eloquence in the ruling class was a facet of its dominance, as rule of open force had given way to rule of ‘him whose purse is heaviest and whose tongue is smoothest’.18 Eloquence in established religion and economics reproduced mystification and justified exploitation: ‘Except church polemics, there is no class of men so given to verbosity […] as the Political Economist’.19

When working-class radicals spoke for themselves, without adhering to Owen’s philosophy, they were thought to tend towards demagoguery and hostile modes of speech. A public discussion between ‘our disciples and the radicals’ was described as ‘irregular, irrelevant, and stormy. A dust was created and the subject lost sight of in the cloud’.20 Eloquence expressing party feeling and in the service of sectarian or class interest belonged to the old immoral world. In an Owenite meeting, the:

Great Leading principle, however, on which the social system is founded, served to check every feeling of violence or of unkindness, for when any member was becoming too warm in stating any thing of a personal kind, that could create an unpleasant feeling in any other member, it was quite sufficient to recal [sic] to the mind of the speaker the fundamental principle of the system, and like a charm it changed the current of his remarks into a new direction, with an altered tone and expression of kindness, instead of anger or any displeasure.21

Hostile feeling was to be diverted into harmony under the influence of Owenite principles. Feeling, passion even, was to be welcomed but also prevented from turning into a conflagration.

The problem with language

In theory, then, the causes of social injustice were perfectly clear and Owenite solutions needed only to be expressed with clarity and calmness to carry all before them. Communication in Owenite meetings modelled ideal forms of sociability as they encouraged gentleness. In practice, however, Owenites found language to be a less than ideal medium for the expression of Owenite truths that they held to be self-evident. Language was required to popularise Owen’s theories but it was corrupted; both word choice and expression would have to be regulated and reformed. In ‘Misnomers’, E. N. regretted the accumulation of names for a single object or phenomenon:

nothing tends so much to the development of truth, as to make use of precise terms, and to have their meanings fully recognized […] As there can be but one meaning, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of the thousand must be wrong. What chance, then, is there for consistency of action in the different parts of the social machine?22

The then editor of the Crisis, James ‘Shepherd’ Smith argued in a lecture, that:

Language is the vehicle by which our ideas are communicated to each other: and it is as full of corruption as the other arts and sciences which engage the attention of man. […] many words also are so ill defined, and consequently so ill understood, that people contend for hours together; and at last discover that their views are entirely the same, only they have followed different definitions of some abstract term.23

Smith was concerned, in the bulk of his lecture, with the communicative evils of religious and political sectarianism: ‘Opprobrious names bestowed upon private individuals, can never propagate a principle of charity’ (p. 2). The regrettable multiplicity of meaning led to unnecessary confusion and disagreement, introducing discord where there would otherwise be perfect agreement and harmony.

Polysemy caused the twin errors of mystification and conflict. Owen, therefore, had a utopian vision for language as well as society. An editorial in the New Moral World offered the Prime Minister policy advice:

I would also institute measures to induce all nations to adopt a common language, in addition to their own, to facilitate the communication between the most distant parts of the world, and, by degrees, to make all men of one nation, with one language and one interest.26

Owen, according to Gregory Claeys, ‘in his final years […] came to insist that only one language was to be taught to all from birth, “Anglo-Saxon”’ (p. 126).

Claeys took issue with Engels’s analysis of Owenite philosophy, arguing that ‘there was a branch of Owenism far closer to traditional radicalism than is often assumed, and one which was concerned more clearly with the extension and fulfilment of democratic ideals than with their perfectionist transcendence’ (pp. 14–15). Olivia Smith’s The Politics of Language: 1791–1819, though it does not address the Owenite period, does outline the hegemonic and radical positions on language and literature that such Owenites would inherit.25 Smith argues that the battle over political reform was at the same time a battle over language; that the ruling class used contemporary theories on language to justify repression, and that radicals like Thomas Paine, William Cobbett, and Thomas Spence produced new theories of language and new grammars as part of their political practice. This was also, she argues, a battle over class:

Between 1790 and 1819, the hegemony of language was severely challenged. Because ideas about language justified class division and even contributed to its formation by accentuating differences in language practice, they were sensitive to any political movement which threatened to disturb class boundaries. (p. 3)

While both orthodox Owenism and the more radical branch of Owenism identified by Claeys inherited the intellectual resources and the gains of the battle over language bequeathed to them by Paine and his contemporaries, the difference lies in their acknowledgement of class conflict. While Owen would clearly have agreed with Cobbett that ‘clarity is the essential virtue of language because it is the only democratic means of exchanging ideas’, he would not have agreed with Cobbett’s position (as defined by Smith) that ‘political conflict is the very essence of language’ (pp. 246–47). Claeys accounts for the ‘relatively easy passage of Lovett, Cleave, Hetherington and others [from Owenism] into Chartism in the mid and late 1830s’ by referring to their ‘strategic consideration’ in ‘[salvaging] from Owen’s views what was more widely attractive, such as an emphasis upon education’, adjusting ‘these to the goals and language of radicalism’ (p. 225). I suggest that a significant sticking point for working-class radicals who had routes to Paine and Cobbett independent of Owen and his writings may have been Owen’s attempts to limit not only the scope but also the linguistic style of social criticism. This connects with the development of the Chartist version of Shelley — a more combative one in which linguistic ambiguity was a feature rather than a bug — which I will cover in more detail another time.

1 George Jacob Holyoake, Sixty Years an Agitator’s Life, 2 vols (London: Thomas Unwin, 1892), i, 129.
2 ‘Mr Irving, His Disciples, and Followers’, Crisis, 12 May 1832, p. 26. For details on Irving’s relationship with Owenism, see Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 96–97.
3 Robert Owen, p. 83. For Owenism’s debt to the Enlightenment, see Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 83–87.
4 ‘An Adherent to Divine Revelation’, ‘To the Editor of the Crisis’, Crisis, 28 July 1832, pp. 83–84.
5 Robert Owen, ‘Weekly Proceedings’, Crisis, 16 February 1833, pp. 41–42 (p. 42).
6 R. D. O., ‘A Proposal’, Crisis, 2 February 1833, pp. 29–30 (p. 29).
7 Frederick Engels, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works. Volume 24: Marx and Engels: 1874–83, trans. by Edward Aveling (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989), pp. 285–325 (p. 297).
8 Robert Owen, ‘Prospectus’, Crisis, 14 April 1832, p. 1.
9 ‘Weekly Proceedings’, Crisis, 26 January 1833, pp. 17–18 (p. 17).
10 ‘Weekly Proceedings’, Crisis, 23 March 1833, pp. 81–82 (p. 82).
11 ‘Prospectus’, Crisis, 14 April 1832, p. 1 (original emphasis).
12 ‘Social Festivals’, Crisis, 14 April 1832, p. 2.
13 ‘General Social Festival’, Crisis, 5 May 1832, pp. 17–18 (p. 17).
14 Henry O’Neill, ‘To the Editor’, Crisis, 1 June 1833, p. 168. For a depiction of such meetings that presented ‘an affecting spectacle to the philosopher’, see ‘Public Meetings’, Crisis, 19 May 1832, p. 29.
15 H. D., ‘To the Editor of the Crisis’, Crisis, 12 May 1832, pp. 25–26 (original emphasis).
16 R. D. O., ‘The Power of the Eloquence of Public Opinion, and the Importance of Every Other Eloquence’, Crisis, 16 February 1833, p. 46 (original emphasis).
17 ‘Speech Making at Public Meetings’, Crisis, 21 July 1832, pp. 73–74 (p. 74).
18 R. D. O., ‘Revolutions’, Crisis, 6 April 1833, p. 100–02 (p. 100).
19 R. D. O., ‘Editorial’, Crisis, 13 April 1833, p. 107–08 (p. 107).
20 ‘Public Transactions of the Week at Our Institution’, Crisis, 6 October 1832, pp. 121–22 (p. 121).
21 ‘The Congress of Co-operative Delegates’, Crisis, 5 May 1832, p. 18.
22 E. N., ‘Misonomers’, Crisis, 21 April 1832, p. 8. For other commentary on ‘misnomers’ see ‘On a Change of Society’, Crisis, 30 June 1832, p. 58; and ‘Civil War at Clitheroe, In Lancashire’, Crisis, 11 August 1832, p. 89.
23 ‘Institution, Charlotte Street’, Crisis, 7 September 1833, pp. 1–2 (p. 2).
24 R. D. O., ‘O. P. Q’s Definition of a Liberal’, Crisis, 3 November 1832, p. 139. See also R. D. O., ‘Legislators Beginning to Speak Plain English’, Crisis, 8 December 1832, p. 159.
25 Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language: 1791–1819 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984).
26 Robert Owen, ‘Mr Owen’s View of What a Prime Minister of this Country Ought Now to Advise the Crown and the People to Do’, New Moral World, 5 September 1835, pp. 356–59 (p. 356).

Uses of Shelley in Working-Class Culture: Approximations and Substitutions

I’ve let the blogging my thesis project slide, so this is an article published in Keywords 13 (2015) that sets out the theoretical commitments of the thesis, with a section on actual usage of Shelley’s poetry in Chartist and Owenite socialist newspapers and periodicals in a particularly interesting period during 1839. It’s my thesis in a nutshell. I made minor tweaks because I just couldn’t help myself, but it’s basically the Keywords article.

Reading it over, I was struck by similarities in the way in which the typical working-class reader of Shelley in this period has been viewed — as in M. Siddiq Kalim’s description of them as idolizing Shelley while being an ‘ignorant worker [who] may not be able to grasp the real meaning of the verse even when explained to him’ — and contemporary supporters of Jeremy Corbyn as hero-worshipping fan boys and girls with a shaky grasp on political and economic ‘realities’. In my experience, there are few of those people about; most are able to combine support for Corbyn with taking a critical view at certain aspects of current approaches adopted by the leadership. This is more or less what I argue about working-class Chartists’ relationship with Shelley — it was positive appreciation, but an active form that mobilised and altered his poetry as suited them in particular conjunctures.

My copy of Kalim’s work, sprinkled liberally with comments such as the one above, contains many a rude remark that I pencilled in the margins, considering his views on the actual reception and transmission of Shelley in the cultures of these audiences as being not just wrong-headed but positively insulting. Imagine my disgust at being characterised as a naive Corbynista. (You can’t write such things in academic articles.) The article is fairly long, sorry.


It has become something of a critical orthodoxy that the nineteenth-century political and social movements Owenite socialism and Chartism held the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in high esteem. While it serves as a useful shorthand indicating the importance of Shelley to the movements, to refer to his poem Queen Mab as their ‘gospel’ or ‘bible’ risks courting a limiting perspective on the relationship between the poet and these audiences. In order to challenge this orthodoxy, I focus in this article on a period between the winter of 1838 and the summer of 1839 as one in which Owenism’s and Chartism’s main publications — the New Moral World and the Northern Star, respectively — used Shelley’s poetry as a resource in responding to the same political context, but in different ways. Clear differences between Owenite and Chartist ‘Shelleys’ emerged dialectically in this period as the Owenite ‘Shelley’ took the form it did, in part, because it was not the Chartist ‘Shelley’, and vice versa. I argue that this use evidences a critical and creative process of reception rather than a passive transmission of Shelley’s ideas at the expense of their own.

A cluster of related concepts from Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature helps illuminate these developments: his concepts ‘selective traditions’ and ‘structures of feeling’ acknowledge the possibility of admiration and influence co-existing with critical thought. His definitions of ‘residual’, ‘dominant’ and ‘emergent’ elements as historical indicators of cultural developments underpin my section ‘Shelley in Context: December 1838 to July 1839’. This part of the article shows how Shelley’s poetry provided the Owenites and Chartists with material to argue for values they wished to endorse and to challenge dominant ones. Despite the potential that Williams’s concepts offer my research, however, his own comments on the relationship between Shelley and the working class of the 1830s betray a less confident perspective on their capacity for critical independence. I conclude the article by considering these comments in Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, a record of interviews conducted by members of the periodical’s editorial committee.

Queen Mab as the Owenites’ ‘Gospel’ and the Chartists’ ‘Bible’

The critical orthodoxy I want to question is grounded in undeniable material facts of early nineteenth-century publishing and has impressive credentials. Pirated extensively from 1821, Shelley’s poem Queen Mab was a key weapon for radicals asserting the right to read and circulate ideas that challenged political, social and religious hegemonies.1 Owenism’s and Chartism’s intellectual cultures grew out of this milieu, and members of the movements produced their own editions of the poem in the 1830s.2 In his account of meeting Robert Owen and some of his followers, Thomas Medwin, Shelley’s cousin, described Queen Mab as ‘the gospel of the sect’.3 According to Medwin, Owen described Shelley’s assertion in Queen Mab that marriage ought not to outlast affection as ‘the basis of [Owen’s] chief tenets’.4 At the end of the century, George Bernard Shaw and members of Marx’s circle reported similar claims for the poem’s centrality to Chartism. The now infamous claim that Queen Mab ‘was known as The Chartists’ Bible’ originated in Shaw’s account of a lecture, an occasion on which an ‘old Chartist’ remembered that Shelley’s poetry had given him ‘the ideas that led him to join the Chartists’.5 The lecturer, the Fabian Henry S. Salt, cited Eleanor Marx on her father’s opinion that Shelley ‘had inspired a good deal of that huge but badly managed popular effort called the Chartist Movement’.6 She also informed Salt that, according to Engels and the Chartist George Julian Harney, the Chartists were given to ‘Shelley-worship’; Engels had said ‘we all knew Shelley by heart then’.7 The material record, people close to Shelley and the movements and members themselves all confirm Queen Mab’s importance in the history of working-class movements.

The most frequently cited modern sources on the subject themselves rest on the testimonies of Medwin, Shaw and Eleanor Marx. Bouthaina Shaaban’s frequently cited article ‘Shelley in the Chartist Press’ originated in doctoral work seeking to provide ‘specific evidence to support [the] truth’ of Medwin’s and Shaw’s claims.8 While her work began to establish the extent of Shelley’s presence in Chartist newspapers and periodicals, it also sought to explain their ‘“worshipping” Shelley more than any other Romantic poet’ rather than to question this characterisation of the relationship.9 Shelley was ‘loved and honoured by the Chartists’, and this love and honour resulted ‘not surprisingly, in the Chartists echoing Shelley’s arguments and ideas in their own writings’.10 M. Siddiq Kalim argued that Shelley’s poetry was valuable for Owenism because emotionally engaging poetry sugared the theoretical pill for Owen’s followers. Shelley ‘alone was in perfect accord’ with Owenism and strategic use of his poetry in Owenite propaganda enabled Owenite truths to ‘go deep down into the heart’ of the ‘ignorant worker [who] may not be able to grasp the real meaning of the verse even when explained to him’.11 The Owenites ‘loved, adored, and idolized [Shelley] as a poet, thinker, and man’.12 For both critics, the movements found Shelley’s poetry doctrinally valuable because it stimulated emotion and his influence on them was characterised by strong affection reaching its zenith in ‘idolization’.

More recent scholarship has cited Shaaban and Kalim, often wishing only to note Shelley’s popularity among these audiences, but David Duff made the orthodoxy’s ramifications explicit by arguing that ‘as a didactic poem, history had judged Queen Mab to have been a remarkable success, ultimately achieving positively dogmatic status as the “gospel” of the Owenites, and later the “Chartists’ Bible”’.13 It is this perception of a ‘dogmatic’ authority endowed on Shelley by Owenism and Chartism that I want to question. It suggests that Owenites and Chartists accepted Shelley’s politics, via his poetry, wholesale and uncritically. I do not wish to deny the importance of Shelley but to argue that respect and admiration could and did co-exist with healthy powers of discrimination. I argue that the movements’ journals and newspapers show that they emphasised or downplayed various aspects of Shelley’s poetry as suited contributors in particular contexts. In my analysis of such examples, I approach the transmission and reception of Shelley’s poetry within Owenism and Chartism in terms of an active hermeneutics rather than a passive acceptance of his poetics, politics or both. If we think in terms of an active and creative reception in which faith can be compatible with critical inquiry, then characterisations of these movements as engaging in ‘Shelley-worship’ may no longer convince.

The ‘Selective Tradition’ and ‘Structures of Feeling’

As a concept, the ‘selective tradition’ enables me to reconceive the supposed canonical status of Queen Mab and Shelley’s other poems in working-class culture of this period. As The Long Revolution had it, literary traditions were not natural and given but the result of ‘a continual selection and reselection of ancestors’.14 This selection was, moreover, an ‘interpretation’ on which rested ‘particular contemporary values’.15 Williams developed these ideas in Marxism and Literature, introducing a much sharper sense of class difference by moving away from The Long Revolution’s proposal that the agents creating ‘selective traditions’ were successive ‘generations’ producing ‘a general human culture’.16 The purpose of a hegemonic selective tradition was to function as ‘an actively shaping force’ offering ‘a version of the past which is intended to connect with and ratify the present’.17 Counter-hegemonic selective traditions, therefore, would have to make the same move but in the service of different values. Shelley’s work thus emerges as a self-selected ‘bible’ for the radical culture of the 1820s from which Owenism and Chartism developed. Shelley had by no means been embraced by his own class or ‘respectable’ middle-class readers, so the pirating of Queen Mab in the 1820s really was a choice signifying rejection of hegemonic values rather than recognition of a generally celebrated writer. This sense continued in the 1830s and ’40s, as the Owenites and Chartists developed their own versions of Shelley while members of Shelley’s circle, such as Mary Shelley and Leigh Hunt, were fighting a rearguard action in attempting to restore Shelley’s literary and moral reputation.18

The radical or working-class selective tradition emerging in the 1820s and ’30s, then, was constructed consciously in order to articulate distinct literary and political values.19 Given this active relationship with the texts of a working-class canon, I suggest it is unlikely that working-class readers received Shelley’s Queen Mab and his other poems as if they were holy writ demanding submission to the letter. Even if the Owenites and Chartists themselves had accepted descriptions of Queen Mab as their gospel or bible, we need not assume that a text functioning as a ‘Bible’ or ‘gospel’ for a social or political movement had a positively dogmatic status. We know from studies on the relationship between religious nonconformism and working-class literacy that the Holy Bible was not only (or even necessarily) a source of gospel truth for autodidacts, it was also an intellectual resource and a starting point for discussion rather than an end. In Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, for instance, David Vincent shows how ‘tiny libraries […] largely composed of works connected with the Protestant religion […] constituted an essential foundation for the pursuit of knowledge’.20 If the Bible enabled working-class people to acquire literacy, and thus a greater stock of knowledge from other sources, then its own status as a source could be undermined by this process. While a shift from faith to free thought was not guaranteed – Vincent notes the existence of ‘layers of secularization which the pursuit of knowledge engendered’ – what was fundamental to that Protestant, and especially dissenting, tradition was commitment to an active rather than a passive relationship with the Bible.21 In other words, even those who did not renounce Christianity retained the right to read and interpret their Bible without deference to authority. As a ‘bible’ in this sense, Shelley’s poetry provided his Owenite and Chartist readers with tools for understanding and argumentation rather than a programme to follow.

Recognising this process is not to deny an emotional response in Owenites or Chartists reading Shelley’s poetry. Rather, it is to reject the premise that evident emotional responses signify the absence of an intellectual (perhaps a critical intellectual) response. Marxism and Literature’s iteration of Williams’s recurring concept ‘structure of feeling’ is useful in this respect. What was at stake for him in the late 1970s was recognition of class rule as a phenomenon saturating ‘the whole process of living’, experienced emotionally and intellectually, as well as the continuing relevance of his concept during a period in which Antonio Gramsci’s theory of ‘hegemony’ was being read and taken seriously by Anglophone intellectuals.22 Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’, for Williams, was distorted by theorists tending to use the term as a synonym for ‘ideology’ or ‘superstructure’ subordinated to the more important material ‘base’.23 In other words, using ‘hegemony’ to denote a fixed analytical structure rather than a dynamic process effectively squandered the term’s promise. If the concept was to be a Marxist one then it could not be content to recognise and describe the hegemonic via critical analysis but must facilitate the development of a counter-hegemonic project able to challenge the terms of the dominant formation successfully.

One of the biggest dangers faced by those with an interest in challenging prevailing hegemonic practices, therefore, was an inability to draw connections between present experience identified as personal and subjective and the social formation on which that experience depended. Williams proposed that his concept ‘structure of feeling’ would encourage recognition of lived experience:

The term is difficult, but ‘feeling’ is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. It is not only that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs, though of course we have always to include them. It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt.24

The importance of stressing ‘feeling’ was that it allowed the ‘affective elements of consciousness and relationships’ to have critical value. The concept did not oppose emotion and thought but understood cognition as ‘not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity’.25

I suggest that the Chartists were operating with a similar sense of the importance of ‘subjective’ feeling in motivating the development of ‘objective’ political programmes. A characteristically Chartist expression of the political value the movement found in emotion and poetry occurred in a lecture on poetry reported in the Chartist newspaper the Charter.26 For the lecturer, Mr Spencer, the ‘Value of Poetry’ lay in its ability to ‘regenerate mankind. Poets […] were the representatives of the undeveloped parts of human nature, as leaders in the career of progression. This view was illustrated by references to the poetry of Shakspeare (sic), Byron, and Shelley’. Poetry’s remit went beyond the aesthetic narrowly conceived: ‘poetry, to fulfil its end, must pursue the perfect in all things – in the regions of philosophy it must seek unadulterated truth; in politics, justice; in religion, charity’. In its link to the social and political, Spencer does not conceive poetry as a world apart but as a source of inspiration depending on human action to achieve its ends:

Surely among the millions who groan and sweat and toil, there are some less overcome than others who will seize the harp of prophecy, and sing the great truths that time has wrought out to be a joy and deliverance to the people. We need to be touched to be awakened; the trammels of custom must be broken, the net-work of conventionalism destroyed.27

In his definition of poetry’s social role, Spencer suggests it has the capacity to articulate hopes for the future and to inspire people to reach for them. He stresses the importance of feeling for political movements – ‘we need to be touched to be awakened’ – and that the feeling subject both came from and spoke to ‘the millions’. The agents of this change will be the subordinated (those who ‘sweat and groan and toil’), and the change will be qualitative – customary restrictions will be ‘broken’ and conventional values ‘destroyed’. I suggest that this example evidences a conscious attempt by Chartists to grasp the potential of the aesthetic and political in order to challenge the hegemonic. Spencer did not propose that his audience take their political programme from Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley but that they take on the poet’s role of awakening others and provoking action.28

Shelley in Context: December 1838 to July 1839

1839 was an especially active year for Chartism, both politically and in terms of publishing. Major events such as the presentation of the first National Petition to Parliament in May and August’s planned but curtailed General Strike were followed by the Newport Insurrection in November. It was also a boom period for Chartist publishing, with the already established Northern Star being joined by smaller newspapers and journals around the country, such as the Welsh Western Vindicator, the Scottish Chartist Circular and the metropolitan London Democrat. Chartist newspapers played an important role in sustaining the movement politically, helping it to cohere nationally around shared values and aims.29 They also helped to develop the movement’s literary practices: publishing original poetry, favourite poems by Shelley and others, and literary criticism.30

Shelley’s presence in Chartist discourse in this period was not incidental to Chartist politics and publishing, but central. Firstly, Shelley’s poetry became more readily available to Chartists via their own newspapers and editions of his poetry. ‘Song: To the Men of England’, for example, was written in 1819 but published for the first time in the Mary Shelley-edited collection of 1839, The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which cost twenty shillings for four volumes.31 When the Northern Star printed the poem in April 1839, it made the poem available to readers with less disposable income than was necessary to purchase Poetical Works.32 Chartists subsequently used phrases from the poem to articulate their political positions in editorials, letters and speeches appearing in their newspapers and journals. Chartists valued Shelley’s poetry, therefore, as both literature and as a resource for political rhetoric.

It was in this sense that Shelley belonged to a counter-hegemonic selective tradition: connecting with present concerns in order to challenge the hegemonic rather than to ratify it. Shelley’s centrality to the most urgent events and questions of Chartist strategy in 1839 proves that his writing contributed semantic figures for Chartists developing their own structures of feeling. Focusing on the specificities of this usage, not only recognisably Chartist but also specific to particular historical moments, also bears out Williams’s argument that we need a way of understanding political and cultural change on a historical (rather than an epochal) level. If ‘hegemony’ has too often been used to denote a reductive sense of ‘ideology’, then a related problem has been the tendency to view social change as the succession of epochs rather than as occurring within particular historical conjunctures.33 Definitions of ‘bourgeois society’ and ‘bourgeois art’ could distract from the important issue of how to understand the present with all its inconsistencies in order to produce change. In order to tackle this problem, Williams offered the ‘residual’, ‘dominant’ and ‘emergent’ as categories able to name changes in the ongoing process of hegemonic self-reproduction, as well as opposition to hegemony, with greater historical precision.

Residual social and cultural forms are ‘effectively formed in the past’ but are ‘still active in the cultural process’.34 As Mike Sanders argues, while Williams ‘privileges those artworks most closely connected with “emergent” formations’, Chartist poetry shows how ‘the residual facilitates working-class resistance in this period’.35 I argue that this insight can also be applied to Chartist use of Shelley, and that his poetry was useful and inspiring for Chartists but required adjustment if it was to be relevant for their movement. Shelley’s poem on exploitation of the working class at the point of production, ‘Song: To the Men of England’, was used in 1839 to argue for a concept elaborated more fully after Shelley’s death, the General Strike, which the Chartists threatened if their political demands were not met.36 In terms of chronological progression, Shelley’s poem of 1819 was obviously prior to Chartism’s strategy of 1839. It is evident, however, that the specificities of Chartist use of ‘Song: To the Men of England’ in 1839 means that their own version of the poem should be thought of in terms of the emergent: as an ‘adaptation of form’ if not as a significant new form in itself.37

Newspapers and periodicals not only provide evidence of such forms but must also be theorised as actively shaping the respective ‘Shelleys’ produced by Owenites and Chartists. While it is true that people in this period could be both Chartists and hold Owenite views regarding, for example, the desirability of religious secularism, it is not possible to claim that the Chartist Northern Star and the Owenite New Moral World had the same ideological commitments or discursive strategies. Print culture makes visible those differences, since formulations could be either welcome or unwelcome, and therefore published or not published. Owenism’s main periodicals the Crisis (1832-34) and the New Moral World (1834–45) were not exact contemporaries of their Chartist equivalent, the Northern Star (1837–52), but the period covered by this article occurs in the overlap between the latter two publications.

I argue that such differences between the New Moral World and the Northern Star set parameters enabling me to distinguish between Owenite and Chartist ‘Shelleys’. The choices that Owenites and Chartists made within Shelley’s oeuvre as it was available to them illustrate differences between them at the level of political and social commitments. The two movements’ use of different poems in print, or different sections of the same poem, illustrates Owenism’s commitment to the liberation of women and Chartism’s greater attraction to a more robust and physical form of popular politics. British Owenites had been making use of Shelley’s poetry in the Crisis and New Moral World from 1833, primarily to articulate their commitment to women’s freedoms. The emergence of a provokingly different Chartist use of Shelley’s poetry in 1839, I argue, threw into relief the Owenites’ use and became its rival for the attentions of the working class. This dynamic relationship between the movements’ presentation of Shelley makes the period under consideration especially significant.

Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam in the New Moral World

The New Moral World series ‘A Review of Modern Poets, and Illustrations of the Philosophy of Modern Poetry’ began on 1 December 1838. It aimed to address poetry ‘which is identified with, and prophetic of, the redemption of the human race, from the present miserable system to one of intellect, virtue, and happiness’.38 Shelley was in fact the only ‘modern poet’ to feature in the ‘Review’ over its seven instalments, the first five of which addressed his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.39 Owenites believed that the route to social regeneration lay not in exploiting conflict between classes but in cultivating peace, and the ‘Review’ quoted Prometheus Unbound in support of this belief.40 The crucial difference between Shelley’s poem and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, which Shelley took as his model, was in Shelley’s Prometheus’s repudiation of the curse he had laid on his oppressor.41 The series singled this act out for special notice; the journalist quotes those lines before stating: ‘Here spoke the philanthropist, and, in Prometheus, Shelley spoke the feelings of his own benevolent bosom’.42

After a break of four months, the ‘Review’ went on to address another of Shelley’s epic poems, The Revolt of Islam.43 The poem is as Shelley described it in the Preface: a meditation on the events of the French Revolution. As Shelley saw it, the event demonstrated the great difficulty of realising the revolution’s worthy principles while avoiding terror: ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave, suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’.44 The instalments covering Revolt describe the childhood of the two main characters, Laon and Cythna, before quoting liberally from passages in which Laon persuades soldiers to stop murdering revolutionaries and then the victorious revolutionaries to spare the life of the despot.45 The other aspect of the poem valued by Owenites was the active role played by Laon’s female counterpart, Cythna. The ‘Review’, therefore, quoted Cythna’s ‘splendid ode to equality’ as well as the question she posed that appeared frequently in Owenite discourse: ‘Can man be free if woman be a slave?’.46 Owenites found Revolt, especially Cythna’s feminist statements, a valuable resource for their own articles and parables.47

The Revolt of Islam in the Northern Star

Chartists found Revolt less rhetorically useful, judging by the weight they gave the poem in relation to some of Shelley’s other poems, such as The Mask of Anarchy and ‘Song: To the Men of England’. This section discusses the two references to Revolt I found in the Northern Star in 1839; it would not reappear in the paper before 1847.48 Chartists were far less inclined than Owenites to use the poem, and Shelley’s poetry generally, as a feminist resource. The only example of which I am aware was in the ‘Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to Their Fellow Countrywomen’, published in the Northern Star in February 1839.49 The ‘Address’ called for Chartist women to support men in their efforts to obtain the Charter, using the following lines from Revolt as its epigraph:

Well ye know

What woman is, for none of woman born

Can choose but drain the bitter dregs of woe

Which ever from the oppressed to the oppressors flow.50

The ‘Address’, however, did not quote the lines faithfully; it had the final two lines as ‘Can choose but drain the bitter dregs of woe / Which ever to the oppressed from the oppressors flow’.51

In Shelley’s version, oppression’s negativity rebounds on the oppressors: in this instance husbands who enslave their wives by denying them equality. A month before the appearance of the Chartist women’s address, a New Moral World article ‘Woman as She is, and as She Ought to Be’ had quoted the lines accurately in support of its argument that if women do not have ‘equal rights, power, and importance in the social scale with man’ then all of society, including men, suffers.52 The Chartist version in the ‘Address’, however, changes the dynamic of the original lines by switching the prepositions ‘from’ and ‘to’. This alteration reverses the direction of the woe’s movement and de-genders Shelley’s critique; the lines become a more straightforward description of oppression causing working-class suffering. The Female Political Union of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne demanded the right to occupy the ‘field of politics’ in order to ‘help our fathers, husbands, and brothers to free themselves and us from political, physical, and mental bondage’. They did not also demand the extension of the franchise to women; as in Chartism more generally, a woman’s right to the franchise was subordinated to a man’s.53 Alteration of Shelley’s lines in this context suggests that suppression of an imbalance of power within the working-class family helped them to locate the source of oppression outside that family. This source of oppression acted on the family negatively as a unit; domestic disharmony was a result of political tyranny experienced by the working class as a whole.

If Chartists downplayed Revolt’s feminism, another use of the poem laid greater emphasis on the threat of popular violence in self-defence. Lines from Revolt appeared in the Northern Star’s poetry column of 20 July 1839 under the title ‘The Arguments of Tyranny (From Shelley’s Revolt of Islam)’.54 The lines depict a battle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution, a battle in which the former discover a cache of ‘rude pikes / The instrument of those who war but on their native ground / For natural rights’, to the ‘shout of joyance’.55 Laon, the great pacifist in Owenite readings of the poem, also experiences this joy and it appears as if they will repel their assailants. The counter-revolutionaries, however, are encouraged by the realisation that they are more powerful martially, ‘and then the combat grew / Unequal but most horrible’, until only Laon survives.56 The fact that the Northern Star quoted these lines under the title ‘The Arguments of Tyranny’ then requires explication. It is plausible that the scene is supposed to illustrate the idea that ‘might is right’ is a tyrannical argument. While it is possible to defend Shelley’s avowed commitment to non-violence in the poem’s Preface on the basis that an oppressed people must also reject this argument of tyranny, the lines that the Northern Star chose to print do not suggest that Laon and his comrades were wrong to defend themselves.

Much then depends on what a legitimate counter-argument to tyranny might be, since the Chartists were clearly not minded to accept tyrannical arguments. The immediate political context for Chartists reading these lines in the Northern Star included the violent disruption of the Chartist Convention in Birmingham by the London Metropolitan Police just two weeks earlier.57 Key debates in the Convention at that point were on the right to bear arms and the related issue of what ‘ulterior measures’ ought to be taken in the (expected) event that Parliament would reject the first national petition in July. One of these measures was preparation for a ‘sacred month’, or General Strike, in August which Chartists believed the state would attempt to break. As Malcolm Chase argues, in these circumstances: ‘the sacred month was […] not an action short of outright insurrection, it was insurrection’.58 The Northern Star, therefore, offered its readers Shelley’s description of war between those who fought for ‘natural rights’ and the forces of ‘tyranny’ sixteen days after the state attacked the Convention and eight days after Parliament had rejected their petition. The next anticipated milestone in Chartism was strike action that Scottish Chartists expected would cause ‘nothing short of physical revolution’.59 When the Northern Star quoted these lines from Shelley’s Revolt in this context, it was clear that they were intended to speak to this moment.

Contemporary Chartist readers, however, could have drawn several conclusions from the lines in this context. On one level, the lines dramatised a confrontation between proponents of a just cause and oppression in a manner valorising the former. In this way, the lines supported morale. On another level, the conclusion of the battle illustrated the costs that the people incurred in facing an enemy better prepared for the fight. The lines might therefore have been read as illustrating the lack of preparation for confrontation that some in the Convention argued necessitated the postponement or curtailment of the sacred month. The Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor’s editorial in the Northern Star of 2 August argued that it was not the right time to embark on a sacred month, proposing a three-day strike instead: the people ‘are not a tenth part of them in possession of the means of self-defence’.60 This inequality meant that the arguments of tyranny, if this did mean ‘might is right’, could not be answered in kind by Chartists with any prospect of success. Use of these lines in this context was possibly also preparing the ground for a recovery before the defeat had occurred. If the Chartists were the equivalent of Laon’s righteous army then a short-term defeat did not reflect on the cause’s worthiness. Injustice was temporary — as Revolt’s conclusion had it, ‘all power and faith must pass’ — while the memory of the defeat sustained faith in values that were eternal: ‘to long ages shall this hour be known; / And slowly shall its memory, ever burning, / Fill this dark night of things with an eternal morning’.61 For all of these readings, Shelley’s lines in this context upheld the principle of self-defence; the question for Chartism was a strategic one.

‘The Arguments of Tyranny’ is a possible response, therefore, to the reading offered by Owenites in the New Moral World, since the ‘Review’ did not deliver on its promise in what transpired to be its final instalment to continue discussion of Revolt in future issues. The ‘Review’ had covered the content of Prometheus Unbound from the poem’s beginning to its conclusion over five instalments. Discussion of Revolt, on the other hand, was limited to discussion of the Preface and the first five cantos, meaning that the ‘Review’ did not cover the poem’s final seven cantos. As ‘The Arguments of Tyranny’ appeared in the Northern Star a month after the last instalment of the ‘Review’ appeared in the New Moral World, it is possible that the Northern Star’s editors deliberately picked up the baton by excerpting lines from Revolt’s sixth canto.

Cian Duffy has described a ‘persistent – one might go so far as to say a defining – tension at the heart of Shelley’s political writing between gradualism and revolutionism, quietism and violence’.62 I concur with this reading of Shelley, and suggest that this is precisely the kind of ambiguity in his poetry on the subject of political violence that Owenites would have found troubling. The New Moral World of 10 August 1839 (when Chartist strike action was imminent) printed ‘Extracts from Our Contemporaries’, newspapers such as the Morning Chronicle, which speculated on the ‘connection between the two bodies’.63 The editor of the New Moral World responded to this in an afterword, stating that ‘the objects of the Chartists and the Socialists, as well as the means adopted by each for their advancement, are totally opposed to each other’. The New Moral World criticised the Chartists’ conduct and stressed the differences between that movement and Owenism frequently throughout 1839.64 It is not surprising, therefore, that the ‘Review’ ended when it did, on 22 June 1839, without discussing the lines that Chartists went on to use the following month in a manner that would have offended Owenite principles. Owenism and Chartism were in this period using the same poem by Shelley in order to imagine opposing actions: conciliation and confrontation, respectively, between the oppressed and their political opponents.

Duffy’s insight also allows us to avoid concluding that the reason Shelley’s poetry could be made to illustrate different political positions is that it had no coherent policy of its own. In this view, Shelley’s poetry could be the ‘gospel’ or ‘Bible’ of Owenism and Chartism because they were faithful in their own ways to different aspects of his oeuvre. If, on the other hand, Owenites and Chartists can be shown to have abstracted either quietist or aggressive aspects from a whole that existed in tension, then what we have are truly creative responses to Shelley’s poetry. These responses have characters different to that of the original source, as well as to one another.

‘Song: To the Men of England’ in the Northern Star

The same issue of the Northern Star in which ‘The Arguments of Tyranny’ appeared also featured what I argue is another motivated use of Shelley’s poetry, this time in the context of a political speech rather than a poetry column or article on poetry. The article ‘Meeting of Chartists at Stockport’ reported a number of speeches made by Chartists in response to Parliament’s recent rejection of the national petition on 12 July and in expectation of the sacred month in August.65 At a meeting on 15 July 1839, the Chartist Bronterre O’Brien used images similar to those in Shelley’s ‘Song: To the Men of England’ in presenting the strike as a decisive crisis. Without mentioning the poem by name, O’Brien said:

Let not the anvil be struck within the length and breadth of the land. Let not a needle nor a spade be used unless to dig some tyrant’s grave. Let not a shuttle move, unless to weave the winding sheet of some monster-robber, some profit-monger, who dared to attack the People’s Parliament. All will then soon be over.66

In his poem, which Michael Scrivener described as representing an ‘uncompromising view on labour alienation’, Shelley depicts the appropriation of wealth produced by the working class: ‘The robes ye weave, another wears; / The arms ye forge, another bears’.67 He then recommends its members stop participating in their own exploitation: ‘Weave robes – let not the idle wear: / Forge arms in your defence to bear.’68 This last line could be adduced as evidence for Stephen Behrendt’s claim that ‘this poem comes as close as Shelley ever comes to sanctioning violence as a last resort’.69 The poem appeared frequently in the Chartist press over the course of 1839.70 By using Shelleyan images in reference to an anticipated general strike, O’Brien applied the economic logic of Shelley’s lines to the immediate conditions faced by Chartists. He even engaged with the poem’s final stanza, in which Shelley described the consequences of the workers not doing as he recommended:

With plough and spade and hoe and loom

Trace your grave and build your tomb,

And weave your winding-sheet – till fair

England be your Sepulchre.71

In transforming Shelley’s final stanza, O’Brien not only counters its pessimism, he might also have been suggesting that Chartists take revenge for the recent attack on the Convention in Birmingham. In O’Brien’s formulation, the grave and winding-sheet were to be cut to the shape of the ‘tyrants’ and ‘profit-monger’, to those ‘who dared to attack the People’s Parliament’, rather than to the people themselves. For all the ambiguity in poems such as Revolt or The Mask of Anarchy on the use of violence in self-defence at critical moments, Shelley was quite clear that he thought vengeance unequivocally wrong. As Mask, the other poem very popular in Chartism, had it: ‘Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong – / Do not thus when ye are strong.’72 In their frequent use of the poem, Chartists did not quote these lines and they exaggerated Mask’s more aggressive aspects. According to my findings, use of ‘Song’ comparable to O’Brien’s did not occur in the New Moral World; I found no references to the poem in the Owenite journal though it was still in print six years after ‘Song’ was published for the first time.

What matters, if we are to take Shelley’s poem seriously as concerned with questions of political strategy, is what constitutes a position of strength. A possible reading of the line in Mask is that Shelley equates the position of strength with unequivocal victory and that his injunction against revenge, therefore, is not incompatible with use of violence in self-defence at the moment of confrontation. It would then become a question of whether responding in kind to the state’s ‘attacks’ on the Convention, which was still meeting when O’Brien spoke, constituted self-defence or revenge. Such questions recognise the lack of straightforwardness inherent in Shelley’s images of political struggle; his poems do not give unambiguous instructions to his intended readers. There was no clear didactic content for Owenites and Chartists in this period; interpretation in such circumstances was always creative.

The analysis of deliberate use of Shelley in the Owenite and Chartist press offered above demonstrates the importance of considering omissions as well as presences of Shelley in the movements’ cultures. The Chartists did not ‘echo’ Shelley’s poetry faithfully if they omitted his celebrations of women’s political agency or represented it as a force benefitting men in the first instance and women only secondarily.73 Women’s liberty was at least as important in Shelley’s politics and at least as prominent in his poetry as his denunciations of political, economic and religious tyranny over the many by the few. Such facts evidence clear critical selection among Shelley’s poetry, determined by the wider concerns of Chartism, which did not prioritise the emancipation of women in the way that Owenite ideology did explicitly. This is no straightforward ‘echoing’ of Shelley, but a deliberate and selective use of his poetry within specific contexts. Likewise, it cannot be claimed that Owenites were in ‘perfect accordance’ with Shelley if they presented him in such a way that suggested he, like them, was against violence in every circumstance.74 Owenites had to suppress the ambiguity regarding political violence in Shelley’s poetry if they were to present him as ‘a philanthropist in fullest sense of the word, who warred not against men, but false principles’, and a poet whose ‘every line […] breathes a spirit of love and affection for the whole human race’.75 This not only suppressed Shelley’s mixed feelings regarding the use of violence in self-defence and his recognition of class interests, but also overlooked his frequent use of invective levelled at figures such as ‘The King, the wearer of a gilded chain / That binds his soul to abjectness, the fool / Whom courtiers nickname monarch’.76 Where Owenism, under the direction of Owen, felt moved to exclude the unpalatable aspect of Shelley, Chartism effectively suppressed it by including it in a reconfigured form.

Williams on Shelley and the Working Class in Politics and Letters

While working-class appreciation of Shelley’s poetry has been celebrated by some as a laudable affective response to a Romantic genius, a critic like Williams, committed to working-class agency, viewed their use of Shelley as problematic. Interviews with the New Left Review, published in the volume Politics and Letters, feature the only comments to my knowledge that Williams made on concrete instances of working-class responses to Shelley in the period I consider.77 In those interviews, Williams suggested that the appearance of Shelley in working-class culture of the 1830s was a ‘paradox’ and evidence that their structure of feeling was only partially articulated:

a dominant set of forms or conventions – and in that sense structures of feeling – can represent a profound blockage for subordinated groups in a society, above all an oppressed class […] For example, it seems probable that the English working class was struggling to express an experience in the 1790s and 1830s which in a sense, because of the subordination of the class, its lack of access to means of cultural production, but also the dominance of certain modes, conventions of expression, was never fully articulated. If you look at their actual affiliations, what is striking is a great grasping at other writings. Working people used Shelley; they used Byron, of all people; they responded very strongly to Mrs Gaskell. Should they or should they not have? These works could only have been approximations or substitutes for their own structure of feeling.78

For Williams, the existence of an identifiably working-class experience with at least the potential for articulation in the 1830s (and even the 1790s) was not in doubt. What was in question was the adequacy of existing linguistic formulations and registers to articulate that experience. While Williams posits use of Shelley by working people as an open question worth considering, he also stated that working-class people ‘struggled’ to express their experience because ‘certain modes, conventions of expression’ were hegemonic, and that these were drawn from ‘other writings’.

By this point in his development of the ‘structure of feeling’ as a concept, Williams wanted ‘to use the concept much more differentially between classes’; this statement appears a few pages before his comments on working-class use of Shelley.79 The implication here, given Williams’s desire to make the subject of his latest iteration of the ‘structure of feeling’ a class subject rather than a generational one, was that a working-class culture worthy of the name had to make a decisive break with the cultural products of other classes. The class origins of Shelley, Byron and Gaskell’s works, then, rendered them inadequate as resources for the expression of a working-class structure of feeling. This view is obviously unfruitful for my study as it meant, if correct, that establishing Chartist use of Shelley disqualified them as working-class subjects. The terms ‘approximation’ and ‘substitution’, however, are not synonyms. An approximation can be very close to the original, but its difference from the source can be productive in the sense of the emergent as ‘adaptation of forms’, as noted above. What is useful in the original can be retained and augmented with what is necessary in the new historical context. Approximations can also change further over time, if necessary. A substitution, on the other hand, could only be the replacement of one thing for another.

One reason that Williams could make these comments was the lack of available research showing, for example, that Chartists did not lack ‘access to means of cultural production’ but had a serviceable outlet for political poetry in the Northern Star.80 Williams also appears to have mistaken Shelley in the 1830s as an example of work encoding ‘a dominant set of forms or conventions’, whereas he was actually not part of the dominant literary tradition in this period. As St Clair and others have since shown, although Shelley was an aristocrat, his reputation was very far from being secure in respectable circles, which did not see him as articulating their own values.81 Williams’s statement above conflates class origins and the ‘dominant tradition’. As he stated himself in Marxism and Literature, a hegemonic formation can incorporate facets of working-class culture into its own version of the selective tradition in order to ‘recognise’ it, thereby neutralising any threat it posed. Similarly, there is nothing to prevent working-class cultural expropriation of middle- or upper-class culture in an oppositional manner; analysis of this phenomenon was a concern of classic early texts in British cultural studies.82 Williams also, I argue, conceded too much to his interviewers’ searching questions on the validity of ‘structure of feeling’ as a concept.83 As Christopher Norris noted, the interviewers placed a great deal of pressure on Williams to defend his theories from the perspective of structuralist Marxist positions he had disavowed.84 On his own terms, Williams could not reasonably require ‘full articulation’ of working-class experience in this period. It was his dissatisfaction with the concept of ideology, in which ‘it is the fully articulate and systematic forms which are recognizable as ideology’, that led Williams to propose structure of feeling as a concept better able to register ‘tensions, shifts, and uncertainties’ while recognising resistance to class rule.85 The potential of his theories for studies such as my own, however, outweighs the significance of these local problems, and Williams can hardly be held responsible for failing to do the empirical research that his own theoretical work made possible.


This essay is based on research funded generously by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


1 See Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795–1840 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) and William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

2 Notable editions are John Brooks’s Owenite editions of 1829 and 1833, and Chartist editions published from 1839 onwards by John Watson and Henry Hetherington.

3 Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Humphrey Milford, 1847), 100.

4 Medwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 98.

5 George Bernard Shaw, ‘Shaming the Devil about Shelley’, in George Bernard Shaw, Pen Portraits and Reviews (London: Constable and Company, 1949), 244.

6 Shaw, ‘Shaming the Devil’, 244.

7 Henry S. Salt, Company I Have Kept (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1930), 51.

8 Bouthaina Shaaban, ‘Shelley in the Chartist Press’, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 34 (1983): 41–60 and ‘Shelley’s Influence on the Chartist Poets with Particular Emphasis on Ernest Charles Jones and Thomas Cooper’ (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 1981), viii.

9 Shaaban, ‘Chartist Press’, 42.

10 Shaaban, ‘Chartist Press’, 52, 56.

11 M. Siddiq Kalim, The Social Orpheus: Shelley and the Owenites (Lahore: Government College, 1973), i.

12 Kalim, The Social Orpheus, 121.

13 David Duff, Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 70–1 (original emphasis). Shaaban’s article in particular has attracted citations in works important and influential in the field, such as Paul Thomas Murphy, Toward a Working-Class Canon: Literary Criticism in British Working-Class Periodicals, 1816–1858 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994), 12; St Clair, The Reading Nation, 336; and James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 673.

14 Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Cardigan: Parthian, 2011), 73.

15 Williams, The Long Revolution, 74.

16 Williams, The Long Revolution, 72.

17 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 115, 116.

18 Leigh Hunt’s Preface to the first edition of The Mask of Anarchy (1832) and Mary Shelley’s notes to The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839) were important milestones in this history.

19 See Murphy, Toward a Working-Class Canon.

20 David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Europa, 1981), 110–1. See also Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 9.

21 Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, 178. For an account of dissenting religion as an intellectual tradition informing the development of political radicalism, see E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 28–58.

22 Williams, Marxism, 110.

23 Williams, Marxism, 112.

24 Williams, Marxism, 132.

25 Williams, Marxism, 132.

26 ‘Lambeth Mutual Instruction Society’, Charter, 8 March 1840, 11.

27 ‘Lambeth Mutual Instruction Society’, 11.

28 There is a possible indirect reference here to Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry, which ends with the famous description of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the World’. When the Charter printed Spencer’s lecture, the essay had recently been published for the first time in the collection Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (1840). However, I found no direct reference to the essay in any of the Chartist newspapers and periodicals that I examined. ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), 535.

29 Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists (London: Temple Smith, 1984), 16–7.

30 Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), and ‘“Tracing the Ramifications of the Democratic Principle”: Literary Criticism and Theory in the Chartist Circular’, Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism 8 (2010), 62–72.

31 St Clair, The Reading Nation, 682.

32 For analysis of such material aspects of the Northern Star, see James Epstein, The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832–1842 (London: Croom Helm, 1982), 68.

33 Williams, Marxism, 112.

34 Williams, Marxism, 122.

35 Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism, 25.

36 See Iorwerth Prothero, ‘William Benbow and the Concept of the “General Strike”’, Past and Present 63 (1974), 132–71.

37 Williams, Marxism, 126.

38 ‘A Review of Modern Poets, and Illustrations of the Philosophy of Modern Poetry’, New Moral World, 1 December 1838, 83.

39 See the New Moral World issues of 1, 8, and 22 December 1838; 5 January 1839 and 16 February 1839.

40 Eileen Yeo, ‘Robert Owen and Radical Culture’, in Robert Owen: Prophet of the Poor. Essays in Honour of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth, ed. Sidney Pollard and John Salt (London: Macmillan, 1971), 84–114.

41 Cian Duffy, Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 152.

42 ‘A Review of Modern Poets, and Illustrations of Philosophy of Modern Poetry’, New Moral World, 8 December 1838, 103. The lines quoted from Prometheus Unbound were I, 262– 305 in P.B. Shelley, The Poems of Shelley, vol. 2, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews (London: Longman, 2000).

43 ‘Review of Modern Poets and Poetry. Shelley’s Revolt of Islam’, New Moral World, 15 June 1839, 533–5.

44 The Poems of Shelley, vol. 2, 36.

45 ‘Modern Poets: Shelley’s Revolt of Islam. Act II’, New Moral World, 22 June 1839, 550–2.

46 Revolt, ii, 36 in The Poems of Shelley, vol. 2, where the poem is included under its original title Laon and Cythna.

47 See ‘For the Crisis’, Crisis, 9 November 1833, 83–4; W.W. Pratt, ‘On the Necessity and Pleasures of Agricultural Employment’, New Moral World, 16 June 1838, 265–6; ‘Woman as She is, and as She Ought to Be’, New Moral World, 26 January 1839, 210–1; and ‘The Pleasures and Advantages of Knowledge’, New Moral World, 12 September 1840, 166–8; John Goodwyn Barmby, ‘The Inferiority of Fourier’s Classification of Society’, New Moral World, 5 December 1840, 355–6.

48 Thomas Frost, ‘Scott, Byron and Shelley’, Northern Star, 2 January 1847, 3.

49 ‘Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to Their Fellow Countrywomen’, Northern Star, 9 February 1839, 6.

50 Revolt, viii, 3330–3.

51 My emphasis. Consulting the editions of the poem available to the Female Political Union of Newcastle-upon-Tyne suggests it is likely that this alteration to Shelley’s line was their own (or the Northern Star’s compositor’s) and was not merely copied from an unfaithful edition. John Brooks’s 1829 edition of Revolt, popular among Owenites, and Poetical Works agree that the line is ‘Which ever from the oppressed to the oppressors flow’.

52 Pratt, ‘Woman as She is’, 177.

53 Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (London: Macmillan, 1991), 89.

54 ‘The Arguments of Tyranny (From Shelley’s Revolt of Islam)’, Northern Star, 20 July 1839, 7; Revolt, vi, 2425–60, 2473–8, 2488–96.

55 Revolt, vi, 2444–6.

56 Revolt, vi, 2456–7.

57 For a history of this period in Chartism, see Malcolm Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 57–87.

58 Chase, Chartism, 80, emphasis in original.

59 Chase, Chartism, 81.

60 Chase, Chartism, 86.

61 Revolt, xii, 4704, 4708–10.

62 Duffy, Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime, 10, emphasis in original.

63 ‘Extracts from Our Contemporaries’, New Moral World, 10 August 1839, 669–70.

64 See ‘The Chartists and the Socialists’, New Moral World, 2 March 1839, 296; James Lindsay, ‘Chartism v. Socialism’, New Moral World, 8 June 1839, 516–7; ‘Birmingham Town Mission’, New Moral World, 22 June 1839, 552–4; ‘Mr Owen to the Social Missionaries’, New Moral World, 11 July 1839, 593–7; W. Hawkes Smith, ‘Chartism and Socialism’, New Moral World, 10 August 1839, 670–1; ‘Physical, versus, Moral Revolution’, New Moral World, 7 December 1839, 929–31.

65 ‘Meeting of Chartists at Stockport’, Northern Star, 20 July 1839, 1.

66 ‘Meeting of Chartists at Stockport’, 1.

67 Michael Scrivener, Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 232; ‘Song: To the Men of England’, 19–20 in P.B. Shelley, The Poems of Shelley, vol. 3, ed. Jack Donovan, Cian Duffy, Kelvin Everest and Michael Rossington (London: Longman, 2011).

68 ‘Song: To the Men of England’, 23–4.

69 Stephen Behrendt, Shelley and his Audiences (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 195–6.

70 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To the Men of England’, Northern Star, 27 April 1839, 7; ‘Tait’s Magazine for April, 1839’, Brighton Patriot, 7 May 1839, n.p.; ‘Poets our Best Teachers’, London Dispatch, 12 May 1839, 6; Shelley, ‘Song to the Men of England’, Northern Liberator, 5 October 1839, 7; ‘Percy B. Shelley’, Chartist Circular, 19 October 1839, 16; and Shelley, ‘To the Men of England’, Western Vindicator, 14 December 1839, 6.

71 ‘Song: To the Men of England’, 29–32.

72 Mask, 195–6 in The Poems of Shelley, vol. 3.

73 Shaaban, ‘Chartist Press, 56.

74 Kalim, The Social Orpheus, i.

75 ‘A Review of Modern Poets’, New Moral World, 1 December 1838, 84.

76 Queen Mab, iii, 30–2 in P.B. Shelley, The Poems of Shelley, vol. 1, ed. Kelvin Everest and Geoffrey Matthews (London: Longman, 1989).

77 Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (London: Verso, 1979), 100–3, 110–2, 164–5. Williams’s comments were in response to questions about his discussion of Shelley in ‘The Romantic Artist’ in Culture and Society: 1780–1950 (New York: Anchor Books, 1960), 33–52.

78 Williams, Politics and Letters, 111, 164–5.

79 Williams, Politics and Letters, 158.

80 Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism, 69–86.

81 Besides St Clair and McCalman, see Neil Fraistat, ‘Illegitimate Shelley: Radical Piracy and the Textual Edition as Cultural Performance’, PMLA 109 (1994), 409–23; and Stephen C. Behrendt, ‘Shelley and his Publishers’, in The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Michael O’Neill and Anthony Howe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 83–97.

82 See Tony Jefferson, ‘Cultural Responses of the Teds’, in Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London: Hutchinson, 1976), 81–6; and Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979; London: Routledge, 2005).

83 Williams, Politics and Letters, 133–74.

84 Christopher Norris, ‘Keywords, Ideology and Critical Theory’, in Raymond Williams Now: Knowledge, Limits, and the Future, ed. Jeff Wallace et al. (London: Macmillan, 1997), 28.

85 Williams, Marxism, 109, 129.

Remembering Peterloo

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As the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, the event has been on my mind. This year, we will have a memorial meeting and attendees will contribute to a tapestry objects that they associate with Peterloo. I made the piece in the image above, which has the text of a banner in a Chartist demonstration in 1840. Like the Chartists, today’s Mancunians think that it’s important to remember the event. I want to write this to understand what it meant to me to make the piece above, and remind myself of the research I did into the Chartists’ feelings and thoughts about the event. For a summary of Peterloo, see this; for Chartism, see this.

Looking at my thesis, the material about the Chartist reactions to Peterloo was focused through the lens of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy‘. At an earlier stage of research, however, I collected a lot of interesting content about the ways Chartists talked about the event more broadly. By the time of the demonstration featuring the slogan above — The Murder of Peterloo Shall Never Be Forgotten — it had been just 21 years since those murders. Imagine that Peterloo had happened in 1995, and that you, your friends and family, or comrades had been killed or mutilated by the sabres of the yeomanry. When you participated in your own movement demanding political reform, gathering in the streets and confronted by police or soldiers, you would remember Peterloo — not as a distant historical event but as a live one. Wounds may have scabbed over but you would connect your own experience with that of 21 years earlier.

Peterloo was remembered by Chartists as a pivotal and spectacular event in the recent history of radicals’ contact with the ruling class. This is not in itself surprising, but I also think that the act of remembrance had a specific political function — that they remembered Peterloo partly in order to imagine future clashes that would result in a different outcome. The Chartists intended this remembrance to be transformative — they would not straightforwardly identify with victimhood and suffering, but would register Peterloo as an example of a tyrannical power victimizing the people, an example that they had no intention of allowing to recur in their own period and to themselves.

Over the course of Chartism as a movement, their Peterloo rhetoric developed as Chartist strategy was tested and they experienced their own conflicts with armed opponents. In the early days of Chartism (the late 1830s), Peterloo was talked about as if it could not happen again because the authorities would not dare attack them or, if they tried, the Chartists would fight back, refuse martyrdom and redeem the deaths of 1819 in gaining liberty. By the early 1840s, events such as those in Preston and Ashton during the General Strike of 1842 could be described as the equivalent of Peterloo:

This town [Ashton] has been the scene of the most brutal and dastardly assaults on an unoffending and defenceless people that is on record since the never-to-be forgotten Peterloo, by a soldiery that is evident were made drunk for the purpose.1

I won’t go into this development in detail here, but just concentrate on a few examples from the early period and in the local context of Manchester and surrounding areas.

The Chartist remembrance of Peterloo was actually a reimagining of the event, and a mental rehearsal for future clashes with the Peterloo yeomanry’s successors. I use the word ‘rehearsal’ on purpose, as meetings by Chartists on the site of the massacre in the centre of Manchester were reported using theatrical metaphors. (I wrote about this previously in a piece about Maxine Peake’s Manchester International Festival performance of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in a venue close to the site of the massacre.)

A report in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Liberator on the release of Peter McDouall (imprisoned for using seditious speech at a Chartist meeting at Hyde) describes the two- to three-hour long procession of around 2,000 Chartists, and their route through Manchester and Salford. Two days later, Chartists attended a dinner at the Hall of Science, Camp Field, which was near the site of the massacre. The Grand Hall was decorated with ‘portraits, banners, and flags, most of which had been used in the procession on Saturday evening’, including a banner that ‘bore a much worn and faded representation of the never to be forgotten “Manchester massacre”’. 2

This description of Peterloo, as an event that deserved a permanent place in the memory of the working class, is typical of the ways in which Peterloo was represented in the Chartist press. Banners at other demonstrations carried mottoes such as ‘The murder at Peterloo shall never be forgotten’ and ‘Remember the bloody deeds of Peterloo’.3 The imagining of Peterloo as a piece of theatre in the report of a demonstration in Manchester on the nineteenth anniversary of the event is striking, and the most explicit example of a tendency to think of it as a tragedy in the theatrical sense.4 The reporter noted that: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’. The crowd assembled ‘at the “New Cross”’ and proceeded to the site of the event, where they were addressed by Edward Curran:

In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)

Curran could claim authority for his account; as a veteran of Peterloo, his first-hand experience of the massacre made him a suitable guide and narrator of its events. The impression given is that the crowd, some of whom may have been present nineteen years before, is asked to take the role of the crowd at Peterloo and they are shown the stage position of the magistrates who addressed their forebears. The dead and injured are referred to several times as ‘their mother, fathers, sisters, and brothers’, and this may have been literally true for some attendees.

Besides public meetings in Manchester on the site of the massacre, there was another symbolic event that was used to remember it: smaller, comparatively more intimate meetings to commemorate the birthday of Henry Hunt, a leader of the Peterloo demonstration. These were cultural events; poetry, songs, and paintings of the massacre were vital elements. A celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne at the house of a veteran of Peterloo, Mrs Walker, saw the chairman quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Songs were sung, and ‘the room was embellished with patriotic decorations’. There were toasts to the memory of figures like Thomas Paine, Cobbett, ‘and other great men, who laboured for human regeneration, and, lastly, to the memory of Robert Burns’.5

Another celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne the following year was similarly decorated with portraits of Hunt and animated with song. The chairman read a letter written by William Aitkin from prison, in which he noted that although Hunt’s name:

did not shine conspicuously on the silent pages of the history of our country, […] it is engraven in the brightest characters of affection on the hearts and minds of a long suffering and insulted people.6

The article ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’ described the way in which the attendees ‘seemed as much affected’ by gazing at portraits of Hunt and other patriots, ‘as if were in reality gazing upon the last remains of that immortal patriot’. An original song by Mr Heims was sung. As the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor stressed in his speech, however, the purpose of such symbols was not to offer an apolitical aesthetic experience but to provoke the audience to do justice to the aims of those martyrs. O’Connor:

had attended meetings pretending honour to departed heroes and martyrs, where statues of marble and busts of stone were considered fittest emblems to represent the principles of heroes; but when he moved, as an amendment, that the recognition of their principles would be the most imperishable monument of their patriotism, he was met by Whig yells and factious scorn (Hear, hear and cheers.) They were there tonight to perform a more noble work than that of bedaubing the market place with inanimate figures, cold emblems of recollection. They were building a fresh temple in the hearts of youths which he saw about him while they were watering the recollections of veteran patriots, so that the name of Hunt, the immortal champion of liberty might still live green in their memory. (Tremendous cheering.)7

Stimulation of feeling, therefore, is important political work: ‘cold emblems of recollection’ are dead letters when compared to the organic, vital figures ‘watered’ by tears of sympathy and respect.

In references to Peterloo in the Chartist press, there is a correspondence between different forms of Chartist activity — cultural events like dinners and commemorations of Hunt’s birthday, demonstrations and their speeches (as in Curran’s dramatic speech), and public lectures — and this stimulation of feeling. The Chartist Henry Vincent followed Curran’s speech to the crowd assembled on the site of Peterloo with a speech that saw political capital in the feelings provoked by the scene:

We are here not merely to make speeches […] but to declare in the face of England’s Aristocracy, that the remembrance of that bloody deed, will stimulate us to renewed exertions until their unhallowed power is destroyed.8

He ends by referring to the rejuvenating effect of being on the site of Peterloo:

My friends, I feel somewhat fatigued, having spoken every day for the last fortnight; but the remembrance that I am on the plains of Peterloo, inspires me with renewed vigour. Methinks even now the departed spirits of the murdered patriots of Manchester hover over us, (hear hear), bidding us to ‘go forward’ in the great work until you are placed in the position that you ought to attain; until you have made England what she ought to be — a Democracy.

Stimulation of feeling is not only important political work in itself; it also inspires other forms of political work, and both combine in Chartist rhetoric and activity to create a virtuous circle. Mr Tillman’s public lecture in Manchester on ‘the spirit of liberty’ linked not only the spirit of the people in 1819 and that of the Chartists, but the ‘spirit of liberty’ with blood. According to the reporter:

[Tillman] made a few very striking remarks upon Hunt, and the blood that was spilt at Peterloo, and that the spirit which excited the people of that day was yet warm in the breast of many before him; and the blood of the martyrs had been the means of fortifying the principle, and, if possible, had made them more ardent in the cause of liberty.9

A ‘spirit’ that is ‘warm in the breast’ appears to have the desire for liberty as the very life-blood of the people. It also, given the familial relations drawn between the reformers of 1819 and the Chartists, and the fact that the lecture was delivered in Manchester, hints at literal consanguineous relations. Their forefathers’ spilt blood only fortifies the desire for liberty; warm blood is emotive and political power.

When I made the piece for the tapestry, I was surprised that it was an emotional experience for me. Peterloo has been an academic subject of interest to me going back to my undergrad days, when I chose to talk about it in one of those general ‘give a presentation’ projects in my first-year tutorial group, and when one of my peers stated it was not that important because ‘not many people died’. I wish now that I had counted out 15 of us in the room, to point out that when you know the people, you might feel differently about a ‘few’ deaths.

When I was cutting out the letters and sewing them onto the fabric, it was an experience in which the action of making something allowed me to meditate on the event. The strength of the word ‘murder’ was brought home to me while I designed and made the piece. The need for the ‘M’ to be wider than the other letters, sewing on the second ‘R’ of murder — these were practical issues to solve, but not purely so. The experience of creating something made me think for hours about the subject, and in a way I don’t recall experiencing when finding and marshalling the historical evidence, some of which features above. By the end, I felt properly indignant and wondered if the Chartist banner makers had a similar experience.

At the two commemoration meetings, too, I had a strong emotional reaction. When the names of the dead were read out, by Maxine Peake on the Sunday and John Henshaw on the Tuesday,  I felt really properly angry and understood totally why Chartists wanted to honour the dead by making political gains. Here are a few photos of the assemblage of the tapestry, and one of the commemoration on Tuesday when it was displayed.

  1. Brutal and Cowardly Attack on the People by an Infuriated and Drunken Soldiery, Northern Star, 10 September 1842, p. 8.
  2. ‘Liberation of Mr. McDouall from Imprisonment’, Northern Liberator, 29 August 1840, p. 7.
  3. ‘Apprehension of the Rev. J.R. Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 5 January 1840, p. 2; ‘Trail of the Rev. Mr Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 24 August 1839, p. 7, respectively.
  4. ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  5. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne’, Northern Liberator, 16 November 1839, p. 5.
  6. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne. Hunt’s Birth-Day’, Northern Liberator, 14 November 1840, p. 3.
  7. ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’, Northern Star, 10 November 1838, p. 8.
  8. Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  9. Public Lecture by Mr Tillman, Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 8.

Taking stock

It’s a good time to take stock of the potential avenues for further research based on what I have already seen and thought about.

  • Find out more about the history of the woods. Decisions have been made by people in the past about how the land was to be used, what were they? Why was the course of the River Irk altered just after it passes Lever Bridge? The field on the main road that the river looped into hasn’t been built onto, were there plans to? Does it have something to do with flooding? There was a major flood in Middleton in 1927 (two pics below) and then again in 1971. The main road to Middleton along the woods floods when there’s heavy rain and the river bursts its banks.

The photos above show what happened in June this year, when the Irk burst its banks. On the right is the water level in relation to Lever Bridge, a very high increase on normal conditions.

Potential topics: history of the woods; water-way management; uses and dangers of water near residential areas — good for industry, bad for citizens.

  • The relation of Alkrington Hall (the big ‘heawse’, as Lancashire dialect would have it) to the land is obviously important. There’s a picture in Middleton Library’s archive of rye grown on the slope between the hall and Lever Bridge during the second world war. There are also photos that show a lawn and gardens between the front of the hall and a long ornamental pool — that land is now occupied by newer housing. The placement of that pool, and another one nearby, make more sense to me now. After its heyday, the hall was made into bedsits, and more recently into more desirable residences.

Potential topics: social relations between the local gentry and local residents over time; class differences in relationships to the land.

  • Thanks to Katrina Navickas via Twitter, I have some leads for my experiments with drawing in order to understand the woods and local life: Edwin Waugh’s scrapbooks in Manchester Central Library for his work ‘Roads out of Manchester’ (FF 942.73 R 24 Rowbotham collection) and Edwin Butterworth’s sketches. I will look at this work and try to think about what they were doing when they made drawings/paintings. I also discovered these images of Manchester maps via one of Katrina’s tweets, some of them are coloured in interesting ways. Potential topic: different ways of representing spaces in order to understand them.

Here is a sketch — not to scale! — where I just pulled out places close to Alkrington Woods from Katrina’s map of Britain indicating the green places where various political groupings met to hold meetings or drill for demonstrations. I compared the current map with the National Library of Scotland’s OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 map and learned that there was an area called ‘Mountains of Poverty’ near Unsworth Moss, where radicals met on 1 August 1819 to drill before Peterloo!

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  1. Radicals met on a large green at Unsworth Moss to drill on 1 August 1819 before the Peterloo Massacre
  2. Reform meeting attended by radicals at Cronkey Shaw common on 1 March 1817
  3. Radical meeting at Tandle Hill on 5 April 1801
  4. Hampden Club meeting at White Moss on 20 March 1817, after the march of the Blanketeers to London
  5. Weavers’ trade union meeting on Kersal Moor on 25 May 1808. Also popular with the Chartists decades later.
  6. Chartist drilling in a field near Birchen Bower on 24 April 1839
  7. Boggart Hole Clough (PDF), a battleground in 1896 between local people using it for public meetings and the city council who wanted to stop this practice. Several members of the Independent Labour Party were jailed for defying the ban on meetings, and the council eventually backed down.

Wood St, Middleton is the site of the mill that was attacked by Luddites in 1812. The poet Lord Byron, the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale, gave a speech in the House of Lords on the response to the workers’ rebellion:

Are we aware of our obligations to a mob ! It is the mob that labour in your fields, and serve in your houses— that man your navy, and recruit your army—that have enabled you to defy all the world,—and can also defy you, when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair. You may call the people a mob, but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people.

  • The Samuel Bamford connection. I’ve mentioned before that I want to think about his relationship to Middleton’s green spaces. Sources: Bamford’s reminiscences, poetry, and letters.
  • Foraging and botany. I’ve collected some wild garlic from the Kitchen Wood and blackberries from other parts of the woods. It would be interesting to find out if that is a practice with a history in this area. I’m interested in local working-class botanists such as those associated with the Manchester School of Botany: Edward Hobson. I remember seeing some archived plant specimens at the University of Manchester; it would be nice to see them again (Reading: Anne Secord, “Science in the pub: artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire”, History of Science 32 (1994), 269-315).
  • Natural movement as exercise. I first became aware of this way of exercising via Christopher McDougall’s book Natural Born Heroes. It is an idea that keeps being discovered, representing a shift away from having to use gyms and expensive machinery in favour of using the whole body as a unit and an emphasis on the ability to move skilfully. The natural environment is a big part of that, but so is the urban space, as shown by people taking up parkour. Alkrington Woods are clearly used by local people as a space for exercise, and there is a long history of working-class people getting a lot out of rambling in the surrounding area, both for pleasure and political reasons (e.g., the mass trespass of Kinder Scout).

What I’m finding interesting is that to focus on a single space can take you in many different research directions in terms of subject, and can also lend itself to different modes of representation —writing, drawing, mapping.

Drawing the Human

I know what I meant now in a previous post about needing ‘a human perspective’ on the land and the changes that have occurred in it. As I expected, John Berger has a lot to offer me on why I’m drawing and what I experience when I do it. The book John Berger: Selected Essays (Bloomsbury, 2001) includes the piece ‘Drawing’ from the volume Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960). If anyone has never drawn and wonders what the experience is like, they could do worse than to read the short essay. Berger defines what drawing means to him, as distinct from painting, and takes the reader through his thought process as he sketches a human figure, noting the interplay between the acts of observing and creating the 2D image, between marks made on the paper, subsequent decisions made about the direction of the drawing as it unfolds, and further marks. Above all, this is a process of discovery for the artist, one that takes him beyond the individual and immediate artwork to the fullness of human creativity as such.

As Berger notes, it is a ‘platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking’ (p. 10). This platitude is also true, any artist knows this from experience, but it is not the whole story. What we must consider is how and why we observe so intensely.

Thinking about the ‘how’ makes you realise that the drawing is both an object and a process. It is an artefact (in the noun form, ‘the drawing’) but specifically a man-made artefact that records the process of its creation (it is a noun that points to, at least in English, the verb ‘drawing’). Berger describes this process as having two movements: taking the artist both into the object and over it.

Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you. (p. 10)

The drawing is not really a record of the thing as it is; it is a representation of the artist’s experience, one that developed in the period between the first mark put on the paper and the last. It is the material form of a learning process occurring within the artist, its materiality helping the artist to reflect on what they have learned. Without this process of observation and recording, the learning would not have happened, or at least would have been poorer in quality.

Could a machine produce a drawing? Only, I think Berger would argue, if it was capable of learning like a human being. The decisions could not be given in advance. Like a human, the machine would have to make a mark, consider the shape that is developing, confirm or reject ideas before making other marks, and so on. There could be nothing inevitable about the process; failure would have to be possible. More importantly, so would understanding. The successful drawing is not so because it is ‘accurate’, but because the artist has learned something by making it.

I used an online programme to turn one of the photos in the previous post into a sketch.

This is more ‘accurate’ than I would typically aim for, but it is not a drawing according to Berger’s definition, unless the programme in some way learned during the process. Interestingly, the capacity of Artificial Intelligence to make art has long been an area of study and experimentation.

Berger distinguishes between the drawing and the painting, which is not a ‘working drawing’ but a ‘”finished” work’ (p. 11).

A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs; a ‘finished’ statue or canvas is essentially a public, presented work — related far more directly to the demands of communication.

It follows from this that there is an equal distinction from the point of view of the spectator. In front of a painting or statue he tends to identify himself with the subject, to interpret the images for their own sake; in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist, using the images to gain the conscious experience of seeing as though through the artist’s own eyes. (p. 11)

A good example of this for me is the difference between Raphael’s sketches of the apostles for his painting the Transfiguration and the version of them in the painting itself (in the middle).

In the sketch, we can see Raphael discovering how the expressions of the apostles looking with compassion at the sufferings of a possessed man — who had been brought to Christ for healing — combine with the quality of the light, which casts a fair proportion of their faces into shade. This play of light has meaning, I think. The top part of the painting depicts Christ risen from the dead, the light coming from him blinding the apostles who lie beneath him; ‘And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ (Matthew 17). Those same apostles in the bottom half see the afflicted man, try to direct his attention to the vision above, but, as the gospel says, they failed to help him to salvation. When they asked Christ why, he replied it was their lack of faith. They are partly illuminated by the light, but not totally.

But since total immersion in the light blinds them in the transfiguration part of the painting, how could they see the suffering before them unless there was some shade? For me, the sketch is by far the more moving of the two versions. The pathos in the expression of the apostle on the left is unforgettable; I write this as a non-believer in the divinity of Christ for whom the potentially more secular mode of the painting’s lower part is more powerful. I feel that this emotional power and the radical ambiguity introduced by doubt are more evident in the drawing than in the painting.

What happens when we are encouraged to identify with the artist? Following Berger’s distinction between the private drawing and the public painting is the description of his thought processes in drawing a male figure. It is no coincidence that the object drawn and described is a human — for Berger does not anatomize the figure dispassionately, though he has to observe it very carefully in order to draw his subject. This is not a process of objectification, where the object of the drawing is viewed as being less than human. Berger’s experience is one of sympathetic identification with the powers he discerns in his subject; the quotations below are not continuous but pulled from different parts of this section of the essay.

Arbitrary lateral lines taken across his body ran from curves to sharp points — as streams flow from hills to sharp, compressed gulleys in the cliff-face. But of course it was not as simple as that. On his near, relaxed side his fist was clenched and the hardness of his knuckles recalled the hard line of his ribs on the other side — like a cairn on the hills recalling the cliffs. I now began to see the  white surface of the paper, on which I was going to draw, in a different way. (pp. 11–12)

Yet, when I made a mark, somewhere beneath the near ribs, the nature of the page changed again. (p. 12)

As I looked at the model I marvelled at the simple fact that he was solid, that he occupied space, that he was more than the sum total of ten thousand visions of him from ten thousand different viewpoints. (p. 12)

My task now was to coordinate and measure: not to measure by inches as one might measure an ounce of sultanas by counting them, but to measure by rhythm, mass and displacement […] to feel the pressure of my lines and scribbles towards the utmost surface of the paper, as a sailor feels the slackness or tautness of his sail in order to tack close or far from the surface of the wind. (pp. 12–13)

It was no longer a question of just realizing the main vertical stance. I had become involved more intimately with the figure. (p. 13)

I saw that the line down the centre of the torso, from the pit of the neck, between the nipples, over the navel and between the legs, was like the keel of a boat, that the ribs formed a hull and that the near, relaxed leg dragged on its forward movement like a trailing oar. I saw that the arms hanging either side were like the shafts of a cart, and that the outside curve of the weight-bearing thigh was like the iron rim of a figure on a crucifix. Yet such images, although I have chosen them carefully, distort what I am trying to describe. I saw and recognized quite ordinary anatomical facts; but I also felt them physically — as if, in a sense, my nervous system inhabited his body. (p. 13)

Within that last description we find the creative powers that have shaped human history: mankind has built vehicles to travel the earth and also metaphysical religious systems. Marx described religion as ‘the opium of the people’ but also as, in the less often reported part of that formulation, the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). If man was created not by God in his image but during the long process of evolution, then we have literally had a hand in our own creation. Our ancestors made decisions that shaped our bodies in particular ways: to eat the fatty animal tissues and viscera that enabled the brain to expand and the gut to shrink. How could we have culture and politics if we were compelled to spend most of our waking hours chewing vegetation? If you accept the ‘running-man theory of evolution’, then our movement over land shaped our form, evolving the physiological features that would make it easier for us to run long distances.

We have also degraded the body, with poor nutrition leading to the diminishing height of working-class men, which was a problem for states when recruiting soldiers, and working conditions that twisted the human frame out of its shape into one that suited the requirements of the machinery then in vogue. From Capital, vol. 1 (Penguin, 1990):

Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working-class movement, the
limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of
English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its
roots. Periodical epidemics speak as clearly on this point as the diminishing military standard of height in France and Germany. (p. 348)

Dr J. T. Arledge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary, says:
“The potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived” (p. 355)

Of course, ‘we’ are not collectively responsible for such harm done to humans; it results from class rule and the decisions made by some to exploit others. Some positive developments, such as shortening the length of the working day as described above, aim at stabilizing or furthering the needs of the capitalist class as a whole. While worth having, we have no need to feel grateful to oppressors for such measures and we might do rather better.

To identify with the artist as the drawer, rather than the painting as an object, is to acknowledge the creative power that is ours by birthright, and through which we can shape the world and human life according to positive or negative designs. When Berger drew the man, the line centring the figure was like the keel of a boat, and the artist was like a sailor responding to conditions. In drawing the human, Berger confronts and engages with the creative powers he possesses.

On the Drawings as a Means of Representing Multiple Views

In my last post, I trialled the use of drawings to depict multiple historical views of the same scene. Here, I will note what I think was successful and where the method presents problems.

This was the first drawing I did, of a curve in the path beside the river and a slope to the right. In black ink is the late 1970s view, in which the slope is covered with lots of long grass and there is a largeish tree just behind it. There are also trees to the left and the line of sight to Middleton is clear enough that a few buildings can be seen.


The green ink shows what the scene looks like now, with large trees near the curve having blocked the light so that the path is now in shadow instead of in sunlight, which allowed grass to grow there in the past. The slope is no longer covered in long grass but is bare in the patches between the young trees that have taken over this area. Nor is the view to Middleton clear, being obscured by the large trees.

I enjoyed doing the black ink part, but hit problems with the green. The large amount of shade was a key change but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without flooding most of the page with green ink. Superimposing one view over another meant that my negative space, the areas around the marks on the page, had disappeared. I could not draw in green and expect the areas in white around the green ink to make sense of the shapes I drew, because the page was already covered in black marks. Here is the image with just the black, in which the composition of the 1970s view is much clearer because of this negative space.


Perhaps the green is too weak in comparison to the weight of the black, but I think the problems go beyond that and are really about composition. It might be better to pick out only the key features and have a much more stylized drawing, one that is less attached to the naturalism of the scene. In order to think about the white spaces that both views need, I might have to do several versions so that I can see where problems arise and leave room for what I need in the second drawing. A true superimposition might not be possible in a way that makes sense to the eye.

Another problem is the fact that the second drawing records the additions but does not remove things that used to be there but which no longer are. In this drawing, the example is the grass in black in the foreground. While this composite represents the multiple images I now have in my head, knowing both past and present views of the scene, this drawing (at least) does not convey the bareness of the path now, only the presence of the grass that used to be there. Another medium might solve this problem. Or there might be some techie solution, with one drawing fading out as the other comes to the fore, and the reversal of this movement? There must be some way to convey this sense with drawing, however.

For the second, I tried a different approach: copying in black ink a section from the OS Six Inch, 1888-1913 from the National Library of Scotland Map Images resource, then using watercolour to indicate the changes I wanted to highlight – the alteration of the river’s course and the growth of trees and shrubs, especially just behind the houses.


Watercolour is not my preferred medium, but its translucent properties might be an asset in solving the problem noted above — the difficulty of overlapping shapes from different periods and keeping them both visible. The map on the National Library of Scotland site was great because I could fade in and out between the old map and a photo of the current scene, making it possible to see exactly where the river’s course had changed and where new trees were.

Screenshot from 2016-07-28 18_56_58

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

I enjoyed sketching using the late-19th century map as a model; it has a charm in the quality of its lines. If I wanted to try this again then I’d have to get some waterproof black ink, as mine bled when paint went over it.

For the third drawing, I returned to a view from the ground, combining black ink representing the old view and coloured pencil crayons for the new vegetation. This is better than the black and green ink, I think. Similar but closer to what I wanted. The black is really weaker than it should be because I washed the green out of my fountain pen nib and the water diluted the black ink. I also used another pen with a thicker nib for a bit more depth in places.



Past and Present

As a way of understanding the changes to the landscape of the woods, I’ve found the old photos archived in Middleton Library very useful. Comparing views of the land in photos from the 1950s and ’70s allows me to answer questions I had regarding how old certain wooded areas were. For example, the area in the picture below seemed old to me when I walked though it. Bearing in mind that I know next to nothing about dating trees and areas like this based on the growth and characteristics of the flora, my ideas were conditioned totally by a subjective feeling of walking through a shady, prickly patch populated by bent over, thorny trees and shrubs.

It turns out that this patch of ground — in the middle, where the wet patch is between the trees and the houses — was completely clear before the 1960s.


This is what I meant in the initial post by the ‘romantic nonsense’ my head is stuffed with, and which this research is stripping away. I’d rather have knowledge about how the land has changed over time than a fantasy based on uninformed ideas about the natural world.

Another thing I didn’t know was that the River Irk’s course was changed at some point after this photo was taken in the late 1950s. See the small boy running across the field in the foreground!

I took my own photo from approximately the same vantage point, just in front of Alkrington Hall.

2016-07-27 13.11.40

The following photos, from the late 1970s on the left and now on the right, show how the appearance of trees has totally changed the aspect when walking from the lodges and along the river towards the town centre.

These ones taken from the field along the main road show how major buildings in Middleton are now obscured from view. Fencing post have also been taken down and paths are less obvious.

I feel disorientated by these pictures from only a few decades ago, because they present the land to me in a way that I do not experience now. When finding the spots from which the old photos were taken, I have to orient myself according to buildings that are still there — like Warwick Mill — but which are no longer visible from that vantage point due to the growth of trees.

I find it difficult to represent these changes using pictures or to describe them using words. Both seem to fall short of the actual experience of walking that path to the town centre: not only today, which I did as I walked from home to the library and back again, but also the knowledge I have of the terrain in my head, built up over some 18 months of walking. (Something I like about this patch of land is the variety: of terrain, altitude, paths that intersect. It gives a sense of infinite variety, that you could take any number of routes through the land based on whim and, as is often the case for me, the need to escape aggressive dogs. This creates a very flexible  sense of the land, as I’ve approached areas from multiple directions and know where things are in relation to each other.)

I need a human perspective based on the knowledge I have and the imagination I am compelled to use in juggling the terrain as it is now with what the photographic record tells me it used to be. Therefore, I’m trialling drawing as a way of showing multiple images that now coexist in my head. Stylistically, they are both sort of ‘mappy’ sketches, pointing out changes to perspectives and shapes in the landscape (as in the river boundary change), but also hopefully skilful enough to work as drawings in which, say, trees can be identified as such.

I don’t think these drawings are totally successful; I’ll explain why and why I made certain decisions in my next post. The method has potential, though.

Reflections on my current research methods

It strikes me that what I’m trying to do here is very different to what I’d do if I was trying to write a cultural history of this land as an academic for an academic audience. I definitely am not suggesting that academics would not do similar things as a way of understanding what they were trying to do, or that they wouldn’t experiment with ways of presenting their ideas. I have been influenced in starting this project by Katrina Navickas’s work on ‘protest and the politics of space and place‘ in her website of the same name, which also takes the form of an academic monograph. This post represents the routes protesters took into the centre of Manchester on the day of the Peterloo Massacre, and maps the residences of victims. As we learned at this year’s Chartism day conference, she is currently creating films in which protest marches through the centre are shown with digitized images of buildings and crowds. It was well received by the audience and the atmosphere was energized (in the final panel, as well) by a novel way of representing things we thought we already knew. The innovation stimulated others to think about the subject and was therefore very helpful in promoting the healthiness of the field as a whole. I will be looking more closely at her use of digital techniques to see what tools are available to me.

So, these things are definitely done, I just can’t imagine doing them myself as an early-career academic, concerned to build up a roster of research ‘outputs’ in ‘esteemed journals’ in time for the next REF cycle (apologies to readers who don’t know what this means, but I won’t explain this; I’d rather not know myself). I would be too worried about ‘wasting time’ on experiments and potentially non-productive labour, even though I think such an approach might be the only way (for me, at least) to keep sane and to keep the intellectual and creative spirits alive in a system that I experienced as destructive and couldn’t accept.

As it is, I have complete freedom in this forum to represent my ideas in any medium that feels appropriate. In that way, I feel like I have returned to a more well-rounded version of myself, before academic specialization encouraged me to develop one aspect of my personality and abilities, and I inevitably left others behind in that time-consuming project. Now it feels like it’s time to return to activities I’ve left behind and explore them.

Drawing, as above, is one such activity. I don’t do it now with the ease and confidence that I had as a kid, but that might return if I keep it up. If I use both written and visual media, it will be hard if not impossible to assert a distinction between intellectual and visual-art forms of creativity. Such a division feels false to me.

Another important part of this research is walking, both through the woods for pleasure and through them on the way to Middleton Library to access the archive materials. As in my previous post on this subject, I used a sports app to track my route, which can be viewed here. (The return leg is choppier as I stopped to take photos for this post and, at one point, scramble up a slope to escape a threatening dog.) Walking is a crucial part of this research, as I take certain routes to collect photographic evidence, and take those routes repeatedly, as I have to compare impressionistic memories with the exact contours of the landscape that photos in the archive tell me either were there (before land management) or that are still there but which are now obscured by the recent growth of trees. As I walked to the library, I anticipated the batch of photos that I intended to look at today and kept an eye out for features I’d have to think more carefully about. On the return leg, I planned the structure of this post and confirmed or rejected suspicions about potential changes to the landscape that the latest research had suggested.

This approach need not take me away from theoretical considerations, either. In thinking about walking I was reminded of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, and how central walking has been to the work flows and health of writers and thinkers. I also suspect that returning to the writings of John Berger might help me to understand what I’m trying to do with using drawing as a way of representing my ideas. Drawing forces you to really observe the object of study, and would therefore teach me a lot about the things I focus on.

In short, I think that this project and the approach I’m taking has potential, and could lead me in many different directions, which is exciting.

Shelley and Political Cultures: Introduction

I started my Ph.D. in the autumn of 2010 as a collaborative project between the University of Salford and the Working Class Movement Library, also in Salford. It was funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council (public money) so I think the research should be in the public domain and in a format other than a thesis — not the loveliest of forms.

The brief was to address the relationship between the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and the political/social movements Owenite socialism and Chartism in the nineteenth century — specifically, in their newspapers and journals. I began work a few months after the Coalition government came into office and just at the point when protests against the government’s policies were gathering pace, notably with the student protests against the proposed rise in tuition fees. As someone who, at that point, wanted to work as a lecturer, it was obvious to me that this was part of a wholesale attack on the higher-education sector and would make employment prospects (and working conditions) that much worse for scholars of my generation.

I also noticed an immediate parallel between the groups I was studying and contemporary culture in their uses of Shelley. His poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ appeared in numerous newspaper articles about the wave of popular protest in the autumn and winter of 2010. Tariq Ali asked ‘Why Can’t We Protest against Cuts like the French?’ in an article for the Guardian on recent protests in France against the raising of the state pension age. It ended with a plea for ‘the convocation of regional and national assemblies with a social charter that can be fought for and defended just as Shelley advised just under two centuries ago’. Ali concluded his article with the most famous stanza from Shelley’s poem:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few. (372–76)

John Pilger’s article for the New Statesman, ‘The Party Game is Over. Stand and Fight’, took the stanza for its epigraph. He argued that social democracy had failed and that Shelley’s lines resonated with people in 2010 because ‘only one political course is left to those who are disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a government spreadsheet’. His closing instruction was to engage in ‘Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring. Read Shelley and do it’. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, incorporated Shelley’s lines into his own prose in an article for the Guardian on the British government’s plans to cut public services. He argued that ‘If we want a future with fair pay, decent jobs, security in retirement and a welfare state, now is the moment for trade union members and everyone to shake off their chains and rise like lions’.

These writers mobilised Shelley’s lines in support of specific political agendas. They presented Shelley as having prescribed a particular course of action (Shelley had ‘advised’ the convocation of assemblies, as in Ali’s article), and his poetry as able to prepare people for action (as in Pilger’s). Ali and Pilger invoked Shelley explicitly, quoting his lines as an epigraph indicating the thrust of the argument to follow (Pilger) or as a stirring conclusion to one (Ali). Serwotka’s reference, on the other hand, was implicit and intimate in folding Shelley’s lines into his own rhetoric, identifying Shelley’s ‘lions’ with ‘trade union members and everyone’ who were to ‘shake off their chains’. Serwotka perhaps assumed that he would not need to tell his readers who had created this image, or that it didn’t matter since the phrase ‘rise like lions’ belonged to the Left’s lexicon.

It was no accident that Shelley was the poet of choice for activists in the first year of the Coalition government. Ali, Pilger, and Serwotka were participating in a radical tradition of Shelley appearing in print that the nineteenth-century social and political movements Owenite socialism and Chartism established and consolidated. It is not now, as it was in that period, a common journalistic practice to give poetry a prominent place in newspapers. The aim of this research is to trace the use of Shelley in these movements as they developed over time and under the pressure of historical events. Just as the context of usage in 2010 would make such use intelligible for future readers it also matters for comparable use in the print cultures of Owenism and Chartism.

Shelley’s poetry contributed to the movements’ literary cultures, appearing in the poetry columns of key publications like the Owenite New Moral World and the Chartist Northern Star. I argue that if we are to think about the extent of Shelley’s influence on the movements in general, it is also necessary to excavate the practice of Shelley’s lines appearing in political editorials, in speeches at meetings, and in readers’ contributions, which are not immediately recognised as being literary. I think about their uses of Shelley in terms of their respective ‘structures of feeling’ in Raymond Williams’s sense: as ‘social experience’ that developed over time and in an oppositional relation to other contemporary structures of feeling.1

I distinguish further between Owenite and Chartist uses of Shelley in terms of the distinct characteristics of their own structures of feeling, arguing that there was a clear difference in the ‘Shelleys’ that they presented and in the uses they found for his poetry. While it is true that there was a degree of fluidity between the movements, that people could be both committed to the Charter while holding Owenite social views, I argue that the parameters set by the movements’ print cultures make this distinction visible. For example, the rising lion as described above was prominent in Chartist newspapers but did not make an appearance in the Owenite New Moral World. I attribute this to differences in opinion between Robert Owen, who was committed to non-violent social change, and a much more flexible position within Chartism, in which use of threatening language was a cornerstone of the movement’s political strategy. This was true even for those Chartists who would hesitate to argue for offensive political violence, despite the conventional division of the movement into ‘advocates’ of ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ force. I argue that these differences were produced dialectically at critical points, when the Owenite ‘Shelley’ was so defined (at least in part) because it was not the Chartist ‘Shelley’.

Newspapers and periodicals, then, are not only key sources for evidence of specific usage but must also be theorised as actively shaping the respective ‘Shelleys’ produced by Owenites and Chartists. I also argue that newspapers and periodicals were instrumental in the dissemination of Shelley’s poetry within these circles, and that their relative habits of quoting certain poems from Shelley’s oeuvre but not others, and certain sections from poems but not others, contributed to the production of their ‘Shelleys’.

Subsequent blog posts will address what I think are key issues for understanding the relationship between Shelley and the cultures of the two movements: What exactly do we mean when we say that Shelley was ‘popular in’ or had ‘influenced’ the movements? Was this a passive or an active stance on the part of Chartist and Owenite readers? How did the Owenite and Chartist ‘Shelleys’ differ? Why were they different? How and why did these versions of Shelley develop over time?

What strikes me now, in 2016, is how the current political struggles in Britain are both rooted in the 2010 context described above but also look radically different. In 2010, with thousands on the streets to protest against the rise in tuition fees, many agreed with Pilger that ‘the party game was over’ and direct action was the only way to fight. People had little faith in New Labour, knowing that it had introduced tuition fees in the first place. At the time of writing (13/07/16), Jeremy Corbyn has just succeeded in being ‘allowed’ onto the ballot paper for a new leadership election after a tactically well-planned but strategically catastrophic coup attempt by the right-wing of the Labour Party. During the coup, the party membership doubled in a week. Many of those new members will be people who took part in struggles like the one over tuition fees or who belonged to organizations like UK Uncut.

It looks very like the ‘party game’ is back on the agenda, but not as a replacement for the protests, local organization, direct action, and trade-union activism that Ali, Pilger, and Serwotka advocated in 2010. The current mood seems to me to be one of determination to first uphold the principle of democracy in the party — since it is severely threatened in practice — and then to revitalize it. This will require, as noted today by Paul Mason: ‘Engagement with long-dead party structures; mobilisation; organisation; self-discipline’. This will be a long term-project and we will need resources to sustain our resolve.

In the past, Shelley was a touchstone in this respect: quoted to celebrate strength and also to bolster threatened hopes when necessary. Can he be similarly present today? I think so. Although Shelley was not central to the free e-book Poets for Corbyn, the organizer of the volume introduced the volume in a Guardian article by citing ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ as ‘arguably the greatest political poem of all time’. A brief search for ‘ye are many’ on Twitter gave me the quote at the top of this page and this exchange:

shelley corb

Now, as then, Shelley is thought to be relevant to politics and I look forward to seeing what happens next.


1 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 128–35 (p. 132).

A Brief Survey of the Woods

While in Touchstones – Rochdale’s Art and Heritage Centre – I found a Master’s thesis by Peter Hill called The Ecology and History of Rochdale’s Woodlands (1988). It has a section on Alkrington Woods, with an analysis of its terrain and lists of flora and fauna. A great find!

Here is the map he provides (p. 280), with letters to indicate the areas he describes:

Hill's map

The section on the woods contains a lot of interesting detail, such as evidence of ‘major sand extraction to the west of the site during the 1970s’ (p. 281), which I don’t know anything about. Old maps show lots of sand pits in this area.

sand pits

OS Six Inch, 1888-1913.Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Of immediate interest for me is what we can learn about the woods’ more distant past, about 200 years ago, and the most relevant areas for this are the Kitchen Wood and the area labelled C by Hill.

The name Kitchen Wood suggests some domestic relation to a nearby house or houses: perhaps Alkrington Hall at the top of the hill? The hall was built in 1736, according to Hill, ‘on the site of a previous one bought by the Lever family in 1630’ (p. 285).

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The Kitchen Wood is to the left of the hall and area C is to the right.

The Kitchen Wood is on a slope, and Hill refers in his ‘historical findings’ section to ‘planted trees about 200 years old were recorded’ as being at the base of the slope (p. 285). He also found ‘a half-brick and a broken roof-tile […] as a hint of past soil disturbance and alternative land use in this area’ (p. 281).

I found slightly more substantial ruins:

On the other side of the hall is the ‘bird sanctuary’, which is adjacent to section C on Hill’s map. Hill thinks that:

If the Alkrington area has any woodland fragments more than 200 years old, then area C is the most likely to come into this category. The existence of a framework of sessile oak trees and some very old stumps suggest that the planting of beech about 200 years ago may well have been into existing oak woodland. (p. 284)

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The bird sanctuary and much of area C obviously saw extensive planting between, say 1750 and 1850, improving the amenity of the ‘new’ hall. There is no evidence for ancient woodland status but I think it is quite likely that some of the earlier planting was into or onto an existing woodland site. (pp. 285-86)

He identifies:

fine, straight-trunked beeches and sessile oaks of considerable age. A sessile oak with a girth of 111″ [2.82m] must be a contender for the oldest living oak in the area, whilst a beech is 156″ [3.96m] in girth, although it divides into three trunks a metre of so from the ground, which inflates the measurement somewhat. (p. 283)

I think that the tree on the left might be the oak and the one on the right is the beech:


I measured the oak to be 3.95m and the beech as 4.8m – Can it be possible that they both grew about 1m in girth over nearly 40 years? According to, the Sessile Oak grows more quickly than the English Oak.

I will measure them again after consulting the field-work section of the thesis. It was a bit of a struggle to hold the tape myself and I don’t know whether measuring about 1m from the ground is an acceptable methodology, probably it’s at chest height or something.

Hill notes the presence of stumps that haven’t sprouted as evidence that ‘the area was grazed about eighty years ago’ (p. 283), which would be around 1900. I’m not sure which stumps are the ones he saw and which are more recent additions; the land is managed, as you can see below:

The stump on the left (beech?) had a girth of 3.05m.

In the centre of area C and on the eastern side of the main path, beech gives way to birch in accompanying oak. There are many multi-trunk birches which appear to have arisen from earlier fellings. (p. 284)

This is characteristic of this area:

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Pretty much the whole of C occupies the most elevated part of the woods and there are several trails in this part: you can skirt round it or take a path that takes you a bit more into the centre. But not by far, as you can see below:

routes through c

I used an app called Sports Tracker to record my route, which was up the hill to the edge of C (where the large, 3-trunked tree is), round the outskirts of C and back to the 3-trunked tree, shortly after which I took the fork that led me closer to the centre of this area, before I rejoined the path along the top and then descended to the path along Boardman Brook. If you click on this link and drag the cursor along the graphs (after selecting ‘show’ graphs), the whole route can be replayed – easier than describing!

The 3-trunked tree is at 0.27 miles and the oak is about 1 mile into the route. The slightly more inward path through C is at about 1.25 miles.

Also from Hill’s thesis:

Parts of area C have some very pronounced ridges and ditches which appear to be quite old. They may be an important factor in the early history of the wood, but no reference to them has been found in the literature. (p. 285)

Here are some probable examples:

It’s interesting to consider what Hill might have meant by ‘literature’ and what other sources we might think of as legitimate literature recording the history of the woods. In other words, are there any local accounts in Ben Brierly’s stories or Bamford’s recollections? I’ll recheck the thesis to see what his sources were and have a think about other possible ones.

A Cultural History of Alkrington Woods: A Proposal

One of the projects that I want to record with this blog is a kind of cultural history of Alkrington Woods, in Middleton, Manchester. I’ve been aware of it all my life, having grown up in Rhodes, though I only started going into the woods last year on a regular basis. We had a terminal illness and death in my family over the winter of 2014/15 which was difficult to deal with. Beginning to walk regularly in the woods after this period ended with my Mum somehow lessened, for both of us I think, some of the pressure we felt. Perhaps it was the exercise or just being out of the house that helped, but we also took pleasure from seeing the land blossom as spring advanced, becoming more lush and a home for new animals; besides being a space for leisure, the woods are also a nature reserve.

Middleton was also the birthplace of Sam Bamford, one of the more famous local participants in the protest meeting in Manchester of 16 August 1819, which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. In his book Walks in South Lancashire, we find a passage describing a curiously mixed landscape:

From the top of one of the moor-edges, Old Birkle, for instance, on a clear day, with the wind from the south west, we may perceive that the spaces betwixt the large towns of Bury, Bolton, Manchester, Stockport, Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Middleton, and Heywood, are dotted with villages, and groups of dwellings, and white detached houses, and manufactories, presenting an appearance somewhat like that of a vast city scattered amongst meads and pastures, and belts of woodland; over which, at times, volumes of black furnace clouds go trailing their long wreaths on the wind.

The ‘vast city’ is not collected in a mass but ‘scattered’ and intermingled with more rural patches that we know meant something to Bamford as he wrote plenty of poetry celebrating the natural world. The land that I’m interested in comprises not only the woods but the River Irk, which runs through the woods from the direction of Royton, Oldham and carries on to the city centre of Manchester, where it joins with the River Irwell near Victoria Station. Another waterway, Broadman Brook, joins the Irk in the woods. Since industry used the river in the nineteenth century, altering its course in the process, the remnants of that industry – rusted pipes and sluice gates – are also visible.

Below is a map of the area from the National Library of Scotland Map Images resource: OS Six Inch, 1888-1913.

First AW mapReproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The area shaded and labelled Alkrington Park has since been built over with housing. The blocks labelled ‘reservoirs’ were used by industry such as the bleach works across the road. I’ve shaded in blue the ones that remain. (The National Library of Scotland Map Images allows you to overlay a modern map so you can easily see the changes over time, but I can’t show the image without infringing Bing’s copyright.) The ‘lodges’, as we call them now, are now used for fishing and are home to several types of waterfowl. They do show the scars of industry, however, such as this rusted sluice between two lodges, which is marked by a red dot in the map above.

2016-07-06 13.03.13

Over time, I began to accrue what are no doubt overly romantic notions about Bamford walking on the same ground that was becoming more meaningful to me, and decided to find out more about its history. So the task as I see it is to learn more about the land’s history, which takes in natural history, in terms of the plants and animals the woods and lodges support; its industrial history, as the place was shaped by this activity; and the cultural history of how people have used and responded to the place over the years. One of the reasons that I found academia a bit chafing is that I’m not a specialist by nature, and love the learning curve of negotiating a new body of knowledge. So this is perfect for me!