THE CHARTIST POETRY OF ELIZA COOK: A STUDY

By Debapratim Chakrabarty

Abstract
As a poet from the working class, Eliza Cook was acutely aware of the marginalization of the lower classes, and her avowed mission was the ‘levelling up’ of her fellow working class men and women through her writings. Not only did her poetic creed coincide with the ideology of the literature of the Chartists, but she was also an active sympathiser of the movement. However, Chartism’s self-definition as a ‘brotherhood’ of revolutionaries largely led to the subsequent obliteration of the women’s voices in the movement. This essay aims at reading some of Eliza Cook’s poems in order to show her deep engagement with the ideologies of the movement as well as its poetic credo, and thereby tries to recuperate a woman’s voice in the exclusively male domain of Chartist literature.


 

Hailed by her contemporaries as the ‘new Burns’, Eliza Cook (1817-1889) was, in her lifetime, the most prominent woman poet from the working class of England. Though she was never employed as a farmhand or factory worker she belonged to a working class family, her father being a tin-man and brazier.

She was self-educated and self-directed, making a virtue of this, presenting herself as a poet for the people whose credentials were an innocent wisdom and an honest sentiment.[1]

 

A radical and Owenite socialist in thought, she committed herself to the mission of ‘leveling up’ her fellow working men and women— a mission that pervaded her thoughts and writings. In her Journal she declares her optimism about the glorious future that awaits the working class—

The leveling of this day is all of the leveling-up character… The number of self-risen men, sprung up from the ranks, is increasing and must increase. They are growing up to the highest standards. And the mass too is advancing with education and knowledge, and they too must gradually become leveled up.[2]

 

Many of Cook’s poems were dedicated to this political project of leveling up, which allies her with the Chartist poets of the 1840s. She was an active sympathizer of the movement and composed the poem ‘A Song: To “The People” of England’ to celebrate the Chartist petition of 1848. Some of Cook’s poems, originally published in the Weekly Dispatch, were later reprinted in Chartist gazettes like the Northern Star.[3] Sadly, however, her affiliations to the Chartist movement have been largely overlooked and her works are absent from the major anthologies of Chartist poetry. As Jutta Schwarzkopf has argued—‘Chartism’s ideal of ‘brotherhood’ largely marginalized the sisters in the movement[4]. Perhaps this also led to the marginalization and subsequent obliteration of this sister’s voice in the chorus of the Chartist brethren. The aim of this paper is to review some of Cook’s poems to discover resonances with the poetry generally associated with the movement and reinstate Cook as a strident advocate for the movement.

 

As scholars have argued, poetry was central to the Chartist campaigning. According to the Chartists, poetry had a power to uplift and unify because of its accessibility to people from all walks of life— ‘It penetrates to every nerve and fibre of society, stirring into irresistibility its undermost currents, and spiriting into life and activity the obscurest dweller of the valley.’[5] In his Anthology of Chartist Poetry, Peter Scheckner describes Chartist poetry thus—

Chartist poetry was primarily written by industrial and artisan workers— the great majority of whom were self-educated and printed in Chartist magazines, journals and newspapers. These works were read as literature, as agitation and propaganda for Chartist cause, and as a form of poetic handbill… Chartist poetry represented an alternative,    working class culture that articulated and extolled almost everything bourgeois writers stood against— radical social changes, internationalism, an end to national chauvinism and colonial rule, church reform, anti-racism, egalitarianism and democracy, the right to rank and file organizing, freedom of press, universal education and a more equitable distribution of profits.[6]

 

Chartist poetry is a self-conscious poetry which reflects its poets’ awareness of readership and purposes of their poetry so that their works simultaneously address two audiences, the enemies of the people and the people themselves, where it functions to confirm, uplift and emphasize both commonality and common purpose. Chartist poetry was written using the structural framework of ballads, hymns and songs which served two purposes— of making these forms familiar to the masses and underlining the communal nature of the poetry’s thematic content at the same time. The most dominant themes of chartist poetry were those of international brotherhood – extending among all classes, nations and races— and of the physical and spiritual destructiveness of industrial labour. The importance of education and the centrality of land were emphasized and nature was represented as an antidote to the corruptions of city life as well as a trope for the community.[7] Thus Chartist poetry was poetry for the working classes, written chiefly by working class poets in easily accessible language, using popular forms and dedicated to the elevation of labouring life. Cook’s poems repay scrutiny in many of the above grounds.

 

Besides her social and educational backgrounds, Cook shared other similarities with Chartist poets – like the use of simple language and predictable rhyming patterns. Her politics can be discerned from her concern to make her works accessible to the poor. In the 1869 preface to a new edition of her collected poems she noted that the volume was priced within the means of those who could not afford the previous edition. She also claimed that she would be ‘amply rewarded, and wish for no more gilded laurel’ if she could still retain the ‘sympathy and support of ‘the People’’.[8]

 

‘The People’, for Cook, stood for the community of industrial and agricultural labourers, as it did for the other Chartist poets. Cook’s identification with the people and popular culture pervades her poetry. In ‘The Street’ she describes her love for the urban working class culture exemplified by peddlers selling sculptures, organ-boys, blind fiddlers and the flower-girl. She writes—

 

Who scorns the ‘common’ sculpture art that poor men’s pence can buy,

That silently invokes our soul to lift itself on high?

Who shall revile the ‘common’ tunes that haunt us as we go?

Who shall despise the ‘common’ bloom that scents the market row?

Oh! Let us bless the ‘Beautiful’ that ever lives and greets,

And cheers us in the music and flowers of the ‘Streets’.[9]

 

Cook’s reverence for working class culture can be gauged from her use of the hymn meter in describing the street scene, as pointed out by Solveig C. Robinson.[10] The frequent use of the word ‘common’ within quotation marks and the similar use of the word ‘beautiful’ lifts the word from its negative connotations and emphasizes its positive senses of unity and commonality. For Cook the ‘common’ is the ‘beautiful’. Similar sentiments can be found in her nostalgic reminiscence of the call of the street-criers of her childhood in the poem ‘Old Cries’. These poems about the communal memories of her childhood serve to emphasize her own working class roots that empower her to lead ‘the People’ in the mission of leveling up.

 

A major strategy of Chartist poetry for encouraging the masses was to assert their importance in creating wealth for society and hence their right to an equitable distribution of it. This gave birth to a sort of stereotype that Ulrich Schwab calls the ‘noble workingman’[11]— a person who labours honestly to create the nation’s wealth. This figure is the direct descendant of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and marks Chartist poetry’s descent from the radical poetry of the Romantics like Shelley, Byron and Burns. Cook creates such a figure in ‘The Poor Man to His Son’ in which the poor man exhorts his son to ‘Work, work my boy, be not afraid, / Look labour boldly in the face’ assuring him that it is his labour that is the ‘life-blood of the nation’s tree’. According to the Chartists this ‘noble workingman’ will be the foundation on which a new egalitarian society of England will be based. This axiomatically leads to the idea that the ‘noble workingman’ is a victim of deprivation while ideally the whole of England should belong to him and his fellow workers. Cook’s poem ‘They All Belong to Me’ expresses such an idea—

 

I care not who hold leases

Of the upland or the dell,

Nor who may count the fleeces

When the flocks are fit to sell.

While there’s beauty no one can barter

By the greensward and the tree:

Claim who will, by seal and charter,

Yet ‘they all belong to me’.

 

Such a theme is also dealt with in ‘Stanzas: Sure there’s enough of earth beside’. The poem written in retaliation to the fencing of the ‘commons’ asserts the working class’s right over those lands. They are—

The turf, where peasants blithe and bold

Can plant their footsteps day or night

In free unquestioned, native right.

The rest of the poem charts the centrality of the commons to ‘poor man’s beast and poor man’s child’. In the last stanza Cook uses a standard rhetorical device of the Chartists which Michael Sanders identifies as ‘interpellation’.[12] By this device Chartists seek to define themselves in terms of opposed social groups and conditions, producing a much sharper sense of class identity and marking the beginning of a class based paradigm. Cook employs this device to criticize the exploitative nature of the people in power. She writes:

And curse the hard and griping hand

That wrests away such “hallow’d” land

That shuts the green waste, fresh and wild

From poor man’s beast and poor man’s child.

 

Another major trope of Chartist poetry was to project an idealistic, romantic, pre-industrialized rural life as a setting for post-revolutionary England. As Raymond Williams has demonstrated, the country represents old ways, human ways, natural ways, whereas the idea of the city is allied with progress and modernization.[13] For Chartists the latter are entrenched forces that have to be reckoned with. Land thus gets bound up with working class life in a complex set of associations. Land, the symbol of the country, becomes more than a means of self-subsistence and material security and turns synonymous with working class identity and freedom. Through industrialization this essential link with the country is broken, leading to displacement and disintegration of the labourers. Thus the Chartist poets’ attempt is to establish, through literature, a connection with this form of pre-industrial idyllic life. Cook’s ‘They All Belong to Me’ is a good example of such a poem of imaginative recovery of old rural England. ‘The Green Hill-Side’ and ‘Must I Leave Thee, Paradise’ harp on similar sentiments of the inseparability of land and the working class poet whose art is stifled by urban ‘Propriety’s rule’. Establishing this connection with the land thus becomes the necessary pre-condition for the emancipation of the working class.

 

Similarly it is the connection with the soil that renders the ploughshare respectable to the poet. In ‘The Ploughshare of Old England’ Cook describes the plough as a ‘deity of plenteous festivals’. However the most idealized depiction of rural England is seen in ‘Song of the Haymakers’. According to Robinson this poem, like the best examples of pastoral poetry, ‘combines elements of idyll with subtle social critique and illustrates the complexities possible within a deceptively simple lyric form’.[14] The poem begins—

 

The noontide is hot and our foreheads are brown;

Our palms are all shining and hard;

Right close is our work with the wain and the fork,

And but poor is our daily reward.

 

This is an implied critique of the economic disparity in society. But Cook claims that there are compensatory rewards which are not available to the city dwellers. The rest of the poem is a catalogue of the virtues of rural life set in opposition to the ‘city’s dull-gloom’.

 

We dwell in the meadows, we toil on the sward,

Far away from the city’s dull gloom;

And more jolly are we, though in rags we may be,

Than the pale faces over the loom.

 

The poem is an exhortation to the city-bred to return to nature. The haymakers urge ‘gentle ladies’ and ‘dainty sirs’ to join the haying promising that they will get a natural carpet ‘…more soft…/ Than the pile of your velveted floor,’ and fresh air ‘as sweet / As the perfumes of Araby’s shore.’ Though the poem presents a picture which is far from the real, the basic idea is to inculcate the belief that work is a natural part of life and people should naturally find satisfaction and dignity in work. Work, when done in a natural surrounding becomes the perfect antidote to the artificiality that urban life breeds. Thus in ‘Song of the City Artisan’, Cook’s prescription for the city artisan’s pale forehead, ‘tintless cheek’ and ‘rayless eye’ is ‘The dewy turf, and open sky / The sunlight and the mountain.’

 

But Cook is not an impractical idealist. She is aware that the possibility of a return to the old ways of life is almost sealed off. Hence she urges the city workers to focus on developing their minds through education to tide over the physical and spiritual destructiveness of industrial labour, as the healing touch of nature is no longer available to them. Her poems about urban labour are more agenda-driven and champion many of the Chartist causes. They advocate reforms such as the improvement of working conditions, expansion of educational opportunities and extension of the franchise to the workers.

 

An Owenite in ideology, Cook was a firm believer in self-improvement through education, which empowers man and leads to social improvement. In the poem ‘ABC,’ she emphasizes the need to learn the alphabet. Once it is mastered new vistas open up: ‘How nobly wide the field…/ Wit, Reason, Wisdom all might be/ enjoyed through simply ABC.’ Similarly she celebrates the Sunday Ragged Schools in ‘Song for the Ragged Schools,’ praising the enterprise as a means to enable the working classes to be more productive in society.

 

To work, to work! with hope and joy,

Let us be doing what we can;

Better build schoolrooms for “the boy”,

Than cells and gibbets for “the man”.

 

Cook does not only celebrate small actions like the Ragged School, but she also takes up her pen in support of larger political actions like the Early Closing Movement. The poem ‘A Song for the Workers’ was written to commemorate this movement for shorter working hours. One of the best examples of Cook’s Chartist poems, it emphasizes the need to work and the dignity inherent in work at the same time as it stresses the evils of unregulated work on the workers as well as on society at large. The poem is anxious that the movement may be interpreted as an excuse for shirking duties and she clarifies that it is not so in the very first stanza:

Let Man toil to win his living,

Work is not a task to spurn;

Poor is gold of others giving,

To the silver that we earn.

 

Work is nothing to be ashamed of as honest work has an inherent dignity, for it creates the nation’s wealth. She exhorts—

Let Man proudly take his station

At the smithy, loom, or plough;

The richest crown-pearls in a nation

Hang from labour’s reeking brow.

            …

Let fair woman’s cheek of beauty

Never blush to own its state.

 

Cook exhorts the people to work on honestly, addressing them as God’s own daughters and sons. The great value she assigns to labour is evident from this association of labourers with God. Both the exhortatory style and the emphasis on work are staple practices of Chartist poetry.

Cook then goes on to condemn the ‘Despot whips’ which are trying to make these workers ‘unceasing drudges’. Work beyond a limit affects the body and the mind and takes away the pleasures of the work. She says—

Shall the mercy that we cherish,

As old England’s primest boast,

See no slaves, but those who perish

On a far and foreign coast?

 

Here Cook employs the standard chartist trope of the domestic slave when she identifies the industrial workers with the slaves in America. As Kelly J. Mays remarks,

the goal of Chartist poetry is to encourage readers to see themselves as members of a community united by their experience of an oppression and the term used to describe both the community and the oppression they suffered in slavery.[15]

In the next stanza Cook employs the device of interpellation to contrast the working class identity with that of the bourgeois – pointing out that it is the economic exploitation of the latter that drives the former to poverty.

When we reckon hives of money,

Owned by Luxury and Ease

Is it just to grasp the honey

While Oppression chokes the bees?

 

This oppression leads to a dehumanization of the labourers, reducing them to ‘soulless things’. Cook claims the rights of reason and knowledge and health for the working classes, for without these liberty cannot be achieved.

Shall we strive to shut out Reason,

Knowledge, Liberty and Health?

No! for Right is up and asking

Loudly for a juster lot;

And Commerce must not let her tasking

Form a nation’s canker spot.

 

Closing with a repetition of the call to work, the poem not only conforms perfectly to the norms of Chartist poetry, but also has its uniqueness. As noted earlier, the Chartist movement was almost exclusively a masculine one. But an ardent feminist, Cook also highlights the drudgery the female workers have to undergo. By including ‘God’s own daughters’ in this struggle for liberty she expresses her vision of a more inclusive working class movement. Thus the poem harmonizes with and also stands apart from the chorus of male Chartist voices.

 

Like ‘A Song for the Workers’, Cook’s ‘Our Father’ is also effective in its depiction of the misery and exploitation of working class life and the social injustice they are subject to. Based on R.H. Horne’s report on the appalling condition of child labourers in factories (which also inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children’), Cook’s poem uses the trope of the domestic slave to create a working class consciousness. To Cook the child labourers appear as the ‘Pale struggling blossoms of mankind, / White, helpless slaves whom Christians bind’. They are continually subjected to ‘Labour’s grinding task’ which turns their brains ‘dull and torpid’. Cook presents an effective picture of the drudgery of the poor children’s lives and contrasts it with the pleasures of those who live in ‘Plenty, Love and Mirth’. Her appeal is to those ‘who but eat, laugh, drink and sleep’, to look at ‘Poverty’s cold gloom’ and learn from these children how to retain faith in the Father even in face of such adversity. By stressing the virtue of the poor children, in contrast to the indifferent complacence of the bourgeois, Cook reveals her essentially Chartist sentiments.

 

The most programmatic of all Cook’s poems, however, is ‘A Song: To ‘the People’ of England’ written in support of the Chartist petition of 1848. In this poem she eulogizes the Chartists as the representatives of ‘Liberty and Reason’. They are the English counterparts of the revolutionaries in France, Italy and the rest of Europe. But Cook is also anxious to distinguish them from other revolutionaries and presents them as a responsible, organized, peaceful lot who will not allow the revolution to degenerate into a bloody chaos. She urges the revolutionaries to act resolutely, but responsibly—

Show that you have sense and feeling,

Fit to gain and guard your place;

Let your own determined dealing

Meet Oppression, face to face!

Not with weapons red and reeking;

Not with Anarchy’s wild flame;

But with love and open speaking,

In “The People’s” mighty name!

Wisely think, and boldly utter

What ye think, in Wisdom’s speech

But ye must not even mutter

Words that madmen only teach!

 

Ye shall soon have wider Charters!

England hears the startling cry

Of her poor and honest martyrs;

And her glory must reply.

Ask for all that should be granted!

Show the festers of neglect;

If “a People’s” love is wanted,

“People’s Rights” must have respect.

Cook uses the standard techniques of radical exhortatory poetry like apostrophe and exclamations as devices to inspire ‘the People’. However she uses them to glorify peace and not war, to valorize self-education and salvation of the mind as pre-requisites of a successful revolution.

 

Let “the People” have THEIR “College”;

Only crucibles of Knowledge

Serve to melt Crime’s fetter rings.

Sons of England be ye steady!

 ‘Tis your heads, and not your hands,

That shall prove ye fit and ready

To enlist in Freedom’s bands!

 

As this poem and the others suggest, Eliza Cook herself was very much a part of this ‘Freedom’s band’, if not as an active agitator, surely as a moral and inspirational force for them. The influence she wielded on the working class can be gauged from the fact that her portrait numbered among the most precious of the household goods in a humble village cottage she once visited. Her biographical notice in Notable Women of Our Own Times states that her poems were likely to be quoted and sung ‘in the backwoods of America, or in the bush of Australia, as in the midst of civilized society at home.’[16] Her poems reflect the everyday reality, dreams and aspiration of the working class as envisioned by the Chartists. She does not only touch upon the major Chartist themes, but in certain instances her poems even exemplify the Chartist ideals to a greater extent than do the works of some of the acknowledged male poets of the ainclusion in the canon of Chartist literature.

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds ed., Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 174.

[2] Eliza Cook, ‘Levelling Up’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, quoted in Robinson, Solveig C., ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”: The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook’s Songs of Labor’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39, No. 2 (2001): p. 229.

 

[3]Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Cook , accessed 7 November, 2009)

[4] Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991).

[5] ‘The Politics of Poets’, The Chartist Circular (October 24, 1840) cited in Peter Scheckner ed., An Anthology of Chartist Poetry: Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s (London: Associated University Presses, 1989), p. 18.

 

[6] Scheckner, Anthology of Chartist Poetry, p. 16.

[7] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 231.

[8] Eliza Cook, The Collected Poems of Eliza Cook, cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 232.

[9] All poems of Eliza Cook quoted here except ‘The Streets’, ‘A Song to “The People” of England’, ‘Our Father’ and ‘A Song for the Workers’ are from Eliza Cook, Poems (New York: Routledge, Warne and Routledge, 1851). Of the aforementioned poems the first two are quoted in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’ and the other two are from Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds ed., Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell,1999)

 

[10] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 233.

[11]Ulrich Schwab, The Poetry of the Chartist Movement, cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 234.

[12] Sanders, Michael, ‘Poetic Agency: Metonymy and Metaphor in Chartist Poetry 1838-1852’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39, No. 2 (2001) p. 122.

 

[13] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

[14] Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 237.

[15] Mays, Kelly J., ‘Slaves in Heaven, Laborers in Hell: Chartist Poets’ Ambivalent Identification with the (Black) Slave’, Victorian Poetry Vol. 39 No. 2 (2001), p. 140.

 

[16] ‘Eliza Cook’, Notable Women of Our Own Times: A Collection of Biographies of Royal and Other Ladies Celebrated in Literature, Art and Society (London, 1883) cited in Robinson, ‘Of “Haymakers” and “City Artisans”’, p. 232.

 


Debapratim Chakraborty was a student of the MPhil batch of 2014 at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. He has completed BA and MA in English literature from the same department. This paper was written in 2009 as an assignment for the undergraduate course on Victorian women poets.

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