Constellating Chartist Poetry: Gerald Massey, Walter Benjamin, and the Uses of Messianism

By Sanders, Michael | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Constellating Chartist Poetry: Gerald Massey, Walter Benjamin, and the Uses of Messianism


Sanders, Michael, Victorian Poetry


Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history-blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. (1)

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In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Walter Benjamin enjoined Marxist critics to "constellate" rather than "tell" history, by bringing a threatened past into a meaningful relation with an equally endangered present (Thesis XVIIIA). This article is both excursus and exemplum of the Benjaminian method in that it seeks to constellate the work of the Chartist poet, Gerald Massey, with that of Benjamin himself. It will demonstrate that Massey's messianic vision of history anticipates many aspects of Benjamin's own messianism. Both, for example, will be shown to turn on the opposition between the "homogeneous, empty time" of capitalist modernity and the charged potentiality of "Jetztzeit" ("the time of the now"; Thesis XIV). In addition, the article will demonstrate that, like Benjamin, Massey conceives of past and present as containing "temporal indices" which refer to redemption, and that his task as a poet is to produce a "constellation," a meaningful temporal alignment (of past and present) which allows those scattered "chips of Messianic time" to be gathered together, thereby endowing the present with sufficient power "to blast open the continuum of history" and usher in a new, just, social order (Thesis XVI). Finally, the article also explores the poetics of social transformation with a particular emphasis on the relation between forms of temporal understanding and political activity.

Gerald Massey was born on May 29, 1828 in Tring, Hertfordshire, the son of an illiterate father, William, and a semi-literate mother, Mary. Both his working life and poetic career began relatively early. Aged eight, he was sent to work in a local silk mill and some ten years later he published (by subscription) the improbably titled Poems and Chansons by a Tring Peasant Boy. (2) Massey's involvement with the Chartist movement began in 1848 when he joined the Uxbridge Young Men's Improvement Society. There he met John Bedford Leno with whom, in 1849, he founded the Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom, a short-lived radical periodical which nonetheless garnered praise from the leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star (Shaw, pp. 26-29). Indeed, between 1849 and 1851, Massey became the most published Chartist poet in the Northern Star's Poetry Columns. In addition, throughout 1850 his poetry was frequently printed and reprinted in The Red Republican and The Friend of the People (both edited by G. J. Harney) and Cooper's Journal (edited by Thomas Cooper), making Massey the most important Chartist poet in the immediate aftermath of the continental revolutions of 1848.

By 1850, as a result of his friendship with Harney, Massey had become a serving member of the committee of the Society of Fraternal Democrats (an organization of English and emigre, mainly German and Polish, socialists) and secretary to the committee of the Red Republican (which published the first English translation of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto). At the same time Massey was involved in the Christian Socialist movement where he found paid employment as secretary of the Working Tailors Association (WTA; Shaw, pp. 31-39). However, Massey's Christian Socialist employers, unhappy at his involvement with the "Red Republicans," told him to choose between the WTA and the Red Republican. …

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