Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Poetic Negotiations of a Gentleman Radical: Ernest Jones and the "Mighty Mind"

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

The Poetic Negotiations of a Gentleman Radical: Ernest Jones and the "Mighty Mind"

Article excerpt

   I am pouring the tide of my songs over England, forming the tone of       the    mighty mind of the people. (1) 

These words from an October 1846 diary entry of Ernest Charles Jones (1819-1869) were written in the first flush of his Chartist poetic success, as the movement was still growing accustomed to the appearance in its ranks of the godson of the Duke of Cumberland (by then King Ernest of Hanover). The first thing that strikes the modern reader of the above quotation is the privilege attributed to the position of the author. The relative status of the author is only enhanced by the description of the imagined collective readership as "the mighty mind." Descriptions of "pouring ... over" and "forming the tone" are unequivocal in their indication of influence and agency, reflecting the Chartist perception of the active role of poetry within the movement formed prior to Jones's involvement around a favored group of poets including Allen Davenport, (2) Benjamin Stott, (3) and Thomas Cooper. (4) But in addition to its political function, Jones's popular poetry throughout his Chartist involvement served to negotiate the complex issues arising from the forging and maintenance of a relationship between a young man whom Feargus O'Connor described as "a sprig of the aristocracy," and the largely working-class membership of a mass political movement. This article examines the role played by Jones's poetry in these negotiations from his introduction to the movement in 1846 to his elevation to the role of Chartist leader in the 1850s.

Northern Star Poetry (1846)

From the beginning of his Chartist career Jones negotiated a relationship with his audience through his poetry (in conjunction with his skills as an orator and a journalist) that either emphasized or diminished his social difference in order to suit the particular issue being addressed. The quasi-fictitious nature of the poetic voice served as a filter through which Jones could communicate ideas to his audience from varying social standpoints. The speaker of "The Two Races" (Northern Star 12 September 1846) uses the privilege of familiarity with the remnants of the pre-industrial ruling class, the "Gentlemen of England" (l. 1), to plead for their assistance in the battle against a growing industrialist hegemony; the relatively long poem "England's Greatness" (Northern Star, 7 April 1846) reflects its writer's level of education in its geographical expansiveness. But Jones's introductory poem, published in the Northern Star on 16 May 1846, was "Our Summons," the first of four pieces that summer whose titles begin with that defiantly self-conscious first person plural. From the outset Jones attempts to establish himself as part of the democratic cognoscenti as his first poems perform multiple functions as letters of introduction, curriculum vitae, and political rallying cries.

"Our Summons," along with "Our Destiny," "Our Warning," and "Our Cheer," is a quintessential Chartist lyric, undoubtedly the kind of work John Saville had in mind when he stated in his biographical introduction to Ernest Jones: Chartist that "much of his [Jones's] poetry was never more than adept versification." (5) However, attentive reading of Jones's early Chartist works reveals undercurrents of meaning that belie the apparent simplicity of their construction. Taken as a group, the four "Our ..." poems document the subtly changing relationship between Jones and his largely working-class audience in the early months of his Chartist career.

Despite the inclusivity of its title, the mode of address in "Our Summons" separates the speaker from the addressees: the "men of honest heart" (l. 1). The poem is intensely class-conscious, relying on Jones's characteristic inversion of the relative nobility of the upper and lower strata of social class as the basis for its moral vision:

   'Tis not to dig the grave,    Where the dying miner delves;    'Tis not to toil for others    But to labour for yourselves. … 
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