Rehearsing Social Justice: Temporal Ghettos and the Poetic Way out in "Goblin Market" and "The Song of the Shirt"

By Maclure, Jennifer | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Rehearsing Social Justice: Temporal Ghettos and the Poetic Way out in "Goblin Market" and "The Song of the Shirt"


Maclure, Jennifer, Victorian Poetry


Prosodists don't call stress stress for nothing," Herbert Tucker claims. "[I]ndeed, they might as well, on good Victorian premises ... call prosody itself stress management." (1) Poetry began to demand more effort from readers in the mid-19th century, Tucker claims; reading it required virtual effort, mental exertion. Popular poets like Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning understood the reader's need for "poetic equity"--for oscillation between moments of focus and moments of relaxation, between labor and leisure. They practiced a kind of stress management when they built a pleasurable sine wave of energy expenditure into their prosody, balancing new figures that the reader must imaginatively realize with moments of repetition that allow readers to relax. In his discussion of EBB's "The Cry of the Children," Tucker makes explicit the parallel between the virtual labor of reading poetry and the actual labor of the child workers EBB speaks for in the poem. It is no coincidence, he suggests, that poetry imbued with merciful alternation between effort and rest preceded social reform concerned with shorter work weeks, weekends off, and paid holidays.

Two of Tucker's implied premises in his discussion of fatigue--that the temporality of prosody is akin to the temporal experience of labor, and that social and political power is located not just in the content hut in the form of poetry--lay the groundwork for an investigation of a particular kind of social subjugation, which I will call "temporal oppression," and which, I will argue, poetry is particularly well suited to address. Temporal oppression, I propose, goes beyond the deprivation of rest or free time; it can take multiple forms, because social time takes multiple forms. I focus on two modes of time--one that is conceived to be progressive or linear, associated with the time of industrialization and modernity, and another that is characterized by repetition or cyclicality, associated both with natural rhythms and with industrial repetitiveness. Neither is intrinsically better than the other. In parallel ways, each can be used to create "temporal ghettos." (2) I am borrowing this phrase from Jeremy Rifkin, but repurposing it to describe the disenfranchisement of those who are marginalized through their experience of time. In these temporal ghettos, individuals are not just deprived of free time, but are denied access to whole practices and organizations of time that are available to more privileged others. These temporal ghettos are modeled in the content and the form of the two poems I examine: Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" and Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt." But, the poems also model a way out of these temporal ghettos, offering a poetic solution to a temporal injustice.

Like EBB's "Cry," Thomas Hood's immensely popular poem "The Song of the Shirt" presents unjust working conditions to the public in poetic form. He wrote the poem in 1843 in response to the growing controversy raised by The Perils of the Nation (1842), Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's novel about the abuses of the dress trade, and the governmental Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission published in 1843. The poem was published in Punch magazine and quickly became "one of the best-known poems in the nineteenth century." (3) It describes the plight of a poor seamstress, struggling to sew fast enough to keep up with her hunger. The repetition in the poem echoes her repetitive, mind-numbing work:

   Work! Work! Work!
   While the cock is crowing aloof.
   And work--work--work,
   Till the stars shine through the roof! (11. 9-12) (4)

It also echoes, as Peter Simonsen points out, the labor of its composer, Hood, who, during the time he was working on this poem, was essentially living paycheck to paycheck, scrambling to publish enough poetry in literary periodicals to feed himself. In a letter to his friend Philip de Franck, Hood describes his work conditions as a struggling writer for literary magazines in terms not unlike those he uses to describe the plight of the seamstress: "I have to write, till I am sick of the sight of pen, ink and paper" (Simonsen, pp. …

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