Of "Haymakers" and "City Artisans": The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook's Songs of Labor

By Robinson, Solveig C. | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Of "Haymakers" and "City Artisans": The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook's Songs of Labor


Robinson, Solveig C., Victorian Poetry


IN 1854, IN THE PAGES OF HER PENNY WEEKLY ELIZA COOK'S JOURNAL, POET Eliza Cook (1818-1889) proclaimed her optimism about the future of the working classes:

The levelling of this day is all of the levelling-up character.... The number of self-risen men, sprung 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. No man can deplore this process of development; for in proportion to the number of true men,--brave, self-helping, intelligent men,--will be the true life, prosperity, and strength of empire. [1]

Cook's confidence in the "levelling up" of society infused her writing and derived from a strong sense of her own progress. The youngest child of a tinman and brazier, Cook had grown up in London and in the Sussex countryside, and her writing grew out of her personal experiences of both urban and rural laboring life. Her decidedly humble origins place her in the small group of working-class women poets who were the Victorian successors to the eighteenth-century "Muses of Resistance" studied by Donna Landry, Moira Ferguson, and others. [2] While she has been remembered primarily for her sentimental poems about her mother's death and for her campaign to erect a memorial to the poet Thomas Hood, Cook has been largely overlooked as an articulate and sensitive poet of working class life. [3] And although her role in radical Unitarian and feminist circles has been noted (especially recently), [4] her politics have been primarily considered within the context of her journalism. However, her poetry also reveals a sig nificant and largely unnoticed political content, a politics dedicated to the project of "levelling up."

Cook's songs of labor express a radical vision of a fundamentally more democratic England, a vision that fuses an idealistic belief in the dignity of manual work with a pragmatic belief in the efficacy of self-improvement through cooperation and education. Both through her employment of simple and direct language and regular meters, and through her sympathetic depiction of the pains and pleasures of working-class life, Cook's lyrics share many of the distinguishing features of Chartist poetry. In fact, in certain instances her poems even exemplify the Chartist ideals to a greater extent than do the works of the male poets traditionally associated with the movement.

Cook's omission from studies of radical English poetry generally and Chartist poetry in particular is both curious and regrettable. Not only did she publish at least one poem specifically addressed to the Chartists--"A Song: To 'The People' of England" was written in support of the 1848 petition--but her many poems about working-class life and concerns incorporate most of the formal and thematic aspects of Chartist poetry identified by critics such as Peter Scheckner, Brian Maidment, and Ulrike Schwab. [5] Cook's self-presentation as a poet of the people, her use of popular forms and employment of simple, direct language, and her championing of recurrent Chartist themes all reinforce the idea that her songs of labor were explicitly political works, intended as much to inform--and reform--as to delight. [6] Cook's voice--that of a radical working-class woman--is one that is missing from analyses of Chartist poetics, and its reinsertion into the chorus of protest and exhortation enables new harmonies to resonat e, both in her own body of work and in that of the recognized Chartist poets.

In the introduction to his Anthology of Chartist Poetry, Peter Scheckner champions Chartist poetry as a substantial body of literature that both challenged and complemented the high-culture works that make up the established Victorian canon. Chartist poetry "represented an alternative, working-class culture," and it

articulated and extolled almost everything bourgeois writers of the time stood against: radical social changes, internationalism, an end to national chauvinism and colonial rule, Church reform, antiracisim, egalitarianism and democracy, the right to rank-and-file organizing, freedom of the press, universal literacy and education, and a more equitable distribution of profits. …

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