Some Revolutionary Poets of the Century
by Henry S. Salt
I DOUBT whether Socialists nowadays feel much interest in the poetry of the revolutionary movement. We have, it is true, our song-books and socialist choirs; but on the whole we seem at present to be so intoxicated by the charms of statistical science and the study of economics that we have but little time to spare for the trivialities of the Muse. I feel, therefore, that some apology is due to my readers if I ask them to quit for a few minutes the urgent questions of “scientific Socialism,” and lend their attention to a comparatively slight, but perhaps not wholly unimportant, branch of the literature of Freedom.
I say not wholly unimportant, because though the treatment of practical problems does not belong to the poet, it is nevertheless to the poet that we must look for the early intimations of the ideas from which practical problems arise. It is by poetry, the direct expression of the human instincts and emotions, that science is provided with material on which to exercise its skill; the scientist’s business is to prove what the poet has already felt. For the poet, as a great poet has said, “Not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.” Accordingly, in the study of our revolutionary movement, we find that the poets have accurately reflected its several moods and phases, and, in proportion to their gift of poetical insight, have outstripped their own age and foreseen the changes that were to come.
For example, the tone of the early poetry of the century was necessarily vague and prophetic, inasmuch as it was a period of disappointment and reaction after the failure of the revolutionary hopes. It was the poet’s mission to keep alive and hand on to posterity the torch which might otherwise have been extinguished, and to Shelley and Byron belongs and honour of having done this service for Liberty in its hour of darkness and despair. No true friend of freedom would ever join in the spiteful clamour with which the name of Byron has been assailed, for, whatever his faults, he stood unhesitatingly on the right side in the great crises of his life, and his verse breathed a spirit which is as sorely needed at the present day as when it was written.
For Freedom's battle once begun,
Bequeath'd by bleeding Sire to Son,
Though baffled oft is ever won.
Bear witness, Greece, thy living page!
Attest it many a deathless age!
While kings, in dusty darkness hid,
Have left a nameless pyramid.
Bryon and Shelley, it seems to me, stand midway between the old and the new order of revolutionary poets; they are the culminating voices of the earlier spirit of revolt, and they strike the first note of the newer spirit. By Shelley, in particular, the forms of blank verse and lyric poetry were brought to such perfection that his works mark the completion of a literary era, yet his genius was so modern that it is still far in advance of most of the “advanced thought” of the century. What living poet, for instance, could be trusted to produce a picture of our “Jubilee Procession” which should go more directly to the heart of the matter than the following description of the “Pageant to Celebrate the Arrival of the Queen,” in Shelley’s “Charles the First”.
Ay, there they are—
Nobles, and sons of nobles, patentees,
Monopolists and stewards of this poor farm,
On whose lean sheep sit the prophetic crows.
Here is the pomp that strips the houseless orphan,
Here is the pride that breaks the desolate heart.
These are the lilies glorious as Solomon,
Who toil not, neither do they spin—unless
It be the webs they catch poor rogues withal.
Here is the surfeit which to them who earn
The niggard wages of the earth scarce leaves
The tithe that will support them till they crawl
Back to its cold hard bosom. Here is health
Followed by grim disease, glory by shame,
Waste by lame famine wealth by squalid want,
And England's sin by England's punishment.
And as the effect pursues the cause foregone,
Lo, giving substance to my words behold
At once the sign and the thing signified—
A troop of cripples, beggars, and lean outcasts,
Horsed upon stumbling shapes, carted with dung,
Dragged for a day from cellars and low cabins
And rotten hiding-holes to point the moral
Of this presentiment, and bring up the rear
Of painted pomp with misery.
In the second era of our poetry, which may be said to cover the second quarter of the century, we reach the time of Reform Bills and Chartist movements—that is to say, we leave the high mountain—land of poetic vision, and begin to descent into the more prosaic fields of political activity. The poets of this period, though not gifted with the great imaginative qualities of Shelley and his fellow-singers, have a direct power and aptitude of their own—the strength that comes from being at close quarters with the enemy. Take, for example, “The People’s Anthem,” by Ebenezer Elliott, author of the famous “Corn Law Rhymes,” in whose work there is much good stuff of a strong homely fibre.
When wilt Thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they!
Let them not pass, like weeds, away,
Their heritage a sunless day!—
God save the people.
Among the many admirable writings of this period which did true service to the people’s cause may be mentioned the “Poems and Lyrics” of the young Scotch enthusiast, Robert Nicoll; the “Mundi et Chordis Carmina” of Thomas Wade, Gerald Massey’s “Cries of Forty-Eight,” Robert Brough’s “Songs of the Governing Classes,” and the various poems of Ebenezer Jones, Thomas Cooper, Ernest Jones, and W. J. Linton. Of all these singers Linton is perhaps the most graceful, but Ernest Jones the most effective, as shown in his masterly “Song of the Lower Classes” (“We plow and sow, we’re so very, very, low”), his “Easter Hymn” (“Crucified, crucified, every morn”), and his “Song of the Wage-Slave,” from which I quote a stanza:
The land it is the landlord’s,
The trader’s is the sea,
The ore the usurer’s coffer fills—
But what remains for me?
The engine whirls for master’s craft;
The steel shines to defend,
With labour’s arms, what labour raised,
For labour’s foe to spend.
The camp, the pulpit, and the law
For rich men’s sons are free;
Theirs, theirs the learning, art, and arms–
But what remains for me?
The coming hope, the future day,
When wrong to right shall bow,
And hearts that have the courage, man,
To make that future now.
It is a pity that the more notable poems of the Chartist era, such as the anonymous “Union Hymn” sung at a great mass meeting in 1832 (“Songs of Freedom,” p. 80), are not to be found in our socialist collections; for, apart from their historical value, they are far better as poetry and more suitable for singing than most of our present-day compositions. I offer the suggestion to the editor of “Chants of Labour” as a hint for future issues.
This brings us to contemporary writers. Of Swinburne I do not intend to speak: not because he has belied his earlier promise, both as a poet and as a revolutionist, but because I am compelled to hurry on to the poetry of Socialism itself. Nor is it necessary here to do more than refer to the poems of William Morris, which are too well know to need any further mention, and also (as is pointed out by the writer in The Progressive Review for this month) are less the work of a socialist poet—a poet born and bred in the movement—than of a poet who became a Socialist, and whose Socialism is mostly separable from his poetry. But of the influence of the actual socialist propaganda on poetry, what shall be said? That in so far as our Socialism is purely scientific and technical (and it is very largely so) its effect on poetry has been deadening. The life and lilt of song-writing simply cannot exist in the same soil as our schools of economics; if they flourish at all, we must look for them outside any scheme of government–in the spirit of equality and brotherhood with which Socialism, in it wider sense, is identified. And that such Socialism can produce great poetry is shown by the works of two young writers, Francis Adams and John Barlas, to both of whom the revolutionary movement was the very breath of their song. Since the death of Shelley it seems to me that, with the exception of Whitman’s work, of which I cannot now speak, and Carpenter’s, which I mention below, there has been no democratic poetry of a higher and more imaginative order than Adams’s fierce, militant lyrics, the “Songs of the Army of the Night,” and Barlas’s not let passionate, though richer and more idealistic volume of “Poems Lyrical and Dramatic.” Where should one look for a nobler picture of Freedom than in the following stanzas from Barlas’s “Le Jeune Barbaroux”
“Freedom, her arm outstretched but lips firm set,
Freedom, her eyes with tears of pity wet,
But her robes splashed with drops of bloody dew,
Freedom, thy goddess, is our goddess yet,
Freedom, that tore the robe from kings away,
That clothed the beggar-child in warm array,
Freedom, the hand that raised, the hand that slew,
Freedom, divine then, is divine to-day,
We drown, we perish in a surging sea;
We are not equal, brotherly, nor free:—
Who from this death shall stoop and raise us? who?
Thy Freedom, and the memory of such as thee,
Or where for a more terribly poignant study than Adams’s “In the Edgware Road”
Will you not buy? She asks you, my lord,
Who know the points desirable in such.
She does not say that she is perfect. True,
She’s not too pleasant to the sight or touch.
But then — neither are you!
Her cheeks are rather fallen in; a mist
Glazes her eyes, for all their hungry glare.
Her lips do not breathe balmy when they’re kissed.
And yet she’s not more loathsome than, I swear,
Your grandmother at whist.
. . . . . .
What, you’ll not buy? You’ll curse at her instead? —
Her children are alone, at home, quite near.
These winter streets, so gay at nights, ’tis said,
Have ’ticed the wanton out. She could not hear
Her children cry for bread.
If in these remarks on some of our revolutionary poems I speak last of Edward Carpenter’s “Towards Democracy,” it is because that great work, in so many ways the most personal, and vital, and truly “inspired” utterance of recent years, seems to give us the final word of the century on the question of Freedom—“the word Democracy”—revolution and revelation in one. For, after all is said, Freedom must ultimately be sought in ourselves; and it is this “dream of the soul’s slow disentanglement” that is the message of the poem—a message perhaps beyond the full understanding of the present, but destined to be remembered and realised in some future revolutionary epoch.
No volcano bursting up through peaceful pastures is a
greater revolution than this;
No vast mountain chain thrown out from ocean depths to form the primitive streak of a new continent looks further down the future;
For this is lava springing out of the very heart of Man;
This is the upheaval of heaven-kissing summits whose streams shall feed the farthest generations,
This is the draft and outline of a new creature,
The forming of the wings of Man beneath the outer husk—
The outspread pinions of Equality, whereon arising he shall at last lift himself over the Earth and launch forth to sail through Heaven.
Published: The Labour Leader, June 19, 1897