Saturday, 29 September 2018 18:20

The Song of the Low: The Chartist Ernest Jones advises the Labour Party

Written by
in Poetry
130
The Song of the Low: The Chartist Ernest Jones advises the Labour Party

Mike Sanders explains how Ernest Jones's poem expresses the kind of radical social transformation that the Labour Party is now offering.

Addressing the Labour Party conference on September 26th 2018, Jeremy Corbyn quoted the following lines from Ernest Jones, the Chartist leader and poet:

And what we get - and what we give
We know - and we know our share.
We’re not too low the cloth to weave -
But too low the cloth to wear.

These words came in a part of his speech arguing that in order to achieve economic justice it would be necessary to redistribute political power as well as wealth. Anybody catching a glimpse of the ghost of Ernest Jones on the platform (for he was surely there in spirit) would have seen him nodding his head in vigorous agreement. I also think Jones would hope that this short extract would encourage others to read his poem in its entirety, for not only is it a mini-masterpiece of radical satire, it is also a poetic exercise in class formation.

Each of the first four stanzas of ‘The Song of the Low’ deals with a different group of workers: agricultural labourers, miners, builders and weavers. In each case the poem points to the difference between the value of the labour they perform and their reward for their work. Thus, for example, while the agricultural labourers “are not too low the bread to grow”, they are “too low, the bread to eat.”

In this respect, Jones’ poem follows the earlier example of Shelley’s ‘Men of England’ (discussed here). However, unlike Shelley, Jones insists that the economic exploitation of labour is the product of a combination of economic and political factors. In every stanza, each occupational group is shown in relation to a specific social antagonist - landlords confront the agricultural labourers and “the lordlings” confront the builders. Additionally, Jones suggests that each of these local instances of exploitation and domination is part of a wider struggle between the rich and the poor - or the few and the many as we might put it today.

The great achievement of Jones’ poem is that it understands that a self-conscious working class is not spontaneously and inevitably generated by capitalism. Rather, it recognises that both the social and technical division of labour produces class fractions; that occupational identity is the ‘normal’ experience (and, therefore, ‘natural’ identity) of individual workers. The beauty of Jones’ poem is precisely that poetically it constructs a working class from those same diverse occupational groupings. The poem invites its readers firstly to recognise the specificity of each occupation’s experience, then to identify the shared class structure which underpins those specificities. Finally, through its chorus, the poem offers a masterclass in dialectical analysis:

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low,
As low as low can be;
The rich are high - for we make them so -
And a miserable lot are we!
And a miserable lot are we!
A miserable lot are we!

The poor make the rich, the low make the high. The low and poor are perhaps doubly “miserable”; they endure miserable conditions, but they are also miserable for putting up with this state of affairs. The chorus identifies the solution to the problem - the poor must realise their collective power. If the poor do indeed make the rich, then they can unmake them too. Moreover, the very form of the chorus anticipates the solution insofar as a chorus is an inherently collective and democratic form - everyone can join in.

The poem also encodes a process of growing class consciousness. The sequence of occupational groupings - agricultural labourers, miners, builders and weavers - also reflects the relative industrial strength and organisation of those different workers at the time the poem was written. This process culminates in an ambiguous final stanza which depicts the military:

We’re low, we’re low - we’re very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man’s arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king!

The poem leaves open the question of whether the poor man here is a foot soldier of the revolution (perhaps one of those who participated in the toppling of the thrones in 1848), or a hired soldier fighting in the interests of his ‘own’ ruling class. The ambiguous nature of this image is perhaps unsurprising, given that in 1848 Jones had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for making ‘seditious speeches’.

In either case, the image of the “thrust of a poor man’s arm [going]/Through the heart of the proudest king!”, is suggestive of the power possessed by the many. Before the Daily Mail or the BBC (or any other part of the anti-Corbyn media) gets too excited and decides to go with a “Corbyn’s favourite poet in favour of killing the Queen” angle, Jones is using this image symbolically, not literally. It is of a piece with another famous revolutionary declaration, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” (Luke 1:52). Both are images of the kind of radical social transformation which the Labour Party is now offering.

The Song of the Low

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low,
As low as low can be;
The rich are high - for we make them so -
And a miserable lot are we!
And a miserable lot are we!
A miserable lot are we!

We plough and sow - we’re so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay,
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know - we’re so very low,
’Tis down at the landlord’s feet:
We’re not too low - the bread to grow
But too low the bread to eat.

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low, etc

Down, down we go -we’re so very, very low,
To the hell of the deep sunk mines.
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of a despot shines;
And whenever he lacks - upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay,
We’re far too low to vote the tax
But we’re not too low to pay.

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low, etc

We’re low, we’re low - mere rabble, we know,
But at our plastic power,
The mould at the lordling’s feet will grow
Into palace and church and tower -
Then prostrate fall - in the rich man’s hall,
And cringe at the rich man’s door,
We’re not too low to build the wall,
But too low to tread the floor.

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low, etc

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow - and the robes that glow,
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get - and what we give
We know - and we know our share.
We’re not too low the cloth to weave -
But too low the cloth to wear.

We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low, etc

We’re low, we’re low - we’re very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man’s arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king!
We’re low, we’re low - our place we know,
We’re only the rank and file,
We’re not too low - to kill the foe,
But too low to touch the spoil.
We’re low - we’re low - we’re very, very low, etc.

Read 130 times Last modified on Saturday, 29 September 2018 18:42
Mike Sanders

Mike Sanders is Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Writing at the University of Manchester.