Mike Sanders

Mike Sanders

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

The Song of the Low: The Chartist Ernest Jones advises the Labour Party
Saturday, 29 September 2018 18:20

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

Published in Poetry

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.

The Peterloo Massacre
Wednesday, 26 July 2017 06:00

More than ‘Rise like lions’: Shelley beyond The Mask of Anarchy

Published in Poetry

Mike Sanders writes about Shelley 'the Chartist poet' as a catalyst for working class creativity, how he envisioned a communist society, and how the privileged classes refused to hear the revolutionary meanings of his poems.

One of the unexpected features of the recent General Election campaign was the ‘co-opting’ of a long-dead Romantic poet as a speech-writer by Team Corbyn. Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches ended with the recitation of the closing lines from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many, they are few.

These lines written almost two hundred years ago in response to the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ have long been part of the Left’s cultural memory – anthologised, repeated and recycled for the best part of two centuries. I first encountered them as a teenage punk rocker in 1980 on the back cover of the Jam’s Sound Affects album and the discovery prompted me to buy a selection of Shelley’s poetry from a local second-hand bookshop. In that dog-eared volume, I discovered a poet who could give better shape and expression to some of my own rather more inchoate ideas about the society I lived in and my hopes for a better future.

Subsequently, I came to understand that previous generations of workers had also found in Shelley’s words, ‘resources for their own journey of hope’ (to adapt Raymond Williams’ wonderful phrase). Working-class appreciation and recognition of Shelley began relatively early. Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England observes; 

Shelley, the genius, the prophet, Shelley, and Byron, with his glowing sensuality and his bitter satire upon our existing society, find most of their readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie owns only castrated editions, family editions, expurgated in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.

Shelley’s long poem Queen Mab was often described as “the Chartist’s Bible". Indeed, there is a sense in which Shelley is a Chartist poet insofar as many of his more overtly political poems, such as ‘Song to the Men of England’, were first published in 1839. 

The poetry column of the Northern Star, the leading Chartist newspaper, attests to Shelley’s importance as a catalyst for working-class creativity. In particular, Shelley’s ‘Song to the Men of England’ is reworked a number of times by various Chartist poets. I would like to suggest that this poem, which identifies the inverse relationship between production and consumption as moral obscenity as well as economic injustice, is even more important than ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. The poem begins with a series of questions intended to highlight the paradoxical way in which the economy distributes economic rewards:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Replace “lords”, “tyrants” and “drones” with “bankers” and “bosses” and you have a concise summary of our current economic woes. But Shelley does not rest there, he continues by observing that the workers also produce the means of their own political oppression:

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?

Next, Shelley asks his readers if they enjoy the key features of a genuinely human life?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?

Thus far, the poem consists of a series of questions designed both to defamiliarise and thereby make visible the structural features of the economic order. These questions also invite the reader to think. However, in the second half of the poem statements predominate, as Shelley offers two very different views of the future. The first of which is the maintaining of the current economic and political order:

The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.

The second envisages a future in which there is a direct correlation between production and consumption.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

In the poem’s penultimate verse, Shelley makes clear that social change will require resistance and courage on the part of the oppressed. The “drones” will indeed shed, if not drink, blood to preserve their privileges if necessary:

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—
In hall ye deck another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

In the final stanza, Shelley makes clear that the choice is one between life and death.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.

The clarity with which Shelley both identifies the structures of exploitation and oppression, and identifies two very different visions of England’s future in this poem goes some way to explaining the different assessments of his work in the Nineteenth Century (and beyond). The privileged classes simply refused to hear this Shelley, preferring to construct him as a naïve dreamer – “A beautiful and ineffectual angel” to quote Matthew Arnold.

The Chartists and their successors heard a different Shelley. They heard a Shelley who was in no doubt as to either the necessity or the difficulty of securing political and economic change. The “Rise like lions” passage is inspiring, but if we read it in isolation there is a danger of seeing it as a promise of easy victory. For Shelley, the murdered victims at Peterloo were sufficient testament that there would be no easy victory. And the same is surely true for us today.

 

Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle
Friday, 22 January 2016 22:44

Making Better Rhymes: Chartist Poetry and Working Class Struggle

Published in Poetry

In the first of a series of articles on Chartist poetry and working class struggle, Dr. Mike Sanders traces the background to its development.

Andy Croft in 'The Privatisation of Poetry' cites approvingly, Francis Combes's declaration that "Poetry belongs to everyone". As an aspiration, I couldn't agree more. In reality, the conditional seems more accurate - "Poetry ought to belong to everyone." Andy also suggests, correctly in my view, that poetry ought to be thought of in terms of common ownership. This set me thinking - can poetry be taken into public, or common, ownership? Should we be agitating for the nationalisation of the iambic pentameter?

At first sight, this might seem like a ridiculous question. However, given that poetry has effectively been 'privatised' for a number of centuries, perhaps the question is not so far-fetched. Indeed, the world's first working-class movement - Chartism - devoted a great deal of energy in its attempts to restore poetry to its proper status as the common property of all. In pursuit of this aim Chartist newspapers and journals printed articles such as 'The Politics of Poets' which ran for ten weeks in the Scottish Chartist Circular. This series explicitly sought to reclaim what we would now call 'elite' or 'canonical' poetry for the working-classes. Even more significantly, Chartist newspapers actively supported working-class poets by regularly publishing their poetry. The leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, published almost 1,500 poems from at least 390 Chartist poets between 1838 and 1852.

The Northern Star's poetry column was not an attempt to impose ‘culture’ from above, rather it was a response to a popular demand that poetry could and should speak to working-class desires and needs. From the start, literally hundreds of Chartists sent in their poems and quite a few appear to have pestered the editor with enquiries as to when their work would appear. Occasionally, the editor lost patience with his correspondents. In March 1838 he wrote “We have received as much poetry as a donkey could draw; we shall select from it as occasion offers, so let none be jealous, or we will take it by lot”! Poets sending their poetry had to have a fairly thick skin as the editor could be brutal. ‘W.M.’ (a weaver) sent in a poem and gave the editor permission to make any alterations needed. The editor replied “The best thing we can suggest to him is, to alter all the words, or, what might be still better, take them all away, and leave the paper blank.”

Given the risk of such withering criticism what made so many Chartists put pen to paper to produce poetry? Some wrote to promote solidarity, others to celebrate or commemorate leaders and events. Some wrote to rouse their comrades to action, others to reflect on the aims, aspirations, tactics and strategy of the Chartist movement. We are used to this kind of ‘political poetry’ and I have no wish to deny its importance. However, for many Chartists the simple fact of writing poetry (irrespective of its content) was itself a political action. Composing poetry was an affirmation of working-class creativity in the face of the dehumanising grind of industrial capitalism – a reminder that the ‘hands’ who worked the machines themselves possessed hands capable of producing beauty as well as profit.

One example of this is a poem from a woman who signed herself ‘E.H., a Factory Girl of Stalybridge’. Technically speaking E.H.'s poem is not a good one, as she herself acknowledges. Yet for all its technical deficiencies it is, I feel, a particularly moving poem. E.H. dedicates her poem to the factory reformer, Joseph Rayner Stephens, and she compares her position as a ‘factory girl’ with that of the millowners’ wives and children:

Their children, too, to school must be sent,
Till all kinds of learning and music have learnt;
Their wives must have veils, silks dresses, and cloaks,
And some who support them can’t get linsey coats

E.H. not only points out that their advantages are bought at the cost of her class’s impoverishment, she also protests against her cultural as well as her material deprivation:

If they had sent us to school, better rhyme we could make
I think it is time we had some of their cake.

[...]

We factory lasses have but little time,
So I hope you will pardon my bad written rhyme.
God bless him for striving to get us our rights,
And I wish the world over were true Stephenites.

A Stephenite I am from the ground of my heart,
And I hope from the same I shall never depart.
May God spare your life till the tyrants are ended,
So I bid you good bye, till my verses I’ve mended.

E.H. tells us that her poem is not a ‘good’ one, and traces its limitations to her limited education, which is in turn a product of her class position. E.H. wants better – better working conditions, better education, and the chance to write better poetry which she connects imaginatively with cake, that is with something more than the fundamental necessities of life. 'Culture' is the name we give to that desire for something better and, in future articles, I intend to explore some of the ways in which the role of poetry within the Chartist movement can illuminate many of the current challenges facing the working-class movement.

 

NB: Readers interested in reading all of E.H.'s poem will find it in the Northern Star for May 18th, 1839. The digitised version of the Northern Star can be found at the following website: http://www.ncse.ac.uk/index.html