Chartist Poetry

 

Chartism was a cultural movement as well as a political one, and this is clearly evident from the vast array of poetry that was written and published by Chartists. For the Chartists, poetry was undoubtedly a political weapon, as an expression of the plight of the working classes – written to escape the drudgery of life but also to inform, inspire and mobilise those who read it.

One of the main sources of examples of Chartist poetry is in the Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star, which featured a poetry column in every issue. The verses published in this newspaper, which had a peak circulation of 48,000 copies a week, would have reached a very wide audience as they were not only read by buyers of the newspaper, but then repeated and recited by others.

Chartist poetry was primarily written by self-educated industrial or artisan workers and reflected their concerns. At a time when literacy rates were low and the stamp-duty rule made it difficult for poor people to be informed about events, poetry provided a means for working-class people to communicate. It permitted people to access information for themselves, rather than relying on what had filtered down from the ruling classes. The purpose of Chartist poetry is perhaps best expressed by an article published in The Northern Star and National Trades Journal on 7 August 1852:

'This is one of the proudest characteristics of the age we live in, this poetry of the people, written by and for themselves. Never till the present time has the poetry of the people been written… ringing out the people’s political, moral, and social aspirations, and elevating the standard of Humanity for all.'

Taken from: The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser
Date: December 4, 1841
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board.
Shelfmark: Newspaper Archive, Colindale