Futures of a Futureless Movement

Sam J Knights
19 min readJun 21, 2020

(NOTE: A lot of the poems in this piece have never been written about before. Predominantly written by unknown working class poets, their contribution to literature and politics is often forgotten or purposefully ignored.)

Chartist Poetry After Chartism

“We are dead and we are buried!”
Not so! life is in us yet.
There’s too much of good to hope for –
Too much evil to forget!

(38–41, We Are Silent)

The People’s Charter was first submitted to parliament in 1839. It called for major political reform, demanding that working class men were given a vote, that a secret ballot was used to ensure anonymity, and that all Members of Parliament were paid a salary so that any tradesman or labourer could stand for elected office. In April 1848, The People’s Charter was submitted to parliament for a third and final time, having received almost six million signatures. The population of the United Kingdom was around twenty-seven million people at the time, meaning that over a fifth of the population had signed the petition.

On the previous occasions that the Charter was submitted, parliament had refused to even receive it. This time, the petition was debated in the House of Commons and subsequently rejected. It was a devastating, if not unexpected, result. So much energy had been spent in trying to secure the demands of the Charter and once again it seemed that all of their toil had been for nothing. That same month, the great Chartist leader William Cuffay was arrested for “conspiring to levy war” against Queen Victoria and deported to Tasmania, much like the leaders of the Newport Rising before him. This was not the first failed rebellion, but it nonetheless became a lasting symbol of their defeat.

With the exception of annual parliaments, everything that the Chartists demanded in The People’s Charter was eventually achieved and is today considered an essential part of a functioning democracy. But the Chartists themselves were not to know this. For them, the campaign had finished in failure and the future of the movement was now more uncertain than ever. Set against a backdrop of factional infighting and failed uprisings, the Chartist movement had to change. And so too did its poetry.

Isobel Armstrong writes that as the Chartist movement began to fragment the ‘poetry of protest, exhortation and millennial confidence’ became much harder to find, noting a turn towards the more ‘subjective, expressive poetry of direct social comment’. For some poets, this meant moving towards a poetics more concerned with the abstract, the expressive, and the utopian. Moving away from the failures of the present, these poets found refuge in the possibility of the future. Thus, at a time when the movement seemed to have no future at all, poetical imaginings of the future began, perhaps counterintuitively, to dominate the poetry columns of Chartist publications.

For Chartists, politics and poetry were inextricably linked. It was with one written document that people arrived at Chartism and it was through the written word, once again, that people would attempt to reimagine it. As the movement gathered momentum, a huge number of publications and journals were established sympathetic to the Chartist cause. Many of them were written or edited by poets who, almost inevitably, began to place poetry at the very centre of the debate. One such newspaper, The Northern Star, was read by thousands of supporters every week and published almost 1,500 poems during its fifteen-year lifetime.

By the turn of the next decade, the Chartist movement was divided, directionless, and defeated. Thus, Mike Sanders argues that ‘1848 can be said to mark the end of the Chartist poetic project insofar as thereafter it makes more sense to focus on the continuing activity of a limited number of individual Chartist poets’. Whilst Sanders is right to acknowledge the steady decline of working-class poetry in this period, it would be wrong to assume that this also meant an end to the working class poetry of the Chartists. The political project may have been dead, but the poetic project was very much alive and it was looking to the future.

In 1850, The Northern Star published a poem entitled ‘Song of the Future’. It was written not by a recognised poet nor leading Chartist, but by an anonymous glove-maker. This unknown glove-maker existed within a wider literary movement. It is obvious in the way that they have chosen to structure this poem that they were consciously in dialogue with a long and radical tradition of anonymous Chartist poets.

The future opens with a smile,
And justice seems to call
Upon the toilers of our isle,
To watch their tyrants fall.

(13–16, Song of the Future)

In ‘Song of the Future’, the poet welcomes in a ‘brighter day’ that ‘grows’ and ‘opens’ up as we read. Dragging the utopian vision of a Chartist future into the here and the now, the poem begins in present tense. Its opens ‘’Midst all the storms and cares of life’ and ends with the hopeful modality of ‘may’, grounding an ultimately theoretical discussion of the future in the reality of the present. The poem’s title emphasises the certainty of its subject again; if ‘The past’ that begins the fifth quatrain of the poem is fixed and unalterable, then so too is ‘The future’ that begins the fourth quatrain. It ‘opens’ up and even though ‘The’ future that it describes may be translated into allegory as ‘a’ brighter day, the certainty of its definite article remains. Thus, the poem must exist in the present and the future simultaneously. It is situated ‘’Midst’ it all — ‘’Midst’ even the word ‘amidst’. The future is read in the present and the present is written in the future. One has been created from the other — like a poem, it has been written and then read — but the order does not matter; in the moment of reading and writing, the present is the future and the future is the present.

Thus, poetry becomes the only realm in which a Chartist future is still possible. The writer becomes a magician; in turn, the reader becomes an audience. We take our place amongst the ‘toilers’ of this isle and need only ‘watch’ as the vision prepares to delight us. Here, reality can be reordered in accordance with the demands of the Chartist movement; it gives workers possession of ‘their’, masters, it grants all people a claim to ‘our isle’, and it uses the figure of ‘justice’ to separate all the hard-working ‘toilers’ from the workshy ‘tyrants’. As such, it is a future that can only be understood through the movement. Even the poem’s title — ‘Song of the Future’ — connects a specific utopian vision to the traditional place of song as a means through which a sense of collective cultural and political identity could be forged and consolidated.

Even after the failure of their third petition, many Chartists were clearly not ready to abandon the movement entirely. Working class poets still aimed to create a shared literary voice. They still strove for the education of the masses. They still believed in the revival of a radical tradition. Crucially, the movement continued to evolve and all of these poems, with their differing visions of a radical future, continued to communicate with one another. These poets were in deep, serious discussion about the future of the movement, and their poetry was part of that dialogue.

The seemingly insignificant ‘smile’ in ‘Song of the Future’, that grin of delight that once revelled in the inevitability of change to come, is therefore able to have its own radical future. In the poetry column of The Northern Star, for example, it is remodelled only two months later as ‘summer’s bright and joyous smile’ of ‘We May Yet See Happier Days’. And so too does it spring up in the poetry columns of other publications, appearing in The English Republic as ‘new blossoming smiles’ and in the The Red Republican as the ‘smiling stars’ of heaven. Of course, the smile in ‘Song of the Future’ is not in itself an entirely original trope. It may have been directly lifted from the poetry of previous radicals, such as Shelley’s poems of revolutionary liberation; in ‘The Revolt of Islam’, for example, Shelley writes that ‘leaves clasps while the sunbeams smile’. But wherever the ‘smile’ may or may not originate, in Chartist poetry a better world is prefigured by its presence. The image of a smiling face is mirrored by the smiling face that imagines it, both present and future smiles filled with expectation for the other. In Chartist poetry, it becomes a shared symbol of the future.

In 1851, an epic poem entitled ‘The New World’ was published, taking as its starting point the struggle for liberation in Hindustan, the Persian name for modern day India. Its author, Ernest Jones, was a prominent figure in the Chartist movement. He was a poet, a politician, and a forerunner of modern Socialism. In his biography of Chartist figures, G. D. H. Cole introduces Jones by saying that through the 1850s he was the ‘one remaining leader of any note’. And, by the final hundred lines of ‘The New World’, this celebrated labour laureate is also describing the ‘mild Pacific smiles’ of a newly rising empire. These smiles — now the optimistic markers of a better future — introduce a utopian vision that is suitably ‘glorious’. The poem imagines a world in which there is only ‘one language’, where ‘beasts of prey’ have become an extirpated race, and ‘Heaven and Earth uniting melt in one’. In his vision of the future, there is no room for ‘war’ or for ‘slavery’; all men are created equal and all evil is banished from the world.

Thus, it is with a tone of obvious disbelief that Peter Scheckner ends his potted summary of the poem; in this revolutionary future, he writes, bourgeois rule is overthrown and ‘somehow a classless society results’. But to call these utopian visions unbelievable is to somewhat misunderstand the purpose of utopia. This idyllic vision was never intended to be entirely quantifiable. Indeed, the very last line of ‘The New World’ anticipates our confusion and reflects once again on how this future was conceived: it was a conscious decision to make ‘His heart his compass’. Now, the Chartist future begins to make a lot more sense. These poems survive in a future not of fact, but of feeling. A future that is only ever possible in poetry.

Whilst ‘The New World’ creates an entire rising ‘Empire’ to fulfil its prophecy, ‘Song of the Future’ uses the more common Chartist trope of a coming ‘day’. It can distil the entirety of a world yet to exist into the human time frame of twenty-four hours, just as easily as it can take the immense toil of a single day and stretch it out for an eternity. In Chartist poetry, time itself becomes mutable, shaped by their experience of the past and distorted by the violence of the present. Understandably, poets chose to order the chronology of their movement differently.

Thomas Cooper, in his poem ‘The Time Shall Come’, delights in toying with the expectations of his reader. A member of the Leicester Chartists, Cooper was an autodidact shoemaker who was once the leading figure of working-class poetry. In 1846, Cooper had been expelled from the National Charter Association in a motion tabled by Ernest Jones; as one poet fell, another poet rose. Now taking time as his subject in ‘The Time Shall Come’, the act of reading becomes a waiting game. Testing our patience, Cooper begins every one of his six stanzas with ‘The time shall come’. To be a Chartist in 1850, he warns, requires patience:

The time shall come when wrong shall end,
When peasant to peer no more shall bend;
When the lordly Few shall lose their sway,
And the Many no more their frown obey.
Toil, brothers, toil, till the work is done,
Till the struggle is o’er, and the Charter won!

(1–6, The Time Shall Come)

At first, the poem seems to promise something that is never quite delivered. The repetition of lines beginning with ‘When’ would appear to indicate a timeframe that, frustratingly, is never actually articulated. We are left with only uncertainty, forced to turn back to the present as the only tangible place of earthly reference. The repetitive ‘toil’ of the workers is the obvious driver of change and Cooper resorts to a relatable lexis of work and labour with which to frame it. The future can only begin, the poem proposes, when ‘the struggle is o’er, and the Charter won’.

Yet the puncturing effect of reality undermines this brief moment of positivity. Although Cooper would not yet have known this, the Charter would never be submitted to parliament again. In the poem, just as in the present, the Charter is soon replaced by more abstract concepts of ‘Justice and Love’. Specificity is swept away by the idealised concepts of ‘Mercy and Truth’. The unsatisfying half-rhyme of ‘done’ and ‘won’ similarly disappears, supplanted in the fourth stanza by ‘free’ and ‘jubilee’. By the final lines, it is clear for everyone to see. The future has not arrived, the time had not come, and the workers must still toil.

The poem repeats itself. And as the future is pushed further and further away, we gain very little understanding of what it may look like. It is, after all, framed almost entirely in terms of negation. Its focus is on what will happen ‘no more’ and, as such, the present is fixed in its certainty. We know and are explicitly told about the ‘sway’ of the few and the ‘bend’ of the peasant, but the future is mutable in the opposing reactions that come to define it.

Chartist futures are often defined by what they are not. They are characterised by a common rejection and reversal of the present. Slowly moving towards a new world, ‘The Time Shall Come’ begins a process of transformation that will exchange the ‘frown’ of the ‘lordly Few’ for the ‘smile’ of a contented ‘factory child’. In much the same way, ‘Song of the Future’ sets its ‘smile’ of a better day in direct contrast to ‘base oppression’s frown’. Here, symbols of hope are created to replace symbols of oppression and, through struggle, the people reverse their woes as the entire world turns accordingly.

Thus, these narratives of reversal reformulate the Chartist future as a return to the past. Writing pseudonymously in The Red Republican, the Christian Socialist Gerald Massey directly evokes the notion of a long-forgotten ‘“Merrie England”’ and, published in The Northern Star, the poem ‘Our Future’ by the unknown poet ‘C.H.B.’ explicitly works to ‘bring back a “Golden Age”’ again. With their obvious use of quotation marks, these poems are evidently aware of their own limitations. They doubt their own origin and they question their own history. Shelley writes, in A Defence of Poetry, that ‘the future is contained within the present, as the plant within the seed’. To look forward, one must first look back and, by reclaiming the past, Chartists were laying claim to the future. The world, as Ernest Jones argues in his journal Notes to the People, is ‘topsy-turvy’; it has been turned upside down by the monopolising forces of oppression and must be put right. The future, in this particular conception of it, becomes a world stolen from the very people intended to look after it.

The land it is the landlords;
The traders’ is the sea;
The ore the usurer’s coffer fills,
But what remains for me?
The engine whirls for masters’ craft,
The steel shines to defend,
With labor’s arms, what labor raised,
For labors’ foe to spend.
The camp, the pulpit, and the law
For rich men’s sons are free;
Their’s, their’s is learning, art and arms;
But what remains for me?
The coming hope, the future day,
When wrong to right shall bow,
And but a little courage, man!
To make that future — NOW!

(1–16, The Song of the Future)

In 1852, Ernest Jones published his poem ‘The Song of the Future’ in the second volume of his journal Notes to the People. It begins by stating that the ‘land it is the landlords’ and the ‘traders’ is the sea’ and thus appears to accept the relationship between man and planet as one of owner and property. Indeed, under these rules of distribution, such divisions seem natural. Now that one has become master over the other, ‘traders’ assume their role as the subject of the sentence whilst the ‘sea’ is relegated to the status of an object. Similarly, the ‘lord’ of ‘landlords’ is stressed by the metre, emphasising their seemingly innate position of power over the earth.

But so too does this momentarily evoke the ‘Lord’ left out of the relationship and the absence of God under capitalist rule. According to this version of history and theology, it is a Christian God that made man the custodian of the world and it is money and greed that has corrupted that. In order to succeed, the Chartists must therefore reclaim the earth and reverse the destructive effect of oppression. This biblical ideal, of achieving paradise on Earth and reclaiming a lost Eden, runs throughout the poetry of the movement, implicitly connecting the Chartist utopia to the ultimate western utopia of Christian religion. Steeped in religious significance, the bright smile of the future is also the divine light of God.

The last sixteen lines of the poem present a utopian vision in which a popular uprising of the working classes takes back control; they reclaim the ‘lands’ once taken by the landlords, they tear down the ‘palaces’ that they themselves built, and they turn their back on the ‘cherished graves’ that once so dreadfully defined them. After noting that the capitalist class ‘think us dead’, Jones puns on the phrase ‘rise again’ and, in doing so, remodels the revolution as a form of resurrection. The working classes undergo both a political and spiritual awakening; they are the chosen people of God and, as their new world explodes with activity, divine justice replaces injustice. The future cannot be dangerous, nor revolution unwise, if presented as the instruction of God.

As we focus in on the Chartist future, language itself become an agitator for change. It creates patterns of words waiting to be broken; it reworks old phrases with new meanings; and it repurposes metaphors of progress for use in its structure. Thus, the future becomes a place of certain conclusion. It is realised in the very final stanza of a poem, its glorious splendour delayed until the grand finale. Thus, in Chartist poetry, revolution is inevitable. However, the way in which we get there is far less obvious.

For the Future are we building;
For the Future do we plan
How to-day may best be wielding
All the varied powers of Man,-
Even the least one duly prized,
All their differings harmonised.

(1–6, For The Future)

In 1853, W. J. Linton published his poem ‘For The Future’. The poem charts the progress of a changing world by using several different analogies, neatly segmented into separate stanzas. The first is a metaphor of construction, a new world the people themselves are ‘building’. In this analogy, significant structural change occurs but only as a result of intricate planning. The second metaphor imagines labourers ‘sowing’ the fields of the future, emphasising the gradual pace of deep-rooted change. Just as in the first stanza, humans are the agents of this future; they sow the seeds and, when ‘the ripen’d sheaves’ have grown to their upmost height, collect them ‘for Humanity’. The goal for each activity is clear: one will have built their building, whilst the other will have sown their field. The Chartist future that they describe is the only future imaginable; it is familiar and logical, positive and inevitable.

Similarly, in John Booker’s poem ‘The Upward Pathway’, travel is used as a device of inevitable change. Booker was an unknown working class poet, but his poem rose to prominence when it was published by The Northern Star in 1851. It envisions an ‘upward pathway’ that has already been built; a symbol of progress that leads, inevitably, to heaven. Thus, the future becomes the final destination of a journey to liberation. A Chartist future is the ‘heavenly goal’ and thus the movement itself becomes futuristic. Chartism is remodelled as a product of the future: to oppose Chartism is therefore to oppose progress.

But it was not all about heaven. Chartist poets were keen to stress the importance of human endeavour. Recalling the final stanza of ‘The Song of the Future’, we notice how abruptly the ‘future day’ trails off. With the labourers caught in a state of flux, fleeing from their ‘lonely homes’, it is left to those in the present — the ‘NOW!’ — to provide a conclusion. They are implored to ‘make that future’ come early and once again time threatens to be distorted. Now, instead of being distorted by oppression, it is being distorted by forces of anti-oppression. Now the working classes are reclaiming the land and the language for themselves; they will no longer make the steel and engines that they did before, but instead, working for themselves, they will ‘make’ the future.

Mike Sanders writes that Chartist poetry ‘is drawn ineluctably towards resolution’. But just what that resolution entails seems far less certain. Time and time again, imaginings of the future break off in the final stanza of a poem to stress the importance of human agency and better channel the stirring feelings of reawakened hope. The third and final metaphor of Linton’s poem ‘For The Future’ is the sound of an entire chorus ‘singing’. The poem itself was intended to be sung and it was set to a recognisable melody, the air of ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. As song becomes a metaphor for progress, the poem leaves us at last with a sense of change already happening; as the Chartists sing these words together, they see a future already forming in the meetings of their movement. Human action and poetic description unite together in song for one shared purpose: the creation of a better future.

Thus far, I have focused on how Chartist poetry was used to inspire hope, create solidarity, and sustain the aims of the Chartist movement in the early 1850s. The Chartist movement was undoubtedly in need of desperate rejuvenation, a resurrection of the kind only ever found in its poetics. But the significance of radical poems written about the future runs deeper than this. In the same publication that W. J. Linton published his poem ‘For The Future’, he wrote an essay that announced: ‘Chartism is indeed dead. Bury it decently, and go home to think what next is to be done’. Yet throughout the 1850s he continued to write poetry. Chartism may have been dead, but its poetics lived on. Now more than ever, the future was seen as an important site of struggle. For the first time, Chartists allowed themselves to think past the legal changes of the Charter and dreamt instead of an entirely new world. The future became a battlefield for ideology and a laboratory for universal suffrage. A blank, open page for new, radical ideas.

Suddenly, old debates were reignited. Linton’s pseudonymous poem ‘The Fury’ was published in 1853 in his own publication The English Republic. It dispenses with all pretensions of a peaceful revolution, unambiguously declaring in its very first line: ‘Let there be war! Fierce, unrelenting war’. Its imaginings of a ‘dark flood’ echo previous Chartist analogies of natural disasters sweeping across the world, but now it has become bloody and war-like in its nature. Similarly, the poem’s conclusion — ‘The flame dissolves the chain: / Our destiny hath won’ — is a typical moment of liberation and yet the manner in which this is achieved is distinctly destructive. Before, whenever chains have been broken it is done in more creative ways, such as the ‘One pulse in million veins’ that ‘Will break the strongest chains’ in Jones’s ‘The People’s Anthem’. Now, in the dying days of Chartism, the aims and tactics of the movement were all up for debate and it was on the stage of futurity that these debates were played out.

As the leading figures of the Chartist movement began to split ideologically, it was only a matter of time before they were all raising different coloured flags in the name of progress. When W. J. Linton wrote that ‘I fling aloft the Banner of the Future’, it was perhaps the one flag with which no Chartist could disagree. Of course, in reality, Linton was already using the tricolour flag of republicanism on the front cover of his publication The English Republic. George Harney had turned towards the red flag of Socialism in The Red Republican, whilst Feargus O’Connor was still using the green banner of Chartism in The Northern Star.

In 1850, Gerald Massey had his poem ‘The Red Banner’ published in The Red Republican. Glancing at the title, one might assume that the future it imagines is a future exclusively for Socialists — one in which only those holding the eponymous red banner can find any comfort — and yet, in his preface to the poem, Massey writes: ‘Let Chartists, Communists, and Republicans unite in one common bond’. Here, the red banner is not exclusively the red flag of Socialism, nor even the triumphant flag of the French Revolution; instead, it symbolises the blood of all the men and women who have died for the cause. Similarly, Massey addresses all readers with the epithet ‘Soldiers of Freedom’. In the struggle for liberation, all factions are united and all soldiers must fight both for the figure and for the idea of ‘Freedom’. This is a common Chartist trope. And once again the language of Chartism finds another home.

In another poem that Gerald Massey had published in The Red Republican one month later, he stresses the ideal of ‘Fraternite! Love’s other name’. By using one of the three slogans of the French Revolution, Massey looks to French republicanism not only for his imagery, but also his language. Yet that concept of ‘Fraternite’ is explained and rationalised in keeping with a Chartist ideology; the light that it brings to the ‘poor man’s heart’ is the same light of heaven in ‘The Upward Pathway’, the same light of change in ‘We May Yet See Happier Days’, and the same light of a ‘better day’ in ‘Song of the Future’. And thus, in a deliberate echo of common Chartist tropes, so too does ‘Fraternite’ bring about a ‘world with smiles more sunny’, transforming its Socialist future into the familiar future of Chartist poetry. The old tropes and symbols of Chartist poetics remain and, throughout the 1850s, they are still being remodelled and reused by working class poets in an attempt to continue the construction of a shared poetics.

Indeed, it was with this shared radical voice that Chartist poets had always intended to unite the movement. In many ways, that voice was the literary embodiment of the movement’s most utopian aspirations. Its ideology was changeable and indistinct, a product of a mass movement vastly diverse in its makeup. But the freedom to imagine the future was an idea that revelled in the freedom of the mind. ‘Song of the Future’, the poem written by an anonymous poet in 1850, explains how visions of a better world can escape their fanciful state of dream-like deception. Once again, freedom is the defining feature of the future. But it will only ever be achieved by the acquisition of ‘knowledge’ and the use of ‘moral might’. Thus, the Chartist future is only ever possible through equality of education and freedom of thought:

But knowledge sows the seeds of right,
Which grows in every mind,
And teaches men that moral might
Will freedom’s beauty find.

(9–12, Song of the Future)

Timothy Randall writes that in Chartist prison poetry ‘the individual mind, through memory and imagination, is the key which releases the prisoner’. This is also true of these later poems that are so concerned with different interpretations of the future. In bleak times for the movement, poetry provided a place in which the imagination could be set free. It provided a utopian space in which abstract ideals could be made manifest and men could be made equal. Chartist poets were a window to the future. They embodied all the values of the movement and, just by existing, proved that those value were possible. The unknown glove-maker that wrote ‘Song of the Future’ overcame so much just to write those few lines. They battled through adversity and wrestled with poverty. To do that today is still a revolutionary act. Indeed, the very notion of a working class poet was, in itself, gloriously futuristic.

Looking towards the future, the working class poets of the Chartist movement dreamt of a future that would one day be made possible. Of course, they had no way of knowing that their demands would eventually be met, but that did not stop them from dreaming about it — to revel in the sprawling possibility of the future. To dream. To imagine. To smile.

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Sam J Knights

writer, actor, activist, clown | writing about imagination, revolution, and the end of the world