Posts Tagged ‘‘The Water Babies’’

Poetry and the Workers in the 19th Century: Byron and Kingsley

May 15, 2014

The cause of reform and the condition of the working classes in the 19th century also attracted the support of some of the period’s greatest writers. These included Shelley, Byron, and Charles Kingsley, the Christian Socialist and author of The Water Babies. Byron and Shelley’s political radicalism is well-known. Shelley wrote his attack on the government and its brutal treatment of the lower classes, The Masque of Anarchy, after the Peterloo Massacre when hussars charged a crowd that had gathered to hear a speech by ‘Orator’ Hunt. Byron was a staunch supporter of radical movements for freedom. He died in Greece, where he had gone to join their war of independence against the Turkish Empire. In Britain, he declared that ‘poverty is slavery’, and wrote the Song of Luddites, celebrating the Luddite radical attack on the machinery that was depriving skilled artisans of their livelihood.

“As the Liberty lads o’er the sea,
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we boys, we,
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all Kings but King Ludd!

“When the web that we weave is complete
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep red in the gore he has pour’d

“Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew,
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!”

The Christian Socialists were a group of churchmen, deeply concerned at contemporary conditions for the poor, who wished to Christianise Socialism. Max Beer in his History of British Socialism says of him ‘But for his political principles, which somehow were bound up with Conservatism, he might have been a revolutionary Chartist leader. He publicly called himself a Chartist, although he was ready to eschew a thousand charters for the French cry of “organisation of labour” into co-operative workshops.’ (Max Beer, A History of British Socialism (New York: Arno Press 1979) Vol. 2: 182). He bitterly attacked the aristocracy and the capitalists in poems such as Yeast. This is particularly remarkable for its sympathy towards working class girls, who had children out of wedlock.

“You have sold the labouring man, squire,
Body and soul to shame,
To pay for your seat in the House, squire,
And to pay for the feed of your game.

* * * *

“When packed in one reeking chamber,
Man, maid, mother, and little ones lay;
While the rain pattered on the rotting bride-bed,
And the walls let in the day.

* * * *

“Our daughters with base-born babies,
Have wandered away in their shame;
If your misses had slept, squire, where they did
Your misses might do the same”.

Under Cameron ands his coterie of aristos, the working class truly are being sold for their seat in the House of Commons, as is their health through the stealth privatisation of the NHS. And the last stanza is still a very good corrective to the rants of the Daily Mail and other Conservative rags about unmarried mothers.