By Stephen Basdeo
During the 1830s, in spite of the passage of the ‘great’ Reform Act (1832), most working men could not vote, while women did not enter the equation at this point. So, in 1836, six working men and six MPs drew up a list of demands calling for political and constitutional reform. In its final form, this People’s Charter consisted of six demands: the vote for all working men; the abolition of the property requirement to serve as an MP; equally sized electoral districts; the secret ballot; salaries for MPS, so that working men as well as the independently wealthy could sit in the commons; and annual general elections. The movement—which acquired the name of Chartist—became the first mass working class movement; large-scale outdoor meetings were held which were attended by thousands, and three petitions were launched in the hope that the government would respond to and ratify their demands.
The Chartists left us with a large body of prose and poetry—much of which was often written by working class people—which sought, through the arts, to inspire its members to soldier on in their just cause in spite of government opposition. One prominent Chartist writer was William James Linton (1812–97). He was born in London to a lower middle class family who, throughout his life, campaigned tirelessly for political and constitutional reform. His politics were overtly radical and bordered on republican, and he often wrote under the name of ‘Spartacus’; it was a telling pseudonym and suggests that he was a proponent of ‘Physical Force’ Chartism, which favoured direct action over ‘Moral Force’ Chartism, which aimed to convince the elites to grant the people’s demands with kind words.
Above all, however, Linton considered himself a patriot. His patriotism was not a narrow patriotism based upon loyalty to the state but rather what Eric Hobsbawm would call the ‘social-democratic’ form of patriotism: loyalty to the people of the nation rather than state institutions. Patriotism in any country often depends upon a thorough knowledge or awareness of a nation’s past events and famous people. When the Chartists looked back to the past, they more often than not looked back to the medieval period for inspiration; Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was the figure who was chosen by them as their main historical forebear, and he was cast as the hero of the people in several Chartist poems and even serialised novels. Less is known, however, about Robin Hood’s place in the movement. I have previously written about ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ in my analysis of Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower; or, The Days of King John (1838), but Linton also appropriated the outlaw’s legend to serve a radical political cause.
The first Robin Hood poem which Linton wrote appeared in The Plaint of Freedom (1852). This was a privately printed collection of poems which circulated only among his friends. Simply titled ‘Robin Hood’, it is part of a much larger narrative of separate but connected poems which trace the onward march of democracy with resistance to tyranny from the ancient period onwards:
Yet far better in tangled wood
Than palaced with the tyrant’s men;
And nobler than a Norman den
The forest lair of Robin Hood
Ay, better even for yeoman good,
Than service under foreign lord,
To roam at will on springy sward
And rouse the deer with Robin Hood.
Cease villain! O’er thy woes to brood;
Be woodman’s law thy only friend,
Thy quarry vengeance: out, and bend
A freeman’s bow with Robin Hood!
A thankless life in the merry green wood:
Natheless in the shadow of Freedom there
Some worthier hearts may learn to dare
And aim beyond bold Robin Hood.
The poem was written towards the end of the Chartist movement; the failure of the 1848 petition, and the general fading of the movement towards the end of 1851, meant that reformers such as Linton would have to wait until seeing their goals fully realised. Linton’s poem looks back nostalgically to the time of Robin Hood. Although men were not ‘free’ in any sense during this time period—a fact acknowledged by Linton in the poem—there was one spot in England where men might roam free of any tyrants: this place was of course forest lair of Robin Hood. As a reflection of the idea, current among many Chartists in 1852, that there was still work to be done in the cause of political reform, Linton urges his contemporaries to be better than Robin Hood, to aim higher and achieve more, or, ‘aim beyond bold Robin Hood’.
Research tells us that English politics entered an ‘age of equipoise’ in the post-Chartist period. It is certainly true that there was a brief feeling of calm. However, while there were fewer mass meetings, people continued to organise and the question of universal male suffrage did not go away over the next decade. Former Chartist activists continued writing and pushing the cause of reform in the press; Linton wrote several articles for The Red Republican (which also published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto), and Linton himself also founded The English Republic.
Beginning in the 1860s, things picked up again as several new organisations dedicated to the cause of political reform were founded: The Universal League for the Material Elevation of the Industrious Classes (est. 1863); The International Workingmen’s Association (est. 1864); the Reform Union (est. 1864); and the Reform League (1865). And it was in 1865 that Linton published his next Robin Hood poem entitled ‘An Hour of Robin Hood’, which was published in Claribel and Other Poems:
An Hour of Robin Hood
O for an hour with Robin Hood, deep, deep in the forest green,
With fern and budding bramble waving o’er me as a screen,
In mid-noon shade,
Where the hot-breath’d Trade
Came never the boughs between.
O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,
Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathe, fragrantly,
Where heaven is seen,
And the smile serene
Of heavenliest liberty.
O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free
Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:
Better with men
In the wildest glen,
Than palaced with Infamy.
My life for a breath of Robin Hood, with the arrow before my eye
And a tyrant but within bow-shot reach: how gladly could I die
With the fame of Tell,
With Robin so well
Embalm’d in history.
O but to rest, like Robin Hood, beneath some forest green,
Where the wild-flowers of the coming spring on my mouldering heart may lean;
For England’s sward
Is trampled hard
With the journeyings of the Mean.
The forest is imagined once again as a place of freedom from tyrants. Yet interestingly, the freedom which the forest gives is not only one from overhearing Norman lord but also ‘from the noisome smoke’. This was an era, of course, of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, in the words of William Blake. Very particular to London and many industrial cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and Sheffield was heavy pollution which sometimes resulted in ‘pea-souper’ fogs which blackened buildings and shut out the sun for days at a time. The heavy pollution was one of the reasons why many children developed rickets, which is deficiency of Vitamin D (it causes ‘bow legs’ and ‘pigeon chests’ in children). This was not the first time that environmental concerns would be expressed in retellings of Robin Hood, for John Keats had famously criticised deforestation in Robin Hood: To a Friend (1818), and recently we have seen the rise of eco-critical studies of the Robin Hood tradition.
The Chartists wanted the right to vote. They had little to say about capitalism in its early years—they aimed to curb its excesses but were relatively speaking happy with the prevailing capitalist economic system. Linton was neither a socialist nor a communist, and criticised both groups in The English Republic. Yet it is clear that some influence from that movement has filtered through subtly into Linton’s poetry with comments such as ‘the market-place of human slavery’. These words anticipate some of the comments about capitalism and ‘the market’ which William Morris would make in News from Nowhere (1888). This being said, while Linton never embraced socialism, after 1848 many former Chartist campaigners took a leftward turn and found a natural home in the socialist movement.
After the (apparently) Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, died in 1865, the government decided to look into how it might extend the franchise. Yet these discussions were just that: discussions. With the passage of working-class suffrage yet two years away and by no means a sure thing when Linton was writing Claribel, we see much anger come through. Linton longs to have a tyrant to aim his bow at and, the story of England’s working class in the modern era is still one of oppression: England’s ‘sward’ is still trampled by the journeyings of the ‘mean’ who cannot enjoy the forest as Robin Hood of old did.
Linton, W. J., Claribel and Other Poems (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1865)
——, The Plaint of Freedom (London: Privately Printed, 1852)
Sanders, Mike, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)