Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

A deep suspicion of the church as a part of the oppressive state as expressed here by Shelley in Masque of Anarchy:

Lawyers and priests a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed ;
Like a bad prayer not over loud,
Whispering—‘Thou art Law and God

is mirrored here by Massey who also echoes Shelley’s use of the imagery of the desolation of the land:

Trust not the Priests, their tears are lies, their hearts are hard and cold—
The welcomest of all their flock, are fierce wolves fleeced with gold;
Rogues all! for hire they prop the laws, that make us poor men sin.

Ay! tho’ their robes are black without, they’ve blacker souls within.
The Church and State are linkt, and sworn to desolate the land—
Good People, twixt these foxes tails, we’ll fling a fiery brand!
Who fears the worst that they can wreak, that loveth liberty?
They are but Giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Tear away the veil and all you see is lumps of clay

Massey takes pains to emphasise to his reader that the supposed ‘mystery’ of monarchy is maintained only by a protecting veil. Kingship is nothing more than the unrevealed other, but tear away the veil and we find there is nothing special about royalty. In Tradition and Progress he tells us:

We’ve seen from blood-cemented thrones
    The gilding torn away,
And learn’d to look on lords and kings
As lumps of common clay.

In Things Will Go Better Yet the screen is provided by the church and constitutional position the monarch occupies.

Kings once proclaim’d their right divine,
    And many a deed of blood was done
Which no one dared to question then,
If screen’d by altar or by throne,

The idea of a monarch screened by a veil is familiar to us today where Elizabeth Windsor is protected by an extremely effective Public Relations machine which enjoys exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to deflect unwelcome intrusion. This stanza, however, also highlights a fundamental principle of modern republicanism, namely contestability. In this final example from Tradition and Progress we find Massey articulating another central theme which engages modern republicans:

That a kingdom’s welfare does not sit
    In bayonet-guarded laws.
But in leal hearts, together knit
    By love in freedom’s cause.

A society cannot be regarded as free unless there is public consent for enacted laws.  There must be a situation where civic society gives broad support to the laws of the land which must in turn support an active civic society.  Laws passed by a Government elected by a relatively small minority of voters (37% in the case of the 2015 UK General Election) will be viewed with suspicion.

In this post it has been possible to point out just a few of the ways in which the concerns of Gerald Massey echoed those of his poetic predecessor Shelley recast to reflect the new realities of a society in rapid development. Many of these issues are still relevant as are the suggested solutions which must be enacted for us to enjoy a free and open society. There is much more to explore in this fascinating radical, the best place to start being this excellent website by Ian Petticrew.

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