espite the frequent savagery of Swinburne's invective, which bristles with energetic denunciation and coarse analogy, he seems far more conservative and far less violent than a working-class poet like Gerald Massey. Although this product of Eton, Oxford, and a High Anglican family sincerely despises those who have deprived Italy of unity and freedom, he seems largely unaware of the condition of the working classes at home. Similarly, although Swinburne obviously delights in hurling invective at Pio Nono, Napoleon III, and others who have both oppressed the poor and deprived them of freedom, his is a purely verbal violence — something, one must admit, which is particularly appropriate to a poet. Gerald Massey, on the other hand, who is far less skillful a writer, makes it clear that he longs for real physical violence, probably because he has more experience of class injustice, dangerous working conditions, and the effects of being unable to find work than does Swinburne.
See, for example, Massey's "The Cry of the Unemployed." Hoxie Neale Fairchild, who includes Massey in his section on "Seers and Seekers" with similar social-protest poets of the working classes, suggests the odd inconsistencies in his position when he points out that in some poems Massey attempts to "give to Chartism something of the flavor of Kenelm Digby and the Young England Movement" ("Young England Movement," Religious Trends in English Poetry, New York, 1957, IV, 176-77).
Massey's characteristic use of extended and secularized types appears in his frequent citation of Exodus typology. The biblical account of how God freed His people from Egyptian slavery, prepared them to live as free men by their desert wanderings, and brought them at last to the promised land found ready application wherever people conceived of themselves as oppressed, and hence often appears in descriptions of the worker's lot. In the final pages of Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850), for example, the dying hero, who has heard the happy voices of his fellow emigrants to the New World "welcoming their future home," explains: "Laugh on, happy ones! — come out of Egypt and the house of bondage, and the waste and howling wilderness of slavery and competition, workhouses and prisons, into a good land and large, a land flowing with milk and honey." [On Locke's use of typology in the novel.]
Massey's "New Year's Eve in Exile" makes this usual application of such imagery drawn from the Exodus narrative when an aged fighter for freedom, whom the poet implicitly compares to Moses, prays: "Come, great Deliverer, call the peoples up, — / Up from the Egypt of their slavery!/ Ring out the death-knell of old Tyranny." This passage, which calls for a "great Deliverer," is somewhat unusual in his poems, since it appears a completely orthodox application of political types. In contrast, his "Song of the Red Republican, uses the same type, not to call upon God for deliverance, but solely to summon workers with "hands labour-brown, to battle for their own freedom:
Up, up from the Slave-land; who stirreth to stay us, Shall fall, as of old, in the Red Sea of wrath.
Here, as in so many of his poems, Massey's main interests are to awaken the lower classes to the possibility of freedom and to suggest to his fellow workers that their enemies will receive deserved vengeance.
His mention of the "Blood of Christ," a "promise-portal," and a "glorious Crown" reveals that, like so many working-class radicals Massey drew heavily upon Evangelical hymns and sermons for his images, rhetoric, and manner of proceeding. Similarly, "Down in Australia," which again cites the familiar Exodus type, combines it with allusions to Genesis, Isaiah, and Revelation, much as Evangelical hymns often proceed by juxtaposing types. According to Massey,
Fair Freedom's wandered Bird
Shall wing back with leaf of promise from the Old Land!
And the Peoples shall come out
From their slavery
into the freedom of Australia. Later, "when the smoke of Battle rises" after the revolution comes to Europe and England, tyrants shall fall and freedom, which Massey describes in terms applied to the Messiah in Isaiah and Revelation, "shall thrash her foes like corn." "The Exile to His Country" again alludes to this image of the winepress which was frequently interpreted as an analogue to the passage from Genesis 3:15 on bruising the serpent's head:
And many are the tears must fall, and prayers go up to God,
But swift the vintage ripens, and the winepress shall be trod!
The Harvest reddens rich for death!
The pervasive influence of Evangelicalism upon the British working classes accounts for the presence of such characteristically Evangelical rhetoric, tone, and imagery in the political poetry of Massey and other working-class writers. In particular, his zeal and certainty that vengeance would ultimately destroy the forces of evil has an Evangelical ring to it.
As the nineteenth century unfolded, the relationship of the various Evangelical denominations to the working classes became increasingly complex. After the enclosure of village lands, creation of factory towns, and growth of urban areas had begun to reshape the face of the nation, the established Church long failed to minister to the new working-class populations. During the late-eighteenthcentury religious revival, Evangelicals within and without the Church of England stepped into the spiritual vacuum created by the Church hierarchy's indifference and inefficiency. Tabernacles, chapels, and open-air prayer meetings brought religion to many in the lower orders, and Evangelical emphasis upon the centrality of the scriptures directly created an important increase in literacy.
Although the Evangelicals were.sincerely concemed with the spiritual welfare of the working classes, the extreme political and economic conservatism of many believers alienated many workers. Fairchild points out, like Mr Lyons in Felix Holt, the father of Ebenezer Elliott, author of the famous Corn-Law Rhymes (1831), had been "both a Methodist and a radical; but as the century moved on this combination, fairly common between Peterloo and the passage of the Reform Bill, became much more difficult to maintain" (Religious Trends in English Poetry, IV, 77). After many who had begun as both Evangelicals and radicals abandoned their original nonconformist beliefs, they still expressed their political views with Evangelical vocabulary, imagery, and rhetoric.
Although the Evangelicals led the battle to stamp out Negro slavery at home and abroad, they resisted legislation to outlaw child labor, protect the worker from unsafe conditions, or otherwise interfere between master and worker. Therefore, the charge became common that Evangelicals cared more about black slaves than about English workers who often endured worse physical deprivation than the explicitly enslaved. Ebenezer Elliott thus complains that the Evangelicals forget that charity begins at home:
Their Bibles for the heathen load our fleets;
Lo! looking eastward, they inquire, "What news?"
"We die," we answer, 'foodless in the streets,"
Oh, "they are sending bacon to the Jews!" (Corn-Law Rhymes, 1831)
Similarly, opponents, of whom Dickens was one of the fiercest, argued that the Evangelicals, who were devoted to foreign missionary work, spent too much time and energy caring for natives of Africa and the East when many British poor had great need for such assistance. Furthermore, the Evangelical emphasis upon a strict observance of the Sabbath led these denominations to support stringent Sunday blue laws which effectively took away innocent pastimes from the workers while leaving such diversions readily available to those with the time and money to enjoy them during the week.
Since the Evangelicals sought to raise the moral tone of the country by making blatant vice unfashionable, they often pursued policies which struck neutral observers as hypocritical. For example, their attempts to win over the rich, titled, and fashionable often suggested to many that the Evangelical Anglicans, who made so much of their emotional experience of Christ, were in fact toadying social climbers. Similarly, the Evangelical attempts to make vice unfashionable occasionally led them to bizarre policies: As I have pointed out elsewhere,
Evangelical organizers of societies to save "fallen women" thought nothing amiss in making well-known rakes, if titled, their patrons and honorary presidents, since such action would in the long run, they believed, serve the interests of morality. Thus, we have the grotesque situation in which those who helped women fall, and delighted when they did, presided over movements to stamp out their favorite pleasures. (See Ford K. Brown's Fathers of the Vietorians: The Age of Wilberforce, Cambridge, 1961, for a valuable detailed study of Evangelical social and political policy.)
As the nineteenth century went on, an increasingly large number of factors drove members of the working classes, as they drove members of all classes, away from orthodox religious belief. The Evangelicals, whose intellectual conservatism left them particularly vulnerable to the challenges of geology, biology, and comparative religion, lost the dominance of British religion which they had enjoyed during the first four decades of the century . Furthermore, as one might expect from the way they alienated many workers, they also lost ground with members of the lower classes. Broad Church Christian Socialism, High Church missionaries to the urban poor, and various secular movements, such as Marxism, also competed with them for adherents.
Nevertheless, in certain areas and under certain conditions, the laboring classes long remained loyal to Evangelical belief. In the slate-quarrying regions of North Wales, for example, nonconformist religion received strong support from local cultural and political factors. Merfyn Jones explains in his study of the slate quarriers that
Politics and religion sharpened and soured industrial relations in the quarries; every squabble was defined as a clash of cultures and traditions, of allegiances and values. The battle line was clear; on the one hand the quarrymen consciously upheld their brand of
Radical Liberalism, their Nonconformity and their Welshness; on the other side the masters not onlyjealously guarded their profits, but also defended the ideology and institutions of an English squirearchy's Toryism and Anglicanism.... Religion provided that massive sense of self-righteousness which characterized both quarryman and master. ["Y chwarelwyr: the slate quarrymen of North Wales," in Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, ed. Raphael Samuels, London, 1977, 129.]
Religion also provided the slate workers with the terms in which they conceived their lives and struggles with the quarry owners, and so one is not surprised to find these Evangelicals invoking Exodus types. Jones reports, for instance, that at a meeting of Dinorwic quarrymen in 1885 one of the speakers urged: "Do not go back to Egypt, my people." Within the complex social, political, nationalistic, and religious context of the Welsh quarrying regions, such citation of this commonplace passage does not comprise a secular or extended type at all. Rather the workers who urged their fellows not to retum to Egyptian slavery were continuing the long Puritan tradition of conceiving contemporary events within the bounds of biblical typology. Since the quarriers so consciously opposed their own nationality, politics, class, and religion to those of the quarry owners, they could easily believe themselves to be in the condition of Israel in Egypt. These clear-cut oppositions encouraged them to see the Anglican Tories who owned the quarries — and always seemed to have little understanding of how they should be worked — in the position of Pharaoh and his cruel overseers.
In contrast, many working-class applications, such as those made by Gerald Massey, use this Exodus typology emptied of its christological import. Whereas Christian interpretations of the Exodus stress God's role in redeeming man, political secularizations of such types use it merely as a powerful means of stirring the oppressed to fight for their freedom. Whether or not he who applies the secularized type actually believes in a Christian God, he frequently emphasizes that aspect of the Exodus narrative in which a fierce vengeance falls upon the Egyptians trying to recapture their former slaves.
Print version published 1980; web version 1998. Last modified 14 October 2002