MASSEY'S EARLY POEMS.
"The overall importance of socio-political and
religious reform verse in the first half of the 19th century,
particularly when written by artisans, is only recently being
considered. Radical newspapers and periodicals provided the
largest circulation for this material, with many provincial papers
publishing verse which had political protest or land reform as their
theme. Massey's considerable output during four years of active
involvement with Republicanism and the Christian Socialists'
Co-operative ventures, played an essential role in the dissemination of
radicalism to the working class. Critics of poetry have denounced
such verse as 'shouts' without taking into consideration the readership
for whom it was intended or the importance of its social function."
David Shaw, from his
Gerald Massey's best known — and arguably his best — poetry is that which he
wrote at the start of his "lyrical life" for publication in radical newspapers of the late 1840s and early 1850s. He wrote
much poetry thereafter, but nothing that approaches the
drama of his early exhortatory fiery protests, verse that provides us with a window
onto the aspirations of the working-classes in an age when their daily
struggle for survival was quite literally that. But as
J. J. Bezer and, in an earlier era,
Samuel Bamford together with many others found to
their cost, mounting any meaningful protest was fraught with grave
risk — the prison cell and the transportation ship beckoned. To
those who read them (or to whom they were read), Massey's
radical poems, such as Hope
On! Hope Ever!; Yet We
Are Brothers Still; Up
And Be Stirring; We'll
Win Our Freedom Yet!;
The Famine-Smitten; Song Of
The Red Republican; and his notable
The Cry Of The Unemployed,
while doing nothing to fill empty bellies, gave hope …
There be stern days a-coming—
The dark days of reckoning!
The clouds are uplooming—
The long-nurs'd storms wak'ning!
On heaven blood shall call
Earthquake with pent thunder;
And shackle and thrall
Shall be riven asunder!
It will come! it shall come!
Impede it what may:—
Up, People! and welcome
Your glorious day!
From … The Famine-Smitten.
Not everyone agreed that the publication of such revolutionary
sentiments served a useful purpose. One literary
critic, who unlike Massey probably had barely a nodding acquaintance with the
working-classes, in reviewing The
Battle Day and Other Poems by Ernest
Jones considered it preferable to make one's political point—as had
Jones—by languishing in
prison cell rather than "raving
like a madman". . . .
"We were never more struck by contrast than when a
comparison suggested itself with Gerald Massey's first volume.
How startling is the difference between the man who does and he
who talks of doing. The young Republican poet tells us
(and we fancy him foaming at the mouth as he does so) that
"We'll win our freedom yet". He declaims most furiously
against tyrants in general, and does not simply "war", but
howls, for liberty, and that, too, in tremendous tones.
But we have yet to learn that he has, by active personal
exertion, done anything to swerve the ranks of the democratic
party either at home and abroad. Mr Jones, on the
contrary, whose whole life, since he first attached himself to
the cause of freedom, has been (with the exception of the two
years languished in prison), of incessant exertion on behalf of
the popular right, is content to let his actions speak for him,
and, with a taste that does him an infinite amount of credit,
avoids raving like a madman, choosing rather to strike the lyre
as a master."
The Bucks Advertiser & Aylesbury News,
15 Dec., 1855.
Edwin Waugh, writing some years later
about the appalling hardships suffered by the mill workers and their
families during the "Cotton
Famine", mentions Massey's Cry of the Unemployed being sung
for bread in the streets of Lancashire at a time when none of the
sentiments it expresses were in the least exaggerated . . . .
In "Sketches of Vagrant Life," which appeared in
the supplement of the Manchester Courier, in 1881, the
"Perhaps the best street-singer ever I heard
was during the Lancashire cotton famine in 1862. The
singer was a young man, with a capital tenor voice, who always
appeared in the streets alone, and sang to an air I have never
since been able to procure or to recognise, that grand poem of
Gerald Massey's, "The Cry of the Unemployed," of which the
following verse often brought tears to the eyes of those who
heard him sing it:—
Gold! art thou not a blessèd thing?—a charm above
To shut up hearts to Nature's cry, when brother
pleads with brother?
Hast thou a music sweeter than the voice of loving
No! curse thee! thou'rt a mist 'twixt God and man in
"Father! come back!" my children cry.
Their voices, once so sweet,
Now quiver lance-like in my bleeding heart!
I cannot meet
The looks that make the brain go mad, from dear ones
God of the wretched, hear my prayer! I would that I
The man who sang these noble lines in the
streets of Lancashire towns in the winter of 1862 was no
ordinary street-singer. His whole appearance, whether studied or
natural, accorded so well with the words he sang that crowds
used to gather round him, and the money given him,—for he never
asked or went round with the hat,—was considerable. It was
generally believed that he had set the words to his own music;
whether this was so or not there could not have been a more
beautiful finale than the way in which he sang last line of each
Lancashire Sketches, Vol II. —
OF THE WORKLESS
Although Chartism, that great socio-political movement to which Massey gave
his support during his early years and which spawned his radical verse, withered and died during the 1850s, its
aims had become too deeply rooted in the British psyche to be forgotten, to the extent that the
continues to affect our lives today …
". . . . how many of the greatest movements
in history began in failure, and how often has
a later generation reaped with little effort abundant
crops from fields which refused to yield fruit to their
first cultivators? . . . . in
the long run Chartism by no means failed . . . . the principles of the Charter
have gradually become parts of the British
constitution . . . . its restricted platform of
political reform, though denounced as revolutionary at
the time, was afterwards substantially adopted by the
British State . . . . before all the Chartist leaders
had passed away, most of the famous Six Points became
the law of the land . . . . the Chartists have
substantially won their case. England has become a
democracy, as the Chartists wished, and the domination
of the middle class . . . . is
at least as much a matter of ancient history as the
power of the landed aristocracy."
in history . . .
Massey christened his first published poetry
collection, "Original Poems and Chansons". Although no copy
is known to survive, a review published in the
Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury
News on 8th May, 1847, tells us something about it. The book's
publisher was Garlick (untraced in local trade directories of the time),
it contained 72 pages and was offered for sale in Massey's home town of Tring in Hertfordshire;
another source records that 250 copies were printed and sold at one shilling
each. It is not known if Massey had a publisher or, as the newspaper article seems to
suggest, it was published by subscription. The newspaper's reviewer quotes extracts from the "Battle of Ferozepore" and two other poems,
each of which is lost. Nothing else is known of Massey's first published
While researching local newspapers of the period,
historian Wendy Austin, besides uncovering the review of "Original Poems and Chansons" referred to,
discovered that during 1847 and for
a number of years thereafter, Massey's poems were published occasionally
in the Bucks Advertiser,
being variously attributed to A TRING
MASSEY, a peasant; T. MASSEY; T. G. MASSEY; and later, to
GERALD MASSEY. It is
also known that Massey published poetry in various radical newspapers and
periodicals with which he was associated during this period, sometimes
using the pen names BANDIERA or
ARMAND CARREL—a prudent
precaution at a time when it was unwise to associate oneself too closely
political views, particularly within the pages of an unstamped newspaper. Thus, although no copy of
"Original Poems and Chansons" has survived, the following poems taken from the
Bucks Advertiser and
publications of this period serve to illustrate Massey's
developing style prior to his earliest surviving published collection, "Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love"
The following are listed in chronological order
within the journals from which they were taken. Massey often revised
his poems between publication, sometimes quite substantially, as is
illustrated, for example, by comparing the first edition of his popular
No Dearth Of Kindness" (November, 1849) with editions published
in 1850, 1851,
and his final thoughts on the subject in 1889.