Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy

February 2, 2012

"The King-times are fast finishing," wrote Lord Byron of the brief period with which John Gardner's book is concerned - August 1819 to August 1821. Gardner argues that these years, beginning with the Peterloo Massacre, embracing the Cato Street Conspiracy and concluding with the demise of Queen Caroline, marked a moment in which revolution in England became a possibility. He goes on to note that during that time, literature of all kinds - whether by canonical figures such as Shelley or Byron, pamphleteers including William Hone or the working-class rhymesters exemplified by Samuel Bamford - became the principal means by which ideas about politics were disseminated.

To some extent, Gardner draws together ideas that have been advanced elsewhere; as he observes, this is ground that has become more widely explored in recent years and provided the subject of some excellent commentary. Where he offers something new is in seeing the two years with which he is concerned as a "distinct literary period" and in formulating a thesis about the literature it generated. He brings fresh knowledge to his argument, for instance his work in archives containing the information passed on to the government about the Cato Street Conspiracy (an 1820 plot to kill the prime minister and Cabinet ministers by conspirators inspired by the radical thinker Thomas Spence). And he writes knowledgeably about Bamford's eyewitness involvement in the Peterloo Massacre. Even where canonical writers are concerned, he adds to existing scholarship: he is the first to identify the crocodile in Shelley's poem The Mask of Anarchy as a reference to Sir John Leach, and explains that Shelley's observation that the Riot Act was recited at a volume "not over loud" was technically correct. (It may, in fact, not have been read at all.) Although Gardner is not the first to write about Bamford, he has much of value to say about him.

Issue could be taken with the strategy of taking the years 1819 to 1821 as a "distinct" period. Intellectual arguments that take as their conceit brief spans of time (whether single years, months or days) can vary in effectiveness because the chronological range can seem arbitrary. Why, for instance, would it not be possible to date the beginning of the period of which Gardner writes to the three trials of William Hone in 1818? Hone is, after all, a principal character in the events Gardner describes, and the trials were a major event in his life - more so, perhaps, than anything that followed. I suppose it would have entailed a lengthier book, and Hone's story has already been told, in recent years, by Ben Wilson. Whether or not the years 1818 to 1821 would comprise a "period" in a more persuasive manner than the years 1819 to 1821 is also questionable.

Such matters aside, scholars of the Regency years will find much to enlighten them here, and in telling detail. Gardner points out the generic closeness of Shelley's and Bamford's literary responses to Peterloo, which extends beyond the matter of auctorial voice. And his discussion of the Cato Street Conspiracy gives full weight to the question of whether Byron's friend John Cam Hobhouse would have convened a provisional government had the plot succeeded. Even speculation as to whether Queen Caroline's lover, Bartolomeo Bergami, was a eunuch finds a place here. Gardner's volume thus offers a learned contribution to continuing discussion about the years in which, as he comments, public opinion was governed by the drama played out in the political prints, whether "a squib read from a newspaper, the windows of a pamphlet-selling shop, or a torn-off picture from a Hone pamphlet in a pub or coffee-shop".

Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy

By John Gardner. Palgrave Macmillan, 296pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230280717. Published 31 May 2011

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