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Poetry and political commitment in late nineteenth-century England

Macpherson, F.G.A.; (2011) Poetry and political commitment in late nineteenth-century England. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London).

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Abstract

The ‘committed’ writer as envisaged by Jean-Paul Sartre was one who used the medium of prose to incite the reader to effect change in the world; according to Sartre, poetry, with its tendency to treat language as an end in itself, could not be committed in this sense. There were, however, numerous poets in late nineteenth-century England who believed otherwise, writing verse intended to advance particular political causes. This thesis examines several of them, concentrating on writers who were committed to varieties of left-wing radicalism, and predominantly inspired by the aesthetics of the Romantic tradition. The Introduction sets out the historical and theoretical context of the thesis, with reference to the twentieth-century arguments of Sartre, Adorno and Bourdieu, which can be traced back to earlier debates on aestheticism. Chapter 1 looks at A.C. Swinburne’s engagement with the Italian republican cause in the poems published as Songs before Sunrise (1871), which exhibit his tendency towards idealised abstraction. Chapter 2 considers William Morris, a pivotal figure in the nascent socialist movement of the 1880s, whose background in writing medievalist narrative verse both shaped and limited his series of Chants for Socialists (1885) and the sequence The Pilgrims of Hope (1885-6). Chapter 3 looks at Edward Carpenter, a socialist writer and campaigner who wrote the long utopian poem Towards Democracy (1883-1904), inspired by Walt Whitman’s vision of homosexual comradeship. Chapter 4 surveys various ‘minor’ versifiers and commentators active in the same socialist milieu as Morris and Carpenter, including those who contributed to the songbook Chants of Labour (1888). Finally, Chapter 5 considers younger fin-de-siècle poets who diverged from the socialists either on grounds of aesthetic philosophy (e.g. Wilde) or political ideology (e.g. Kipling). A brief Afterword reflects on the seemingly diminished prospects for political verse in the twenty-first century.

Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Title:Poetry and political commitment in late nineteenth-century England
Language:English
Additional information:Permission for digitisation not received
UCL classification:UCL > School of Arts and Social Sciences > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Language and Literature

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