Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 Back

‘We’re only Swine!’ reiterates the author of ‘The Observations of a Swine’, published in The Sheffield Register for the 28th June 1793. In a reductio ad absurdum of Edmund Burke’s comment about the ‘swinish multitude’ three years earlier, the poem travesties British statehood, which is built on the ‘bristly back’ of ‘A nasty filthy grunting Breed!’ This furious sarcasm is indicative of the energy of the radical poetry published by the Register under the aegis of Joseph Gales, now resurrected by a digital anthology project based at the University of Sheffield. Aiming to illustrate an important ‘facet of the city’s identity’, the website updates an important reading experience from the turn of the nineteenth century ­– one that feels germane in a political climate obsessed by political extremism and definitions of freedom. With the project still in an early phase, the stress is currently on the final year of Gale’s editorship in 1793-4, before he was forced abroad by accusations of ‘conspiracy against the government’. The paper was then re-founded as The Sheffield Iris by the poet and abolitionist James Montgomery, and the content will grow across this historical narrative. Illustrating the proliferation of radical ideas in Northern England – including religious toleration, opposition to war and the broad terrain of ‘liberty’ – these sources capture a critical moment in the evolution of British imperial capitalism, as newly integrated networks of exchange played out upon a society still significantly modelled at the regional level.

With generous commentary in various formats, plus invitations for feedback and corresponding events, Print, Protest and Poetry draws on the intertextual capacity of the web to recreate a press culture that was itself powerfully dialogic. Adam James Smith observes in a blog post for the site that the pieces found in ‘poetry corner’ on page four of the Register and Iris ‘often write back to one another’. Work by Bill Overton has found that a minimum of five per cent of all poetry published in the eighteenth century was in epistolary modes, and these pieces, tucked in beside the letters and essays, exhibit the conversational bent of the genre. In this light, the decision to stagger the upload of material to recreate the effect of serialisation is especially apt, nicely restoring a fraction of its contemporaneity. Equally, audio recordings of the poems hint at a culture of reading aloud, sustained by partial literacy. In ideological terms, Smith makes the point that as the politics became more restrained under Montgomery, ‘the defiant spirit of the Register survived, concentrated and located exclusively in “Poetry Corner”’. The cultural capital of poetry in the aftermath of the French Revolution, heading into decades of reactionary anxiety in Britain, remains a thorny issue. Here at least the aesthetic provided a source of intellectual opportunity, summarised in the line from ‘No Libel to Think’, signed T. G.: ‘For we’ve freedom enough, while we’ve freedom to think.’

For all its subversive vigour, ‘The Observations of a Swine’ is part of a clearly defined tradition of radical whiggism in Britain. This discursive register is articulated even more baldly in ‘Patriotism’, from 3rd May 1793. As in many of the pieces, here again a biting irony underpins the verse, which narrates how ‘the sweat which toil produces, | Exhausts the intellectual juices,’ labelling those who would ‘vote for Senators’ in ‘Reason’s cause’ as ‘noisy knaves’, consigned to ‘be what Nature meant them – Slaves.’ Elsewhere the local frame is more apparent, as in ‘Lines by a Lady of this Town’, a widow’s lament for a fallen soldier (a significant subgenre within the war poetry of the period). The subtitle of the work again reinforces the circling threads of meaning constructed by the Register: ‘Supposed to be written by a young Lady of this Town, upon reading the following passage in our last paper: “They poured upon our troops a shower of grape and musket shot that brought to the ground some of our bravest men.”’ With much of the poetry at least ostensibly reader-submitted, a sense of a distinct Sheffield culture emerges, yet one plugged in to the major issues of the day. While advances in the technology of trade, warfare and communication were propelling a period of mass globalisation, life for ordinary British citizens in the 1790s remained more localised than we may tend to assume. Nowhere was this duality better realised than in the flourishing regional print culture. These papers embodied the nested public spheres demanded by Enlightenment theories of social progress. Just as the local was, for Adam Smith and others, only the first in a chain of sympathetic ties extending outwards, so the regional press signified expanding circles of influence, assimilating their publics into an international conversation. As Hamish Mathison, the director of this project puts it, ‘The Register brought the people of Sheffield together and connected Sheffield to the outside world’.

‘Think’st thou that Negro-flesh can feel a blow? | Think’st thou the Almighty ever cramm’d a soul, | O horrible!––in such a dead black hole?’ asks ‘Paul Positive’, the signatory of ‘The Slave Trade’ from March 19th 1794. This painful journey into the logic of institutional racism pulls no punches, its narrator perjured before both humanity (‘they’re Asses, downright Brutes, I swear’) and God (‘Think Providence!’). As might be expected, not all of the poetry unearthed here is brilliant, but Mathison and Adam James Smith deserve to be commended for a realisation of this politically combustible moment in British history. The digital anthology does a good job of mediating the formal aspects of the Register and the Iris, taking this materiality as a starting point and guiding principle. A corresponding book – Poetry, Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield, ed. by Hamish Mathison and Adam Smith (Spirit Duplicator, 2016) – has also been published, yet the website suggests a model that could usefully be replicated for other such case studies. ‘Britons may obey through love, | They may be led, but won’t be drove,’ writes ‘A Reformer of Sheffield’ in ‘The Ox Over Driven’. While the revolutionary crisis in France and the ensuing period of war would provide a final test of British imperial supremacy, this poetry penetrates into the internal struggle over the character of the State. It is also striking to see ‘first-hand’ Sheffield’s involvement in a newly continental and global conversation in this snapshot of 1793-4, demonstrating a porous circulation of ideas – though European politics would also come to have a profoundly isolating effect on British society as the reactionary backlash gained force. The Register and Iris present an instructive moment of radical verve, aptly reassembled by this project and captured in the urgency of the maxim, ‘We’ll think of our Rights, while we’ve Freedom to THINK!’

Disclosure: Adam James Smith, researcher and curator for the project, is Media Reviews Co-Editor at BSECS Criticks.