The Peterloo Massacre

Don Juan and the year of revolt

It is aston­ish­ing to us, now, that the amus­ing, clever, most­ly-light-heart­ed tales in Can­tos I and II of Don Juan were con­demned by the Eng­lish estab­lish­ment for blas­phe­my, deprav­i­ty and incit­ing mis­be­hav­iour (among the low­er class­es). Byron protest­ed, accu­rate­ly, that his poem was inno­cent when mea­sured by the stan­dards of Clas­si­cal Roman verse, or or Dante or even Mil­ton.

But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clear­ly delight­ed in it.

To appre­ci­ate the dar­ing, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bit­ter­ly charged pol­i­tics and near class-war­fare that gripped Eng­land in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The prop­er­tied class­es — nobil­i­ty, gen­try, the army, church and par­venu indus­tri­al­ists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody rev­o­lu­tion by work­ers and their rad­i­cal allies of the con­sti­tu­tion­al Reform move­ment.

I could not tell the sto­ry of that year bet­ter than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in Eng­land”

“In Jan­u­ary the labor­ers of Man­ches­ter parad­ed with red flags sur­mount­ed by red caps of lib­er­ty. In Feb­ru­ary and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and col­liers, and a month-long hub­bub in West­min­ster where a stormy bye- elec­tion was won by the pool­ing of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Rad­i­cals led by Byron’s asso­ciate Hob­house; crowds in Covent Gar­den attacked the suc­cess­ful can­di­date shout­ing “Hob­house for ever.”

In April the Quar­ter­ly [Review] came out with a tardy but copi­ous denun­ci­a­tion of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a pro­duc­tion of “that indus­tri­ous knot of authors” whose work “loos­ened the hold of our pro­tect­ing laws … and blas­phemed our holy reli­gion.”

The Peterloo Massacre
The Peter­loo Mas­sacre from a pam­phlet pub­lished by Richard Carlile

In June the weavers were mak­ing wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meet­ings swept the coun­ties, con­tin­u­ing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of ban­ners, plac­ards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reform­ers march­ing 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sid­mouth, “but rebel­lion and rev­o­lu­tion in their hearts.” That month the gov­ern­ment arrest­ed sev­er­al “mali­cious, sedi­tious, evil-mind­ed per­sons,” includ­ing the edi­tors of the [rad­i­cal week­ly news­pa­per] Black Dwarf and the Man­ches­ter Observ­er, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Rad­i­cal Ham­p­den Club Byron had joined in 1813.

[In July] John Mur­ray, in spite of pol­i­tics, pub­lished what anoth­er Tory called a dia­bol­ic bur­lesque poem “loose­ly writ­ten in every sense of the word called the Two First Can­tos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of pol­i­tics, with­out the names of author or pub- lish­er, but [rad­i­cal pub­lish­er William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Mur­ray),” and every­body knew it was Byron’s.

Bank­rupt­cies and the dis­tress of the labor­ers increased. In Keswick [Poet Lau­re­ate, Tory mouth­piece and Byron’s antag­o­nist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parcel­ing out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Man­ches­ter, where, said the gov­ern­ment papers, they would have been incit­ed to trea­son by the “demo­c­ra­t­i­cal” Ora­tor [Williamn] Hunt, but for the time­ly, if bloody, action of the mag­is­trates, most­ly cler­gy­men, on whose orders Con­sta­bles and Yeo­man­ry dis­persed the crowd with sabre and pis­tol, killing 11 and wound­ing 600.

Fol­low­ing [the] Peter­loo [“Mas­sacre”] the more extreme Rad­i­cals, [rad­i­cal Lon­don pub­lish­er Richard] Cari­ile for instance in his new Repub­li­can, open­ly defied the gov­ern­ment, urg­ing huge protest meet­ings and call­ing upon the peo­ple to “arm against the com­ing evil,” boast­ing “we can beat off the com­bined Yeo­man Cav­al­ry of the whole coun­try.”

In Sep­tem­ber the gov­ern­ment was still find­ing signs of the com­ing “simul­ta­ne­ous insur­rec­tion,” espe­cial­ly in an omi­nous silence on the part of the Rad­i­cals. [Arthur Welles­ley, Lord] Welling­ton sent “troops with can­non … into Cheshire, Lan­cashire, and York­shire.” The Duke of Hamil­ton report­ed that he had seen Rad­i­cals sur­vey­ing his park. Lord Dud­ley, in a more inclu­sive view, saw “the whirlpool of democ­ra­cy” swirling near­er. Alarm swept the Emer­gency ses­sion of Par­lia­ment that opened Novem­ber 23rd, short­ly fol­low­ing a pan­ic among the mon­eyed men. The ques­tion was not whether Reform­ers were march­ing “in mil­i­tary array” but how many thou­sands? Boo­tle Wilbra­ham claimed to have seen pis­tols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”

In Octo­ber hun­dreds of pul­pits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the lat­ter was con­vict­ed of sell­ing the “The­o­log­i­cal Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.

[In Novem­ber, William] Cobbett’s recent return from Amer­i­ca -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Rad­i­cal- had been fol­lowed by an omi­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the Rad­i­cal fac­tions. Alarm­ing enough to Tories and Con­ser­v­a­tive Whigs was the appear­ance, with­in Par­lia­ment itself, of two new Rad­i­cal mem­bers: Dou­glas Kin­naird and John Cam Hob­house, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as stu­dents in Cam­bridge], who was known to have joined their “Rad­i­cal Rota Club” in absen­tia.™ … [In the debate on the tri­al of the Peter­loo demon­stra­tors] Hob­house spoke so very much like an inciter to rebel­lion that the House, in mount­ing hys­te­ria, vot­ed him to a cell in New­gate jail.”

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prospero

Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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