THE OPERATIVE ON THE APPROACH OF SUMMER.
Title:The Operative on the Approach of Summer
Publication:The Bolton Chronicle
Date:July 25th 1863
This a poem at sea, but it begins with the unfolding of a golden summer. It is a reminder of the closeness of the natural world for many operatives. In the beginning Cotton Mills sprung up in the rural hilly places where running water provided power. Growing industry abutted wild moors, woods, streams and hills. The pastoral register here draws on still vivid memory in these places and is linked to a traditional holiday calendar that flourished during the Industrial Revolution. Wakes week at the height of summer celebrated the fruition of the year’s work with every open air amusement imaginable*. The poet’s description of a ripening summer anticipates these “sweets of creation”. But built into this anticipation is a contingency and sense of detachment. Summer comes slowly through the landscape, must coax with breezes and careful sunbeams returning beauty. Our fragile little image of the swallow must strive and hazard again and again the uncertainty of the ocean and “keen northern blast” to attain it.
The pivotal “But” of the poem, ushers in unseasonable weather and draws it close around our narrator to broaden the sense of detachment to a gulf. A dark and incongruous island of cloud inhabits him, while all around him exhibits summer’s fruition, he is an island of the great storm raging across the Atlantic. The Cotton Famine was so localised that operatives were isolated in their country, even from life in their own towns by an economy that continued to thrive. The cause was equally distant, in America’s interminable Civil War over slavery, which had been grinding on for years when this poem was written and was not yet half done. This poem laments more than one lost summer. The lonely longwearing hardship of the operatives is captured in the image of the cloud, they have become unsubstantial, solid labouring hands “hang idly” as if turned to vapour, being incorporeal they can watch, but not partake of the life that unfolds while they waste away. Seized by vast and distant forces they are swept helplessly out to sea and can only watch home dwindle into the distance.
The Pastoral has often been used to describe complex societal forces via contrast, because it provides a strong anchor of familiar images and patterns of life, the poet is accessing this sophisticated tradition to interpret newly disruptive forces of economic globalism. More importantly he is reminding operatives that they are not alone, using the Pastoral to embed a promise in the closing prayer for relief, which also embeds the idea of operatives as a community in making the prayer together. That is the promise of returning summer, even the unnatural season that has overcast them will give why to a summer of its own, feelings of fatalism are converted to a source of consolation in the idea that all things must pass. A reconciliation with that “Power” and “Author” which the narrator may have also felt cut off from in his misfortune, but who can offset the “strong tides” of that misfortune with “a look”. Imaging a power that offsets the vicissitudes of global capitalism takes a Biblical form here, but the search embodied by this poem will arrive at other forms too. Not least in the forms of social welfare that were attempted to relieve the distress caused by the Cotton Famine.