Title:A Batchelor's Fancy on the Distress
Publication:The Blackburn Times
Date:September 27th 1862
Perhaps fittingly for a poem depicting a society ball, this poem is composed in the metre which most resembles the waltz rhythm – the dactyl (123 / 123 /123), although it struggles to maintain this as its outlandish cast of characters (caricatures, really) are listed and lampooned. At seventy-two lines, it is quite long, but its sense of a dream narrative and underlying register of outrage sustain it. The form of address is first person through the ‘batchelor’, whose status as ‘just removed from poverty’s frown’ may mean lately escaped, or socially adjacent. In any case, this figure contrasts the suffering they see around them with the select social gatherings by imagining them into contact with each other. This is an unusual and clever imaginative device.
This is essentially a dream narrative which is reminiscent of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ (1819) but instead of that poem’s reimagining of the Peterloo Massacre with the major British political figures present, this poem imagines the rich in close contact with the suffering poor. Some of these caricature figures may be imaginary, and some based on real people, but where this poem does echo Shelley’s work is in the inclusion of ‘Old Pam’ (Lord Palmerston) and ‘Diz’ (Benjamin Disraeli) – real politicians with real political power during this period. This poem is heavily class conscious in a way that counters some historians’ characterisations of the Victorian working-class imaginary (if indeed the writer was working class, we have no way of knowing as yet), and suggests that, when sympathetic editors allowed for it, Cotton Famine poetry was expressing political anger as well as stoicism. – SR