The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 5. The Saint’s Tragedy

That, after he had plunged into the struggle, his name speedily became prominent among those engaged in it, was, in no small measure, due to the reputation which, in this fateful year, he had rapidly acquired by his earliest published literary work. When he declared that, previously to this, he had not written five hundred lines in his life, he, of course, meant in verse, though, even in that form, he can hardly but have perpetrated, in blank or time, other Juvenilia besides Hypotheses Hypochondriacae. His lyric gift awoke early; but its best remembered fruits belong to a date rather later than his one dramatic work. The Saint’s Tragedy (1848) had been designed neither as a drama nor for the public eye—still less, of course, for the stage, from which he had an inherited aversion, and which he found it difficult to judge equitably. The work, which was to have been followed by a biographical essay on St. Teresa, had been begun in 1842, and it was not until five years later that it took shape as a drama. Kingley’s own introduction to this dramatic poem shows it to have been written with the definite purpose of liberating his soul on the subject of the medieval conception of saintship—or religion in its loftiest phase—as a condition of mind and soul detached from human affections even of the strongest and the purest kind. As a drama, The Saint’s Tragedy cannot be said to be powerful, although the character of the heroine is both deeply conceived and consistently elaborated through an action of which the interest grows more and more intense as it proceeds. The blank verse of the play, on the whole, is adequate, but, in one or two lyrical passages with which the dialogue is interspersed, the mixed metre is not very happily managed; while the prose strives too perceptibly after colour.

It was, as has been said, in the year of the publication of The Saint’s Tragedy and that in which there appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, as first of the large number of contributions made by Kingsley to periodical literature, a paper not wholly alien in thought to his dramatic poem, that he and his fellows first bethought themselves of making a sustained attempt to meet the chief trouble of their times. During the decade which preceded the transmission to the house of commons, on 10 April, 1848, of “the people’s charter,” that document had become, as it has been well put, “the banner of the working classes round which millions gathered”; and, on the securing of its “points” of political reform, the mass of English workmen had resolved to concentrate for the present their efforts towards ameliorating their social condition and obtaining their desired share in the government of the country. At the same time, while primarily directed to the gain of the charter, the general movement named from it stood in close relation to those projects of social change which, of late years, had, in a great part of Europe, come to occupy the minds of working men and those in sympathy with their claims. These projects had been urged with increasing persistency since the Reform bill and the French July revolution seemed to have established the ascendancy of the middle classes in England and in France. Thus, the avowed object of the Working Men’s association, founded in London in 1836, was to bring about, by means of the equality of political rights which the charter would secure, a full enquiry into the social grievances of the working classes. Both country and town were concerned in these grievances: the decline of agriculture and the approaching extinction of small landholders, the troubles of the towns, more especially those in manufacturing districts, and of London, the lowering of wages owing to immigration from the country and from distressed Ireland, the sudden developments of machinery, the sufferings of those employed in sweated trades, the pressure of excessive hours of work in factories upon men, women and children and the insanitary conditions of their daily life, while left unprotected against the inroads of infectious disease.

These were some of the causes of a movement which deeply stirred all men and women of the age with thoughts and feelings to spare for concerns outside their own doors and apart from their immediate cares and interests, and which led not a few of them to believe that England was on the eve of a social crisis incalculable in its results. And it was to meet, so far as in him lay, the demands facing him, that Kingsley and his friends went forth—stimulated, no doubt, to quick action by such words and wishes as those of F.D.Maurice, who hailed in him another “Thalaba, with a commission to slay magicians and put the Eblis band which possesses our land to rout.” He and his associates proposed, in the first instance, to obtain the goodwill of the working classes, whom their efforts were, above all, to bring to believe in the brotherly sympathy and aid offered to them. Their social grievances were not to be gainsaid or the sufferings to which they were subject minimised; and, again, the risk was to be cheerfully run, on their behalf, of being decried as identified with their cause—chartists with the rest of them. On the other hand, working men were not to be encouraged in the delusion that political concessions would, of themselves, assure social reforms—or, in other words, that the “points of the charter” went far enough and struck at the root of the matter. Support and advice of this sort was to be given by word and pen, in tracts and contributions to journals written for perusal by the workers, or in their interest, and by the spoken word on platforms, in lecture-halls and in the pulpit—which last, on one occasion, was used by Kingsley, with the conse quence of his being temporarily interdicted from preaching in London.

It was on the very morrow of the coup manquè of 10 April, 1848, when the storm had blown over, though, as it seemed, only for the moment, that Kingsley is found entering heart and soul into the scheme set on foot by Maurice, to bring out a new series of Tracts for the Times, addressed to the higher orders, but on behalf of the working classes—“if the Oxford tracts did wonders,” Maurice asked, “why should not we?” The design (as well as that of converting the then existing Oxford and Cambridge Review into an organ of the opinions of Kingsley and his friends, including James Anthony Froude) was, however, exchanged for the scheme, more directly to the purpose, of Politics for the People, a series of tracts, addressed to the working classes themselves. To the “Workmen of England,” Kingsley spoke his first word in a placard signed “A Working Parson,” posted all over London on 12 April, urging them to aim at “something nobler than the Charter and dozens of Acts of Parliament”—“to be wise, and then you must be free, for you will be fit to be free.” To Politics for the People, of which the first number appeared on 16 May, he contributed a series of papers under the pseudonym Parson Lot (a name adopted by him in humorous commemoration of a gathering of friends and fellow-workers in which he had found himself in a minority of one). They were partly admonitions, friendly but outspoken, to trust to a better guidance than that of political animosity, partly endeavours to direct attention to the great opportunities for action open to those who would set their shoulders to the wheel, or exposures of the abuses that needed and admitted to reform. About the same time, he wrote papers for The Christian Socialist, and The Journal of Association, and for a penny People’s Friend—all of which periodicals owed their origin to this season of eager effort. He also produced a number of tracts and pamphlets, of which Cheap Clothes, and Nasty, one of a series on Christian socialism, with its fierce attack on the ruthless application of the principle of competition, brought down upon him the ire of W.R. Greg in The Edinburgh Review; while The Friends of Order was, rather, a defence of himself and his fellows as combatants on the side of society against anarchy. In general, amidst all the vehemence of controversy, the “foul-mouthed, ill-tempered man,” as he half-ironically called himself, not only repeatedly exhibited the virtue of self-control, which was part of his manliness, but, also, asserted the right of individual judgment, which was dear to his love of freedom. Neither the teetotal movement, nor, in the long run, the agitation for the rights of women, could reckon him among its champions. On the other hand, certain lines or branches of social reform werea advocated by him from first to last with unabating vigour—and, among them, he always conceded to sanitary reform the place to which the virtue which it has in view is proverbially entitled.

To Kingsley’s sermons at this period of his life we need not specially return. But, unlike most of his fellow-workers, Kingsley possessed, besides the gifts of an orator and a moralist, the strong imaginative faculty which made him a poet. This faculty, like most of his other gifts, he kept under restraint; and, while he rarely cared to use it without a definite purpose—moral or practical, or, more frequently, both—neither pleasure nor profit induced him to wear it out. This showed itself even with regard to the form of imaginative composition which he now came to essay.