Poetry played an important role in Victorian political culture. From rhyming election squibs celebrating a prospective candidate, to Members of Parliament reciting classical verse in the Commons, political versifying was prevalent. To celebrate National Poetry Day, we offer a small selection of poetry delivered both inside and outside the walls of the Victorian Commons.
Poetry was an intrinsic part of electioneering and candidate posturing in the nineteenth century, with a range of doggerel taking its place alongside handbills and cockades as campaign ephemera. At a meeting of Liberal supporters in the North Riding at the 1857 general election, for example, the opposition candidate Edward Stillingfleet Cayley, who had gone through various changes of party allegiance, was mocked by Alderman Leeman, who referenced a poem about being:
Nor Whig, nor Tory, nor this, nor that,
Not bird, not beast, but a kind of bat,
A twilight animal, true to neither cause,
With Tory wings, but Whiggish teeth and claws.
Cayley himself was of a literary bent, and in a Commons debate on the repeal of the corn laws in 1846, he turned to verse to denounce free trade, quoting a popular rhyme:
Woodman, spare that tree;
Touch not a single bough;
In youth it shelter’d thee,
Do thou protect it now!
Cayley was far from alone in using the debating chamber as a forum for literary quotations. Charles Du Cane, Conservative Member for Essex North, invoked Shakespeare’s Hamlet when arguing against the 1859 church rate abolition bill, declaring:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Du Cane’s poetic posturing came back to haunt him, however, when his motion against Gladstone’s 1860 budget was heavily defeated. The satirical magazine Punch mocked his and Disraeli’s failure:
Diz and Du,
Made motions to
Knock over the ministers’ budget,
The House felt bored,
Pert Diz was floored,
And Du was driven to trudge it.
Happy National Poetry Day!