In 1839 Britain teetered on the threshold of a revolution. The poet Capel Lofft aspired to trigger it by disseminating his incendiary epic, Ernest; or, Political Regeneration, among the working classes. Ernest narrates the sanguinary triumph of a popular insurgency, and provides a blueprint for founding a democratic-communist republic. This essay seeks to recuperate Lofft and draw attention to his forgotten masterpiece of Chartist poetry. I make a case for Ernest’s literary merit and historical interest, highlighting its standing as the British nineteenth century’s most strident justification of political violence. My reading of the poem shows that Lofft uses a logic of vanguardism to synthesize two deeply antithetical convictions: radical egalitarianism, on the one hand, and belief in the inherent superiority of the poet, on the other. In his eponymous protagonist, Lofft creates a seductive image of the committed artist-revolutionary, and thereby sublimates his own conflicting ideas about the poet’s relation to the demos. Lofft proved incapable of quelling his ambivalence in life, however. He swiftly withdrew Ernest from circulation, stifling his own call to revolt—and ensuring that his poem would be neglected by posterity.
- Capel Lofft
- Ernest; or, Political Regeneration
- Chartist poetry
- political violence
- revolutionary literature
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