Alton Locke, Tailor And Poet

by Charles Kingsley
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"The Cruel Crawling Foam"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Context: The Reverend Charles Kingsley was deeply interested in the workingman and in the labor movement. Labor's militant spirits in the 1840's were the Chartists; this group demanded a Charter which would guarantee certain basic rights to labor. A number of the reforms they agitated for actually took place, and the group then split into the two movements which ensued: coöperatives and trade-unionism. Kingsley supported the Chartist movement, and wrote a number of articles for various radical labor papers. He believed that in order for any labor movement to succeed, it must be based on Christian motives; and he exhorted labor accordingly. In addition to these activities, he wrote one of the first labor novels, Alton Locke. This is the story of a young Cockney whose place in society is to be a tailor, but who is determined to surmount all obstacles and become a poet. He is befriended by a Scot, Sandy Mackaye, who is a Chartist and becomes as a father to him. Alton's mother is a strong Calvinist who does not want him to read anything but Scripture; when he disagrees with her doctrine she casts him out. The story, told in the first person, follows Alton through his encounters with the Chartists, his experiences in the sweatshops, his studies and his trials. He at length goes to an old cathedral town, where he is befriended by Dean Winnstay and falls in love with the Dean's daughter Lillian. At last the long struggle to write poetry while he lives as a hack writer is rewarded: the list of subscribers for his book is complete. Lillian and her father invite Alton to a party where he can meet various literary personages. During the party Lillian plays a haunting air on the piano and asks Alton to write her some verses for it. He obliges with "The Sands o' Dee," which in the novel is untitled:

"O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
Across the sands o' Dee";
The western wind was wild and dank wi' foam,
And all alone went she.
The creeping tide came up along the sand,
And o'er and o'er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see;
The blinding mist came down and hid the land–
And never home came she.
"Oh, is it weed, or fish, or floating hair–
A tress o' golden hair,
O' drowned maiden's hair,
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair,
Among the stakes on Dee."
They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea:
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home,
Across the sands o' Dee.

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