Qualified Violence in Luddite Literature

As new technology made it’s way into English factories, many employees found themselves out of work, replaced by machines that promised more efficiency and a higher turnout. Many of these men, as a result, formed themselves into a group of violent protestors headed by the enigmatic (and likely imaginary) General Ludd. The so-called Luddites made it their goal to break into factories and destroy the offending technology with sledgehammers, which they often referred to as “Great Enoch.” As the Luddites continued their assault on the modernized factory, a sort of culture formed within and around them. Songs and poetry, especially, helped this disparate group of aggrieved laborers form their own sense of identity and purpose. As a general rule, these songs glorified and justified the violence that the Luddites inflicted on the factories and, sometimes, factory owners. They sang the praises of great victories, and were particularly effective in using galvanizing language to promote further acts of violence. Interestingly enough, Byron, in his speech to the House of Lords on the matter, seemed, in a way, to justify the Luddites’ violence while simultaneously denying the notion that violence should be returned unto them. It is the intention of this essay to discuss the qualification of Luddite violence through the convincing and charismatic language present in both songs written by them and poetry and speeches penned by Byron.

The Luddites were especially skilled at justifying themselves and their rather radical actions. Songs like “The Cropper’s Song” displayed expertly selected diction. For example, in “The Cropper’s Song,” the Luddites establish, within the first stanza, a situation in which they look like heroes battling villains. They characterize themselves as “cropper lads of high renown, who love to drink good ale that’s brown.” They have elevated themselves, stating that they are of high renown, a word which here describes how famous (or infamous) they already had become, but simultaneously make themselves look sympathetic, more akin to the character of the “everyman;” they drink good ale and “love to… strike each haughty tyrant down, with hatchet, pike, and gun.” Now, while stating an intent to strike someone down with weaponry would generally be met with concern or trepidation, the Luddites manage to make it seem plausible and justified by pushing these factory-owners into the category of “villain;” they call them “haughty tyrants” and continue on to describe themselves as “gallant.” This dichotomy serves to create an image of heroes battling villains; it essentially allowed the Luddites to perpetrate their crimes without fear of morals getting in the way. In their minds, they were on the side of righteousness; like soldiers they would “forward march” to accomplish their will, and challenge anyone to face “Great Enoch” (their sledgehammers) and “stop him who can!”

Similar diction can be found in other Luddite poetry and songs, as in “Horsfall’s Mill” and “General Ludd’s Triumph.” In “Horsfall’s Mill,” the Luddites refer to themselves as “stout and bold.” They once again link themselves to soldiers: “They formed themselves into a line, like soldiers at the drill.” Such noble description is juxtaposed by the scene of senseless violence they just committed: “They broke the shears and the windows too, set fire to the tazzling mill… the wind it blew, and the sparks they flew, and awoke the town fill soon.” However, the Luddites still come off as having done the right thing; there is a sense of nobility present in the words they use, and their “faith” and their soldier-like stance imply a higher purpose that they are fulfilling. “General Ludd’s Triumph” also uses galvanizing language. They imply that violence was the only logical answer, stating that “Brave Ludd” (used here as synecdoche to represent the entire Luddite movement) “was to measures of violence unused till his sufferings became so severe that at last to defend his own Interest he rous’d…” This speaks of desperation; the Luddites were implying that, while they were not violent at their core, they were forced to change their nature to defend their livelihood. We also see that the factory owners are once again placed into a position of villainy. In the third stanza of the song, they are referred to as “the guilty,” and in stanza 5, they are also blamed as the cause for “that foul Imposition,” and declared, “haughty.” With such strong diction, how can one help but to cheer for Ludd’s “conquering Sword” as it seeks to restore the Luddites back to their work?

Interestingly enough, it was not just the Luddites themselves that felt the violence was justified; Lord Byron was swayed by their ideals, and even seemed to embrace the violent means through which the Luddites were accomplishing their goals. In his speech to the House of Lords, Byron requests that the Luddite riots be met with anything but armed force. He states, “As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last.” He continues on to make the plight of the Luddite men more understandable; he paints them in a sympathetic light, even describing them as the “sufferers.” Within the speech itself, though, he does not distinctly voice his support for the means to the Luddites’ end; he reserves this zeal for his poetry. In his “Song for the Luddites,” he adopts the language employed in the Luddite songs. Once again, we see the glorification of violence; in one stanza, he proclaims, “So we, boys, we will die fighting, or live free, and down with all kings but King Ludd!” The end of the same poem declares righteous victory; Byron calls the violence “the dew which the tree shall renew of Liberty.” In his preface to the poem, he even goes so far as to say, “If there’s a row, but I’ll be among ye!” Byron is not only adopting the tone of Luddite poetry, he is creating a facsimile of them. It is interesting to note, though, that Byron’s poem is more descriptive in regards to the violence to be perpetrated. Whereas many of the Luddite poems deal primarily with burning and wrecking property, and violence is merely threatened in a roundabout way, Byron writes, “We will fling the winding-sheet o’er the despot at our feet, and dye it deep in the gore that he has pour’d.” His intent for this is to “principally to shock;” perhaps he is merely using the enhanced description to bring more attention to the plight of the Luddites.

The Luddites knew that they were facing an uphill battle. They would need everything at their disposal in order to capture not only the interest of the public, but also their support. The songs they sang not only united them, but also created a unique identity. It, in a sense, justified their actions; if the factory owners they were harming were “villains,” weren’t the Luddites the heroes fulfilling a noble duty? Clearly, their language was effective; Lord Byron was a stout supporter of the movement, and made political moves on their behalf. He contributed to their legacy by penning his own literature for their cause, and was able to draw much needed attention (and support, of course) to their “noble” cause.

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