Radical Renfrew takes the locality of Renfrewshire in the West of Scotland, and presents a literary excavation of the poetry of the period 1789-1914. The result challenges the view of nineteenth century West of Scotland poetry as being largely a desert in which a few "minor figures" bloomed. It asserts that people have been deprived of a whole literature of what they once held to be valid poetry, and the introduction to Radical Renfrew closely argues why and how this situation has come about.
Nearly 400 pages of poetry are brought back into print from the extensive archives of Paisley Central Library, the region's main repository. Besides known Renfrew poets such as John Davidson and James Thomson of Port Glasgow, over 60 other writers are featured, including the forgotten radical feminist Marion Bernstein and the pungent Chartist satirist Edward Polin.
A "guide to the location of some themes in the book" lists page numbers of poems under the headlined themes: religion, alcohol, emigration, employment, unemployment, trade unions and co-operation, anti-ruling class, parliamentary representation, republican, feminist, soldiering and police, literature and reputation, town and city, nature and the country, astronomy and microscopy, and poetry using shape. A number of these categories list poems pro- and anti- the headline topic.
From the Introduction: " ...the spread of education as a right to the mass of people has paradoxically led to the deprivation, from them, of much they once held to be valid literature. Generation after generation has been "taught" that a poem itself has as it were to pass an exam before it can earn the right to be called a poem in the first place; but only those people who have passed exams about poems, can give a new would-be poem the new exam necessary to decide whether it is a poem or not. The "subject' has functioned to assure the mass of people that until they have a licence to prove otherwise, they have no public right to make, criticise, or even claim to understand, anything that might seriously be called Literature. This is a serious matter, and raises the question of what is meant by democracy."
A fuller excerpt from the opening of the introduction is available here
Man holds so exquisitively tight
To everything he deems his right;
If woman wants a share, to fight
She has, and strive with all her might.
But we are nothing like so jealous
As any of you surly fellows;
Give us our rights and we'll not care
To cheat our brothers of their share.
Above such selfish man-like fright,
We'd give fair play, let come what might,
To he or she folk, black or white,
And haste the reign of Human Right.
ON THREE CHILDREN IN THE EASTWOOD CHURCHYARD - 1814
Here lie the mouldering remains
O' three unkirsent, guiltless weans;
Wha never underwent that rite
Maks sinners mystically white;
Will ony zealot e'er presume
These early dwellers in the tomb
Wad nae admission gain in Heaven
Or that their sins were unforgiven?
Let him wi' care his Bible read,
An' to this precious text gie heed,
"Wha wad the bliss o' Heaven attain
Maun enter like a little wean."
(unkirsent: unchristened; wad:would; maun:must)