This project is part of my PhD research that is an investigation into biographical poetry in print and programmable media. Specifically, how the media in which biographical poetry is written changes the nature of the poetry or the representation of the subject of that poetry. The intersection of biographical poetry and programmable media follows from both electronic poetry, as can be seen in the Electronic Literature Collections Vol. 1, 2, and 3 and biographical poetry ranging from Edgar Lee Masters’s 1926 Lee: A Dramatic Poem to recently published works like Jessica Wilkinson’s Suite for Percy Grainger.

My PhD involves a creative component in which I am writing a series of biographical poems in print and programmable media concerning William Denton (1823–1883).

William Denton (1823–1883)

Denton was an iconoclastic nineteenth-century figure. He was an autodidact, a political radical, an abolitionist, a women’s rights campaigner, a temperance advocate, a poet, a publisher, a Spiritualist and a scientific lecturer and writer. While his contemporaries shared some of those interests and traits, it was rare for one person to have such wide-raging, progressive interests and pursuits.

Born to working-class parents in Darlington, England in 1823, Denton was brought up in a Methodist household and from an early age began to advocate for temperance. He apprenticed to Timothy Hackworth as a machinist, though lost his job after difficulties at his work, in part an issue of conscience (he refused to repair a machine at a brewery). He later worked as a teacher before emigrating to the United States. After a series of jobs, he brought over his parents and sister.

Denton’s social and political activism were prominent throughout his life. Denton assisted in editing the The Social Revolutionist and after that edited The Vanguard, a newspaper that argued against slavery, for women’s rights and for Spiritualism, with his wife, Elizabeth M Foote Denton, his sister Annie Denton Cridge and his brother-in-law Alfred Cridge. Denton’s sister is also notable for writing the first known feminist utopia, Man’s Rights, in 1870. They were also associates of the famous social reformer William Lloyd Garrison, who founded and edited the abolitionist paper The Liberator.

Denton often expressed his political ideals through his other writings, too; in 1856, for instance, he published Poems for Reformers, in which he championed the rights of ordinary citizens.

While arguing for recognition of Spiritualism as a scientific religion, he and Elizabeth Denton began researching psychometry: the notion that certain sensitive people can read impressions left on objects. They theorised that the psychometrically sensitive person could see and hear what that object or place experienced. This research was published over the three-volume collection The Soul of Things.

Denton spent much of his life teaching, lecturing and debating for a range of groups and organisations. In 1858, he debated future United States president James Garfield on the topic of evolution—for five days.

William Denton toured the United States and then Australia and New Zealand, lecturing on the history of the Earth’s development and speaking to Spiritualist groups on topics related to the religion. His lectures would, at times, combine the two: even as he argued for evolution, Denton believed an intelligent guiding spirit was responsible for the development of human life.

Denton corresponded with Alfred Deakin, first Attorney-General and second Prime Minister of Australia, after meeting Deakin through the Spiritualists in Melbourne. These letters are held in the Papers of Alfred Deakin archive at the National Library of Australia.

The time William Denton spent in Australia and New Zealand between 1881 and 1883 are documented, in part, in the published journals of his sons Sherman and Shelley. In 1883, with his sons, he joined the Melbourne Argus newspaper expedition to New Guinea. Denton stayed with the main party while his sons went collecting bird specimens. During this period, William Denton contracted a fever and died.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to Denton’s relationship with the Spiritualist community, it is documented that his spirit was additionally contacted on at least two occasions after his death.

Though an important social, scientific and political figure, Denton’s life has only once been documented, in a biographical sketch written in 1870 while he was still alive.

Benjamin Laird

I am a PhD candidate in Media and Communication at RMIT University. I have a diploma in professional writing and editing and my undergraduate degrees are in robotic engineering, computer science and an honours year in media in which I wrote a series of poems in print and programmable media and an exegesis on code and poetry [PDF].

The Code of Things Website

This website is part of my broader project and is a home for my creative works, references and sources.