Labouring-Class Poets (10467 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Stephen Van-Hagen (University of Coventry)
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The term “labouring-class” poets has come to describe poets of working origins who came to prominence in significant numbers during the eighteenth century and thereafter. Following hundreds of years of critical debate about the most appropriate descriptor for them, “labouring class” has become preferred only relatively recently. A clear summary of this issue is provided by William J. Christmas in his monograph The Lab’ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry (2001: 41-3). As he notes, the critical history of these poets can be traced back to the first time their work was collected, Robert Southey’s The Lives and Works of the Uneducated Poets (1831), “the first serious and sympathetic discussion of English plebeian poets” (2001: 39). Yet, “the “plebeian voices” that Carlyle heard, and those that had been singing for generations before, were “differently educated” rather than “uneducated” ” (2001: 40). A later descriptor was “self-taught”, notably revived by Brian Maidment in his important anthology The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-Taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain (1987), and by several critics since: “What is significant about terms like “self-taught” and “autodidactic” is that they are positive descriptors that foreground valuable cultural context” (Christmas, 2001: 41). Speaking in relation to his own study, Christmas states his aim to “avoid […] the ahistoricism embedded in terms like “working class” or “proletarian””, asserting that for this reason he has chosen to “employ a different set of identifying terms” (2001: 41). He proceeds to elaborate upon the arguments in favour of “plebeian” and “labouring class” that account for their wider currency:

Following [E. P.] Thompson, I have adopted the word “plebeian” as a general, inclusive descriptor, despite its shortcomings, and following Donna Landry [Christmas alludes here to Landry’s The Muses of Resistance, 1990] and others, I use “laboring-class” as a kind of preindustrial compromise to the specifically industrial, Marxist connotations of “working class” and “proletarian”. “Plebeian” is decidedly not a poetic word, though some poets did use it in their published verse to describe a group, or class, of people with whom they self-identified […] “Laboring-class” […] reminds us of the dominant view in the period equating labor and social rank – without raising the theoretical and historical problems associated by imposing nineteenth-century terms like “working class” or “proletarian” on eighteenth-century writers. (2001: 41-2)

The dominance of the descriptor “labouring class” to describe these poets was reinforced in particular by the publication of the influential Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets (3 vols., 2003) and the companion Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets anthologies (3 vols., 2006).

Successful poets from labouring backgrounds can certainly be found before the eighteenth century, such as Ben Jonson and the “water poet” John Taylor (towards whom Jonson acted as a patron); and the late-seventeenth and turn of the eighteenth century also saw such poets as Ned Ward (an inn-keeper), Richard Rigbey (a shoemaker), Jane Holt Wiseman (a domestic servant), Henry Nelson (a tailor) and Constantia Grierson (a midwife). Some nineteenth-century labouring-class poets, meanwhile, were comparatively well-known even before the energetic recovery of labouring writers that has taken place since the 1980s, poets such as John Clare, Ebenezer Elliott (the “Corn Law Rhymer”) and some of the Chartist poets. Yet it is the recuperation of a sizeable eighteenth-century tradition of poets, many of them little-known since their own day, that has arguably been the most revelatory achievement of the scholarly labour of recent decades.

In the early eighteenth century, Allan Ramsay, the son of a Scottish mine manager from Lanarkshire who worked as a wig-maker and bookseller, published many works of poetry including The Battel; or Morning-Interview. An Heroi-Comical Poem(1716), Christ’s Kirk on the Green (1718), Scots’ Songs (1719), Poems (1720; 1731) and The Tea-Table Miscellany (1723). A Horatian lyrist and pastoralist, his verse was widely admired south of the border and Pope, Gay (with both of whom Ramsay corresponded) Steele and Addison all subscribed to his works. Arguably his greatest success, however, came with a play, The Gentle Shepherd (1725), which has been republished many times. In England, it was the emergence of the Wiltshire thresher Stephen Duck in 1730 that acted as a particular catalyst for other poets of such backgrounds throughout the rest of the century. As John Goodridge has written,

[…] poets from economically marginalised backgrounds were not just lumped together by patrons, publishers and readers, but often saw themselves as belonging to an identifiable tradition […] It is possible to identify a developing “canon” within the tradition. There is a clear sense of a beginning, with the rise of Stephen Duck and the workplace poets of the 1730s in England, and of Allan Ramsay and the vernacular tradition in Scotland in the same period. (Goodridge, 2003: xiv.)

Following his discovery by the Oxford Professor of Poetry Joseph Spence, Duck’s poems were pirated as Poems on Several Subjects in 1730. This edition ran to nine editions in only three years. Their success, and in particular that of his signature pieces “The Thresher’s Labour” (an inter-generic work poeticising his daily labouring experiences whilst engaging with the conventions of pastoral and georgic) and “The Shunamite” (a religious poem that Spence valued above all Duck’s other productions), led to the reading of his poems at court that won him patronage from Queen Caroline herself. As Duck was removed from the working life he had known and instead installed in a series of honorary grace and favour positions in London, he became a national figure, wondered at and lampooned in equal measure in the periodicals of the day. He became, as William Christmas has observed, “the cultural model of the patronized plebeian poet until his fame was eclipsed by Robert Burns at the turn of the century” (Christmas, 2003: 127).

This fame also served as a stimulus and encouragement for the publication of unprecedented numbers of other labouring-class poets. To give some indication of the scale on which their publication gathered pace, a selective list of these collections (and single / occasional poems) between Duck’s appearance in 1730 and the beginning of the second half of the century would include John Bancks’ The Weaver’s Miscellany (1730), Poems on Several Occasions (1733), and Miscellaneous Works in Verse and Prose (1738); Robert Dodsley’s The Footman’s Friendly Advice to his Brethren of the Livery (1730, a reprint of 1729’s Servitude), An Epistle from a Footman in London to the Celebrated Stephen Duck (1731), A Muse in Livery; or, the Footman’s Miscellany (1732), Epistle to Mr. Pope, Occasion’d by his Essay on Man (1734), The Modern Reasoners (1734) and Beauty, or the Art of Charming (1735); John Frizzle’s “An Irish Miller, to Mr. Stephen Duck” (1733); Mary Masters’ Poems on Several Occasions (1733); Peter Aram’s Studley-Park. A Poem (1733); Robert Tatersal’s The Bricklayer’s Miscellany; or, Poems on Several Subjects (1734) and The Bricklayer’s Miscellany, The Second Part (1735); Mary Barber’s Poems on Several Occasions (1735); Mary Chandler’s A Description of Bath (1736); Duck’s own (authorised) Poems on Several Occasions(1736), The Vision (1737) and Every Man in his Own Way (1741); Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour: An Epistle to Mr. Stephen Duck; in Answer to his late Poem, called The Thresher’s Labour. To which are added, The Three Wise Sentences, taken from the First Book of Esdras Ch. III. And IV (1739); Henry Jones’ The Bricklayer’s Poem. Presented to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant. On his Arrival in this Kingdom and The Bricklayer’s Poem, to the Countess of Chesterfield, on her Ladyship’s Saving the Soldiers from Being Shot (both 1745), Philosophy. A Poem (1746) and Poems on Several Occasions (1749); James Eyre Week(e)s’ Poems on Several Occasions (1743), The Cobler’s Poem (1745), Rebellion. A Poem(1745), The Amazon, or Female Courage Vindicated (1745) and the prose The Gentleman’s Hourglass or an Introduction to Chronology (1750); Thomas Blacklock’s Poems on Several Occasions (1746); and Mary Leapor’s Poems on Several Occasions vol. I (1748) and vol. II (1751). Bearing out Christmas’ view of him as the model of the plebeian poet others aspired to until the time of Burns, several of these poets either addressed Duck in prefatory dedications or in a poem within their respective collections. Prefaces, invariably by patrons, often advertised the “authenticity” of the labouring status of the poet and her / his status as a “natural genius”, a domestic version of the trope of the “noble savage” that was a favourite preoccupation of the eighteenth century and beyond.

As the titles of many of the works concerned imply, numerous labouring occupations were represented in the above list: Bancks had once been an apprentice weaver (although in his case his claims to a “labouring-class” background have been questioned, and he may have exaggerated his working origins to capitalise on the vogue for labouring poetry that Duck helped to create); Dodsley a footman; Frizzle a miller; Aram a gardener; Tatersal and Jones bricklayers; Masters and Leapor maidservants; Barber a woollen-draper’s wife; Collier a washerwoman and occasional fieldworker; Chandler a milliner; and Week(e)s a cobbler (though this example is complicated by the fact that publications attributed to “James Eyre Week(e)s” thrpughout the period are thought to have been authored by two different people). The method by which many (though by no means all) of these poems and collections were published was subscription, according to which subscribers paid a set amount for each copy of the collection and in return usually got their name on a subscribers’ list at the beginning of the volume. The rewards of subscription publishing could be considerable – Samuel Johnson’s efforts in collecting subscriptions for Anna Williams’ Miscellanies in Verse and Prose (1766) earned her more than £300, and Elizabeth Carter’s translations of Epictetus (1758) earned her 1200 subscribers and more than £1000 in profit. By no means all of those most successful in publishing in this way were labouring-class – Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) and Pope’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were published by subscription. Nonetheless, some of the most successful subscription volumes between 1730-51 included Mary Masters’ Poems on Several Occasions (1733), (which sold 879 copies to 721 different subscribers), and Leapor’s Poems on Several Occasions, vol. I (1748), (655 copies to 598 subscribers). Less successful, in comparison, were Leapor’s Poems on Several Occasions, vol. II (1751), (320 copies to 284 subscribers), and Robert Dodsley’s A Muse in Livery, or the Footman’s Miscellany (1732), (240 copies to 197 subscribers). Many others, of course, were less successful and earned little or nothing from their endeavours.

It has been argued that eighteenth-century plebeian poets published only in two or three distinct “waves” throughout the eighteenth century. Gustav Klaus suggests there were two, one sparked by Duck, comprising his immediate successors in the 1730s, and another in the 1770s onwards, consisting of James Woodhouse, Ann Yearsley, John Frederick Bryant and John Bennet (1985: 6). Cafarelli, by contrast, contends there were three between 1730 and 1830: the first beginning with Duck in 1730, the second with Woodhouse in the 1760s (extending as far as Burns), and a third in the early nineteenth century, comprising Burns’ immediate heirs (1995: 78, 83). Labouring poets did not publish only in such “waves”, however, but continuously from Duck’s time onwards. Between Leapor’s Poems upon Several Occasions in 1751 and Woodhouse’s Poems on Sundry Occasions in 1764 (the beginning of Cafarelli’s “second wave”), other relevant publications included Duck’s Caesar’s Camp (1755); Henry Jones’ Merit. A Poem: Inscribed to the Right Honourable Philip Earl of Chesterfield (1753), The Relief; or, Day Thoughts: A Poem. Occasioned by the Complaint, or Night Thoughts (1754), Poems (1756), and The Patriot Enterprize: or an Address to Britain … Inscribed to the Right Hon. William Pitt (1758); Thomas Blacklock’s Poems on Several Occasions (1754), and Poems (1756); and James Maxwell’s Divine Miscellanies; or Sacred Poems (1756), The Good Tidings of Salvation Revealed (1757), and Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1759). Robert Dodsley, Mary Masters, William Vernon, Cuthbert Shaw, Collier, and William Falconer also published collections and / or individual poems: see Dodsley’s Agriculture (1753); Masters’ Familiar Poems and Poems on Several Occasions (1755); Vernon’s Poems on Several Occasions (1758); Shaw’s Liberty (1756), Ode on the Four Seasons (1760), and The Four Farthing Candle (1762); Collier’s Poems on Several Occasions (Winchester, 1762); and Falconer’s The Shipwreck (1762).

Even the above list is selective, and publications became more numerous than ever during the “Age of Revolutions”, in the decades that followed, years which were especially eventful in the annals of labouring-class poetry. Apart from the rise of Robert Burns (see below), these years also saw labouring-class poets rebelling and breaking free from their polite patrons, something that would have been unthinkable earlier in the century: if James Woodhouse’s final break from Elizabeth Montagu was mostly conducted behind closed doors, Ann Yearsley’s from Hannah More was much more public. Selected major labouring-class poets and collections published in the final, politically incendiary decades of the century included Ann Yearsley’s first volume, produced under the patronage of Hannah More, Poems on Several Occasions (1785) and her various post-More publications, Poems on Several Subjects (1787), A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade (1788), Stanzas of Woe (1790), An Elegy on Marie Antoinette (1795) and The Rural Lyre (1796); John Frederick Bryant’s Verses by John Frederick Bryant (1787); James Woodhouse’s first volume for twenty-two years, Poems on Several Occasions (1788), complete with a prefatory address that laid his final split from Montagu before the public, even if its finer details were kept under wraps; several of the earlier volumes by the Scottish-American poet and ornithologist Alexander Wilson including Poems (1790), and Poems: Humorous, Satirical, and Serious (1791); Robert Cumming’s Poems on Several Occasions (1791); and the first major volume by the Welsh bard Iolo Morganwg (a.k.a., in his English guise, Edward Williams), Poems, Lyric and Pastoral (1794).

In short, as the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets anthologies amply demonstrate, the labouring-class poets were a continuous feature of the literary and publishing landscapes throughout the period 1700-1900. The currents of influence at work, and particular fashions varied from one generation to the next – consider the vogue for Scottish dialect in the immediate aftermath of Burns’ Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786/7) – but the labouring tradition endured and flourished throughout. Burns – whose famous description as a “heaven-taught ploughman” demonstrates that the vogue for “natural genius” was certainly not restricted to England – was not the only British labouring poet to achieve such stellar success at the end of the eighteenth century. Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy sold over 26,000 copies in three years upon publication in 1800, and in the nineteenth century, poets like John Clare, Chartists such as Thomas Cooper, and many others attained popularity. As the numbers of published labouring-class poets proliferated, it was increasingly the case that sub-traditions such as rural poetry (often appealing to the public’s nostalgic longing for the idealised bucolic), industrial / occupational poetry, poetry containing political polemic and protest, and dialect poetry celebrating local culture and customs all became apparent.

Selected landmarks in nineteenth-century labouring-class poetry – even if they were not always understood as such at the time – might be said to include numerous examples from all four of these sub-traditions, and some could easily be said to belong to more than one of the four simultaneously. Major nineteenth-century publications by labouring-class poets about rural life and culture included Robert Bloomfield’s Rural Tales, Ballads, and Songs (1802), Good Tidings; or, News from the Farm. A Poem (1805), Wild Flowers; or Pastoral and Local Poetry (1806), The Banks of the Wye; A Poem (1811) and May Day with the Muses (1822); William Holloway’s The Peasant’s Fate: A Rural Poem (1802), Scenes of Youth; or Rural Recollections (1803), The Chimney Sweeper’s Complaint (1806), The Minor Minstrel (1808, and The Country Pastor (1812); James Hogg’s Scottish Pastorals (1801), The Mountain Bard (1807), The Forest Minstrel (1810), The Queen’s Wake (1813), The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815), Mador of the Moor (1816), Queen Hynde (1825) and Songs, by the Ettrick Shepherd (1831); Alexander Wilson’s posthumously-published The Foresters: A Poem Descriptive of a Pedestrian Journey to the Falls of Niagra, 1809-10 (1818; 1825); John Clare’s Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835); and Thomas Miller’s A Day in the Woods: a Connected Series of Tales and Poems (1836), Rural Sketches (1839), Poems (1841) and The Poetical Language of Flowers; or, The Pilgrimage of Love (1847).

Some major nineteenth-century publications in the field of industrial / occupational poetry might be said to have included Ebenezer Elliott’s The Village Patriarch (1829), Corn Law Rhymes (1831), The Splendid Village, Corn Law Rhymes, and Other Poems (1834) and The Poetical Works of Ebenezer Elliott (1840); Samuel Bamford’s The Weaver Boy, or Miscellaneous Poetry(1819), Miscellaneous Poetry (1821), Hours in the Bowers: Poems etc. (1834), Poems (1843) and Homely Rhymes, Poems and Reminiscences (1864, essentially a re-issuing of the volume Homely Rhymes, first published in 1843); William Thom’s Rhymes and Recollections of a Hand-Loom Weaver (1844); Ellen Johnston’s Autobiographies, Poems, and Songs of Ellen Johnston, the “Factory Girl” (1867); and Joseph Skipsey’s The Collier Lad, and Other Songs and Ballads (1864). Some major nineteenth-century labouring-class examples of poetic political protest and polemic included Ebenezer Elliott’s Corn Law Rhymes (1831); and The Splendid Village, Corn Law Rhymes, and Other Poems (1834) – both also mentioned in the previous category; Robert Peddie’s The Dungeon Harp: Being a Number of Poetical Pieces, Written During a Cruel Imprisonment of Three Years in the Dungeons of Beverley (1844); and Thomas Cooper’s The Wesleyan Chiefs, and Other Poems (1833), The Purgatory of Suicides (1845), The Paradise of Martyrs: A Faith Rhyme (1873) and Poetical Works (1877).

Major nineteenth-century labouring-class works of dialect poetry, celebrating local culture and customs, included works from poets based and deriving from all corners of the United Kingdom. Amongst them were Iolo Morganwg’s major Welsh-language publication, Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr anialwc [Psalms of the Church in the Desert] (1812;1834); Alexander Wilson’s Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (published in 1816, three years after Wilson’s death); Samuel Bamford / Samhul Beamfort’s Tawk o’Seawth Lankeshur (1850); John Collier’s The Dialect of South Lancashire, or Tim Bobbin’s Tummus and Meary, with his Rhymes, with Glossary, edited by Samuel Bamford (1854); Edwin Waugh’s Poems and Lancashire Songs(1859), Lancashire Songs (1862); and Poems and Songs: Second Series (1889); Samuel Laycock’s Lancashire Rhymes; or, Homely Pictures of the People (1864), Lancashire Songs (1875) and Warblin’s fro’ an Owd Songster (1893); and Joseph Skipsey’s Lyrics (1859), The Collier Lad, and Other Songs and Ballads (1864), Poems (1871), A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics(1878), A Book of Lyrics: Including Songs, Ballads and Chants (1881), Carols from the Coal Fields, and Other Songs and Ballads (1886) and Songs and Lyrics: Collected and Revised (1892).

Selected major works not to fit neatly into any of the above groups, meanwhile, might be said to have included Ann Candler’s Poetical Attempts (1803); John Jones, Attempts in Verse (1831); and works by the unique William McGonagall which enjoyed phenomenal popularity, including Poetic Gems: Selected from the Work of William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian: With Biographical Sketch by the Author (1890), Poetic Gems (Second Series) (1891) and William McGonagall, Poet: A Choice Selection of his Best Pieces: With a Sketch of his Life and Work, Critical and Biographical (1893). Debates about the worth and achievements – or otherwise – of McGonagall’s verse, both in his own time and afterwards, made him one of the most controversial poets ever produced by these islands.

Beyond the very broad periods and sub-traditions of labouring-class verse sketched briefly above, the question obviously arises of the forms and kinds of poetry the labouring-class poets wrote. Before moving on to the genres they attempted – and in some cases created – the first observation to make is to credit English labouring-class poetry’s preference for the couplet, and its Popean and Swiftian influences (the present entry does not attempt to do justice to anything like the full variety of Scottish, Irish and Welsh labouring-class poetry in the two hundred years concerned). Noting the “stylistic” differences between “polite and plebeian poets”, Bridget Keegan observes that

No doubt in part a result of the strong influence Pope and Swift exerted upon labouring-class poets, the couplet persists as the dominant verse form in labouring-class poetry well into the nineteenth century […] It has been suggested that this may be due to the “memorability” of the couplet. (We know from biographical information on Mary Collier and Robert Bloomfield that many labouring-class poets were often compelled to compose in their heads, either due to a dearth of paper or because they were composing while performing manual labour.) (Keegan, 2003: xvi).

Keegan’s assertion of the nineteenth-century preference for the couplet is more than borne out by an examination of the work of Ebenezer Elliott, for instance, who was still using the form in the middle of the nineteenth century. Otherwise, Keegan raises several important points above. Although it would be quite wrong to portray labouring-class poetics as one of slavish imitation of canonical models – as Keegan notes, labouring-class poets write “both in response to and in reaction against” (2003: xvi) the poetry produced by their canonical counterparts – many labouring poets address Pope in their verse, and a full consideration of his influence upon the labouring-class poets as a group remains to be undertaken (despite Betty Rizzo’s tracing of Pope’s influence on Mary Leapor in her essay “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence”, 1991). Keegan’s reference to the “memorability” of the couplet also serves as a timely reminder that we do not know enough about the processes of composition of much labouring poetry, or the reasons for the metrical choices many labouring-class poets made.

Labouring-class poets certainly reproduced and imitated the poetic genres of their canonical counterparts, including the pastoral, elegy, the locodescriptive or topographical poem and epistle. Two of the most remarkable labouring-class poems ever written, James Woodhouse’s 28,013-line verse autobiography The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus (most of which was not published until 1796, more than three quarters of a century after the poet’s death, by a collective of his descendants) and Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides, clearly possess a number of the generic characteristics of epic. As numerous critics have pointed out, however, labouring-class poets wrote a variety of “kinds” of their own. The “Address to Duck” (e.g. Dodsley’s “An Epistle to Stephen Duck”, Frizzle’s An Irish Miller, to Mr. Stephen Duck, Tatersal’s “To Stephen Duck, The famous Threshing Poet” and “The Introduction, to Mr. Stephen Duck”) has already been mentioned. Another kind of response to Duck is what Christmas terms the “occupation specific” poem (2003: xviii) in which a limited number of labouring poets poeticise their own occupations following the model provided by Duck’s The Thresher’s Labour. Examples include Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour, Robert Tatersal’s “The Bricklayer’s Labours”, and Robert Dodsley’s “The Footman. An Epistle to my Friend Mr. Wright”, which arguably mingles aspects of the “occupation specific” poem with the lighter, breezier epistle. The “wish” poem (as some critics have termed it), was also a presence in labouring poetry, envisaging what the poet would do if s/he could. Examples include Dodsley’s “The Wish”, Bancks’ “The Wish”, and Tatersal’s “The Author’s Wish”. The “reception” poem, in which labouring poets imagine the reactions of their (often middle or upper-class) readers, was also a long-term presence in labouring-class poetry. A number of these poems are by women and they are often predominantly humorous in tone. Examples include Mary Leapor’s “An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame”, and Elizabeth Hands’ “A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant Maid”, and “A Poem, On the Supposition of the Book having been Published and Read”. All of these poetic “kinds” – poems reflecting on the labouring (and non-labouring) poetic traditions that the poets see themselves as being a part of, poems reflecting on their occupations, poems envisaging freedoms that they did not have, and poems imagining and reflecting on the reception of their works by others, remained amongst those commonly written and published by labouring-class poets until 1900 and beyond.

Critical Reception

A variety of anthologies and studies from Southey (1831) onwards have collected and commented on labouring-class poetry. Yet it was in the nineteen eighties that anthologies and criticism devoted to the labouring-class poets began to flourish as never before. Roger Lonsdale’s canon-expanding The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984) and Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, an Oxford Anthology (1989) were particularly important in making marginalised verse more accessible to a large audience, and for acting as a stimulus to further research into these writers; in an age before CD Roms and online databases, it is almost impossible to overstate their influence on researchers and general readers alike. One year after The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, and four years before its successor, Moira Ferguson beat Lonsdale to the punch with her own anthology of women authors, First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799, which included a range of poets who later became major figures in the counter canon of eighteenth-century labouring-class poetry. Brian Maidment’s The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-Taught Poetry and Poets in Victorian Britain (1987) stimulated almost the same amount of interest in marginalised working-class poetries of the nineteenth century. Anthologies including David Fairer and Christine Gerrard’s Eighteenth-Century Poetry, an Annotated Anthology (1999, 2nd edn 2004, 3rd edn 2014), the Eighteenth / Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets anthologies, as alluded to above, and Kirstie Blair’s Poets of the People’s Journal: Newspaper Poetry in Victorian Scotland (2016) have continued to make the works of labouring-class poets more widely available. Both Mary Leapor and Ann Yearsley have had their entire outputs republished in modern editions (see The Works of Mary Leapor, edited by Richard Greene and Ann Messenger, 2003; and The Collected Works of Ann Yearsley, edited by Kerri Andrews, 2014). Selected modern editions have also been published of Robert Bloomfield (Selected Poems, edited by John Goodridge and John Lucas, 1998; 2007); Ann Yearsley (Selected Poems, edited by Tim Burke, 2003) and James Woodhouse (The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection, edited by Steve Van-Hagen, 2005). Those who admire the works of the poets widely acclaimed as the greatest individual Scottish and English labouring-class poets of the period, Robert Burns and John Clare respectively, have been able to enjoy a number of new editions of their work, both selected and more comprehensive. The major development in this regard in Burns Studies has been The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, the first three volumes of which, under the editorship of Nigel Leask (volume one) and Murray Pittock (volumes two and three) respectively, appeared in 2014 and 2018. Admirers of Clare, meanwhile, have been able to enjoy, amongst numerous others, the Clarendon Press volumes edited by Eric Robinson / David Powell / P. M. S. Dawson, Later Poems, 1837-64 (2 vols, 1984); Early Poems, 1804-1822 (2 vols, 1989); and Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837 (4 vols, 1996-2003); and a selected edition, edited by Jonathan Bate, “I Am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare (2003). 

Two of the earlier twentieth-century studies to consider the labouring-class poets were Chauncey Brewster Tinker’s Nature’s Simple Plan (1922) – in a chapter entitled “The Inspired Peasant” – and Rayner Unwin’s The Rural Muse: Studies in the Peasant Poetry of England (1954), both of them using a critical descriptor that is certainly unpopular now. Raymond Williams’ more forward-looking The Country and the City followed in 1973, and Phyllis Mary Ashraf’s Marxist An Introduction to the Working-Class Literature of Great Britain in two volumes between 1978-79. The new editions of labouring-class poetry that have appeared since the nineteen eighties, however, have been accompanied by much new scholarship. Historicist, biographical, materialist and feminist studies have arguably predominated since that time, although formalist and ecocritical studies have also appeared. Influential studies addressing a range of poets and their works include, in chronological order, H. Gustav Klaus’ The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Working-Class Writing (1985), Donna Landry’s The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in English 1739-96 (1990), Moira Ferguson’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: Nation, Class, and Gender (1995), John Goodridge’s Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (1995), Anne Janowitz’s Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (1998); William J. Christmas’ The Lab’ring Muses; Work, Writing and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730-1830 (2001), Susanne Kord’s Women Peasant Poets in Eighteenth-Century England, Scotland and Germany (2003); Bridget Keegan’s British Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730-1837 (2008); Anne Milne’s “Lactilla Tends her Fav’rite Cow”: Ecocritical Readings of Animals and Women in Eighteenth-Century British Labouring-Class Women’s Poetry (2008); Jennifer Orr’s Literary Networks and Dissenting Print Culture in Romantic-Period Ireland (2015); and Kirstie Blair’s Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community (2019). Many other critical studies that have not been devoted exclusively to labouring-class poets / poetry in recent years have nonetheless contributed to scholarship about them. Most recently, two major new critical studies of literature / poetry and class through the ages have confirmed the growing importance of the labouring-class poets within wider considerations of the field. Sandie Byrne’s Poetry and Class (2020) has surveyed a range of the works of labouring-class poets between 1700-1900, within a study that extends from the late middle ages until nearly the present day, in chapters entitled “The Eighteenth Century” (2020: 149-211), “The Late Eighteenth to Early Nineteenth Century” (2020: 213-57), and “The Mid- to Late Nineteenth Century” (2020: 259-309); and Andrew Hadfield’s Literature and Class (2021) includes studies of Stephen Duck and Mary Collier in a chapter entitled “An Increasingly Commerical Society, 1700-50” (2021: 203-41), and of Robert Burns, in the succeeding chapter, “Gathering Pace: Towards the Revolutions, 1750-98” (2021: 242-83).

Biographies and single-author studies of a number of labouring-class poets have appeared, including of Mary Leapor (Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Poetry, 1993); Ann Yearsley (Mary Waldron, Lactilla, Milkwoman of Clifton: The Life and Writings of Ann Yearsley, 1753-1806, 1996; and Kerri Andrews, Ann Yearsley and Hannah More, Patronage and Poetry: The Story of a Literary Relationship, 2013); Mary Whateley (Ann Messenger, Mary Whateley Darwall: Woman and Poet in the Eighteenth Century, 1999); Robert Bloomfield (Simon White, Robert Bloomfield and the Poetry of Community, 2007); and, most recently, Stephen Duck (Jennifer Batt, Class, Patronage and Poetry in Hanoverian England: Stephen Duck, The Famous Threshing Poet, 2020 – the first single-author study since Rose Mary Davis’ Stephen Duck, The Thresher Poet, in 1926). Numerous biographies have been written of Robert Burns and John Clare. Biographical studies of Burns since the end of the Second World War alone have included David Daiches, Robert Burns and his World(1971); James A. McKay, RB: A Biography of Robert Burns (1992); Ian McIntyre, Dirt and Deity: a Life of Robert Burns (1995); and Robert Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography (2009). In Clare studies, the classic – and later very controversial account – provided by Frederick Martin’s The Life of John Clare (1865), and supplemented by J. L. Cherry’s Life and Remains of John Clare (1873), has been revised by a number of later alternatives, particularly Jonathan Bate’s John Clare: A Biography(2003), which has been widely credited with reviving interest in the poet amongst non-specialists. Many single-author critical studies of the works of Burns and Clare have also appeared. Some of the most significant recent studies to focus on Burns are Carol McGuirk, Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (1985); Kenneth Simpson, Robert Burns (1994); Gerard Carruthers, Robert Burns (2006); Nigel Leask, Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland(2010); Corey Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: the Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1834 (2015); and Carol McGuirk, Reading Robert Burns: Texts, Contexts, Transformations (2014). Some of the most significant modern studies to focus on Clare include Greg Crossan, A Relish for Eternity: the Process of Divinization in the Poetry of John Clare (1976); Timothy Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque (1983); Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips and Geoffrey Summerfield, John Clare in Context (1994); Alan B. Vardy, John Clare, Politics and Poetry (2003); John Goodridge, John Clare and Community (2012); Sarah Houghton-Walker, John Clare’s Religion (2016); Adam White, John Clare’s Romanticism (2017); and Simon Kövesi, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History (2017).

At least five special editions of scholarly journals devoted to the labouring-class poets have appeared over the course of the last thirty years, as have several collections of essays in book form. Selected major examples of the latter include Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class and the Romantic Canon, edited by Simon White, John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (2006); Class and the Canon: Constructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics 1780-1900, edited by Kirstie Blair and Mina Gorji (2008); The Working-Class Intellectual in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain, edited by Aruna Krishnamurthy (2009); and A History of British Working-Class Literature, edited by John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan (2017).

That it is an exciting time in the study of the labouring-class poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of whom currently enjoy a profile arguably never higher since their own day, can also be seen in the abundance of e-editions of their work and e-resources about them that are now available. The wealth of electronic resources now accessible ensures that labouring-class studies has taken its place within the digital humanities boom, and will surely facilitate further scholarly work for many years to come. Apart from the availability of facsimiles and e-copies of the work of the labouring-class poets in databases such as Gale-Thomson’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) and Nineteenth-Century Collections Online (NCCO), an excellent place to start is the free-to-access Laboring-Class Poets Online resource (gen. ed. John Goodridge) which can be found at lcpoets.org (2017). A Catalogue of Labouring-Class & Self-Taught Poets & Poetry c.1700-1900, which contains entries and lists of secondary reading about more than two thousand poets in the period specified, is also regularly updated on Goodridge’s academia.edu page. A collaborative resource developed over many years with the assistance of dozens of other scholars, it represents the most comprehensive source of its kind, and is freely accessible and downloadable (for the purposes of private research, subject only to the prohibition that material may not be republished without permission). A briefer, broader introduction is provided by several resources (including a podcast) created by the Duck scholar, Jennifer Batt, as part of the Great Writers Inspire resources put together by scholars at Oxford University (2012). A related generalist online resource that overlaps with the period 1700-1900, while beginning before it and extending afterwards, is the website (2022) put together by John Street (the Principal Investigator) and his team on the Our Subversive Voice AHRC project, which aims to recover the use of song to register protest between 1600 and 2020. The website includes information on, and links to the lyrics of some seven hundred and fifty songs, including many from the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ongoing Piston, Pen & Press AHRC project (for which Kirstie Blair is Principal Investigator) also provides a website (2018) that hosts a range of online resources produced by this important venture which is recovering a wide range of nineteenth-century (1840-1918) industrial verse and other cultural productions.

Of the excellent e-resources now available about some individual labouring-class poets, including several e-editions of relevant works, those relating to the poetry of Robert Bloomfield particularly stand out. A number of these resources are available on the peer-reviewed website Romantic Circles. These include the comprehensive edition of The Letters of Robert Bloomfeld and His Circle, edited by Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt, first published in 2012; Tim Fulford’s collated and annotated text of the 1811, 1813 and 1823 versions of The Banks of the Wye, encompassing features such as an electronic facsimile edition of the manuscript and sketch book that Bloomfield made after his 1807 Wye tour, an annotated transcription of the prose tour-journal that he incorporated into his scrap book, reproductions of the engravings that illustrated the 1811 and 1813 publications, deleted or unadopted passages from the manuscript of the poem, and a selection of contemporary journal reviews (2012); and the subsequent e-edition of The Collected Writings of Robert Bloomfield, edited by Fulford, Goodridge and Sam Ward, published in 2019.

Works Cited

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Secondary Works

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Citation: Van-Hagen, Stephen. "Labouring-Class Poets". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 March 2007; last revised 02 March 2022. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=1714, accessed 18 May 2022.]

1714 Labouring-Class Poets 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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