Labouring-Class Poetry

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The study of labouring-class poetry began for me with the excitement of discovery, first via an association copy of Chatterton’s Rowley Poems inherited from a great-grandfather (see Goodridge 2004), then as a belatedly precocious mature student, happy to discover my own new poets from the past with a little help from my patient lecturers. Taking my cue from E. P. Thompson (as above), I began to focus on the “rescue” of what Brian Maidment in his 1987 anthology would term “self-taught” poets. Seeming support for this endeavour came with the founding of the John Clare Society in 1981 and the growing richness of Clare scholarship and, perhaps most of all, from Roger Lonsdale’s two landmark anthologies of eighteenth-century poetry (1984 and 1989). I was struck not only by the exceptionally rich content of these two volumes — food for decades of reading and teaching — but also by the revolutionary implications of Lonsdale’s concise, scholarly introduction to his New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1984). Beginning with the sober statement that we seem to know eighteenth-century poetry pretty well, Lonsdale swiftly unpicked the then familiar consensus, showing us how little the corpus of eighteenth-century poetry had been sifted, and how scholarship had returned again and again to the same “familiar material” and the “most respectable and predictable genres, which are guaranteed to offer few or no surprises.”

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Liverpool labouring-class writer Edward Rushton has been the subject of recent recovering and re-evaluation, marked by the publication of the first modern edition of his writings and an increasing number of critical studies. Rushton’s case poses especially complex questions, which are inherent in the recognition of labouring-class poetry as a major field of study within the expanding agenda of the ‘lost Romantics’. Unsurprisingly, his exquisitely 1790s radical libertarian revolutionary antislavery stance was domesticated in Victorian anthologies, aptly drawing Sketches of Obscure Poets, as that of a ‘Worthy of the Working Classes’. This paper investigates some of the still unexplored connections that intervened in shaping Rushton’s rebellious labouring-class poetics, and interrogates the reasons for his neglect during the Victorian age, at a time in which Robert Southey’s 1831 influential essay positioned ‘uneducated poets’ within British literary tradition.
In this essay, I consider three aspects of recent studies of working-class class poetry: the tasks and rewards of its recovery, the complexities of critical attempts to interpret “non-canonical” verse, and wider insights which have emerged from efforts to integrate such attempts into more traditional studies of nineteenth-century literature. Recovery has been necessary because most working-class poets could only hope to publish their work in broadside or periodical form, and few of their works have been reprinted. Accidents of preservation have further foreshortened our understanding of the range of working-class poetry, which extended from Thomas Cooper's dignified epic verse to Isobel Chisholm's gypsy “curses” and Mary McPherson's Gaelic incantations. Interpretative studies of the range just mentioned have benefited from willingness to consider unfamiliar rhetorical models; search out historical antecedents of “simple” appeals to direct emotion; and admit that there might be more to poetry than has been dreamt of in our received interpretations and well-worn critical commonplaces. Finally, integration of an appreciation of working-class poetry into studies of Victorian literature reveals that much of the history of mid-century poetry – reflected through lenses of “class”– may be read as an attempt to barricade middle-class canons of taste against the inroads of working class artistry. More critical studies of that artistry might therefore help dismantle these barricades, and restore to all the period's poets a measure of the respect and attention they deserve. They might also help answer some intriguing generic as well as historical questions. Among these are: Why were poetry and personal memoirs the period's principal working-class genres? And why did the role of working-class poetry seem to recede as the century waned, even as universal working-class literacy advanced?
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