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Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1800. 3 vols. Gen. eds. John Goodridge and Simon Kövesi. Vol. 1. 1780-1800. Ed. Tim Burke. Vol. 2. 1700-1740. Ed. William Christmas. Vol. 3. 1740-1780. Ed. Bridget Keegan. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003. ISBN 1851967583. Price: US$420.

  • Alan Vardy

…plus d’informations

  • Alan Vardy
    Hunter College, CUNY

In recent years Pickering and Chatto has done much to expand the range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies. By publishing new scholarly editions of canonical figures, facsimiles of primary texts, and out-of-print or unpublished works, the press has played an important role in the reevaluation of the period. Eigtheenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1800 extends that mission by providing literary scholars, students, and general readers a selection of canonical poets within the context of unknown or little-known poets from the same class background. In presenting labouring-class writers as a group, they appear in a fresh light—not as footnotes in literary history, but as a complex counter-tradition. The canonical writers represented—Duck, Chatterton and Yearsley, for example—take on new cultural meanings placed in the company of their peers and followers. All of the writers in these splendid volumes struggled with imposed definitions and assumptions, ranging from the vogue for “peasant poets” in the eighteenth century to Southey’s designation of them as “uneducated poets” in his seminal anthology of 1831. The editors have settled on “labouring-class poets” as the most purely descriptive, and thus least intrusive, designation. The term “self-taught poet” evokes an image of a series of isolated autodidacts, a false impression that these volumes debunks more thoroughly than any critical argument ever could. The care that the general editors, John Goodridge and Simon Kövesi, have taken in choosing the title of the volumes is indicative of their determination to make the set as historically accurate as possible. The close collaboration between the general editors and the volume editors fully elaborates the complex subject of eighteenth-century labouring-class literary production while providing enough individual editorial autonomy to account for specific differences over the course of the century.

These volumes provide the essential literary documents and commentary necessary for a thorough study of the various forms of patronage throughout the period, and represent the most important new source text for the study of eighteenth-century print culture in many years. For example, the generous selection of the work of Ned Ward shows the scope and variety of his literary ambition, ranging from political and social satire to his appropriation of Dante in his A Journey to Hell. This scope represents an important correction because Ward’s literary celebrity is too often based on his inclusion in Pope’s Dunciad, and “among the frogs” in Peri Bathous (1: xxiv, n.4). The fact that Ward was a professional writer interested in reaching a mass audience, completely outside any system of patronage, caused considerable anxiety for Pope, who denigrated Ward and other independent authors as the “Grubstreet hacks” (1: xvii). Freeing these writers from Pope’s influential views allows us to better gauge their cultural significance. Ward self-consciously wrote for various emerging readerships. He wrote A Trip to Jamaica to meet the demand for travel narratives, and as William Christmas, the editor of the volume one, suggests, he produced The London Spy as a “satiric monthly aimed at the coffee-house crowd” (1: xviii). Selections from these various literary modes reveal Ward as an important literary figure, engaged with Pope in a struggle to define authorship and establish and shape the public taste.

Pope also dominated the reception of the other key figure in the first half of the century, Stephen Duck. Christmas has provided an excellent selection of Duck’s poetry from throughout his career rather than providing the usual selections from The Thresher’s Labour. Even more than Ward, Duck has sometimes been reduced to a Pope footnote in eighteenth-century studies, and by including the visionary poem on the death of Queen Caroline (1837) and the later poem Every Man in his Own Way (1841) Christmas lays to rest the notion that Duck suffered from a decline of his poetic powers. Indeed, the introduction to the Duck selection makes a strong argument against the critical commonplace that Duck’s suicide was “the inevitable result of his deracination”—a view made untenable by the quality of the long poem Caesar’s Camp; or, St. Georges Hill published the year before his death and by the success of his ecclesiastical career. The cause of the suicide remains a mystery, but cannot be attributed to feelings of cultural dislocation when one considers that Duck became an accomplished poet and clergyman.

The Duck cultural phenomenon (Christmas refers to it as a “media event”) takes a complex form in volume 1. There are selections from other labouring-class poets inspired by Duck’s literary celebrity and the dream of royal patronage. Among these, Robert Tatersall, the “Bricklayer poet,” stands out. He shared with Duck the status of literary curiosity, as represented in this volume by his extraordinary performance, “On a Bee. Wrote Extempore, at the Request of some Scholars of Baleol College, Oxford.” The vogue for natural genius went both ways: Tatersall emulated Duck while scholars and other members of “polite” society emulated Joseph Spence in the search for new literary “discoveries.” The quality of the verse sets Tatersall apart from a poet like John Bancks who marketed himself as the “Weaver poet” in an effort to cash in on the new public taste but had fewer gifts as a versifier. This volume allow us to consider these writers as worthy social and cultural subjects (something that is undeniable and an important critical goal in its own right), but also gives us scope to make literary judgments and thus better understand the phenomenon of an emerging counter-canon of occupationally specific labouring-class poets. I fully expect someone to take issue with my preference for Tatersall over Bancks. Such a literary debate has no place in this review, but this volume has, significantly, made such a debate open to the general critical community for the first time.

One of the greatest strengths of Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets derives from the collaborative nature of the editorial process. Each volume editor clearly had autonomy to make fundamental decisions about contents and editorial goals. For example, Bridget Keegan, the editor of volume 2, makes diametrically different editorial decisions from Tim Burke in volume 3. Keegan argues that the poetry of the canonical writers from her period (1840-1880), Mary Leapor and Thomas Chatterton, “is more widely accessible,” and thus she limits their space in the volume in favor of “poets whose work is not generally available in modern texts” (2: xxxv-vi). The main beneficiary of this decision is James Woodhouse. By choosing to include an almost complete volume of poetry from the period, including its original paratexts, Keegan provides a more complete view of how such writers were published. The terms of patronage become readily discernible. Woodhouse represents the perfect choice for this extended treatment. One of his early patrons was Joseph Spence, and after Spence’s colleague and fellow literary patron William Shenstone died, Elizabeth Montagu took up Woodhouse’s cause. Thus he spans the shift from royal patronage of “natural genius” through the agency of Spence, to the moralizing charity of being made a “bluestocking” cause. As Keegan puts it, Woodhouse felt “the smart of servitude” (2: xxi). His falling out with Montagu prefigured her more famous involvement in the dispute between her friend Hannah More and Ann Yearsley.

Tim Burke picks up this lead in volume 3 while making a completely opposite editorial choice. He reemphasizes Ann Yearsley rather than limiting her space on the grounds of canonical status and ready availability. His rationale follows from the centrality of Yearsley’s work and her story to understanding the struggles of labouring-class poets for autonomy in evolving systems of patronage. Burke includes More’s A Prefatory Letter to Mrs Montagu. By A Friend, which sets out the terms of “bluestocking” patronage. More and Montagu act out of charity and their superior sensibility, and the letter details a key shift in patronage away from a single wealthy benefactor to the use of the subscription list as the means of publication. Also included is Yearsley’s complete response to the charge of ingratitude leveled against her by More in the form of her introduction to the fourth edition of Poems, on Several Occasions. Yearsley’s defense serves as a key text in understanding the power dynamics of the poet-patron relationship, and in the reevaluation of “bluestocking” patronage in particular.

Each of these apparently disparate editorial decisions is the right one, and it is a credit to the general editors that Keegan and Burke were free to make them. This series is a true intellectual collaboration, and it is difficult to imagine a better outcome. It provides a comprehensive introduction to a complex counter-tradition in English poetry, includes the necessary contextual materials for a scholarly examination of the evolution of patronage and print culture throughout the eighteenth century, and the editors’ introductions to the volumes and individual poets are of the highest quality. The series provides an ideal introduction for students at any level and constitutes a basic research archive of primary materials, readily available for the first time. Critics will be better able to evaluate the shifts in the terms of patronage from the centralized influence of Spence and Pope, to “bluestocking” charity, to subscription lists, to David William’s idealistic goals for the Literary Fund and their ultimate disappointment. Readers of all kinds can only look forward to the companion volumes, Nineteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, announced for 2004, and the completion of this important intellectual project.