Lambs to the Slaughter: Leisure and Laboring-Class Poetry
The idea of leisure is essential to understanding how laboring-class poets conceived of themselves as writers, what they imagined the activity of poetic composition to be, and what kinds of poetic forms they felt were available to them. Further, in their poems exploring the concept of leisure, laboring-class poets illustrate an historical link between the exploitation and oppression of nature and the exploitation and oppression of the lower classes of society. It is an exploitation that is represented in poetry primarily through the suppression of leisure and the devastation of the natural or rural spaces where such leisure had occurred. This essay examines the implicit prohibition of pastoral themes for laboring-class poets from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Whereas early-eighteenth-century laboring-class poets depicted nature as a georgic realm, rarely representing it as the space for leisure, for early nineteenth-century poets such as Robert Bloomfield, Ann Yearsley and John Clare, the pastoral becomes the space for the poet to claim his or her rights to leisure in nature and the leisure of poetry itself. The essay argues that the expression of their protests is encoded within the generic markers of the pastoral mode, in particular through their representation of sheep and shepherds.
In 1766, former-footman turned publisher Robert Dodsley introduced shoemaker-poet James Woodhouse's Poems on Several Occasions by assuring readers that Woodhouse "generally sits at his work with a pen and ink by him, and when he has made a couplet he writes it down on his knee; so that he may not, thereby, neglect the duties of a good husband and kind father; for the same reason his hours for reading are often borrowed from those usually allotted to sleep" (xiv). Dodsley's description is typical of how eighteenth-century laboring-class poets were portrayed for the public. Statements similar to Dodsley's can be found in the prefatory materials of collections of laboring-class poetry well into the Romantic age. For example, in her characteristically condescending introduction to Ann Yearsley's Poems, on Several Occasions (1785), Hannah More writes of her project to publish the Bristol milkmaid, "It is not intended to place her in such a state of independence as might seduce her to devote her time to the idleness of Poetry. I hope she is convinced, that the making of verses is not the great business of human life; and that, as a wife and mother, she has duties to fill, the smallest of which is of more value than the finest verses she can write" (xii-xiii). The reassurance that laboring-class poets wrote only in the rare hours of respite from drudgery appears so frequently in prefaces and advertisements as to become formulaic. The recurrence of such statements suggests that the largely aristocratic and middle-class audience required proof that these poets also performed useful tasks and didn't squander their time composing poetry. As More makes clear, at least for those from the lower ranks, poetry was not an occupation but a form of idleness.
While critics such as Clifford Siskin, Kurt Heinzelman, Thomas Pfau and Linda Zionkowski each have described the changing value placed upon writing as productive work and the increased "professionalization" of literature in the late-eighteenth-century and Romantic periods, their respective analyses may not obtain in a discussion of laboring-class writers of the time. It would seem, in fact, that in order for polite poets to make writing into legitimate or heroic work, it was necessary to prevent writing from being an occupation for those whose primary labors were physical or manual. For poetry to become a profession, poets needed specific training and appropriate credentials generally unavailable to the laboring classes. When they wrote merely as a casual or leisure activity, and thus not "seriously," laboring-class poets would not pose the same threat to the legitimacy of "professional authorship."
Thus, for plebeian poets, it appeared a prerequisite for publication that their poetry be the product of leisure time and, often, leisure space. And although some of the best recent scholarship (such as that of John Goodridge, Anne Janowitz or William J. Christmas) has focused on laboring-class poets' representations of non-literary work or their statements about working-class issues such as seasonal unemployment or unionization, a more nuanced account of laboring-class literary production should take into consideration the question of leisure. More specifically, to understand developments within laboring-class poetry, it is not the georgic, the genre of work, but the pastoral that offers the more fruitful locus of inquiry. The paradox of laboring-class poetry is that while its initial readers expected it to be the product of the poet's leisure, at the same time, the poet's leisure itself could not properly be the subject of the poetry.
As such, analyzing images of laboring-class leisure in and as poetry provides more than simply interesting documentary information about what is often described by historians as "popular culture"—the games, sports, and festivals that entertained the working poor. The idea of leisure is essential to understanding how laboring-class poets conceived of themselves as writers, what they imagined the activity of poetic composition to be, and what kinds of poetic forms they felt were available to them. Moreover, because so much of the leisure in laboring-class literature occurs in relation to the natural world, examining it furthers the enterprise of ecocritical readings of Romanticism. Specifically, laboring-class poetry of leisure critiques what modern ecological theorists, such as Robert D. Bullard and Carolyn Merchant, have identified as "environmental classism." These poems demonstrate an historical link between the exploitation and oppression of nature and the exploitation and oppression of the lower classes of society. It is an exploitation that is represented in poetry primarily through the suppression of leisure and the devastation of the natural or rural spaces where such leisure had occurred.
The implicit prohibition of pastoral themes for laboring-class poets shifts from the early eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, as laboring-class poets become more vocal in claiming their right to write in general, and their right to write pastorally in particular. Early-eighteenth-century laboring-class poets depicted nature as primarily the object of labor, a predominantly georgic realm, rarely representing it as the space for possible pleasure and leisure. This is amply documented in Stephen Duck's The Thresher's Labour (1730). Although the laborers in the poem might begin their work in the morning feeling a sense of admiration for how "Nature's face is with new Beauty spread" (81), a few hours later, due to the strenuousness of field work, such relish departs: "Alas! that human Joys shou'd change so soon. / Even this may bear another Face at Noon!" (103-4).
The opportunities for recreation are even scarcer in Mary Collier's The Woman's Labour (1739). Although a male laborer may take respite in the daily and seasonal opportunities for refreshment or recreation, such times are not available to the woman worker. At the end of the work day "Alas! we find our Work but just begun; / So many things for our Attendance call, / Had we ten hands, we could employ them all" (106-108). Moreover, in the winter season,
The Harvest ended, respite none we find,
The hardest of our Toil is still behind:
Hard Labour we must chearfully pursue,
And out abroad, a-charring often go
Duck and Collier's poems represent a struggle against nature. The agricultural calendar dictated when they could work and when they could play, but as both poets make clear, nature rarely created the space for leisurely poetic pursuits. The pleasures of poetry are depicted as antithetical to working in nature, as Duck laments in a passage that demonstrates the conflict between pastoral composition and the work of threshing grain:
Can we, like Shepherds, tell a merry tale?
The voice is lost, drown'd by the noisy Flail.
But we may think—alas! what pleasing thing
Here to the Mind can the dull Fancy bring?
The eye beholds no pleasant object here;
No cheerful sound diverts the list'ning ear.
The Shepherd well may tune his voice to sing,
Inspir'd by all the beauties of the Spring:
No Fountains murmur here, no Lambkins play,
No Linets warble, and no Fields look gay.
'Tis all a dull and melancholy Scene,
Fit only to provoke the Muses' Spleen.
For Duck, the pleasurable poetry of the shepherd is denied to the laboring poet.
Other laboring-class poets, such as Mary Leapor, note the disjunction between real rural work and pastoral idealism. In her poem "On Winter," Leapor also presents a negative inventory of conventional pastoral images: the meadows are brown, no linnets sing, no flowers bloom. Although not written in the first person as Duck's poem was, the second stanza adds a level of detail that Ann Messenger asserts is drawn from Leapor's experiences (171):
Poor daggled Urs'la stalks from Cow to Cow,
Who to her Sighs return a mournful Low;
While their full Udders her broad Hands assail,
And her sharp Nose hangs dropping o'er the Pail.
With Garments trickling like a shallow Spring,
And his wet Locks all twisted in a String,
Afflicted Cymon waddles through the Mire,
And rails at Win'fred creeping o'er the Fire.
It is highly doubtful that nymphs or swains from polite pastoral ever developed a runny nose or wandered through mud. The final stanza seals Leapor's critique of the artifice of pastoralism:
Say gentle Muses, say, is this a Time,
To sport with Poesy and laugh in Rhyme;
While the chill'd Blood, that hath forgot to glide,
Steals through its Channels in a lazy Tide:
And how can Phoebus, who the Muse refines,
Smooth the dull Numbers where he seldom shines.
Leapor declares the language of conventional neo-classical poetry (invoked through "Phoebus") ineffective. The powers of poetry are curbed by the realities of class.
The artificiality of the form is only one reason why the pastoral mode may have been deemed inappropriate for laboring-class writers, even by the writers themselves. Throughout the course of the eighteenth century, freedom from working on nature appears to have become the prerequisite for writing poetry about it. Pastoral was increasingly the gentleman's pleasure. As Tim Fulford's argument in Landscape, Liberty and Authority demonstrates, it was through architectural, visual and linguistic representations of a non-laboring relationship to the natural environment that the notions of both a proper gentlemen and the proper patriotic view of the national landscape were mutually defined: "Nature, in such representations [. . .] was a ground on which the legitimacy of gentlemanly power and taste could be tested and confirmed, above that of a 'man bred to trade'" (3). The detachment necessary for proper aesthetic appreciation of nature and the leisure time to enjoy such detached, aesthetic experiences were, as Fulford describes, contingent upon freedom from working the land one wrote or read about. Such was the privilege of the gentry.
James Woodhouse's early poetry exemplifies how picturesque enjoyment of nature remained "off-limits" to laborers. Like Duck, Woodhouse makes explicit the connection between poetic composition and a particular way of experiencing the natural world. However, unlike Duck, he refuses to accept his place within that relationship. Woodhouse was prompted to compose his first poems as petitions to William Shenstone. Shenstone had forbidden "the rabble" to visit his ornamental farm, The Leasowes, because instead of appreciating his gardening choices in a detached manner, they had the audacity to pick flowers. Strolling through gardens and relishing non-productive nature was thus literally prohibited for the lower orders. They had demonstrated to Shenstone that their proper role was to till the earth, not admire it. But Woodhouse wrote to Shenstone to prove his ability to appreciate nature's beauties properly. Woodhouse's poems to Shenstone affirm the significance of class distinctions in framing a relationship to Nature, even though Woodhouse claims his own exception from this rule. As such, he paradoxically reinforces class distinctions even as he works to level them. He writes in "An Elegy to William Shenstone, Esq; Of the Lessowes" (1764):
Once thy propitious gates no fears betray'd,
But bid all welcome to the sacred shade;
'Till Belial's sons (of gratitude the bane)
With curs'd riot dar'd thy groves profane:
And now their fatal mischiefs I deplore,
Condemn'd to dwell in Paradise no more!
In a manner echoed by later laboring-class poets, Woodhouse claims that his poetic proclivities, regardless of his humble origins, should grant him the same rights to pleasure in nature that Shenstone enjoys. Nature poetry transcends social distinctions in Woodhouse's vision. In obtaining access to Shenstone's property, Woodhouse further imagines,
On that Blest Day, which with the great I share
In luscious ease, retir'd from toil and care;
That ease, which banishes the frown austere,
And ranks the peasant equal with the peer.
The poet thus argues the innate ability of certain individuals, regardless of rank, to enjoy the refreshment offered by leisure in nature. It is a suggestion that will be repeated by Romantic laboring-class poets, but one which will not necessarily be heeded, as is illustrated in their poetry's representation of the continual endangerment of symbols of pastoral otium.
Through the end of the eighteenth century, the threats to the laboring-class poets' ability to enjoy pastoral nature and leisure continue. These developments are increasingly visible in the generic markers of their poems. Unsurprisingly, laboring-class poets write about leisure time with greater urgency just when their access to recreational time and natural space was literally being limited by the period's shifting economy. The transformation is evident in Robert Bloomfield's The Farmer's Boy (1800), particularly in the passage that concludes the first book, "Spring."
At first glance, Bloomfield's poem appears simply to sentimentalize rural life. Bloomfield was popular in his day (and perhaps less popular in our own) largely because of his seemingly uncritical depiction of what John Barrell has identified as "sportive labour." For Barrell, a good deal of eighteenth-century pictorial and literary representation of rural work, rest, and play operate to create "a harmonious image of the work of the farm" (112). Barrell demonstrates that such an image was essential to establishing a vision of England wherein the polite and the plebeian were asserted to coexist harmoniously. Barrell notes that "to represent labour as continually interrupted by leisure, in painting commissioned by and in poetry read by the polite classes, is to suggest that the polite chose to represent themselves as thoroughly tolerant and good-humoured in their relations with the vulgar" (110). However, by the end of the eighteenth century, laboring-class poets such as Bloomfield, Yearsley and John Clare, each to differing degrees, trouble this polite assumption.
Indeed, as Barrell also notes, the illusion of such tolerance becomes increasingly difficult to maintain as the century progresses: "There was an increasing concentration on the importance of work-discipline as the century got older; the new discourse of political economy increasingly saw those employed in industry and agriculture in the character simply of producers; and anything which did not conform with that character was taken to subvert it" (121). Evidence of this new work-discipline is protested in Bloomfield, Yearsley, and Clare's poetry about nature, and specifically their poetry about sheep and shepherding.
Portions of Bloomfield's work reveal moments of struggle—albeit quickly suppressed—against the increased disciplinary control of the working rural poor's leisure time and leisure space. The expression of this protest in terms of the poet's representation of his relationship to the natural environment, and to sheep in particular, reveals how generic markers encode more overt critiques. For Bloomfield, as for Yearsley and Clare, the pastoral becomes political, but in a particular way. It becomes a space for the poet to claim his or her rights to the leisure of poetry itself.
The key passage in Bloomfield begins with an innocuous address:
Did your eye brighten, when young Lambs at play
Leap'd o'er your path with animated pride,
Or gaz'd in merry clusters by your side?
Ye who can smile, to wisdom no disgrace,
At the arch meaning of a Kitten's face:
If spotless innocence, and infant mirth,
Excites to praise, or gives reflection birth;
In shades like these pursue your fav'rite joy,
Midst Nature's revels, sports that never cloy.
These lines insert pastoral otium into the predominantly georgic poem. The lambs frolic, lovingly shepherded by the poem's protagonist (and Bloomfield's alter ego), Giles. Giles works as he takes in this scene; as such he performs "sportive labor." His recreation is the by-product of his useful toil and poses no threat to economic production. The lambs in their blissful innocence, separated from the world of human cares, signal that prelapsarian arcadia of the pastoral, a world that Giles contemplates from his georgic position.
Within a few lines, however, even the vicarious consolation is threatened. The pastoral moment is fleeting, and the poetic scene is sacrificed to the economic demands of the productive farm. Bloomfield's description of the fate of the playful lambs is worth pausing over:
Though unoffending Innocence may plead,
Though frantic Ewes may mourn the savage deed,
Their shepherd comes, a messenger of blood,
And drives them bleating from their sports and food.
Care loads his brow, and pity wrings his heart,
For lo, the murd'ring Butcher, with his cart,
Demands the firstlings of his flock to die,
And makes a sport of life and liberty!
His gay companions Giles beholds no more;
Clos'd are their eyes, their fleeces drench'd in gore;
Nor can Compassion, with her softest notes,
Withold the knife that plunges thro' their throats.
The lambs may function to mark pastoralism in the poem, but that function is not merely poetic in the work of this laboring poet. The butcher must be satisfied, and the lambs' play ends in a massacre. A potent symbol of pastoralism is slaughtered at the start of Bloomfield's long poem, as if to imply that pastoral nature, nature as the space of play, must be sacrificed to necessity. This supposition is supported by the lines immediately following. The angry tone of these lines is atypical for Bloomfield:
Down, indignation! hence ideas foul!
Away the shocking Image from my soul!
Let kindlier visitants attend my way,
Beneath approaching Summer's fervid ray;
What exactly makes the poet indignant about this predictable, if unpleasant, event on a working farm? What other feelings, besides pity for the lambs, does this unsettling scene provoke? The speaker quickly suppresses the violent emotion. But it is not difficult to read in these lines a more profound protest against the exploitation of nature solely for its use value and, concomitantly, against the repression of play suggested by the plot of the poem. The lambs become emblems of resistance to the idea that both nature and the laborer's time are economic commodities. Often, critics have read laboring-class poets' pastorals as examples of their mystification by the literary conventions for depicting rural life. However, for Bloomfield and other laboring-class poets, pastoral devices may also convey a subtle critique.
As the passage from Bloomfield suggests, for laboring-class poets, leisurely pastoral spaces are not as idyllic as they appear. This is also evident in Yearsley's "Written on a Visit" (1787). For Yearsley, one of the pleasures afforded by Pope's Twickenham (the privileged poetic leisure space she visits) is that lambs there can play without fear of slaughter:
Emblem of whitest Innocence! how blest!
No cruel mastiff on thy heart shall prey,
Nor sanguine steel e'er rend thy panting breast;
But life, with happy ease, still glide away.
In contrast to Bloomfield's poem, however, while the lambs may be safe, the laborer poet is not. Yearsley recognizes that she, as Lactilla, the milkwoman poet, cannot remain in this landscape, and in the poem's final stanza she reveals that she is quickly forced to leave the pastoral scene, much as Woodhouse was banished from Shenstone's Leasowes. Unlike Woodhouse, however, Yearsley's poetry cannot help her to gain readmission.
In pointing to these moments, I am not denying that many laboring-class poets wrote conventional pastoral verse (the typical amorous dialogues between Collin and Strephon). They did. But alongside such performances, we can also identify more complex instances where pastoral icons such as lambs, and the defining pastoral "activity" of inactivity, are presented in less predictable ways. For Bloomfield, Yearsley, and most certainly for John Clare, these representations were affected by a variety of social and economic forces. As historian R.W. Malcolmson has shown, the restrictions upon the laboring classes' leisure space and time were not poetic conceits but historical facts. According to Malcolmson, by the end of the eighteenth century, popular recreations were under increasing attack. Malcolmson argues that "Underlying much of the growing hostility towards popular recreation was the concern for effective labour discipline. To men who especially valued industriousness, frugality and prudence, many of the traditional diversions were apt to appear scandalously self-indulgent and dissipated—wasteful of time, energy, and money" (89). The interest in increased economic productivity altered and limited the time and the physical space where leisure occurred.
Specifically, enclosure was one of the most significant forces threatening popular recreations. Malcolmson notes that "Enclosure militated against popular recreation since it involved the imposition of absolute rights of private property on land which had previously been accessible to the people at large, at least during certain seasons of the year, for the exercise of sports and pastimes [. . .]. By the middle of the nineteenth century any kind of open space for recreation was very much at a premium" (108-9). Both the rural laborer's time and nature itself were increasingly exploited to ensure the utmost productivity of the land. Enclosure prevented the working rural poor from spending what time remained to them for leisure in uncultivated nature.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Clare's poetry. Clare is more overt than Bloomfield or Yearsley in protesting the sacrifice of the symbols and spaces of laboring-class leisure to necessity. Ecocritics such as Jonathan Bate and James McKusick have amply demonstrated how Clare's poems protesting the enclosure of common areas and celebrating neglected, non-sublime or "waste" spaces prove his ecocentric ethic and emphasize the inherent value he finds in nature exclusive of its economic use value. As McKusick writes, Clare "does not base his arguments on economic utility or aesthetic pleasure, but speaks directly for the Earth and its creatures, attributing intrinsic value to all the flora and fauna that constitute the local ecosystem" (85). Clare refuses to celebrate nature for its productivity alone. What has received less attention is the importance Clare invests in previously unenclosed spaces whose "purpose" had been rural recreation—sites valuable in and of themselves, but also as places for play.
Any number of Clare's poems bear out the connection between nature and rural recreation. Exuberant pieces such as "Sport in the Meadows" describe children frolicking among the flowers. Other poems describe the pleasures of exploring the diversity of the flora and the fauna. In the sonnet "An Idle Hour," Clare describes how "Sauntering at ease I often love to lean / Oer old bridge walls and mark the flood below / Whose ripples through the weeds of oily green / Like happy travellers mutter as they go" (Oxford 193: 1-4). In another sonnet, "Careless Rambles," Clare writes, "I love to wander at my idle will / In summers luscious prime about the fields" (Oxford 103:1-2), and in "Stray Walks" he muses, "How pleasant are the fields to roam & think / Whole sabbaths through unnoticed & alone" (Midsummer Cushion 454: 1-2). The longer poem "The Holiday Walk" documents an entire lesson in the pleasures of environmental awareness as the poem's speaker leads children through the fields, calling them to admire bird songs and flowers and admonishing them against cruelty to ladybugs and dragonflies. Clare's poem teaches the children to use their leisure time to cultivate the same love of nature that he had discovered as a boy. And "love" is the verb Clare prefers in describing his relationship to nature.
Such love may be due to the fact that Clare's experience of environmental recreations is, as he explicitly articulates, directly generative of poetry. It is Clare's devotion to leisure in nature that marks him as a poet. In fact, the story of his discovery of his poetic vocation links an "illicit" enjoyment of nature, a daring escape from work-time discipline, and a reading of the foremost eighteenth-century gentleman poet of nature, James Thomson. Having been mesmerized by a copy of Thomson's The Seasons, a fragment of which was lent to him by a companion, Clare set off one Sunday, his only free day, to the town of Stamford several miles distant. He was distressed to discover that the bookseller's shop was closed. Yet he was determined to buy a copy of the poem. He writes that he had to "obtain [his] wishes by stelth" in order to do so and was forced to pay a fellow worker to cover for him as he escaped from his employment to be able to do his shopping. Walking home from Stamford, he could not wait to read his purchase, "and as I did not like to let any body see me reading on the road of a working day I clumb over the wall into Burghly Park and nestled in a lawn at the wall side" (By Himself 11). Taken by the beauties of Thomson's detached gentlemanly poetry and inspired by the gentleman's estate upon which he was quite literally trespassing, Clare claims he wrote down his first poem then and there.
John Goodridge and Kelsey Thornton have remarked upon the symbolic significance of the scene: "The appropriate act for climbing into the world of literature is climbing into the private land of the aristocracy. [. . .O]nce he has crossed the wall and can wander freely within the pastoral landscape of Burghley Park and the pastoral poetry of Thomson's The Seasons, Clare feels sufficiently released from the bonds of social class and economic necessity to write down a poem—something he has never dared do before" (88). Yet such liberating acts of trespass were not without risks. In their superb analysis of the theme of trespass in Clare's poetry, Goodridge and Thornton also note that "the landscape, and the power structures it embodies, exercise a double psychological control over the poet: the sinister accompaniment to Clare's visionary ecstasy is a darker mood of fear, risk, and circumspection" (99).
Those darker fears and dangers are explored in poems such as the quasi-autobiographical "The Fate of Genius," in which a sexton tells of the death of the unfortunate poet of the title. The sexton recalls that when the poet was a boy, he spent his idle hours "lone left by woods and streams [. . .] / And neath lone bushes dropt about the field" (Oxford 81: 41, 43). Such pastimes were not mere childish fancies. The sexton continues: "Nor did his habits alter with his age / Still woods and fields his leisure did engage / Nor friends nor labour woud his thoughts beguile" (Oxford 81: 47-9). Clare implies that it may be precisely because of these proclivities that the genius is doomed.
As the "primal scene" with Thomson indicates, enjoying nature is not Clare's only preferred leisure activity; reading poetry about enjoying nature is another, evident in poems such as "Labours Leisure." Significantly, however, Clare's leisure reading is almost always locodescriptive poetry. In "Evening Pastime," he reveals that the volumes in which he delights are those of "Thomson or Cowper or the Bard that bears / Life's humblest name though nature's favored choice / Her pastoral Bloomfield" (Selected 45: 6-8). It is important to note that Clare qualifies Bloomfield as "pastoral." Clare claimed Bloomfield as one of his most significant literary influences. Thus, affirming Bloomfield's pastoralism may be a means to reclaim for himself, as he does elsewhere, the right to enjoy nature as a pastoral space and not just a georgic domain of labor, sportive or otherwise. This is precisely the theme of many of Clare's enclosure elegies.
Central to Clare's argument against enclosure is the point that certain areas are worth preserving because they provide opportunities for leisure for those from all walks of life. Praising Emmonsales Heath as "maiden soil" "untouched" by "Stern industry with stubborn toil / And wants unsatisfied" ("Emmonsales Heath," Oxford 181: 9-10), Clare describes how the heath shelters birds and animals and how it offers solace and respite for humans: "O who can pass such lovely spots / Without a wish to stray / And leave life's cares a while forgot / To muse an hour away" (Oxford 182: 41-4). Swordy Well is another enclosed area Clare adored because of its association with childhood games and with his current, mature pastimes of natural history research: "In boyhood ramping up each steepy hill / To play at 'roly poly' down—& now / A man I trifle o'er thee cares to kill / Haunting thy mossy steeps to botanize" ("Swordy Well," Midsummer Cushion 383: 3-6). Again, in "Helpston Green," Clare's mourning for the site is colored by his memories of it as a place where he "With fellow play mates often joind / In fresher sports" (Oxford 63: 29-30).
Several critics have commented upon the centrality of walking to Clare's enjoyment of nature. For Anne D. Wallace, it represents an important distinction between Clare and Wordsworth, and Wallace's distinction hinges upon the pastoral, leisurely emphasis of Clare's pedestrianism. She writes:
Wordsworthian peripatetic asserts the extension not just of a traditional literary mode, but of a working concept of 'the good life,' by placing the walker where the farmer stood as cultivator, preserver, reformer, and (of course) poet. All of this depends upon initially accepting farming, walking, and poetry-making as interchangeable labours, in practice as in representation. This from Wordsworth, whose labours were walking and poetry. But Clare, who laboured at ploughing, reaping, threshing, herding cattle, and gardening tells us plainly that next to his work amid dusty cobwebs and murky barns, walking and poetry-making appear as the sweet pursuits of paradise (briefly) regained, a true sabbath rest. From Clare's point of view, a decision to use georgic as the parent stock of peripatetic would surely involve an unconscionable equivocation on 'labour.'
Clare's walking, more often a "rambling" or "flitting," is an activity without a particular destination or goal, wherever the spirit moved him, not purposefully georgic but pastoral. As Wallace notes, that freedom to ramble was limited by the process of enclosure, which set up fences, boundaries, and declared certain spaces off limits. Yet it was not merely the poet's freedom of leisurely movement that was impaired by enclosure.
A key element in Clare's case against enclosure is that the violence done to the environment destroys the habitats of birds, butterflies, and other small animals. Enclosure interferes with their ability to live and to play. Clare's identification with these small, persecuted animals is a recurrent theme in his poetry, as we see in "The Moorhen's Nest." Describing the pleasure that he takes in fields of what others call weeds, Clare asserts:
I hate the plough that comes to disarray
Her holiday delights—and labours toil
Seems vulgar curses on the sunny soil
And man the only object that distrains
Earths garden into deserts for his gains
Leave him his schemes of gain—tis wealth to me
Wild heaths to trace—and note their broken tree
Which lightening shivered—and which nature tries
To keep alive for poetry to prize
Upon whose mossy roots my leisure sits
To hear the birds pipe oer their amorous fits.
Oxford 220: 32-42
By destroying the "non-productive" space prized by Clare's poetry, enclosure—and labor in general—threatens to destroy both the moorhen's habitat and, by extension, Clare's very ability to be a poet. A landscape that is the object of agricultural work and "improvement," a georgic landscape, may no longer serve as the subject of poetry.
Other poems demonstrate how a recreational relationship to nature defines Clare's sense of his poetic vocation. In "The Lamentation of Round Oak Waters," the lately enclosed natural resource addresses the poet directly, identifying the young Clare's poetic proclivities through his unique recreational use of the site:
And different pleasures fill'd thy breast
And different thy employ
And different feelings thou possest
From any other Boy
The sports which they so dearley lov'd
Thou could's't not bear to see
And joys which they as joys approv'd
Ne'er seem'd as joys to thee
Oxford 20: 72-80
It is not just nature in general that shapes Clare's sense of his identity as a poet. As with other laboring-class poets, Clare also writes specifically of lambs, sheep, shepherds and other pastoral imagery to explore the links of labor and leisure in his poetry. That Clare would label his third collection of poems The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) reveals his awareness of the literary history of his choice of imagery and form. In the poems, the shepherd, like enclosed nature, becomes an object of nostalgia, a figure mourned precisely because of his link to a certain vision of poetry. It is a figure Clare captures most evocatively in sonnets.
Although pastoral nostalgia is by no means a distinctive theme among plebeian poets, what differentiates Clare is the form in which he chooses to explore this theme: the sonnet. The sonnet is, perhaps, the most formally appropriate to Clare's project because his poems about leisure in nature are ultimately love poems. They are love poems for nature and a lost oral tradition that the shepherd embodies, and embodies paradoxically in his very disappearance. Clare's poem "Shepherds Hut," from his last collection The Rural Muse (1835), explicitly shows that the unnamed threats that have led to the shepherd's disappearance also threaten a vital source of Clare's poetry:
Those rude old tales—mans memory augurs ill
Thus to forget the fragments of old days
Those long old songs—their sweetness haunts me still
Nor did they perish for my lack of praise
But old desciples of the pasture sward
Rude chroniclers of ancient minstrelsy
The shepherds vanished all & disregard
Left their old music like a vagrant bee
For summers breeze to murmur oer & die
& in these ancient spots mind ear & eye
Turn listeners—till the very wind prolongs
The theme as wishing in its depths of joy
To reccolect the music of old songs
& meet the hut that blessed me when a boy
Midsummer Cushion 421: 15-28
The shepherds' ancient song is subsumed into nature and memory, faintly audible and continually fading. Nature itself appears to take up their song and thus is present in the poem as more than a backdrop, but as itself generative of the poetry. Again, while Clare is not unique in his nostalgia for the shepherd-singer, like Bloomfield before him, he offers a more nuanced and suggestive vision of the documentary and the literary relationship between men and sheep. These shepherds did not live in ancient Arcadia, but were still producing poetry while Clare was a boy. The reasons for their disappearance are not specified beyond mention of general "disregard," yet clearly something has occurred, something that has only recently prevented the ancient practice of shepherding from continuing.
Not only are shepherds threatened. The threats to sheep that Bloomfield describes are also present in Clare. Several sonnets of the Northborough period (1832-1837) use the figure of the shepherd boy to explore the conflict between labor and leisure, framing it in light of modern work-time discipline. In the following poem, for example, the shepherd boy's increased consciousness of time suggests a mentality wherein the kind of daydreaming that his work might otherwise invite is rendered potentially illicit.
He waits all day beside his little flock
And asks the passing stranger what o clock
But those who often pass his daily task
Look at their watch and tell before he asks
He mutters storys to himself and lies
Where the thick hedge the warmest house supplys
And when he hears the hunters far and wide
He climbs the highest tree and sees them ride
He climbs till all the fields are blea and bare
And makes the old crows nest an easy chair
And soon his sheep are got in other grounds
He hastens down and fears his master come
Oxford 267: 1-12
The shepherd boy's distraction, as well as his interest in the distant hunters, allows the sheep to wander out of bounds. Likewise, the boy, whose propensity to mutter "storys to himself" makes him a figure for the poet, wanders out of the bounds his employment would confine him within, symbolically trespassing in leisurely literary indulgences which divert him from his work. Moreover, that Clare would have the boy distracted by the sounds of the hunt is significant. As Donna Landry has noted, by Clare's day, hunting was legislated as a leisure activity almost exclusively for the wealthy and propertied classes. Much like enclosure, but with very different motivations, hunting also impinged upon the rights of the common that were so important to the economy of makeshifts practiced by the rural poor. Landry explains that "In addition to grazing rights, rights to fuel, fertilizer, and building materials, the wild birds and animals of the common were shared by the poor" (78). However, the Game Act of 1671, and its more severe enforcement after 1750, "evidenced symbolically that the gentry as a class were no longer willing to tolerate sharing game and 'Countrey Contentments' with their social inferiors" (4).
The shepherd boy's wistful listening after the sounds of the hunt signals his class-based exclusion from a manner of enjoying nature, one which, as Landry convincingly argues, parallels aesthetic theories of the picturesque: "Entitlement to hunt as much as knowing how to read a landscape symbolized and enacted this imagined difference of view possessed by landed gentlemen" (5). The shepherd is ironically diverted from his real work by others' leisurely enjoyment of nature, pleasures which his "pastoral" work prevents. And much as the sheep in this poem wander out of their bounds, the poem itself seems to wander between the bounds of pastoral and georgic, between a world of work and a world of otium.
Although the threat to the sheep and shepherd is minimal in this poem, for Clare, when sheep are threatened, the poet often shares the threat. In another Northborough sonnet, the boy and the sheep are both shown suffering in the inclement weather, thereby contesting the conventional pastoral setting, a perpetual balmy spring:
The sheep get up and make their many tracks
And bear a load of snow upon their backs
And gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground
With sharp quick bite and then go noising round
The boy that pecks the turnips all the day
And knocks his hands to keep the cold away
And laps his legs in straw to keep them warm
And hides behind the hedges from the storm
The sheep as tame as dogs go where he goes
And try to shake their fleeces from the snows
Then leave their frozen meal and wander round
The stubble stack that stands beside the ground
And lye all night and face the drizzling storm
And shun the hovel where they might be warm
Oxford 263: 1-14
The poem presents a "realistic" representation of a less than pleasurable dimension of the task of tending sheep. But simply to point out its authenticity as the entirety of Clare's revision of pastoral conventions would be to neglect important symbolic dimensions of the poem.
The most gripping image of the poem is in its last couplet, with the snow-encrusted sheep refusing shelter and standing out "all night" to "face the drizzling storm." At first glance, and to anyone unfamiliar with the care of livestock, such behavior seems peculiar. It appears to indicate the obtuseness of the beasts, which do not know to protect themselves from the elements. Conversely, the poem may imply that their caretaker, who is also suffering the inclement weather, has neglected to herd them into the hovel. It is worth noting, however, that sheltering sheep is not a requirement for the animals' safety. Sheep are well protected against the elements: they are covered in a thick, lanolin-soaked fleece that naturally keeps them warm and dry. Moreover, in a snowstorm, if they entered any shelter, such as a hovel, where snow might be likely to drift, they risk being snowed in.
The idea that the sheep's fleece should be kept dry and away from extremes of temperature led to the practice of cotting, or keeping the sheep sheltered from the elements, also described by John Dyer in his georgic of shepherding, The Fleece (1757). Cotting sheep helped to protect the wool and provide the most attractive product to market. It was thus part of a larger program, within the eighteenth century's agricultural revolution, for improving sheep husbandry that Dyer details and that John Goodridge carefully explicates. While the sheep's natural instincts might lead it to resist shelter in a storm, Clare's poem suggests a tension between these instincts and the implicitly "unnatural" economic requirements of the wool trade.
The possible metaliterary significance of these details is worth exploring. Leisure, in this poem's scene of shepherding, is clearly nowhere to be found. Just as in the passage from Bloomfield's The Farmer's Boy, the suffering shepherd boy and his sheep signal that the kinds of otium promised by the pastoral are not factually available. To idealize the possibilities for a laborer's leisure in nature is careless, or worse, irresponsibly misleading. However, the shepherd's refusal to force the sheep into the hovel, which ignores the conventional practices of husbandry and allows the sheep to behave as they would "naturally," may suggest another interpretation. Like the shepherd in the poem, Clare as a poet refuses conform to rules and practices of literary pastoralism, conventions that can also be said to have certain economic or social ideologies behind them.
Clare's use of seemingly peculiar (or at least not conventionally pastoral) animal behavior for metacritical purposes can be found in other sonnets. As they did for Bloomfield, lambs have special significance for Clare. In another sonnet of the Northborough period, Clare writes of playful lambs, whose frolicking also includes "playing dead":
The spring is coming by many signs
The trays are up the hedges broken down
That fenced the haystack & the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown
& where suns press in every sheltered place
The little early buttercups unfold
A glittering star or two – till many trace
The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold
& then a little lamb bolts up behind
The hill & wags his tail to meet the yoe
& then another sheltered from the wind
Lies all his length as dead -- & lets me go
Close bye & never stirs but beaking lies
With legs stretched out as though he could not rise
Northborough Sonnets 9: 1-14
The sonnet's initial images are more conventional, but its concluding lines are striking. The poet encounters two lambs. One quite typically "wags his tail" and searches for the "yoe" (ewe). The second, however, remains hidden, sheltered from the wind. The speaker discovers it "beaking" (basking) in the sun. The lamb allows the poet to approach. But for reasons that are not immediately clear, it appears to be playing dead. While lambs, and sheep in general, do sleep soundly (and not vigilantly, with one eye open, as wild animals do), Clare may simply be pointing out the fact that the resting lamb, in its innocence, does not know it ought to bolt at a human's approach. However, it is important to bear in mind that the lamb is not described as sleeping, but as playing dead, and acting "as though he could not rise." This is the behavior of a fox, not a lamb, and it could suggest that the lamb feels threatened or hunted like a fox by the poet. If this is the case, Clare's lambs are more suspicious, and perhaps less innocent than Bloomfield's lambs, who had no hint of the fate that awaiting them.
To be sure, the lamb may simply be enjoying the sun, and the poem simply an objective record of some of the various rural signs of spring. However, the hints of death in the poem suggest at least the possibility of a less optimistic interpretation. In such a reading, just as in Bloomfield, the pastoral medium, as symbolized by the second lamb, is not immediately available to the poet. The lamb playing dead for the speaker, not joyfully jumping up to greet him, may imply that the form itself "plays dead" or tries to deceive a laboring-class poet such as Clare. Clare may come close to the pastoral; he may approach it. But it still declares itself to be resistant, unavailable, or metaphorically, dead to him.
It is not just lambs that play dead in Clare's poems, but also the lambs' natural predator, the fox. In a subsequent sonnet in the Northborough sequence, Clare writes:
The shepherd on his journey heard well nigh
His dog among the bushes barking high
The ploughman ran & gave a hearty shout
He found a weary fox & beat him out
The ploughman laughed & would have ploughed him in
But the old shepherd took him for the skin
He lay upon the furrow stretched & dead
The old dog lay & licked the wounds that bled
The ploughman beat him till his ribs would crack
& then the shepherd slung him at his back
& when he rested to his dogs supprise
The old fox started from his dead disguise
& while the dog lay panting in the sedge
He up & snapt & bolted through the hedge.
Northborough Sonnets 25: 1-14
If the lamb represents a vision for laboring-class leisure, formally embodied in the ideals of the pastoral, then the fox represents another form of the threat to pastoral leisure. And indeed, as Landry has shown, in so far as the gentry's interest in fox-hunting motivated them to assimilate into their estates areas previously used as commons, in which laborers might graze their livestock as well as engage in sports and other recreations, then fox-hunting was quite literally a threat to laboring-class leisure.
In this poem, a collective action by shepherd and ploughman, two rural laborers, destroys the symbol of that which destroys their natural leisure. At first, their efforts bode success. But true to its sly nature, the fox jumps up and reveals the cheat at the last moment. Although it may be beaten, it is not dead, and thus the lambs remain in danger. The foxhunting can continue. The "fox," the threat to laboring-class leisure in natural surroundings, as it is articulated through pastoral tropes, would only increase as the nineteenth-century progressed. While the labor movements of the 1830s and beyond helped to argue for the workers' rights, it would be several decades before legal protections for leisure time would be instituted.
Despite the threats to his leisure time and space expressed either directly or figuratively throughout his corpus, however, Clare understands himself as a poet primarily in terms of his leisure and not his labor. Clare rarely wrote poems describing his work life as a rural day laborer. Instead, his poems assert his need to interact with and experience nature in a leisurely, primarily pastoral manner. And although the ability to enjoy nature in and as play is frequently sacrificed in the works of Bloomfield, Yearsley and Clare, the protests against such sacrifices grow stronger from the mid-eighteenth century onward.
While Clare, Bloomfield, and Yearsley continue to be categorized as "laboring-class poets" we must remember that their labor is not all that defines them. Unlike the poets of the early eighteenth century, these poets did not always conceive of themselves as fundamentally georgic writers. In fact, Clare's most provocative ars poetica is entitled "Pastoral Poetry." It describes poetry as "language that is ever green" and names it as that which makes "leisure sweet." Clare's identity as a poet is defined by his "green play" and his poetry repeatedly argues that the exploitation of nature has profound implications for the laboring classes and for the literary production of laboring-class poets.
It both ironic and telling that Duck was ultimately rewarded for his poetic activity by being granted a sinecure as librarian at Her Majesty's gardens at Kew, a royal green space of leisure and pleasure. Writing poetry, almost "against nature," enabled Duck to attain a social position that permitted him to experience nature differently than he had as a thresher. Because he used his leisure time to write about his work, he was liberated from such work, so as to enjoy and write about nature in a way that was predominantly the domain of the gentry.
Fulford writes, further, that "The ability to distinguish and possess shared standards independent of self-interest (standards of aesthetic value or taste) in agreement about the beauty and sublimity of landscape seemed not only a mark of the viewer's gentlemanliness but a criterion for the exercise of legitimate social and political power. And that ability was itself seen to depend upon the capacity of the observer to take a distant, extenstive, and detached view of the scene, to be above self-interest" (3).
While animals and the outdoors did figure in popular recreations in the eighteenth century, as social historian R.W. Malcolmson has richly documented, the pursuits of badger baiting or team sports on the village green were of a very different order of leisure than the peaceful contemplation of trees, flowers, streams and hills that takes up the recreational experience of nature privileged in most of the picturesque poetry of the eighteenth century.
In my discussion of Clare's poetry, I will be relying upon several different editions. Each editor has taken his or her own approach toward "correcting" Clare's spelling, punctuation or grammar. Some editors elect to standardize and regularize, whereas others, most notably, Eric Robinson, transcribe the poems as faithfully as possible from the manuscript source. I will note the edition, and page and line numbers within the text. In cases where an editor has not corrected Clare's spelling or punctuation, I will not use "[sic]."
It is in the voice of Swordy Well that Clare also writes one his most powerful poems protesting enclosure, "The Lament of Swordy Well." Clare has the oppressed piece of land speak for itself against the gain that "comes yearly with the plough / And will not let me be" (Oxford 147: 30-31). Greed for increased agricultural production has destroyed the place of rural recreation to meet economic demands. The land again utters: "When grain got high the tastelesss tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks, and bushes / And me they turned inside out / For sand and grit and stones / And turned my old green hills about / And pickt my very bones" (Oxford 148: 59-64).
In his useful book on the genre, simply titled Pastoral, Terry Gifford sums up Raymond Williams's observation that a majority of pastorals look backward toward an "only-just-vanished" location, "and that each only-just-vanished period had its pastoral values located in an idyllic recent past when things were less problematic than in the present" (9).
I am grateful to John and Pete Goodridge for their insights into shepherding practices and the behavior sheep within this poem and the next one discussed.
The second half of Goodridge's Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry is dedicated to a careful and compelling cultural materialist explication of Dyer's wrongfully neglected long poem.
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Malcolmson, Robert W. Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973.
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Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.
Wallace, Anne D. Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1993.
|Auteur :||Bridget Keegan|
|Titre :||Lambs to the Slaughter: Leisure and Laboring-Class Poetry|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 27, 2002|
Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2002 — All rights reserved