Romantic discussions of labor and leisure are often tied to descriptions of the afterlife. In the depictions of heavenly leisure and labor with which this essay is concerned—Blake's "The Little Black Boy" and "The Chimney Sweeper" of Innocence, Byron's Don Juan Canto II and Cain, and The Ghost of Abel, which is Blake's response to Cain—Blake derives his visions of the afterlife partially from the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, while Byron draws on Lucretius' version of Epicureanism. Despite their irreconcilable sources, however, the poets converge on a single idea. If heaven is to relieve us of the distinction between labor and leisure, thus lifting Adam's curse while overcoming a merely conventional division of human activity, it will also have to erase the boundary between physical and mental work. In these poems, Byron and Blake each stage acts of phronesis, of moral judgment unregulated by statute or decree, in order to bring their theories of heaven in contact with the facts of life.
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.
This essay explores the ambiguities and ironies resident in the aphoristic phrase "Rest before Labour," which William Blake positions as the portal of "readerly" entry into his preliminary epic Vala, or The Four Zoas, which Blake never published. The "Rest" implied (the slumber of Albion, read historically and psychologically) occurs in the remainder of the poem yet functions as the boundary condition for the work itself—the first pre-text for this problematic work one might say. The "Labour" implied (the nightmare of alienation and fragmentation that ensues within Albion's sleep) occurs in the space-time of dreams across nine nights yet functions as the state of mind-matter relations in the waking world—the second pre-text for the work. The labor implicated in this dream narrative (visionary transformation of the public sphere) can only be achieved upon completion of the poem, again rendering all labors within the poem as pre-text for historical action. Once the work concludes its inner and outer operations (its labors, so to speak), reception dynamics shift the discursive arena to its readers, enacting a psycholinguistic transference until, ideally, Albion's awakening becomes our own. The poem's dream-work, then, inverts traditional associations of "rest" and "labour," and the implications of such an inversion best emerge when comparing Blake's view of dream-work with the critical elements articulated by Julia Kristeva in her analysis of a revolution in poetic language following the Romantic period itself. Kristeva's insightful analysis helps map Blakean cartographies of inner and outer symmetry.
In the republican tradition, from Aristotle through James Harrington, leisure was essential to the cultivation of civic virtue; labor—associated with the oikos rather than the polis—was not. In the late eighteenth-century, however, some democratic republicans celebrated the yeoman, who cultivated civic virtue through both his leisure and his labor. As a union of ancient opposites, the yeoman was a compelling but politically unstable character in republican theory, as suggested in the work of Jefferson and Rousseau. The same is true of the yeoman in Coleridge's and Wordsworth's early writings. Both writers began the 1790s convinced that in the yeoman one found the political realization of both labor and leisure. By mid-decade, Wordsworth no longer believed this, emphasizing instead the moral—rather than civic—value of landed property (the site of labor and leisure). Coleridge, too, came to question the significance of landed property, but not the significance of civic virtue; instead, he investigated new means to realizing that political condition, including a free press and a clerisy.