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Within a literary canon revised to accommodate differences of race, class, and gender, those authors who have been marginalized because of their social class have been among the very last to be recovered by modern scholars. There are many ways to account for this, but perhaps the most obvious reason for their continued neglect is the fact that class, unlike race or gender, is less amenable to affirmative identity politics. Moreover, particularly for authors prior to the early Romantic age, the modern concept of class itself may be anachronistic.[1]

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the handful of eighteenth-century and Romantic labouring-class poems that have been recuperated within recent efforts at canon revision and literary recovery appear to have attracted critical attention primarily when they represent the authentic hardships of the working poor, thereby suggesting a nascent effort toward solidarity. In the 1730s, Stephen Duck details the onerous efforts of the thresher and Mary Collier the triple shift of the female agricultural labourer. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Mary Leapor critiques the country house from the kitchen maid’s point of view. By the end of the eighteenth century, Ann Yearsley heroically rejects Hannah More’s stifling patronage and asserts her “savage will” (“To the Same,” l. 8). Robert Burns asserts “A man’s a man for a’ that” (“Is There for Honest Poverty,” l. 12). And by the Romantic period proper, John Clare elegizes a countryside devastated by parliamentary enclosure, writing in regional dialect with poor spelling and grammar.

While these direct expressions of a more familiarly class-based politics are important, they are also relatively rare within the broader tradition of labouring-class poetry, a tradition made up of countless poems written by over 1300 poets who published in Great Britain and Ireland between 1700 and 1900.[2] In general, prior to the Chartist poets of the late Romantic age, the wide variety of writers with artisanal and agricultural class backgrounds may have experienced and sometimes even articulated solidarity based more specifically on a common trade or common region, but their work usually resists a Marxist analysis. Radical political views would have been difficult for poets to publish as their readership was primarily bourgeois and aristocratic. Should a poet from the lower orders wish to find the patron or subscribers needed to back publication, he or she had to be careful not to offend. A deferential tone was best when addressing such an audience, and the appearance of “‘Radical and ungrateful sentiments’” (to use Eliza Emmerson’s term for offending passages in the poems of her protégé, John Clare [qtd. in Storey 61]) could carry threats of the withdrawal of much needed financial support. Indeed, in 1820, one of Clare’s earliest backers, Lord Radstock, wrote to Mrs. Emmerson about passages he perceived to be objectionable in the poetry—passages that he felt had to be removed if Radstock were to collect subscriptions from his fellow peers:

no, he must cut them out; or I cannot be satisfied that Clare is really as honest & upright as I could wish him!—tell Clare if he has still a recollection of what I have done, and am still doing for him, he must give me unquestionable proofs, of being that man I would have him to be—he must expunge!

qtd. in Storey 61

To appear in print, it would seem, even in the 1820s, labouring-class poets could not criticize the wealthy or claim rights beyond their station.[3]

As such, well into the Romantic period the majority of labouring-class poets predominantly wrote seemingly uncontroversial poems, including an abundance of very conventional pastorals. These formulaic exchanges between Colin and Damon, frolicking in an Arcadian green and pleasant land, are the ones modern critics have largely ignored. Roger Lonsdale, for example, while praising Elizabeth Hands for her poems which satirize the gentry whom she serves, dismisses her pastorals as “insipid” (422). When I and the other editors of the recently published three-volume Eighteenth-Century Labouring-Class Poets made our selections for what to include in the collection, our aim was to represent more comprehensively the wide array of these wrongfully neglected writers. However, our consensus was that most of the pastoral poetry was mediocre and not worth anthologizing. While we were interested in labouring-class poets’ representations of nature, for instance, their pastoral representations were, we then felt, unoriginal and, at worst, potentially indicative of a mystified idealism. Poets with a real experience of the countryside should “know better.” Or so we thought.

I have since decided that I was mistaken about labouring-class pastoral. This is because I am more firmly convinced that if we look for recognizable identity politics of any kind in most labouring-class pastorals we are going to be disappointed. Using radicalism as the litmus test for the works’ literary—or even its social—value presumes a literalism in labouring-class poetry that poetry elsewhere defies. However, abandoning a more specifically Marxist agenda, and looking to alternative methodologies, readers might discover other political registers in these apparently apolitical texts. Specifically, a queer reading might productively undermine the usual critical practices for evaluating and valorizing labouring-class writing.

The current logic for determining whether to include a labouring-class poet within mainstream literary history proceeds typically from the assumption that, as John Guillory describes, “the noncanonical author’s experience as a marginalized social identity necessarily reasserts the transparency of the text to the experience it represents” (10). A queer reading complicates any such representational reductionism. Furthermore, it may also contribute to a broader queer history of eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, which although it has certainly been sensitive to the class issues, has heretofore focused primarily on tensions between bourgeois and aristocratic subjects. Paradoxically, then, conventional pastoral poetry may serve as a particularly felicitous site from which to launch a queer reading of labouring-class poetry, precisely because of its surface resistance to any explicit interrogation of social issues.

Numerous critics have observed the homosocial and homoerotic elements of both classical and early modern pastoral. Rictor Norton’s The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition is perhaps the most extensive inventory of such writing. Norton and others point to the classical origins of this dimension of the mode. The fifth idyll of Theocritus and Virgil’s second eclogue, for instance, both illustrate how the genre, even in its beginnings, potentially undermines heteronormative sexuality. Reading the pastorals of Richard Braithwait, Gregory Bredbeck has observed that, “In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of [pastoral’s] primary interests is its participation in fields of sexual deviation” (199-200). Bredbeck classifies the genre as one “titillated by transgression” (200). More recently, Bruce Boehrer has brilliantly read Milton’s pastoral elegy Lycidas as a same-sex epithalamium. Pastoral poetry, particularly of the Renaissance and early modern period, has lent itself to these revisionary readings.

But for writers of the eighteenth-century and Romantic period, mainstream debates about the pastoral focused on its social realism or lack thereof. The Pope-Philips debate at the start of the eighteenth century questioned whether to locate pastoral scenes in contemporary Britain or a timeless Arcadia. At the same time, as critics such as John Barrell, Anne Bermingham, and Tim Fulford have argued, the desire to impose an idealized, pastoral view of the landscape on the English countryside participates in a much broader ideological agenda, one connected to constructions of Britishness and masculinity and to promoting imperial capitalism, all things one anachronistically hopes labouring-class poets would have opposed. One might hope instead that labouring-class poets, who worked in real British nature, would avoid representing the natural environment as a place of leisure and relaxation, a place constructed to emblematize gentlemanly imperial power. Yet reading their pastoral poetry, it appears that most elect to imitate prevailing idioms, not to correct them. Is this evidence of a kind of literary Stockholm Syndrome—of the poet being figuratively held captive by wealthy patrons if he or she wanted to publish? Why would these poets promote a myth of the countryside that, in the hands of landscape gardeners or picturesque tourists, served ultimately to increase the deracination, poverty and misery of actual shepherds and rural labourers?

While it is certainly possible that many poets unreflectively mimicked polite poetry, it may be worth asking whether or not labouring-class poets used socially unrealistic and suggestively homosocial pastoral conventions as part of a proto-queer politics, one that could be connected to a nascent class critique, but in a different way than any overt workers’ rights anthem. More specifically, what happens when labouring-class pastoral is read as queer camp expression? To what extent might these poems work not only to question representations of what is “natural” for a particular rank of society, but, more broadly, to open up the discussion of what is “natural” in other categories of identity, including sexuality?

In my use of the term queer camp, I rely upon Moe Meyer’s remarkable introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Meyer’s discussion is worth reviewing in detail. According to Meyer, “What ‘queer’ signals is an ontological challenge that displaces bourgeois notions of the Self as unique, abiding, and continuous while substituting instead a concept of Self as performative, improvisational, discontinuous, and processually constituted by repetitive and stylized acts” (2-3). For Meyer, then, the concept of queer has a broader critical reach, one that explicitly involves class politics:

Queerness can be seen as an oppositional stance not simply to essentialist formations of gay and lesbian identities, but to a much wider application of the depth model of identity which underwrites the epistemology deployed by the bourgeoisie in their ascendancy to and maintenance of dominant power. As such, the queer label contains a critique of a more vast and comprehensive system of class-based practices of which sex/gender is only a part. The history of queer practices [. . .] is a critical maneuver not limited to sexualities, but one that has valuable applications for marginal social identities in general.


Such marginal social identities, then, could also include those of the labouring-classes.

Meyer describes camp as “the total body of performative practices and strategies used to enact queer identity, with enactment defined as the production of social visibility” (5). More specifically, camp involves the “strategies and tactics of queer parody” (9), which is:

The process whereby the marginalized and disenfranchised advance their own interests by entering alternative signifying codes into discourse by attaching them to existing structures of signification. Without the process of parody, the marginalized agent has no access to representation, the apparatus of which is controlled by the dominant order.


This explains why camp performances can seem to be transgressive while also furthering the signifying practices of the dominant order. They often risk undermining their potential critical effectiveness and appearing apolitical.

In adopting the pastoral personas of Colin or Delia, labouring-class poets perform identities that are, and are not, their own. They are going about in a kind of drag. Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses are the product of an aristocratic, courtly version of rural life and of nature itself, as many of Shakespeare’s romances illustrate. By the eighteenth-century, as Terry Gifford remarks, the pastoral “created a false ideology that served to endorse a comfortable status quo for the landowning class” (7), one that glossed over the hardships faced by rural inhabitants. It provided an illusion of rural life as one of ease and pleasure, of rural nature as effortlessly fruitful and mild, an illusion that worked to “prevent the questioning of power structures that underpinned land ownership” (8). Pastoral can work to mystify rural life. As John Barrell writes, “The attitude to work which Arcadian shepherds display [. . .] does seem to be an attitude which only an aristocracy can afford to indulge. It is an attitude, of course, which intends to remind us that pastoral poetry is often thought of as occurring in the Golden Age, before the curse of labour was visited upon mankind” (11). The very act of work itself, one could say, is queer within the pastoral mode

Yet when a labouring-class poet plays a pastoral role, is it simply a sign of mystification? In impersonating the pastoral shepherd, lolling about on hillsides spouting poetry and mooning about shepherdesses, the labouring-class poet might alternatively be seen as performing an implicitly illicit role. Labouring-class individuals were not supposed to waste their time leisurely composing poetry, and reviews of labouring-class poetry from this period reinforce that point. Reviewers (and patrons) often advised the poet that his or her time would better be spent in manual rather than aesthetic labours. The very act of writing poetry was potentially transgressive for a member of the labouring classes. (One need only think of Hannah More’s remarks forbidding the teaching of writing in Sunday schools: “I allow of no writing for the poor. My object is not to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue” [3: 133].) As social historians such as R.W. Malcolmson have noted, it is during the late eighteenth century that leisure time for the labouring classes was increasingly eroded due to the emergence of a stricter work-time discipline. For labouring-class poets, writing in the pastoral mode performed an attitude toward leisure and against work that was increasingly seen as deviant for the lower orders. In the very act of writing pastorals, some labouring-class poets might be seen as enacting a resistance to capitalism’s efforts to control labouring-class individuals by reducing their identities to an economic use value.

Not only is some labouring-class pastoral thus potentially camp: it is eco-camp, to paraphrase Meyer again (20). It is camp performed in a contrived natural setting, and it is eco-camp because poets actively reuse and recycle images—specifically images of nature—imposed on them from above. Yet these pastorals should not be mistaken for trash to be discarded by modern critics and anthologists. The poets take worn out conventions for the representation of the natural world and make them into something new—something that challenges the notion of essentialized class identities, as well as instrumentalist attitudes toward the natural environment. The pastoral could be used by all poets from the lower classes to play roles otherwise forbidden to them, challenging “bourgeois notions of Self as unique, abiding, and continuous.” Labouring-class pastoral, with its conventional performances, may then show that at least some labouring-class poets may have implicitly understood the self as “processually constituted by repetitive and stylized acts” (Meyer 3). For labouring-class poets, pastoral might allow them to question and to queer the use of the term “natural” to explain the social divisions of society into ranks or what would today be called classes.

To test this hypothesis more concretely, I turn to three very different poets, one English, one Scottish and one Irish; two are male and one female; two write in the early part of the Romantic age, and one in the latter part. Although I am more interested in the following analysis in the possible critique of the categories of sex and class in these texts, I recognize that questions of nationality and of nationalist politics are potentially equally significant to the work that these poems do, and a more thorough discussion of these dimensions of the poetry may be called for.

John Clare, whose first published volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, appeared in 1820, has become the best-known labouring-class poet of the Romantic period. His current popularity has advanced with the recent rise of ecocritical literary perspectives, which are rightfully compelled by Clare’s astonishing, attentive ecocentric poetry. Clare also wrote about social issues and composed many explicitly political poems about the poor (although much of Clare’s political poetry was not published until the late twentieth century). In his long career, Clare experimented with many versions of the pastoral and writes explicitly about pastoralism. Alongside his “realistic” descriptive poems about the lives of “authentic” shepherds, Clare also wrote pseudo-classical amorous dialogues including the poem “Lubin and Collin, A Pastoral,” composed in 1819 or 1820.

In this poem, Clare speaks through the voices of the shepherds, displacing and disguising his voice, as he does in so many of his poems and not simply his pastorals. He masquerades. Like Thomas Chatterton, whom he admired, Clare frequently engaged in different types of poetic ventriloquism, adopted different vocal “costumes,” and enjoyed passing off his impostures, which he sometimes claimed were written by elite seventeenth-century poets such as Andrew Marvell. Furthermore, as is well known, late in his life, while institutionalized, Clare imagined himself to be Lord Byron and even went so far as to write additional cantos to Don Juan and Childe Harolde. Clare well knew how poetry productively destabilized fixed notions of identity, authorial and otherwise. Clare’s attempt to assume Byron’s identity might offer, in fact, another avenue for a queer reading of Clare.

“Lubin and Collin” begins with the shepherds nestling beneath a tree as a storm breaks. They dash to a nearby hut, and in this intimate and secluded setting, Collin tells a story about hearing a faint yet sweet melody. Curious to know its origin, Collin attempts to trace it to its source, but when he comes to where the sound appears to emanate from, all is silent. Lubin comments:

Aye how was that—it should be something quere

To hear far off and lose the sound when near

Twas fancy sure—but never mind what past

The heads give now and tell the substance last.

Early 1: 461, lines 40-3

There the poem concludes.

What of that mysterious melody and the peculiar last line? That melody, its hidden source and ambiguous significance, troubles the outward simplicity of this pastoral imitation, even as we are told to dismiss the melody as sheer fancy. There is another song within this song, one whose source disappears as one gets closer to it, which “should be something quere.”

If we listen to the melody in the poem, we may hear the queerness of it and the queerness of labouring-class pastoral. That melody could easily disappear if we dismiss labouring-class pastorals as meaningless, mystified trifles. Can we use our head now and “tell the substance” of this poem? Because Clare wrote explicitly political poems critiquing agricultural enclosure and the resultant disenfranchisement of the rural poor, it may be easier to interpret his performance as an Arcadian shepherd as a performance of an identity which enclosure would have robbed him of. Enclosure converted pastures to parks or farmland. Clare’s “realistic” poems about shepherds represent them as a dying breed, whose ability to ply their trade was eroded by agrarian “improvement.”

In this poem, however, there is no reference to contemporary crises. There is no historical specificity in Collin’s tale; Lubin calls it pure “fancy,” a mere surface, devoid of substance. Clare represents the hollowness of pastoral’s evanescent melody, yet he performs it even as he indicates the disappearance of its meaning and source. There is no interiority to this pastoral poem, only surface, yet this may be precisely the point and the source of its camp critique. As Thomas King has argued, “The early modern origins English Camp may actually have been well-informed political practices deploying the surfaces of the body oppositionally against the accruing bourgeois capacity for shaping and controlling the subject through his or her interiority” (24). Here, it is not the surfaces of the body but the conventions of a literary form, and the subject constituted in and by that form, that should be read oppositionally. The queer melody in Clare’s poem, a figure for labouring-class pastoral itself, is also a figure for another version of subjectivity that would resist being captured and essentialized, precisely through the disappearance of any origin or interiority that could be disciplined or controlled.

Clare makes ample use of the conventional pastoral’s invitation to masquerade, and he takes advantage of the form’s penchant for lyric disguise in order to cross-dress, speaking as a woman in a number of his more conventional pastoral ballads as can be seen in a poem that first appeared in the London Magazine in 1821. In it, the speaker repeats a conventional pastoral plot of unrequited love. The poem begins:

I dreamt not what it was to woo

& felt my heart secure

Till Robin dropt a word or two

Last evening on the moor

Middle Period 4: 23, lines 1-4

The love the speaker experiences for Robin is unexpected and takes the speaker by surprise. In the simple lines of the poem, Robin demonstrates his love for the speaker by going off the path (thus deviating from the “straight and narrow”) to be able to walk side by side with speaker on the countryside trail. As they walk through the rustic countryside, the speaker and Robin hold hands, but when they reach the town:

He sighed and kissed me not

& whispered ‘we shall meet agen’

But didn’t say for what

Yet on my breast his cheek had lain

& though it gently press’t

It bruised my heart and left a pain

That robs it of its rest.

lines 18-24

On the surface, this poem seems utterly unremarkable. But it is worth asking why Clare neglects to provide any indicators about the speaker’s gender. We might conclude quickly that the speaker is female, since the lover is named Robin. Yet does that allow the reader to make this assumption? To be sure, the biographical evidence we have points to Clare’s vigorous heterosexuality. Yet as any reader of Clare knows, the poet’s persistent play with ventriloquism in his poetry forces us to mistrust our assumptions as to who is speaking in his poetry and to resist assuming that the “I” who speaks in Clare’s poems necessarily reflects the desires of his authentic “self.” The poem’s non-gender-marked speaker again suggestively opens up the possibility of hearing, however faintly, the possibility of another kind of love in this pastoral, a love that must hide itself, that may not be seen by the town. The uncertain status of the speaker renders the poem simultaneously utterly conventional and potentially revolutionary in its suggestive expression of a queer sexuality.

Another, later poem written while Clare was in the Northampton Asylum, “I love thee,” also speaks of a hidden and forbidden love, a love that the speaker fears contradicts the will of God. This poem does not provide any indication of either the speaker’s or the addressee’s gender.

I know that I love thee

I feel it all o’er me

If wrong, God reprove me

So much to adore thee

Later 1: 622: 1-4

The poem continues for many more lines in the same vein, and, once again, would be easy to dismiss as banal if we presumed the heterosexuality of speaker and addressee. While the poem’s presence amidst literally hundreds of pastoral love poems addressed to women would suggest a preponderance of evidence for guessing the orientation of the poem’s speaker, once again, Clare’s explicit choice not to mark gender is worth pausing over. It calls for attention because it is a strategy that Clare uses with some frequency, and throughout his literary career. It is a simple gesture that could queer the conclusions made by the consumer of pastoral poetry, if, that is, one is willing, like Collin, to try to trace that faint melody in a poem that may look like conventional pastoral love poetry. Although he was elsewhere quite outspoken in his resistance to conventions—literary, grammatical and orthographic—here Clare’s potential resistance courts the dangers of all camp performance: namely that it can be misread as simple approval of the form and the ideology contained within it. We know, however, from Clare’s other more realistic interventions in pastoralism, where he directly condemns the way in which the process of parliamentary enclosure displaced and disenfranchised actual shepherds in Clare’s village of Helpston, that for Clare pastoral was more often a site of resistance, not conformity.

The modes of resistance potentially offered by labouring-class pastoral took other forms as well. In her 1792 collection, The Poetical Works of Janet Little, the Scotch Milkmaid, Janet Little wrote numerous pastoral poems, including a sequence of poems exchanged between Alonzo and Delia. In the initial poem in the series, “From Alonzo to Delia,” Little adopts the male shepherd’s voice in pressing his suit to Delia (who, as the later poems will make clear, is a figure for Little herself, as Delia displays an active engagement with literary culture). Speaking in a poetic drag, as Alonzo, Little has this persona attempting to seduce Delia by likening his feelings to those of Adam for Eve in Paradise:

Know, lovely charmer, that our ancient sire

Did languish, tho’ in Eden’s fragrant bow’rs;

Till the first nymph bade love his breast inspire,

And by her presence cheer’d the ling’ring hours.

248, lines 17-20

Delia’s reply turns Alonzo’s conceit on its head and expressly rejects his call for heterosexual romance:

Be warned by Adam; shun the glitt’ring train,

Lest some fond nymph your pleasures all expel.

A single life we find replete with joys.

The matrimonial chain I ever dread.

A state of celibacy is my choice;

Therefore Alonzo never can succeed.

249, lines 23-8

Delia’s critique of Alonzo’s use of pastoralism to impose compulsory heterosexuality is then followed by another pastoral, “From Delia to Alonzo. Who Had Sent Her a Slighting Epistle.” This poem is equally cautionary to Alonzo, who is more specifically identified as a fellow labouring-class poet. Delia tells him, “You’ve been upon Parnassus’ top, / More high than Alexander Pope” (249, lines 7-8). But despite the fact that Alonzo may “seem the laureate of our days” (l. 33), she regrets that:

‘Tis pity, sir, that such as you,

Should agriculture’s paths pursue,

Or destin’d be to hold the plough

 On the cold plain;

More fit that laurels deck’d the brow

 Of such a swain.

250, lines 37-42

Nonetheless, despite Delia’s admiration for Alonzo and her empathy with his position, she continues to refuse his advances: “Know then, that love within my breast, / Has never yet been known to rest” (251, lines 61-2). Heterosexual romance, no matter its presumably idyllic Arcadian setting, is represented as unavailable or, more accurately, undesirable for Little’s female speakers in these pastorals. The women speakers in her poems define themselves primarily through literary knowledge or social status rather than through relationships founded upon heterosexual desire. As Donna Landry notes, Little’s pastoral speakers, “continue textualizing desire, rather than embrace the silencing closure of marriage. The desire to write refuses to be collapsed into a displacement—figured as some ineffable sensual bliss—when marriage as Law is represented as the only alternative, a culmination of desire that would abruptly end it” (232). Institutionalized heteronormativity is resisted through the very act of writing pastorally. Little reappropriates that mode, used often, just as Alonzo uses it, to stylize and ultimately institutionalize heterosexual desire. She turns pastoral against itself. As such, her pastorals may be seen as camp, and as camp they articulate the transgressive potential for identities not usually available to a female labourer. As Landry notes conclusively, Little’s speakers are “poetic heroines of independent mind, for whom writing itself constitutes and fulfills their desires in ways otherwise impossible in their historical moment” (232-3).

A labouring-class camp critique of fixed bourgeois notions of self is more dramatically evident in the work of Ulster weaver poet Samuel Thomson. A member of the Society of United Irishmen, Thomson published in the Northern Star and was no stranger to political activism. However, his pastoral poems rarely expressed explicit political statements, and after 1798, they appear to be almost entirely devoted to nature and natural scenery and written using pastoral conventions. They are often addressed to “Damon,” which was Thomson’s name for fellow poet John Williamson. The turn toward pastoralism in his later poetry has meant Thomson’s exclusion from late twentieth-century anthologies of Irish literature which foreground poems highlighting explicit claims for Irish national rights. Moreover, as a poet hailing from Ulster, Thomson’s national identity crosses borders and refuses to be fixed in other ways. He frequently writes in a Scottish dialect imitative of Burns but elsewhere demonstrates his ability to perform perfectly in the King’s English, all the while maintaining a residence in Ireland (Little similarly wrote in both Scottish dialect and English). These are not the only borders for a fixed identity that Thomson troubles. In the pastorals to Williamson, he engages in a critique not of nationalities but of sexualities.

The most compelling of his poems in the collection New Poems on a Variety of Different Subjects (1799), “The Acrostic—to Damon,” quite literally marries their two names, even as it disrupts our ability to read the names “straight.” Because the poem is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers, and because it is such a remarkable text, it is worth quoting in its entirety:

J ust such a bond of union, as of old,

S aul’s son and David did together hold,

O ur hearts hath bound in an eternal tie,

A nd which to loose, we time and man defy.

H eaven withholding wealth, to make amends,

M ore to endear our state, hath made us friends,

N ever to separate, our names here stand,

U nited closely by the Muse’s hand.

W hile blooms the hawthorn in the flow’ry vale,

E nriching sweetly every passing gale;

I n meadows moist, while bending osiers shew

L ove-breathing shepherds where to sigh their woe;

L ike as our souls in mutual friendship join’d,

T he reader here our names enwarp’d will find.

L ife’s a short passage, down a doubtful steep,

H ence Death, black monster, with unpitying sweep,

I n a few fleeting years, short months, or days,

O ur humble station from this scene will raise.

A h, when the gloomy hour last draws nigh,

M ight we together up to Heav’n fly,

M ight we together but be call’d away,

S oftly, to regions of eternal day;

S ecure, we’d scorn the meagre traitor’s dart,

O ur only greatest fear, that we should part.

O, if my soul should first from earth get free,

N ot even in heaven could it happy be,

N or relish bliss till thou could’st share with me.


The poem draws explicitly upon conventional pastoral images, alongside images such as that of David and Jonathan in the second line, which encode the poem in a discourse of heroic male friendship. The classical pastoral imagery in line 11 alludes to the myth of Theseus and Perithous from book 8 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, another relationship of special significance in the history of homoerotic literature (Burke 45-6). The relationship, moreover, as described in the final lines of the poem, envisions the two men in terms of a commitment beyond the normal boundaries of heterosexual marriage. The marriage vow binds a heterosexual couple only until “death do us part.” Thomson imagines his bond with Williamson as extending even beyond the grave. But in so far as he also represents the couple cohabiting in heaven, he also sees their bond as sacred. That bond is itself a gift of heaven, as Thomson states in line 5, offered to the poet in compensation for his poverty. Poetry is what performs the union of the two men.

As an acrostic as well as a pastoral, the poem serves the purpose of revealing an identity, but the acrostic also subverts the singularity of the identity that is encoded in the poem. If the proper name is a signifier of an identity, in this poem we see the identities and the names of the lover and beloved both interrupted and inscribed, both constituted and disrupted in their encryption in the acrostic. The self only names itself in its homoerotic union with another that prevents, paradoxically, its singularity as self. As Tim Burke has brilliantly observed, the poem as a whole “enacts the ‘bonding’ and ‘enwarping’ of a self into union with both the body and the spirit of another” (45). The “enwarping” further alludes to Thomson’s association with the Ulster weavers; thus this interweaving is also a part of Thomson’s performance of himself as a labourer. In so far as Thomson’s identity as such—as Irish, as labouring-class, or as homosexual—can be named, it is at the same time a name, an identity, that is interrupted in its inscription in and with the name of another. To paraphrase Meyer, the self is constituted, albeit discontinuously, in the stylized act of writing the poem.

It appears, at least in the instances discussed above, that the pastoral offers a particularly productive space to these poets perhaps because its intensely stylized—and hence “artificial”— representations of nature suggested a set of images through which to resist the “naturalization” of ideas of gender and social rank and to contest the ways in which that “naturalization” was then used to confine or preclude the exploration of alternative subjectivities—class-based or otherwise. These potentially camp pastorals serve to queer ideas of nature and the natural, at least in so far as those concepts might become appropriated in the service of presumptions about the kinds of writing and the kinds of experiences possible for poets who wrote from economically marginalized positions.

As access to and knowledge about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century labouring-class poets grows, if we read these texts carefully, and queerly, we might avoid reducing their poems to being valuable only when they offer explicit proletariat politics or comments about the conditions of their economic labour. Even when the poetry seems to be performing at its most apolitical, as pastoral, it may be worth asking if it can alternatively, even if only hypothetically, be read as queer camp parody, critiquing a reductionist vision of rurality rather than mindlessly imitating it. For if we presume the latter, we deny the possibility that these poets were intelligent and creative agents, capable of working critically and playfully within and against discursive conventions and the ideologies they promoted.