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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 144-148
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Plebeian Poets, Women Pastoralists, and the Free Press:
Case Studies in the Continued Work of Recovery
William J. Christmas. The Lab'ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730-1830(Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001). Pp. 364. $55.00 cloth.
Ann Messenger. Pastoral Tradition and Female Talent. Studies in Augustan Poetry(New York: AMS Press, 2001). Pp. ix + 248. $74.50 cloth.
James Raven, ed. Free Print and Non-Commercial Publishing Since 1700 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000). Pp. xiv + 258. $84.95 cloth.
Despite the fact that during the past several decades there has been no shortage of reminders that "eighteenth-century literary culture" was never monolithic, scholars continue to discover texts and topics that have been occluded from critical view, even within ever more inclusive parameters for eighteenth-century studies. Each of the books under consideration convincingly argues the relevance and merit of "minor" or "marginal" authors, texts, and textual practices. William J. Christmasrecovers and contextualizes the works of numerous male and female laboring-class poets. Ann Messengerestablishes women poets' contributions to an important neoclassical genre. And James Raven's collection explores complex questions about the production and reception of the non-commercial press in the eighteenth-century and beyond. All three books largely employ a case study method, thereby avoiding the risk of turning into another monolithic, if alternative, narrative of eighteenth-century cultural history.
Unlike race or gender, the category of class continues to be inadequately confronted in the ongoing work of canon revision, a problem that Christmas's book seeks to redress. Christmas extends and deepens the more recent work on eighteenth-century laboring-class poetry by Donna Landry, Moira Ferguson, John Goodridge, Richard Greene, Mary Waldron and others. Christmas revisits topics that these scholars have explored, such as Mary Collier's rebuttal of Stephen Duck, or the conflict between Ann Yearsley and Hannah More. However, Christmas places these analyses within the broader context of laboring-class poetry, understood not as the rare productions of a few isolated "natural geniuses," but as a full and even flourishing "counter tradition," one that runs wider and deeper [End Page 144] than has heretofore been acknowledged. Rather than looking only at women laboring-class poets, or only at rural poets, Christmas's study is distinguished by its more panoramic scope, discussing men as well as women, artisanal as well as agricultural workers.
Although Christmas's debt to scholars such as E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams is acknowledged and great, he moves beyond reading the poetry primarily for evidence of nascent proletariat politics. Through asking generic and philosophical questions of the poetry, Christmas provides new ways to recognize the accomplishments of laboring-class writers. Christmas's scope is ambitious, as he delimits a broad critical schema within which to account for the hundreds of laboring-class poets who published throughout the long eighteenth-century. And although some biographical context is necessary to Christmas's endeavor, biography is not the end of the story. Christmas insists on reading the poetry not simply for evidence of the poets' triumphs over adversity and "pursuit of knowledge under difficulties" (which has been the aim of previous surveys since Robert Southey in 1831). Instead, the book examines the poetry to determine how "cultural assumptions about work, writing, and social rank were interconnected and articulated by polite literati, and contested by their plebeian counterparts over the course of the century" (20). This is not to say that a reader is likely to find many earlier laboring-class poets expressing an explicit politics of resistance. Instead, their resistance is subtler, because it had to be articulated within what might acceptably be published. Christmas's careful close readings of a wide selection of laboring-class poems helpfully explicate these tensions.
Christmas's analysis proceeds chronologically through sixteen case studies. He uses these to prove that laboring-class poets are not "blips (or blights) on the literary/cultural map" (18). Despite the fact that many were...