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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.3 (2005) 535-538
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"But were they any good?":
Milkmaids on Parnassus, or, Political Aesthetics
The very idea of women, especially those born into the laboring classes, publishing poetry during the eighteenth century still inspires cynicism. No sooner had the question "Were there any?" been answered by Roger Lonsdale's ground-breaking Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (1989), when skeptics inquired, "Were they any good?" Both these books engage that question, though neither provides the full formalist analysis of laboring-class writing eloquently called for by John Goodridge's Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (1995), William J. Christmas's The Lab'ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730–1830 (2001), and, most recently, Steve Van Hagen ("'The Voice is lost, drown'd by the noisy Flail': The Continued Critical Silencing of Stephen Duck and Other Eighteenth-century Plebeian Poets." Paper delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, January 2004). Goodridge convinced us how Stephen Duck and Mary Collier were as writerly in their engagement with literary tradition, and as keen to be regarded as Poets, as was James Thomson. Christmas made a strong pitch for the aesthetic importance of the Irish poet and bricklayer Henry Jones and for James Woodhouse's almost entirely neglected but scintillating unpublished epic Crispinus Scriblerus. Van Hagen now seeks to argue that Duck, Collier, [End Page 535] Woodhouse, and others were capable not only of equalling but even of surpassing the aesthetic excellence of their more elite contemporaries. In his view, not to engage with their work formally and aesthetically is to continue to repeat, ad nauseam, the condescension of their upper- and middle-class patrons.
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that of all the English laboring-class women poets, Mary Leapor has the strongest claim to aesthetic excellence as traditionally conceived. Richard Greene's and the late Ann Messenger's magisterial edition of Leapor elegantly testifies to this distinction. As Richard Greene observes in the Preface, Leapor "is probably the most distinguished and the most significant poet to come to light as a result of the re-examination in the 1980s and 1990s of the canon of eighteenth-century verse" (v). Something that would have been inconceivable fifteen years ago, when Lonsdale's anthology appeared, an Oxford edition of a single plebeian woman poet, now bears witness to a seismic shift in scholarly conceptions of the eighteenth-century canon.
This book also represents a movement to bring laboring-class poetry to a somewhat broader audience than habitually hangs out among the rare books of major research libraries. Appearing as it has in the same year as the Pickering and Chatto three-volume Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets (2003), to be reviewed in a coming issue of ECS, The Works of Mary Leapor participates in something of a radical dissemination-in-progress. One can only hope that these two books, however expensively produced and beyond the means of most readers to buy, mark the beginning of a publishing trend, that public as well as academic libraries will buy them, and that eventually cheaper printed editions will become available to supplement them.
Because Leapor's oeuvre, published posthumously in two octavo volumes in 1748 and 1751, presents few bibliographical difficulties (there are no extant manuscripts), the glory of this edition is not that it resolves textual cruxes but that it monumentalizes, in a rigorous Oxonian style, a woman poet who was also a domestic servant. As Greene's Preface states, it was Ann Messenger who first proposed such an edition, which has now appeared some seven years after her death. Such a doubling of posthumous-ness...