- The Work of Poetry
Pickering and Chatto's Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700–1800 provides an extraordinarily helpful view of the complex, vibrant literature that can be designated generally as "laboring class," a category that encompasses other related designations, including "self-taught," "plebeian," and "natural genius." This is the first of two laboring-class poetry collections covering periods from 1700 to 1900; the second collection covering the nineteenth century has just been published.
Roughly one-third of the eighteenth century is represented by each of the three volumes. Of the sixty-three poets included (eleven women, forty-eight men, four anonymous), thirteen are found in the first volume (1700–1740), twenty in the second (1740–1780), and thirty in the third (1780–1800). These divisions are meant to reflect the increasing number of laboring-class poets who published as the eighteenth century unfolded. Authors are organized chronologically by publication date of the first poem included. Consequently, selections for an author are found in one volume even if publication dates cross volume divisions. A few newly canonized authors are included, such as Stephen Duck, Mary Leapor, and Ann Yearsley. The majority, however, are far less well known. During the last several decades of non-canonical recovery efforts, perhaps only Roger Lonsdale's influential Oxford anthologies of eighteenth-century verse presented little-known or forgotten authors in such number as this set does.
In addition, for teaching and research purposes, the editors have established on the Internet "A Biographical & Bibliographical Database of British and Irish Labouring-Class Poets 1700–1900." Currently located at <http://human.ntu.ac.uk/research/labouringclasswriters/elsie1.htm>, this extensive database records the results of the editors' meticulous work over several decades on more than 1,000 laboring-class writers from which the authors now printed in both sets were selected. Therefore, this fine set should be understood not as exhaustive but as suggestive of additional scholarly work of recovery and interpretation.
Each volume includes the kinds of useful critical materials and apparati we would expect to find in a scholarly anthology: an excellent introduction; a chronology; biographical and critical headnotes introducing each author's life and literature; succinct endnotes, which include any original notes; and indexes of themes, first lines, and titles. A glossary of dialect words is included in the third volume. To save space, and because many texts, originally printed cheaply or inexpertly, would have reproduced poorly, the selections are entirely reset with limited editorial intervention. Some authors are represented extensively, and some "paratextual" materials, such as prefaces, are included. If modern scholarly editions [End Page 659] of a poet's works are currently available, selections are usually minimal, with a few exceptions (e.g., Ann Yearsley in the third volume).
For almost all authors included, copy texts were established by a first edition, which attests to the often perilous state of this literature. Manuscripts rarely survived, and few authors saw their texts printed again after a first edition. Some readers will miss the visual "texture" of an early modern printed page in facsimile, but the carefully edited, reset verse is accessible and may be reproduced easily. Although spelling is not modernized, texts are not reproduced exactly as they were originally printed. What's on the page is a hybrid, and the extent to which the texts are modernized varies somewhat across the three volumes. Volumes I and II for the most part preserve typical eighteenth-century orthographic conventions, such as italics, capitals, and small caps; only in volume II are some capitals and quotation marks made standard. Volume III, however, employs more modern typographic conventions.
The commendable physical properties of this set, including good paper, stitched (not glued) signatures, and durable covers, ensure the set...