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Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 103-109

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The Poetics of the Working Classes

Florence S. Boos

New antiphons remind us from time to time that poetry began and flourished in songs, ballads, hymns, dirges, outcries of protest, and prayers of thanks. It is my hope that this issue will deepen our understanding of poetry's demotic and artisanal origins, enlarge our sense of the lost variety of Victorian imaginative life, and realign slightly the borders of "the canon" (which still exists).

Toward this end, the issue's authors have considered many modes of poetic expression--in songs, epics, chants, broadsides, newspaper-poems and other verse forms in dialects or regional languages, and works sold by subscription or for charity by working-class authors as well as book-length collections taken on by publishers for sale to middle- and working-class audiences.

In The Making of the English Working Class (1963), E. P. Thompson argued that such works expressed a historically evolving industrial class-consciousness. Assorted revisionists, however (Patrick Joyce, for example, in Visions of the People, 1991), have long since questioned whether such a consciousness could be identified in the ways and temporal sequences Thompson claimed, and focused on more diffuse and apolitical continua of attitudes and motivations.

For the purposes of this collection, a straightforward working characterization of "the British working-class" in the period under consideration might focus on the near-universal absence of formal education beyond the earliest grades before the Education Acts of 1870 and 1872. Poets who lacked such education, for example, or could not provide it for their children, were in all probability "working-class," and it is my personal critical judgment that they and their immediate political allies wrote poems in regional languages such as Scots, "Doric," Scots Gaelic, or Lancashire dialect as well as "standard English," of dramatic power, reflective complexity, and rare haunting beauty.

It is obvious that contemporary middle-class editors and patrons mediated much of the rhymed oral narration, humor, satire, individual inspiration, and collective protest in these works. Yet writers of middle-class origins occasionally faced distinctly "proletarian" ends, and the wider [End Page 103] boundaries between "working"-class and "middle"-class literature were comparably shifting and traversable. Literary "hacks" of working-class origins wrote a wide variety of original broadside "ballads," for example, but middle-class printers also pirated works by middle-class authors such as Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt," and poor, middle-class and rich folk alike read "folk-ballads" edited by aristocratic patrons such as Lady Caroline Nairne. "Improving" middle-class journal editors such as William and Mary Howitt and W. J. Fox printed many of the poems of working-class poets, but so also did working-class counterparts such as Thomas Cooper, John Bedford Leno, and (the only woman in this category) Eliza Cook. Upper-middle-class patrons and anthologizers such as George Gilfillan and D. E. Edwards edited hard-cover collections of working-class poetry, but so also did John Cassell, Ben Brierley, and other editors with keen memories of their working-class origins.

The poetry itself, in any case, included religious, anti-clerical, inspirational, instructive, humorous, meditative, reflective, and reflexive poetry in almost every register I mentioned above-- "traditional" and narrative ballads, urban broadsides, regional satires, and political protests. Many working-class authors, influenced by the eighteenth-century pastoralism of Cowper, Ferguson, Gray, or Crabbe, appealed to specifically British traditions and antecedents in ballads and popular songs. Others--inspired in part by the reformist romanticism of Burns, Byron, Shelley, and the early Wordsworth--were also ardent egalitarians and heartfelt opponents of the rampant empire's more martial ambitions.

The reformist and egalitarian impulses that assimilated these traditions also estranged nineteenth-century working-class poetry later on from some of the paradigms that guided twentieth-century academic taste--l'art pour l'art, symbolism, imagism, modernism, "new criticism," structuralism, deconstruction, "post-modernism," and the like. Ironically, some of these critical and metacritical divergences also made the recovery and interpretation of popular poets' models and exemplars more "historicist" and less "popular," less current and...


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