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Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 303-318

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Ebenezer Elliott and the Reconstruction of Working-Class Masculinity

Alexis Easley

"Who is the poet of the poor, if I am not?" --Ebenezer Elliott, 1840 1

Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849) was born the son of a Sheffield iron worker and at an early age began writing poetry while employed in his father's foundry. Though early in his career he published several books of poetry 2 and was mentored by Southey, his work drew little critical attention. Not until Elliott began writing poems in opposition to the Corn Laws during the 1830s and 1840s did his work find a wide audience and achieve critical acclaim. In 1835, W. J. Fox claimed that "no future Johnson will edit the works of the British poets without a biography of [Elliott]." 3 What Fox and many other middle-class critics seemed to admire most about Elliott was his ability to allow the "poor [to] speak of and for themselves" and to promote a "literature of their own," that is, to provide accounts of working-class life in an industrial era (p. 191). In this way, Elliott came to be defined as a leading figure in the "Literature of Poverty." 4

In proclaiming Elliott the leader of a new school of working-class poetry, Fox was responding to a recently published three-volume collection of Elliott's work (London: Steill, 1834-35), which had established the poet's reputation as a literary radical. During the 1830s and 1840s, Elliott not only used his poetry as a vehicle for arguing against the Corn Laws but also for chronicling the effects of industrialism on the working classes. Elliott's poetry was published widely in periodicals such as Tait's Edinburgh Magazine and the People's Journal as well as in newspapers such as the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent. His work also became familiar to readers in the epigraphs to Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novel, Mary Barton (1848).

On one level Elliott's poetry can be viewed as a useful source for understanding early Victorian social and political concerns, especially anti-Corn Law agitation. However, his poetry is even more valuable as a [End Page 303] source for understanding shifting definitions of gender and class within radical discourse of the 1830s and 1840s. By publishing his poetry in a variety of media aimed at male and female readers from all classes, Elliott hoped to improve the domestic life and political status of laborers and artisans. In this essay, I examine relationships of gender and class in Elliott's poetry, highlighting the ways that his work promoted a program of reform centered on reconstructing gender roles in the working-class home. I demonstrate how Elliott's poetry contributed to the rhetoric of domesticity that emerged in some radical circles in the 1830s and 1840s. This conservative rhetoric aimed to reestablish the centrality of the masculine breadwinner in the working-class home and to restore women to a position of ancillary usefulness in the domestic sphere.

In addition to analyzing issues of class and gender in Elliott's poetry, I investigate the ways that his public image was constructed by middle-class critics to serve the project of facilitating social reform. For these critics, Elliott came to be defined as the ideal working-class patriarch whose life and poetry would help to facilitate peaceful social change through modeling working-class self-improvement and promoting free-market economic policies. That Elliott came to represent the ideal working-class patriarch is ironic considering that he was an ironmonger and property owner for most of his life. Middle-class critics capitalized on Elliott's ambiguous class status by constructing his public image in contradictory terms--both as an exemplary working-class hero who provided a model of masculine self-improvement and as an upwardly mobile businessman who could see beyond individual class interests. As I will demonstrate, Elliott's contradictory public image played an important role in stimulating a middle-class rhetoric of masculinity and literature of reform.

Poetry and the Rhetoric of Domesticity



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