Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 287-300
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Language, Class, and English Identity in Victorian Dialect Poetry
The introduction to the collected writings of Samuel Laycock, one of the most popular Victorian working-class dialect poets, comments that Laycock wrote "for the elevation, the enjoyment, and the consolation of . . . the 'toilers and moilers' of Lancashire's towns and villages." 1 Such poetry--the literary fruits of an expressive impulse arising from the conditions of working-class life, aimed at the betterment of that life and formed in the very idiom of that life--would seem to offer much promise to the contemporary reader and scholar. One might hope to find here a poetic engagement with the material conditions of the Victorian working class and perhaps a significant counter-voice to the dominant middle-class discourse of Victorian England. Yet scholars who write on Victorian dialect poetry often seem disappointed, their commentaries ranging in tone from apologetic to overtly critical. Brian Maidment, for instance, characterizes Victorian "homely rhyming" as predominantly "conciliatory and conservative," 2 while Susan Zlotnick argues that "after the failure of Chartism, the working class and its writers turned inward by turning indoors, embracing the ideology of domesticity, and participating in an apotheosis of the home and family similar to that of the Victorian middle classes." 3 Generally, the alleged failings of dialect poetry are ascribed at least in part to the influence of middle-class patronage, 4 but whatever the cause, two conclusions are prevalent: first, dialect poetry tends to re-inscribe rather than resist middle-class ideology, and second, this poetry is ultimately stylistically conservative--written in a conventionalized poetic idiom with a tenuous relationship to the actual speech of its writers.
These critics may have in mind such poems as Laycock's "Homely Advice for the Unemployed":
While th' wealthy are feastin' we're starvin',
An' for this, lads, ther' must be a cause;
Aw know pratin' Tom ull put this deawn [End Page 287]
To injustice an' the badness o'th' laws.
Well, ther' may be some truth i' what Tom says,
But aw know what th' real cause is aw think:
For while Tom's woife an' childer are starvin',
He's spendin' his earnin's o' drink.
Yo' may prate o'er yo'r wrongs until doomsday,
An' blame what are coed th' upper class;
But ole yo'r complaints will be useless,
Till yo'n th'e sense to tak' care o' yo'r brass.
Turn o'er a new leaf, fellow-toilers,
An' let common-sense be yo'r guide;
If ther's one happy spot under heaven,
Let that spot be yo'r own fireside.
Get a ceaw, if yo'con, an' three acres,
An' i' future, employ yo'r spare heawers
I' readin' good books; an' yo'r windows,
Fill these up wi' plants an' wi' fleawers.
Get yo'r wives an' yo'r childer areawnd yo',
Sing an' whistle among 'em loike mad;
An' if this doesn't mak' yo' feel happier,
Throw th' blame on "A Lancashire Lad." (pp. 111-112)
This poem begins by invoking class division and class inequity but rather than addressing any systematic social or economic wrongs, the speaker focuses on the behavior of the poor themselves as the implicit source of the problem. The escapism of such "homely advice" is striking. While thrift and temperance are laudatory and sensible practices in the face of poverty, advising the urban poor to get "a ceaw, if yo'con, an' three acres" borders on absurdity, while to gather one's family and "whistle among 'em loike mad" would indeed seem insanity. Thus rather than invoking the conditions of Victorian urban working-class life and advocating a realistic course of social activism, this poem suggests a simple change in attitude and seeks consolation in the vision of a mythical agrarian past. As critics suggest, this seems less a valid construction of working-class identity than the grafting of middle-class domestic ideology onto working-class culture.
At the heart of negative critical...