- Ann Yearsley’s “Clifton Hill” and its Lessons in Reading
Hannah More’s patronage of the laboring-class poet Ann Yearsley and their famous, public quarrel have become familiar to scholars of the long eighteenth century and need no detailed rehearsal here. For years often relegated to a side note in accounts of More, Yearsley has gained renewed critical attention over the last twenty years with scholars examining both her writings and her relationships with More and her later patrons.1 Although More and Yearsley’s working relationship was brief, lasting about one year, it helped shape how Yearsley was seen by both contemporaries and subsequent readers and scholars. The introductory letter More wrote for Yearsley’s Poems, on Several Occasions, the 1785 volume whose subscription publication she organized, has played an enduring role in conceptions of her one-time protégée. While Kerri Andrews rightly advocates the need for increased attention to Yearsley’s later works, the rich material of the first volume still warrants attention as well—both in its own right and in its challenges not only to More’s public presentation of Yearsley but also to our own reading of her work.2 The last and longest poem in that volume, “ Clifton Hill. Written in 1785,” refutes More’s representation of Yearsley’s literary experience and presents its own readers with lessons in how to read by depicting misreadings that illustrate the failure to sympathize. [End Page 233]
Sparked by views in and around Yearsley’s native Bristol, including the Clifton Church graveyard, St. Vincent’s rocks, the Hotwells, the Avon river, and Leigh Woods, among other sites, the speaker of “Clifton Hill” surveys a range of topics.3 Some of this prospect poem’s meditations feature challenges that engage concepts of reading, broadly construed, that fall into two categories: first, challenges to middling and elite contemporaries’ views of Yearsley, and, second, challenges to narrow perspectives which ignore others’ wishes with potentially harmful results. On one hand, reading can be seen as representative of an individual’s literacy and education, or as a marker of class, making the issue of what Yearsley actually read matter. While More’s catalog and appraisal of her literary experience created a limited, even caricatured understanding of Yearsley and her work among her contemporaries and later readers, the opening depiction of winter in “Clifton Hill” provides insight into Yearsley’s reading, which I address in the first two sections of this article. On the other hand, reading can be understood more broadly as an interpretive activity involving not simply texts but also people, situations, and new experiences. “Clifton Hill” suggests how difficult it is to read anything or anyone sympathetically if the reader is not receptive to, or perhaps even aware of, others’ points of view, needs, and desires. The speaker’s meditations on the red-breast, the graveyard lesson in mortality, and Louisa of the hay-stack, which I address in the last three sections, provide examples of misreading, intentional or not, that are grounded in resistance to other perspectives. By asking its readers to engage these multiple forms of reading, “Clifton Hill” challenges readers’ preconceived assumptions about Yearsley and her works; by opening ourselves to other points of view than More’s (and our own), we will not only find a different, more sophisticated Yearsley but also become more attuned to the potential interference of biases in any interpretive experience.
“Clifton Hill” presents a model for our rethinking of inherited ideas about the poet, ideas that were largely shaped by Hannah More’s efforts to win subscribers for Yearsley’s first volume prior to its publication in June 1785. As her moniker reinforces, Yearsley, “the Bristol Milkwoman Poet,” was clearly identified as a member of the laboring classes, an identification that inspired limited and classist biographical perceptions while playing to the growing popularity of the so-called “uneducated” poets in the late eighteenth-century.4 More’s presentation of Yearsley in her introduction to the volume, “A Prefatory Letter to Mrs. Montagu. By a Friend,” established the context [End Page 234] for the public’s understanding of Yearsley. In this text More...