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  • Creating a “Democratic Neighborhood” through Poetic ExchangeLucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work
  • Robin Rudy Smith

In 1875, Lucy Larcom, the most famous woman writer to emerge from the antebellum literary culture surrounding the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, proposed a means of ameliorating escalating tensions in a society grappling with increasing socioeconomic and ethnic heterogeneity: use poetry to create social harmony out of dissonance. She did this through An Idyl of Work, her blank-verse, book-length account of the friendship of five female factory workers. To the twenty-first-century reader, Larcom’s ambitious project—using poetry not just to model a more egalitarian society but actually to create it—may seem audacious, even foolhardy. Yet as Michael Cohen has shown, nineteenth-century Americans tended to understand poetry as both socially embedded and generically complex.1 Larcom’s Idyl would be worth recovering even if it were only a vision of a cohesive and democratic society grounded in a former mill woman’s experience, but it has even more to offer: historical insight into the nuanced social uses of myriad poetic genres and a bold thought experiment in using literature to reorder the social world outside the text.

Although Larcom’s epic achieved only faint critical and commercial success in its own time, this remarkable but long-neglected poem has recently begun to attract the critical attention it deserves.2 Sylvia Cook has demonstrated how, by tackling the elite form of the epic and making the entry of women into the industrial workforce the subject of that epic, Larcom claims cultural authority for herself and for the women she had worked with in the textile mills of Lowell from 1836 to 1846 (167).3 Both Cook and Mary Loeffelholz have astutely traced Idyl’s engagement with a transatlantic poetic tradition, especially epics and Künstlerromane such as Idylls of the King, Aurora Leigh, and The Prelude. Loeffelholz engages more fully than Cook with the poem’s most unusual formal feature—the incorporation of “discrete, formally demarcated, and formally [End Page 301] diverse shorter poems … within a longer narrative setting” (“Anthology Form” 217).4 Loeffelholz argues that this inclusion of rhymed poems, which are Larcom’s but which are never attributed to her, marks Idyl as a “[n]ested-anthology poe[m],” a now-forgotten nineteenth-century transatlantic poetic genre (220). Besides being a commercially successful way of anthologizing an author’s previously published verses within a new verse frame, Loeffelholz argues elsewhere, this genre is an expression of nineteenth-century Anglo-American poets’ desire to “map … the nineteenth-century literary field” by tracing the “production, circulation, and reception of lyric poems” within a larger narrative (“Medley-Book” 13). Loeffelholz interprets Larcom’s inclusion of the verses as a conscious strategy to demonstrate workingwomen’s possession and dissemination of cultural capital (13). She claims that the formal diversity of the verses, which include folk forms like ballads and genteel forms such as sonnets, represents Larcom’s ideal of an inclusive, socially mobile American society (“Medley-Book” 28), what Larcom calls a “democratic neighborhood” (Idyl 43).

While Loeffelholz understands the heterogeneity of the rhymed verse in Idyl as a metaphor for a diverse society, I argue that for Larcom it is the means by which a diverse society can be forged into a democratic community that accommodates individual difference. In Idyl, different poetic genres have different emotional effects. For example, the ballad’s accentual meter and consistent rhyme scheme are soothing, while unrhymed blank verse stimulates the intellect; metrically shorter lines foster a sense of conviction, while longer lines cultivate a contemplative, thoughtful attitude in the poem’s reader or auditor. Sensitive to these effects, Larcom’s protagonists adapt the form of their poetic expression to the emotional needs of their audience and in so doing put into practice the care and social harmony that Idyl encourages. The formal variety of the embedded poems is not the only heterogeneous element contained by the blank-verse frame: the mill women are very different from one another, and each individual struggles in her own way to learn to live in harmony with her peers. In the past, critics have mistakenly treated...


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pp. 301-320
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