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Cobbling Verse: Shoemaker Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

The Crispin Trade! What better trade can be?

Ancient and famous, independent, free!

No other trade a brighter claim can find,

No other trade displays more wealth of mind!

No other calling prouder names can boast,

In arms, in arts,--themselves a perfect host!

All honour, zeal, and patriotic pride:

To dare heroic and in suffering tried!

James Devlin

Cobblers from Crispin boast their public spirit,

And all are upright, downright men of merit.

James Lackington (1)

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British laboring-class poets hailed from a wide variety of primary occupations. However, there is one occupation that appears to dominate: shoemaking. In Great Britain, nearly fifty shoemaker poets appeared in print, some repeatedly, during the period extending from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. (2) Even if those whose association with the trade is either dubious or brief were excluded, the phenomenon appears extensive enough to warrant examining why this particular trade cultivated so many poets. Furthermore, it justifies inquiring what the apparent affinity of shoemakers for poetic composition might reveal about developments in British laboring-class poetry in general. Studying shoemaker poets provides a useful means to test assumptions about laboring-class poetry of the long eighteenth century. A survey of the common features of these poets' backgrounds and their literary production--probing what led them to write and what they wrote--offers insight s into the conditions of possibility of the work of all laboring-class poets. In particular, examining the lives and works of shoemaker poets offers a perspective on laboring-class poetry that, at least in the eighteenth century, has only begun to receive sustained, separate consideration: the work of artisanal writers, as opposed to agricultural or "peasant" poets who have been the focus of most twentieth-century criticism of the topic. (3)

Perhaps most significantly, a study of shoemaker poetry uncovers a strong public dimension within laboring-class poetry, well in advance of the period when most scholars isolate the beginnings of more explicit politicization of laboring-class literature. Shoemaker poetry suggests that the use of literature to express social concerns predates the revolutionary 1790s or the rise of Chartism (a movement which boasted several shoemakers among its leadership) and other Victorian labor movements. Thus, while many modern readers have been disappointed to discover a lack of political expression within much of eighteenth-century laboring-class poetry, an examination of shoemaker poets should show that this group evidences a profound sense of communitarian values, as well as a public awareness that distinguishes its work from larger literary trends particularly after mid-century. For most of the eighteenth century, shoemaker poetry remains firmly within what might be labeled a more Augustan mode. Its various forms--wh ether didactic, hortatory or occasional--resists the movement within "minor" poetry, so exquisitely described by John Sitter, toward retirement or retreat from the world of public life and public duties. (4) Thus, while the poems written by shoemakers are not often politically "radical," they frequently exhibit a public and social emphasis that can be considered political. And while what explicitly political viewpoints these authors did express may not fulfill critical fantasies for prow-proletarian pronouncements, they do illustrate that shoemaker poets held passionate and strongly unorthodox beliefs for which they used poetry as their primary vehicle of expression. Their poems demonstrate that as an aggregate, shoemaker poets were not afraid to use writing to form and cement community or to explore and express publicly their beliefs and opinions. Therefore, a study of their works should show that contrary to popular critical assumptions, not all eighteenth-century laboring-class poets were content to fit th e mold of the solitary, artless "natural genius," or worse, to impersonate the fashions of polite poetry, as many unsympathetic critics suppose. …