Working-Class Poets and Self-Education

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Working-Class Poets and Self-Education


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


John Clare, the farm-labourer who became a poet and ended up in the lunatic asylum at Northampton, is often spoken of as an all but unique phenomenon, but he was only one - probably much the most gifted but in his own day not the most celebrated - of a whole crop of working-class poets who caught the public attention in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.

The careers of these men - and of women like Mary Collier, Ann Yearsley and Ann More Candler - provide important evidence regarding the educational opportunities and intellectual environment of the poor in the era before the systematic public provision of schooling, and also give an insight into the operation and values, what one might even call the ideology, of the class system of the period.

The poets in question were all wage-earners at the bottom end of the economic scale. Working men's children like Elizabeth Bentley and Robert Story who became proprietors of small schools cannot really be regarded as typical worker poets; nor can John Nicholson, 'the Airedale Poet', who, though he 'remained all the days of his life either a journeyman woolcomber or sorter' as the result of the 'pursuit of poetry and an unsettled mind,' came from a solid bourgeois background, his father being a worsted manufacturer and his grandfather a man who 'could keep a hunter or two for his amusement'. Robert Burns had to work as his father's principal labourer when he was fifteen, but he had previously attended a village school established by his father and four other tenant farmers, which indicates both solvency and entrepreneurial confidence in his family background: he too was clearly a small but significant notch on the socio-economic scale above mere field-hands like John Clare. Some of these poets had served trade apprenticeships, which implies the payment of sizeable cash premiums - though in no case do we know for sure that the premiums were paid out of the parents' savings. they may have been contributed by local charities or by distant relatives - but after their apprenticeship they became not masters and employers but wage workers with no expectation of acquiring capital. They were working-class not merely by birth, but also in terms of their social and economic horizons.

Though not a very numerous group, working-class poets constitute a significant proportion of the lower-class writers of this period who have left autobiographical material. In many cases however no personal details have survived. For example, of Joseph Holland, who published a poem on haymaking in 1806, it was recorded twenty-seven years later, 'little is known, except that he was for some years servant to a Mr. Partridge of Croydon' - servant, in this context, implying a farm labourer. John Rannie, whose poems, published in 1789, are about people called Amyntor and Lysander and Damon and Amaryllis, might appear to have been a person with some schooling in the classics, except that an anonymous manuscript note on the title page of a copy of one of his books in the British Library refers to him as 'a young Scotsman, of little or no Education. I saw him behind the Counter of Taylor's Shop in Holborne [i.e. Isaac and Josiah Taylor, booksellers, 56 High Holborn, London] as a Journeyman on very low wages. He made Himself known to Me, as the Author of these Poems; yet seemed to be modest & ingenuous. He certainly has Genius.' Sometimes we don't even know the name of a lower-class writer. A poem of 1787 entitled Laura: or, the Fall of Innocence, which at first glance appears to be an instance of the then fashionable middle-class obsession with young ladies seduced by heartless rogues, has a preface in which the author writes of himself: 'Without education, and bred to a mechanical employment, laborious, even to drudgery . . . there is nothing I regret more, or any loss I so sensibly feel, as my inability to associate with those whose elevated taste and education have qualified them to polish and instruct me. …

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