Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Shenstone, Woodhouse, and Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetics: Genre and the Elegiac-Pastoral Landscape

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Shenstone, Woodhouse, and Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetics: Genre and the Elegiac-Pastoral Landscape

Article excerpt

The shoemaking poet, James Woodhouse, has attracted scholarly attention primarily in terms of his laboring-class status and the ways in which he negotiated this status in his writings. In The Lab'ring Muses, for example, William J. Christmas reads Woodhouse's works in terms of "textual representations of plebeian ideological and social protest in the eighteenth century." (1) He argues that there are "essentially two Woodhouses": "One is a sycophantic poet hoping to better his lot in life, writing and publishing under the protection of Shenstone, Lyttleton, and the Montagus in the 1760s; the other is the poet influenced by 'a rude presumptuous muse, uncheck'd.'" (2) Christmas's implicit assumption that these personae are mutually exclusive testifies to a tradition of criticism that defines eighteenth-century poetry as belonging to either the polite and Neoclassical strand of poetics used by major representatives of the canon or a body of poetic productions by authors not fitting the first category and therefore constituting an alternative canon. It is therefore Woodhouse, the alternative, different, and plebeian poet, engaging with political issues of self-representation and class struggle on whom critics of laboring-class poetry have concentrated. Accordingly, H. Gustav Klaus has argued that the two central concerns of plebeian poetry are "the portrayal of work and the proclamation of a literature with laws of its own." (3) The skill of the marginalized to emulate a polite and high-cultural idiom of "the dominant culture" has, in this regard, been understood as "a mode of defiance." (4)

Steve Van-Hagen observes that in his magnum opus, the epic Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, Woodhouse "was compelled to innovate because of the problematic nature of laying claim to an identity as a labourer and class warrior within existing poetic forms." (5) Van-Hagen has convincingly demonstrated that Woodhouse's Life and Lucubrations de serves greater attention, while Bridget Keegan has recently drawn attention to the poet's little-known descriptive verse, especially Norbury Park (1805), insisting on its importance in the development of Woodhouse's skill as a poet and his voice as a laboring-class author. She argues persuasively that Woodhouse's garden poetry "seeks to claim aesthetic and ultimately political rights for the poet." (6)

While recent scholars only cursorily discuss Woodhouse's early poems, accepting, as Christmas suggests, that they are the productions of a sycophantic imitator, this very privileging of the later works fails to recognize Woodhouse's considerable skill in the use of forms and the lyric mode that few of his later more expansive works demonstrate. Keegan's nuanced approach to laboring-class poetry acknowledges that "those poets whose work evinces more recognizable proto-proletarian perspectives have typically been privileged by critics. Labouring-class poets who favoured themes that were not explicitly socio-economic have been overlooked and considered to be less interesting." (7) Keegan's work helps to reread poetry that does not explicitly engage with the social concerns of work and status and facilitates a historicist reading of form that earlier critics relegated in favor of discussions of ideology. She follows Roger Lonsdale's groundbreaking editorial work which has contributed to developing a better understanding of the alternative canon. This new canon can include both a writer such as the laboring-class Woodhouse and a gentleman-poet such as William Shenstone. Both poets worked within the same or similar poetic tradition and both experimented with modes and genres. While Shenstone had been educated formally at Pembroke College, Oxford, Woodhouse was largely self-taught, but, nevertheless, from as early as the 1760s, demonstrated a sensitivity to generic models that critics have commonly read in terms of unimaginative imitation. Yet, imitation--integral to eighteenth-century poetics--entailed a process of experimentation, interpretation, and invention. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.