Laboring-Class Poets Online

John Goodridge (General Editor and Principal Writer), john.goodridge@ntu.ac.uk

Gathering information for the Database is an immense and seemingly eternal task. The Database began with an informal checklist I made thirty years ago, during my doctoral research on Stephen Duck and Mary Collier, by the end of which I guess I had got a handlist of about 300 identifiably labouring-class poets. It all took a huge leap forward when the ‘Elsie’ group was formed, shortly before the millennium, to compile the six-volume Pickering and Chatto anthologies of the poetry, and we began pooling all the stuff we each had on our computers. In July 2001 the ‘superlist’ (as we had come to call it) had 659 named poets on it. By April 2008, with all the volumes in print and further projects in train, we had recovered 600 more and the tally stood at 1,262.

Now, seven years further on, in April 2015, with a new web presence, and benefitting from the knowledge, skills and efforts of many new contributors and developers, we have 1,854 poets: almost 600 more names again. Additionally, we have done a lot of correcting and development work. There are now a number of ‘extended entries’. There are cross references to sources such as manuscript indexes and biographical reference books (and yes, even Wikipedia, where figures too obscure to meet the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s exacting standards are sometimes lovingly recovered). The general information and the group and ‘anonymous’ lists are beginning to take better shape.

But processing all this takes a lot of work, and it is simply not always possible for the full Database to draw in and assimilate all this new information and revision promptly. So we have devised a ‘static update’ system whereby the latest version of the database can be posted simply and swiftly as three Word files (included below). This posting introduces the first such update, and whilst it is bound to be provisional and to lack the sophisticated statistical and search facilities of the Database proper, it means that people can get the benefit of the most recent additions and corrections in a very direct and immediate way. More will surely follow!

1intro+gen info | 2conventions+abbrevs | 3poets a-z

Dr Graham Joyce (1954-2014)

John Goodridge
Nottingham Trent University

This posting is about a working-class writer who won’t be listed on our Database of Labouring-class Poets any time soon, even though he was a coalminer’s son and an immensely successful and popular writer (and even had an interesting link to our project). He would of course be ‘OP’, or ‘out of our period’. But more importantly my friend and colleague Graham Joyce, who died on September 9th aged 59, loudly disdained what he saw as the pretentiousness and self-absorption of poets, and indeed art writers of all sorts. (His antipathy towards poets though, like the music-loathing of the Chief Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine, evidently masked suppressed longings, because according to the long memory of our mutual friend the poet Mahendra Solanki, Graham began his writing career as a poet long ago.) Graham’s attitude to mainstream fiction was similarly iconoclastic, as may be seen in his funny, moving memoir of his career as the goalkeeper for the England Writers’ football team, Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular (2009). He describes one of his team-mates as someone who could never win the Booker, the major UK literary prize for fiction, ‘because he’s not depressed or depressing enough’. Graham’s own field was the marginalised, democratic, popular form of fantasy fiction—or if you prefer, dark fantasy, horror, slipstream or science fiction—but he didn’t care all that much about genre labels really, and when his agent asked which one his latest novel was to be sold as, was wont to reply ‘whichever one is selling best at the moment’.

Genre certainly cared about him though: he won the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award (an amazing five times) and the O. Henry Prize for short fiction, along with high praise from Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem and other notables. If I wanted to extract a common element in all Graham’s novels and short stories I would say that they put the spectral, the fantastic, the science fictional into—well, into the styles and settings that readers might perhaps expect from a coalminer’s son: realism, common life, family relationships, everyday conversations, concerns and interactions. His characters talk like ordinary, real people: in fact his most successful short story, the one that was published in the Paris Review, was simply called ‘An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen’. But extraordinary things always seem to happen to his characters. If we encourage our kids to put their fallen milk teeth under the pillow for the tooth fairy to take in exchange for silver coins, we don’t really expect her to show up in the middle of the night, as she does in Graham’s best-known novel, The Tooth Fairy (1996). In Some Kind of a Fairy Tale (2012), an ordinary young woman disappears for 20 years, captured by some offbeat fairies who live in a Narnian time-scheme. But does anyone believe her? In The Silent Land (2010), an ordinary couple on a ski-ing holiday get caught in an avalanche, after which the world seems to have changed in increasingly odd ways. Are they in fact alive or dead? As in William Golding’s Pincher Martin or J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, we are not sure and nor are they, though you can be certain they will try their best to keep their ‘normal’ lives ticking along for as long as they possibly can.

Normalcy under unexpected pressure from the unfathomable, then, was perhaps Graham’s great theme, and his gift for describing and analysing it served him well when cancer came along last year—a particularly virulent and difficult strain which overwhelmed him in the end. His last publications were about its presence in his life: a programme about the language in which cancer is discussed, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 shortly before he died (‘Talking about Cancer’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dm87k), and a beautiful and moving final posting on his personal blog, in which he learns wisdom from a 300-million-year-old dragonfly, and compares the NHS surgeons who were by then trying every way they could to save his life, with the men who had recently blown a passenger plane out of the Ukrainian sky, snuffing out 300 innocent lives in a moment (see ‘A Perfect Day and the Shocking Clarity of Cancer’, http://www.grahamjoyce.co.uk/).

That sense of right and wrong, of the selfless versus the selfish, was a powerful instinct in Graham’s writing. He hated the way that Thatcherism in the 1980s had destroyed not only the coalmining and manufacturing communities in which he had grown up, but also the spirit of social and voluntary activities that went with them, for example (from the goalkeeping book) the tradition of schoolteachers giving up their free time to coach boys’ football teams:

I know that there are many hundreds of teachers who still do give up their time in this way, but it’s nothing like the organised, regular, full-on commitment that was offered back then. All that has gone the way of the colliery bands, cricket teams, apprenticeships in industry, first-aid teams, church groups, young trade-union groups, and the hundred other ways in which a boy might see how mature men deport themselves. (p. 101)

Memory and loss never tip over into the sentimental, but fire Graham’s writings with a powerful and deeply personal political impulse.

And his link with Labouring-Class Poets Online? Graham Joyce honoured our research resource with its first parody. He had a fine, levelling, earthy sense of humour (as evident in the footballing memoir as the sense of nostalgia). His 2008 novel Memoirs of a Master Forger, first published under the suspiciously poetical and plainly forged name of William Heaney, is about demons, and begins with the information that ‘There are one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven known demons’. That is precisely the number of poets we had at that point gathered for the Database of Labouring-Class Poets, which I had been telling Graham about some months earlier. So when, further down the page, he begins mock-pedantically discussing some of the finer points of demonic categorisation, I should not have been surprised to find him referring to ‘Goodridge’s original study and his much stricter categories’ for demon typologies, with a scholarly footnote referencing this—it hardly needs saying—non-existent work on the subject. Graham was shrewd at reading the dysfunctions beneath our ‘normal’ exteriors, and his parodic slippage from ‘poets’ to ‘demons’ might suggest that the obsessive gathering of poets’ biographies is a neurotic displacement activity. (What if the collector’s own ‘inner demons’ are not so easily counted and pinned down?) Or perhaps Graham wanted to say something about what it is to be ‘demonised’, or even indeed defined as a working-class writer.

There is a postscript. I thought I had the perfect opportunity to turn the joke back on Graham some months later, when by chance I was allotted as research mentor at the university. Not that he really needed a mentor, except perhaps to countersign Hollywood contracts from time to time. But we obediently went through the ritual of the ‘mentoring meeting’. Putting on as serious a face as I could, I told him that I had some important advice for him. In his next novel he could develop this ‘Professor Goodridge’ character further. I saw him as—you know, maybe an Indiana Jones type of figure. I could see him searching out new demons to catalogue in his next book, in some romantic and dangerous location…that kind of thing. Quick as a flash an admonitory finger was up and pointing at me as he leaned forward, equally mock-serious: ‘You just be bloody careful what you wish for, mate!’

I know I am far from being alone in saying I shall miss Graham very much. It is a consolation that he has generously left us so many of his great books to read and re-read.

 

In an effort to get to know more about the technical side of this Laboring-Class Poets project, Charlotte and I recently attended a series of Digital Jumpstart workshops hosted by the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities at Kansas University. It was an informative and surprisingly fun two days in which we learned more about Omeka and gained a greater appreciation for the work Cole has been doing.

The first session we attended was titled “Creating online collections and exhibits” and led by Melissa Fisher Isaacs & Wade Garrison from Kansas University’s digital humanities department. A more apt title for the session might have been “Omeka 101.” We were given step-by-step instructions for beginning an Omeka collection. To my surprise, the platform was pretty straightforward, provided the user understands the vocabulary being used. Once the user has uploaded a file to be included in the online collection, Omeka then prompts the user for certain pertinent information which includes the following: title, subject, description, creator, source, publisher, date, contributor, rights, relation, format, language, type, identifier, coverage and image metadata. If your collection is relatively small and you have an infinite amount of time on your hands, you may easily enter this information yourself using Omeka. If your project is large, like ours is, you also have the option to upload a spreadsheet full of that data. Once that spreadsheet has been uploaded, Omeka allows you to map the fields with your spreadsheet, then Omeka fills in the rest. I’m sure Cole could provide you with a more technical explanation for how that works, but this is Omeka 101, remember? Here’s my very, very basic Omeka test site in case you’re curious.

The second session we attended was titled “Creating a Digital Scholarly Edition” and was led by Andrew Jewell from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. This workshop was excellent, providing us with a basic introduction to the process of creating a digital scholarly edition while also making us feel that it was an absolutely attainable goal. Charlotte and I were inspired by Jewell and the scholarly examples he showed us, excitedly talking about it on our journey home.

Jewell’s main point was to plan, plan, plan to ensure that the digital edition being created always leads to the creator’s goal. What is included and what is marked-up should always contribute to the overall goal of the project. Jewell provided four basic mark-up categories: 1) Textual structures – noting paragraphs, lists, chapters, headings, etc. 2) Conceptual – noting people named, places references, metaphors and allusions used, etc. 3) Bibliographic features – explaining to the reader the paper type of the textual artifact, the binding used, the pages themselves, the writing instrument, etc. 4) Other – this category is the catch-all but may include linguistic structures and the relationships between documents being digitized.

Jewell then walked us through XML, extensile markup language, which he recommends we use to code our digital editions. XML separates intellectual content being coded from the design coding, whereas HTML does not provide this separation. This process of coding in XML involves categorizing information in the transcription of each document in order to make it a searchable and usable. This coding can be very basic or very detailed depending on the creator’s intentions. Here are a few examples, starting with the most basic and working towards the more detailed:

<name>Roz Parr</name> indicates that “Roz Parr” is a name, plain and simple. If the user of the edition is interested in the names referenced, “Roz Parr” will be on that list.

<name type=”person”>Roz Parr</name> specifies that “Roz Parr” is the name of a person, not a place or a thing. This allows for discerning between the names of people and the names of places and things.

<name type=”person”>       <forename>Roz</forename>     <surname>Parr</surname> gives even more specificity, discerning a first name from a last name and gives the user of the edition even more searchable fields.

It’s amazing how detailed these can be,

As much as I enjoyed learning all of this information, I think my favorite part of the two days was the friendly atmosphere of the workshops. Though most of the attendees were from KU, Charlotte and I were welcomed with open arms. It was clearly an environment in which we were all there to learn from each other’s experiences. Because the digital humanities is a relatively new scholarly field, those scholars interested are all very happy to help one another carve out the digital humanities niche in the academic world.

Biographical details about each individual poet, such as birthplace, occupation, associated locations and emigration patterns, form an important structural/organizing feature of the LCPO database. One might wonder why these entry fields are necessary for a project that specifically focuses on poetry, an aesthetic medium that certain theorists would argue should be removed from any potential authorial impositions on the text and treated objectively. This begs the daunting question regarding art and biography: can they be considered as a complementary relationship, or should they always be regarded as mutually exclusive? Or, in terms of the database: how does the information available in the database help us understand, or even acquaint ourselves, with the poetry it archives?

Thus begins the story of my love affair with Edward Rushton, an overlooked, turn-of-the-century hero of his time. When I initially approached the database, I knew very little about the poets involved, aside from the time frame they published in and their low socio-economic, “working-class” status. Since working on data entry and carrying out research, however, I discovered that learning about these poets’ lives, the socio-historic context they wrote within, and the geographic location where they wrote from, had a huge impact on their artistic production.

Edward Rushton is one such poet whose work is hard to discuss without recognizing his remarkable life: a sailor from age 11, he single-handedly saved a vessel from shipwreck at the age of 16; at work on the slave vessels, he befriended a young slave and taught him to read; he grew so appalled with the treatment of slaves in transit that he protested, and his captain charged him with mutiny; and in an attempt to feed and tend slaves during a breakout of opthalmia, he went blind, something which eventually led him to open a school for the blind in his hometown of Liverpool. An outspoken slave abolitionist, human rights advocate, transatlantic traveler, journalist and poet, Rushton was a turn-of-the-century radical who gave a voice to the marginalized peoples of society through his poetry. His life experiences directly informed his artistic production, as evidenced by his two most famous publications The Dismember’d Empire (1782) and The West Indian Eclogues (1787), which decry the state of slavery as a consequence of British Imperialism’s capitalist agenda.

Relative to the rest of the poets in the database, a fair number of scholars have written about him – an indicator of his influence and popularity while he was alive. His biography, therefore, informs his bibliography: his work aboard slave ships is the axis of events which informed the opinions, radicalism and published work for which he is still remembered today. A poems such as The Dismember’d Empire demonstrates his disillusionment with the notion of Empire, and the critical eye he viewed it through. His work further documents the difficulties of working within the maritime industry, under the occupation and label of ‘sailor’, and charts the terrible conditions involved in such a life as it was related to the growth of British Imperial capitalism. A poem like ‘Will Clewline’ (1801) reflects his experiences aboard the sea vessels of the time, such as multiple trips across the oceans, shipwrecks, close contact with the slave trade, and the pressing escape from a British society on the cusp of urbanization.

My discovery of Edward Rushton provides an example of how the LCPO database can help a scholar or student use biographic information to inform or offer insight into the poetry it aims to promote.

Disclaimer: this post is rather dense and technical, but it should provide useful assistance for anyone involved in similar projects or interested in setting up an Omeka installation.

As the LC Poets Online self-proclaimed “techie”, setting up the server side of our project fell to me. Last summer, Katie Osborn and Dan Froid did some great work on our Omeka.net test site, laboringclasspoetsonline.omeka.net. This site allowed them to create poet entries and items for poems, books, and other works. Though Omeka.net sites are free and quick to set up, Omeka.org installations provide a much better route for our project in the long term. A full Omeka installation supports plugins such as Neatline as well as custom themes and better backend administration. The downside of such an install is that it requires separate hosting and a domain name, and some familiarity with servers in that the project team will likely have to install the Omeka software and create a SQL database for the project.

Last summer, I moved the domain name lcpoets.org to VAP Hosting, a local Omaha venture that is currently offering free beta testing for their Linux Apache servers, which is what we needed for Omeka. After returning from study abroad, I dug back into this technical work.

There are three main steps to fully setting up Omeka:

  1. preparing and configuring your server
  2. creating a SQL database and installing Omeka on the server
  3. creating user accounts, configuring settings, and installing themes and plugins to customize your installation.

This blog post will cover the first two steps.

Prerequisites (Omeka 2.x) [adopted from Omeka.org]:

  • Domain name: purchase one, and preferably bundle it with a hosting service
  • Server Hardware:
    • RAM: 1GB+
    • HDD: variable by project size
    • CPU: 600 MHz dedicated
  • Server Software
    • OS: Linux
    • Server build: Apache
    • Support for MySQL 5.0 +
    • PHP 5.2.11 + Fileinfo + mysqli extension + exif extension; 5.3 + recommended
    • ImageMagick
  • FTP Software
    • FTP Client (such as Filezilla). Some server control panels allow you to upload files directly, but FTP clients are usually better for this setup.
  • Omeka Software

Our current server:

  • RAM: 1 GB
  • HDD: 73MB of 40 GB used (0.2%)
  • CPU Usage: very low
  • OS: Linux
  • SQL Databases: 1/20 maximum
  • Apache: v2.2.26
  • PHP: v5.4.24
  • MySQL: v5.5.35-cll

Here are the installation steps for Omeka, taken from Omeka.com and modified by me to highlight parts of our installation process:

  1. Create a MySQL database on your web host, as well as a user with permissions to modify the database.
    • Make sure to take note of the database hostname, the database name, the database user’s username, and the database user’s password.
    • Make sure the collation of your database is set to ‘utf8_unicode_ci’ and that the charset is ‘utf8’.
    • This SQL or MySQL database has new, separate user accounts than the main server login or your Omeka login

    SQL

  1. Download the latest version of Omeka and uncompress the .zip file.
    • The .zip file will have a name similar to ‘omeka.zip’ that includes the version number. We are running Omeka versions 2.1.4.
    • Save the .zip file somewhere you can find it again, such as your Download folder. Double-click the .zip file to extract the files in the .zip archive, and make sure to note where the files are extracted.
    • If you are unable to extract the files, you might need to download an uncompression program such as WinZip or WinRAR [for Windows] or Stuffit Expander [for Mac]. I had no issues extracting the files.
    • The extracted (uncompressed) directory will have a name similar to ‘omeka’ that includes the version number.
    • Users familiar with git might want to clone the code from our public GitHub repository. (I’ve used git before, but downloading the .zip file was faster).
  2. In the resulting directory, find and open your database configuration file, which is named ‘db.ini’. Replace the ‘XXXXX’ values in the db.ini file with your database host, username, password, and database name.
    • You can edit the ‘db.ini’ file with a text editor such as Notepad for Windows or TextEdit for Mac. Be sure to save the file as plain text and keep the name ‘db.ini’.
    • You do not need to change values for ‘prefix’ and ‘port’ in the db.ini file.
    • I performed this step after uploading the contents to the server because TextEdit didn’t open the db.ini file well; it looked really messy and unformatted, while editing it directly through the server “Code Editor” preserved the formatting.
  3. Upload the directory and all of its contents, including the updated ‘db.ini’ file, to your server.
    • If you have command-line access to your server, you can upload the Omeka .zip file and unzip it on the server.
    • If you do not have command-line access to your server, you can use a file transfer program such as Filezilla or FireFTP to transfer the contents of the unzipped omeka directory to your server. This may take 20 minutes or more.
      1. This is the approach that I took. Using Filezilla as an FTP solution is the best method for our particular server setup. cPanel includes an option to configure an FTP client such as Filezilla with an XML file that can be imported directly to setup all the settings for the connection besides the user password.

      FTP Filezilla

    • Make sure to upload the ‘.htaccess’ file that’s in the top-level directory of the Omeka zip along with the rest of the files. This file is hidden by default in many file transfer programs; to see the ‘.htaccess’ file, you may need to change the preferences in your file transfer program.
      1. This came over automatically for me, so I didn’t have to changes any preferences.
    • You can rename the omeka directory either before or after you upload it to give it a URL that is relevant to your project.
  1. Make Omeka’s storage directory and its sub-directories writable by the web server. For Omeka 1.5.3, the directory is ‘archive’. For Omeka 2.0+, the directory is ‘files’. You can change the permissions yourself with an FTP or other file transfer program, or with shell commands over SSH. If you’re not sure what to do, ask your host for advice, or to change the permissions for you.
    • I didn’t do this step because I was working off a different set of instructions, and haven’t had any issues (yet).
  2. Open your web browser and visit the URL where you uploaded the omeka directory. Click “Install”.
    • If you renamed the omeka directory ‘project’ and put it in the top-most directory of your site, for instance, the URL to visit would be http://mydomain.org/project.
  3. Complete the installation form by filling out the required fields, including the name of your Omeka site, email address, and username/password of the super user (the super user account controls the entire website).
    • You can leave fields that are already filled in as they are; you do not need to change the values.

If the installation was successful, you’ll see a screen with links to view the live site or to log in with the superuser’s username and password to the administrative panel at http://mydomain.org/admin. Congratulations!

LC Admin Dashboard

Finally completing this Omeka install was a large step forward for the project. Having performed an installation once, we are now better prepared to install Omeka again in case we ever need to export the database and move to a new serve. The next steps for our installation include adding sandbox users and then specific user accounts; installing plugins such as CSV Import and Neatline; adding different themes for the end user; creating item element sets for item types such as LC Poets; and importing poet entries from completed spreadsheets.

In honor of Burns Night, and the terrible weather we’ve having in the midwestern United States, I post not “Auld Lang Syne,” but “A Winter Night,” available online with glossary at “Burns Country.”

A Winter Night

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm!

How shall your houseless heads, and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these?”

-Shakespeare

 

When biting Boreas, fell and dour,

Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r;

When Phoebus gies a short-liv’d glow’r,

Far south the lift,

Dim-dark’ning thro’ the flaky show’r,

Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,

Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,

While burns, wi’ snawy wreaths up-choked,

Wild-eddying swirl;

Or, thro’ the mining outlet bocked,

Down headlong hurl:

List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,

I thought me on the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle

O’ winter war,

And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle

Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird,-wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing,

An’ close thy e’e?

 

Ev’n you, on murdering errands toil’d,

Lone from your savage homes exil’d,

The blood-stain’d roost, and sheep-cote spoil’d

My heart forgets,

While pityless the tempest wild

Sore on you beats!

 

Now Phoebe in her midnight reign,

Dark-muff’d, view’d the dreary plain;

Still crowding thoughts, a pensive train,

Rose in my soul,

When on my ear this plantive strain,

Slow, solemn, stole:-

 

“Blow, blow, ye winds, with heavier gust!

And freeze, thou bitter-biting frost!

Descend, ye chilly, smothering snows!

Not all your rage, as now united, shows

More hard unkindness unrelenting,

Vengeful malice unrepenting.

Than heaven-illumin’d Man on brother Man bestows!

“See stern Oppression’s iron grip,

Or mad Ambition’s gory hand,

Sending, like blood-hounds from the slip,

Woe, Want, and Murder o’er a land!

Ev’n in the peaceful rural vale,

Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale,

How pamper’d Luxury, Flatt’ry by her side,

The parasite empoisoning her ear,

With all the servile wretches in the rear,

Looks o’er proud Property, extended wide;

And eyes the simple, rustic hind,

Whose toil upholds the glitt’ring show-

A creature of another kind,

Some coarser substance, unrefin’d-

Plac’d for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below!

 

“Where, where is Love’s fond, tender throe,

With lordly Honour’s lofty brow,

The pow’rs you proudly own?

Is there, beneath Love’s noble name,

Can harbour, dark, the selfish aim,

To bless himself alone?

Mark maiden-innocence a prey

To love-pretending snares:

This boasted Honour turns away,

Shunning soft Pity’s rising sway,

Regardless of the tears and unavailing pray’rs!

Perhaps this hour, in Misery’s squalid nest,

She strains your infant to her joyless breast,

And with a mother’s fears shrinks at the rocking blast!

 

“Oh ye! who, sunk in beds of down,

Feel not a want but what yourselves create,

Think, for a moment, on his wretched fate,

Whom friends and fortune quite disown!

Ill-satisfy’d keen nature’s clamorous call,

Stretch’d on his straw, he lays himself to sleep;

While through the ragged roof and chinky wall,

Chill, o’er his slumbers, piles the drifty heap!

Think on the dungeon’s grim confine,

Where Guilt and poor Misfortune pine!

Guilt, erring man, relenting view,

But shall thy legal rage pursue

The wretch, already crushed low

By cruel Fortune’s undeserved blow?

Affliction’s sons are brothers in distress;

A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!”

 

I heard nae mair, for Chanticleer

Shook off the pouthery snaw,

And hail’d the morning with a cheer,

A cottage-rousing craw.

 

But deep this truth impress’d my mind–

Thro’ all His works abroad,

The heart benevolent and kind

The most resembles God.

I’m currently working on a presentation about devotional georgic poems, which is how I first encountered this poem from his 1787 Edinburgh collection (published by subscription: 1,500 subscribers, 3,000 copies printed; the whole volume is available here, at Google books). The book also contains “Winter: A Dirge” (worth comparing to “A Winter Night” for the differences in style and sentiment) and other more familiar favorites.

The poem “A Winter Night” is not frequently anthologized, but I think it is an interesting and challenging poem. In this poem, Burns dramatizes King Lear’s speech in the storm, casting the poem’s narrator as an unseen, hovel-dwelling eavesdropper. The narrator, though faced with his own hardships, is sympathetic to others’ sufferings throughout the poem–first to the agonies faced by his animal neighbors during the storm, then to the phantom speaker’s sorrows.

It seems to me that Burns recasts Lear’s personal agonies as systemic political and economic problems, similar to those described in other poems of rural complaint from the time period. These lines in particular jump out:

Truth, weeping, tells the mournful tale,

How pamper’d Luxury, Flatt’ry by her side,

The parasite empoisoning her ear,

With all the servile wretches in the rear,

Looks o’er proud Property, extended wide;

And eyes the simple, rustic hind,

Whose toil upholds the glitt’ring show-

A creature of another kind,

Some coarser substance, unrefin’d-

Plac’d for her lordly use thus far, thus vile, below!

Here Burns is participating in an important strain of late eighteenth-century thought, the notion that rural “hinds” (in this usage, agricultural laborers) support the luxuries of the upper classes. Burns’s Scottish nationalism and his appreciation for both Thomson and Locke gives particular symbolic weight to Luxury’s possessive prospect view of all her Property.

Being privy to the phantom’s agonistic speech (which is sympathetic to the laborer’s plight) leads the narrator to a jarringly simple and devotional conclusion:

Thro’ all His works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.

So, what do we make of the ending to this complex, theatrical poem? I’m not sure! It is clear that this poem is about more than animal suffering, which is how some scholars have read it–though certainly animals, and the narrator’s sympathy for them, play an important role in the poem. The blending of Shakespearean and neoclassical themes is mirrored in the shifting form and dialects of the poem, just as the subject matter seems torn in a number of directions.

Let me know your own thoughts on the poem. I hope you enjoyed reading it on Burns’s birthday! And, stay warm!

One of the defining features of the Labouring-Class Poet tradition is the sense of community shared between these poets. Because they were so conscious of their sense of ‘place’, both in society and geographically, common bonds formed between those from similar areas. One of the first things the LCPO Database makes apparent is these specific links: it helps scholars to group the poets from Paisley together, those from Bristol, those from Tyneside. While some categories used for grouping are broader – the ‘Welsh poets’ casts a wider scope than the ‘Paisley poets’, for example – these groupings are typically defined by geography. It makes sense that geography is such a defining, finite factor for poets of low-income and restricted social mobility, and for an era that had yet to feel the full effects of modernity, and its consequent urban migration and travel opportunities.

However, when perusing the database, another type of poet emerges: one who, despite the difficulty of travel at the time, somehow managed to cross the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or even made multiple overseas trips. It is surprising that many of these labouring poets emigrated to the Americas, or to Australia and New Zealand. Many of them were more mobile than the average American worker today, which is a considerable feat considering many of their restraints.

We tentatively called these travellers “Transatlantic Poets.” From the myriad journeys of this eclectic collection of travellers, we can find three clear patterns. The first group are a product of what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker refer to as “the circular transmission of human experience” (2) that marked “the origins and development of English Atlantic capitalism in the early seventeenth century” (15). Due to burgeoning imperialism and colonialism in England at the time, slaves were a hot commodity, and many of the labouring-class poets who travelled were slaves themselves who remained such until their death. Olaudah Equiano is the most famous example, although he eventually bought his own freedom and used his unique position to draw attention and provide a voice for the slave abolitionist movement in the 1780s. His ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ is his most famous work, but he was also an established poet with such pieces as ‘Reflections On the State of My Mind’. These ‘slave poets’ of the Transatlantic group travelled from the African continent to the United Kingdom, where they were often bartered for and traded, or to the West Indies and Americas to work on sugar and cotton plantations (Equiano went as far as the Arctic on one particular voyage). Edward Rushton and Alexander Wilson, however, provide examples of the more common journey taken by our Transatlantic poets, which originates in the United Kingdom and ends in the Americas.

Rushton’s story informs another subset of the ‘Transatlantic poets’. A former slave ship worker, he openly wrote about his distaste for the slave trade and wrote many pro-abolitionist pieces, most famously The West Indian Eclogues, a long series of narrative poems he published in 1787. His work aboard slave ships enabled him to travel to the Americas, however, and without this he wouldn’t have produced much of the radical work he is remembered for today. Rushton is just one of many different maritime labourers, who worked either on slave ships or as sailors or employees of the large fleet sent across the Atlantic for all manner of trade. With the success of British Imperialism in the New Americas, there was no shortage of opportunity for young men to earn a place aboard any vessel bound for across the pond.

The third subset of ‘Transatlantic poets’ is exemplified by Alexander Wilson, an émigré to America. Originally a weaver from Paisley, Wilson scraped together enough means to board a ferry and move his family to Philadelphia in order to pursue better opportunities, such as teaching. Once there, he befriended the naturalist William Bartram. Their acquaintance encouraged him to follow his love of the wilderness, and in particular to empirically study the behavior, habitats and physical characteristics of birds. Wilson took his passion seriously, alongside painting and poetry, and travelled widely across North America to produce a comprehensive guide to American Ornithology. He is one of many who emigrated overseas in order to escape the limitations of his background, and hopefully provide better opportunities for his family.

A look into the groupings of this fascinating collection of poets points to their diversity. Rather than viewing the entire Labouring-Class oeuvre as a singular tradition of easily-definable poets working within the spheres of 18th and 19th Century Britain, here we have an example of the richness of their individual lives, their added social burdens (especially in the case of the ‘slave poets’), their desire to move beyond their means, and the catalysts that enabled them to discover their voices. These poets lived in the thick of imperialist England in such a way that they were subject to whatever the powers of government and capitalist industry had in store for them. Equiano’s autobiography, Rushton’s abolitionist poetry, and Wilson’s depictions of Scottish working-class life clearly and powerfully respond to the workings, effects and influences of these authorities, and provide a testament to how even laborers still had power – or opportunity – to escape or break beyond the limits set out by these authorities.

Bibliography

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings:  Revised Edition. ed. V Caretta. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003).

Goodridge, John (ed.) English-Century English Labouring-Class Poets. Vols. 1- 3. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2003).

Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

Rushton, Edward. The Dismember’d Empire. (Liverpool: 1782).

Wilson, Alexander. The poetical works of Alexander Wilson. (Belfast: John Henderson, 1844).

Alexander Wilson’s plate 76. Taken from ‘The Alexander Wilson Society’.

Information about and updates from the "Laboring-Class Poets Online" project, an in-progress digitization of a database of British and Irish laboring-class poets who wrote between 1700-1900.

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