Laboring-Class Poets Online

Archive for July 2013

What time the gales that morning’s freshness brings
When labour’s pleasant hour begins –
While on the cote the pigeon rests
Woman the world’s best wealth stirs.

Why did we come so far from home?

This is not a poem by John Clare. It is not a poem – or rather, not a poem in a proper sense.

It is a list of first lines that need to be properly formatted in HTML.

Let me back up. Unrelated to the Laboring-Class Poets Online project, we are building a page of John Clare resources (some of which were gathered in conjunction with some of the information contained in the database). The first step of this is to publish a first-line index of John Clare’s poems.

For some reason, the formatting of just these few lines was not preserved in the transition from Word Document to HTML. They have to be encoded “by hand,” so to speak. Not difficult. Rather fun after a while, actually.

Especially since a curiously artistic aspect of this undertaking has emerged…

In an instance of digital serendipity, the first lines make poems themselves! Three such poems formed themselves in the process of editing the first-lines index. The poem at the beginning of this post is actually the last to be “written,” as I was going through the Index alphabetically (evidenced in the poem by the repeating Ws).

Remixing poetry is, of course, nothing new – one has only to look at conventional modes like pastoral or gothic for evidence of very effective generic “remixing.” But here I am working with a corpus of elements from a single author, never the case with generic remixing. This is more like remixing as we know it, an artist creating a new edition of another artist’s work.

What I also find so interesting about the Clare remixes is how, completely coincidentally, they manage to capture some of the major themes of his larger body of poetry. They seem less “remixed” than lost or undiscovered, found in an moment of ordered and breathtaking happenstance.

If only I got a blessing like this every time I had a boring or repetitive task in front of me…

Remix #1:

Lord, talk about beauty no blossom bestows
Lowley I my heart will bow

My heart is ?but of <foolish> fancy
My love was young & very young
My Mary dear my early choice

Now in the spinney hedge full many a bird
Now morn awakens…
Now on his eye his native place appears

O give me a house in an untrodden glen

Remix #2:

She clapt…
So lisped a child

The blackbird is a bonny bird
The black birds wing was draggling…
The borders o’ bushes and hedgesides…
The daisy…
The dewey morn…
The dews that had been…
The ducklings…
The dwarf wood briar…
The fowl…
The furze…
The hillocks…

The maiden takes the basket…
The mind will dream & cling
The mowing gangs bend…

The path leads[… /] The plough on…
The river curls…
The silken breeze wakes…
The sinking sun behind the trees went down
The sloe…
The sloping sun…

The smooth horse gallop of a flatterer’s tongue
The summer morn is one delight

The willow for a crown
The wood land banks…
The world [rolls] on by trick & playing

Their joy…
Their anecdotes…
They come like fancy’s happy freaks

Thou art mine love…
Thy little brig…
Tis money…
Tis morn…
True love but seldom…

And once more, Remix #3:

What time the gales that morning’s freshness brings
When labour’s pleasant hour begins –
While on the cote the pigeon rests
Woman the world’s best wealth stirs.

Why did we come so far from home?

All information courtesy of Dr. John Goodridge (Nottingham-Trent University) and the John Clare Resource Page, currently under construction and providing a wonderful distraction from LCPO data entry.

*If you are an active follower of the LCPO project and this website, you may have noticed our unannounced hiatus last week. All junior staff members were attending Digital Humanities 2013 in Lincoln, NE. Despite our best intentions, we were unable to both attend the conference and attend to the progress blog. Our deepest apologies! 🙂

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Today marks the inaugural post in what we plan to make a regular item: the featured poet. This week, I’ll actually discuss a pair of poets: George Linnaeus Banks and Isabella Varley Banks.

George Linnaeus Banks was born in Birmingham, although he and his wife would later become most closely associated with Manchester (a point I’ll return to in a bit). Banks was born to John Banks, a horticulturist, and his wife, Sarah. According to an anecdotal source, John Banks was a rigid Methodist—once, he took a copy of Robinson Crusoe from young George and threw it into the fire. George Banks dabbled in quite a variety of jobs, including engraving, sales, and cabinet casemaking. He also edited a number of newspapers.

Isabella Varley was born to a chemist and an amateur artist. As a child, her eyesight was damaged by a smoky chimney. Her first poem was published when she was sixteen, and her first collection of poetry in 1843, when she was 22. She ran a school at Cheetham in Lancashire until 1846, when she married George Linnaeus Banks.

George Banks tried his hand at a number of literary genres: he wrote poetry as well as drama; many popular plays and songs were attributed to him, more than he himself likely wrote. Isabella Varley Banks authored The Manchester Man (1876), a popular novel that portrays nineteenth-century Manchester as it becomes a booming industrial city.

The Banks moved around a lot due to George Banks’s frequent job changes; he also suffered from alcoholism and depression. But as I mentioned earlier, the two are often associated with Manchester, as they were both members of one of the most significant English city groups of the nineteenth century: the Manchester poets. Also called the “Sun Inn group,” after the pub they frequented, the Manchester poets contributed to an 1842 anthology, The Festive Wreath and later formed the Lancashire Literary Association. Many laboring-class poets were members, including Banks and his wife, Samuel Bamford, John Critchley Prince, and John Bolton Rogerson.

One of my personal research interests is the Royal Literary Fund, an organization established in 1790 to help writers facing financial problems. Many of the poets we have been researching received assistance from the Fund—including the Banks family. George’s alcoholism and depression contributed to the family’s financial difficulties. Often, Isabella’s writing supported the family, but they were also awarded a great deal of money from the Fund. Over a period of thirty years (1866-1897), Isabella applied to the Fund twenty-one times. She was rejected four times, but in total she received £600.

I point out the surprising fact that it was Isabella and not George who applied to the Fund. Its founder, the minister and political pamphleteer David Williams, published a manifesto around the same time that the Fund was established, The Claims of Literature (1802). Throughout Claims Williams uses androcentric language to discuss his vision of a country bettered by the “men of letters” that his organization, in turn, would hopefully help to thrive. Further, he presents a gendered understanding of genius, such that the very concept of a “female genius” is monstrous. There exists data that supports this androcentrism, too: far fewer women applied to the Fund than men and, more significantly, fewer still actually received financial aid. Many women’s applications were identified as suspect or potentially dubious claims. It is surprising, then, that Isabella Varley Banks not only applied numerous times but applied so successfully, receiving a great deal of money over the course of thirty years. Of course, it is possible that George’s problems rendered him unable to apply. But the data nonetheless makes the Banks’s case appear to be an outlier.

It is difficult for me at this point to do much more than speculate, but I would love to read Isabella’s applications, as well as her poetry, to see how she chooses to present herself, both to readers and to the committee at the Fund. We have discovered through our research on laboring-class manuscripts that many LC manuscripts are located at the British Library—including many poets’, such as Isabella Varley Banks’s, applications to the Royal Literary Fund. I would love to travel there someday and read them!

Next week, expect a post about another featured poet.

When we talk of someone dying too young, or dying before his/her time, what do we mean?

One interesting category of distinction highlighted in the Database of Laboring-Class Poets and illuminated on the new Omeka site through the use of tags is “tragic youth.” As we complete our data entry, we have the chance to reevaluate our use of terms like “tragic youth,” which can be problematic for a number of reasons.

First, it is a term that is particularly conflated with the Romantic period, only a slice of our 1700-1900 time period. Second, where does youth end? Chatterton died at eighteen, indisputably youthful; Keats at twenty-five; Shelley at twenty-nine. Third—and looking at my examples, it’s clear that I’ve fallen into the same trap—we tend to envision “tragic youth” as a male affliction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (I am not equipped to comment on the popular picture of the twentieth-century Tragic Female Poet, or the “Sylvia Plath effect.” Queasiness.)

Can we liberate tragic youth from garrets, boys, and Romanticism? Let’s consider a couple of cases that invite scrutiny of our own chosen vocabulary.

Thomas Dermody (1775-1802) was precocious in his scholarship (learning Greek and Latin at age four), his writing (winning patronage of several high profile aristocrats in Dublin around age sixteen), and, as his biographer observes, imbibing. He lost his patrons (who had suffered his alcoholism and distemper) when he refused a scholarship to Trinity College. Thereafter he joined the army, distinguished himself, but fell back into drinking and died in near poverty in an anonymous hovel at age twenty-seven. His verse, including his popular self-elegy “Ode to Myself,” has been anthologized several times, and is noted for its allusiveness and humor.

Dermody was known as “The Irish Chatterton,” and, like Chatterton, Dermody was gifted in his reading and his drinking. But he seems relatively aged compared to his English counterpart, who died from mixing arsenic and opium at eighteen years old. Both men suffered “senseless and tragic” ends (according to Nick Groom in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), and the epithet “Irish Chatterton” is certainly suggestive of tragic youth.

But was Dermody, really? He was months away from his twenty-eighth birthday, and had been living on his own for more than a decade. Moreover, he had served in the army for several years; actually, he had distinguished himself, earning a commission which he squandered on his return to London and booze. Further, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, by all accounts he had stopped translating the classics and writing poetry—so his death, while senseless and a tragic, seems not to have extinguished the fires of poetic genius.

Now consider Mary Leapor (1722-46), another poet known for her precociousness, deep reading in the classics, and biting satiric edge.  Nowadays a well-known figure recognized as one of the most accomplished “untutored geniuses” of the eighteenth century, Leapor was nevertheless unknown and uncelebrated in her lifetime. She worked as a domestic until returning at age twenty-two to her widowed father’s home to care for him. Back in Brackley, she met Bridget Freemantle, who became a dear friend and patron. Freemantle encouraged Leapor and sought subscription for an edition of her poems, which was not realized until after Leapor’s death of measles at age twenty-four. Acclaim for Leapor’s masterful neoclassical verse was entirely posthumous. She, too, wrote at least one self-elegy; consider “Colinetta,” in her Poems on Several Occasions (Vol. I, 1748).

If Keats, who died at twenty-five, is a “tragic youth,” then Leapor certainly has a claim to the tag. At twenty-four years old, she fits the mold—perpetuated by figures like Chatterton, Dermody, and Keats—for extinguished poetic genius.

On a personal note, Mary Leapor was my “gateway poet” into laboring-class poetry. My first time reading her, I was really struck by the way Leapor, in her poetry and letters, claimed common ground with Freemantle against the odds, so to speak, based on the education and skills she struggled to obtain.

But her youth has much to do with it too, I think – Leapor was twenty-three when she composed most of her poetry, and twenty-four when she died. (I turn twenty-four next week.) When we talk about youth, and in particular, tragic youth, we are often talking about waste and potential – What might have been, if Leapor had lived to see her poems published, lived to write more?

In The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds puts it eloquently when he imagines Alfred Tennyson reacting to Byron’s death: “It was the thought of all he hadn’t written yet, all bright inside him, being lost forever, lowered into darkness for eternity.”

And when we talk about laboring-class poetry, we can fall into the same pattern – What might have been, if John Clare had had a journal with him in the field instead of his hat to inscribe his verses on?

However, I think there is a useful, important and self-evident distinction between death and class as categories of distinction. (After all, couldn’t we say that any child sent to work in a factory, like Joseph Burgess, or a field all by himself, like Robert Bloomfield, had a kind of tragic youth?) Whereas it is fun to imagine Leapor living into her old age, it is impossible to think of “Mira’s Picture” coming from the pen of the likes of Freemantle. Being affiliated with the laboring-classes may have been an obstacle for Dermody and Leapor, but it is not something to be mourned as their early deaths are.

I love to explore the huge variety of backgrounds, relationships, and occupations of the poets in our database. Diversity is a thing to celebrate, not just to meet nebulous institutional goals but for its own sake. Because it is fun, and enriching, and enlivening to witness the vital role of poetry in the lives of members of the laboring-classes. As we move forward, we’ll be just as thoughtfully considering how to highlight diversity of experience as we consider how to apply epithets like “tragic youth.”

Of course, these are just my own thoughts on the subject. I would love to hear from others on how they deal with imprecise categorizations like “youth,” “tragic,” and, yes, class.

Next week we’ll have another post from Dan, and coming up, some thoughts from one of our senior scholars.


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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