Laboring-Class Poets Online

Archive for January 2014

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!

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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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