Laboring-Class Poets Online

Author Archive

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?”



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!


Thanks to everyone who contributed to the impact survey of the Nottingham Trent University research team!

Please check out the new John Clare Resource Page, put together by the same crack team behind this blog and the LCPO project!

It expands on the materials of another interesting John Clare Page managed by some of the same contributors. The new Clare Resource Page contains:

  • A survey of Clare criticism up to present day,
  • a first-line index to Clare’s poetry,
  • an index to the John Clare Society Journal,
  • and a correspondence and manuscript materials index.

Ok, to be fair, the page does not yet contain the last item. But we are working on it and it should be available within the year. If you have any questions or suggestions about that initiative, please do get in touch.

In the mean time, it is our hope that readers, writers, and academics can all enjoy the new page!

Please take five minutes to complete this survey on the impact of the Nottingham Trent University team’s research on John Clare and laboring-class writers, carried out over the past twenty years. It is for an “Impact Study” John Goodridge is completing for the English team at NTU, and it could help to continue our research funding over the next five years to have as rich a response as possible. It’s not difficult and takes only a very few minutes.


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! 🙂

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.

A brief, recent history of Laboring-Class Poets Online, from the perspective of graduate assistant and online transition project manager.

My involvement with Laboring-Class Poets Online began in September 2011 when, as a new graduate fellow at Creighton University, I signed on as a research assistant. In that first semester, my job was to turn a list of about two hundred eighteenth-century poets into an excel spreadsheet. At that time, as at this, the list I was working off of was literally just a list, a series of paragraphs, with more or less (less being more often the case) standard punctuation and ordering of elements, stored as a single Word document. It had been developed as the result of thirty years of research, a fact which I could barely comprehend. Dr. Keegan had recently volunteered to help the transatlantic research group behind the list of more than 1,700 poets (two hundred doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?) find a suitable online platform for dissemination.

By November, I was halfway through the data entry, but had little to show for my work. This first spreadsheet had twenty fields, at the time seemingly overkill, now unfortunately laughable. Dr. Keegan and I took a hiatus in the spring of 2012 to work on another project. When I came back to my LC work that summer, I saw the work I had done that fall in a new light: as inefficient, if not an outright exercise in futility.

In fall 2012, we were determined to find a better system. At THATCamp Kansas in September, in large part thanks to Amanda French and her enthusiasm for the project, we discovered Omeka. We gathered a larger research team, including several of Dr. Keegan’s undergraduate students, and took off running.

There have been a number of false starts…

For example, we quickly discovered that twenty fields would not suffice for the depth of information contained in the massive document we are working off of. We now have 49 fields – though of course, no single poet has information relevant to every field. Eight of these fields potentially describe a poet’s name alone: First Name, Last Name, Authority Name, Maiden Name, Married Name, Pseudonym, Bardic Name, and Other Name (a catch-all, which is relevant surprisingly frequently).

Having specialized fields takes best advantage of Omeka’s amazing search capabilities. I can run an advanced search on the field “Pseudonym,” seeking any entry that “is not empty” in this field. Which yields, even in this early stage, 27 entries(!), from Welsh woman poet Jane “Melissa” Brereton to “Autolycus” or the “Railway Poet of the West,” Thomas Henry Aggett.

With my MA complete and new studies at Notre Dame on the horizon, I have been able to focus fully on the project, and I can say that the last two months have been more transformative of this project than all the previous time I spent on it combined. We have been building the framework and working on data entry for the website that will host the database. Our priority is to make the “bio-bibliographical” information compiled in the LC Superlist accessible and useful as a searchable database. To this end, along with data entry, we also seek out other available online resources (such as digitized works, ODNB coverage, digital editions, etc) for users to connect to.

We have made some available to the public for outreach purposes (go to our Omeka site, “Laboring-Class Poets Online,” to see what we have so far). See also the “Collections” tab for an example of how we will follow the original document’s groupings and commentary, and play with our tags to see the potential for Omeka to make even more such connections.

Keep in mind that we are still in a beginning, even prototype, stage of completion. For those interested in the growing field of digital humanities, the construction of this database represents a potentially rich new corpus to use in network analysis and topic modeling. (Something I, personally, am chomping at the bit to dive into!) But certainly the most exciting development is our decision to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, which would allow us not only to complete this data entry and make our online coverage even more robust, but which would also afford us the chance to pursue the digitization and transcription of laboring-class manuscripts held in more than eighty research and regional libraries.

Keep following the blog for weekly updates from here on out!

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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