Laboring-Class Poets Online

Archive for the ‘Featured Poet’ Category

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.


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!

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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