Laboring-Class Poets Online

Archive for the ‘Methodology’ Category

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

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.

One of the more interesting obstacles the team has faced so far in the process of transitioning to Omeka is settling on a controlled vocabulary for occupations. Early on, we decided to establish such a list as a separate field from occupations, which would allow us to narrow the range of terms describing poets’ jobs and thus make tagging and searching simpler. For example, all poets who did any kind of weaving would be called, simply, “weavers,” rather than defining them more specifically (e.g. handloom weaver, powerloom weaver).

But ultimately, creating such a list was an unfeasible task. Even eliminating more specific types of jobs would leave us with a very large list. And dropping such nuances risks ignoring significant historical and social details. Weaving on a handloom isn’t quite the same as weaving on a powerloom. A powerloom is a machine; a poet who operated one would have been active in the late eighteenth century at the earliest. Powerloom weavers likely worked in factories, and for this reason I would guess that there might be more women and children who were powerloom weavers than handloom weavers.

There is also a large group of Paisley weaver-poets (one of our collections on Laboring-Class Poets Online)—a distinct group from those who worked in factories in the nineteenth century!

In short, it is reductive and unhelpful to collapse all of this information into the single occupation “weaver.”

When it came to our controlled vocabulary, we also had to think about the end-user: What kind of searches might she conduct? How can we organize information about poets’ occupations in the most useful and sensible way in order to make searches simpler and more intuitive?

Rather than attempting to make a potentially reductive list of occupations, we decided instead to create a controlled vocabulary of “industries,” a broader categorization that groups together related occupations. And so all weavers fit into the “weaving” industry, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths are collected in “trades,” and so on. There are currently 22 industry categories, and each industry has a corresponding tag. This allows a user to search for all poets whose occupation fits within that particular group.

Now, if somebody is interested in all our powerloom-weaver poets, she can search “handloom weaver” in the occupation field. But she can also glance at the weaving industry tag and see the broader network of all those involved with that occupation. While it would be reductive to classify all weavers in the same way, having the option of searching for specific types of weavers as well as the larger category presents greater search opportunities for future users of the site.

The other day we came across a poet who worked as a milliner—is that classified under “shopkeeping” or “trade”? Does a milliner make hats or sell them (or both)? The OED reveals that the word first meant a seller of fancy accessories and articles of clothing, typically women’s, but that it came also to refer to a designer, maker, or seller of women’s hats. (Fun fact: The word Milliner, with the initial capital, originally referred to a native or inhabitant of Milan.) The same question applies to a haberdasher—is that a dealer or a maker of hats? And how does haberdashery differ from millinery?

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. Haberdasher can refer to a dealer in a range of clothing articles, including caps and hats, or a dealer in or maker of caps and hats. It appears that millinery more specifically deals with articles of women’s apparel, but, then again, none of us is sufficiently well-versed in the history of those occupations to say with certainty.

This example is illustrative of the difficulties of creating a controlled vocabulary of occupations that exist outside of our historical context.  Using “industries” instead, while not perfect, results in a smoother and more practical tagging system and, we think, a more useful experience overall for the end-user.

Now, off to research the differences between cobblers and cordwainers!


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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