Class and Victorian Poetics



In this essay, I consider three aspects of recent studies of working-class class poetry: the tasks and rewards of its recovery, the complexities of critical attempts to interpret “non-canonical” verse, and wider insights which have emerged from efforts to integrate such attempts into more traditional studies of nineteenth-century literature. Recovery has been necessary because most working-class poets could only hope to publish their work in broadside or periodical form, and few of their works have been reprinted. Accidents of preservation have further foreshortened our understanding of the range of working-class poetry, which extended from Thomas Cooper's dignified epic verse to Isobel Chisholm's gypsy “curses” and Mary McPherson's Gaelic incantations. Interpretative studies of the range just mentioned have benefited from willingness to consider unfamiliar rhetorical models; search out historical antecedents of “simple” appeals to direct emotion; and admit that there might be more to poetry than has been dreamt of in our received interpretations and well-worn critical commonplaces. Finally, integration of an appreciation of working-class poetry into studies of Victorian literature reveals that much of the history of mid-century poetry – reflected through lenses of “class”– may be read as an attempt to barricade middle-class canons of taste against the inroads of working class artistry. More critical studies of that artistry might therefore help dismantle these barricades, and restore to all the period's poets a measure of the respect and attention they deserve. They might also help answer some intriguing generic as well as historical questions. Among these are: Why were poetry and personal memoirs the period's principal working-class genres? And why did the role of working-class poetry seem to recede as the century waned, even as universal working-class literacy advanced?