The 18th century

The evidence for 18th-century working-class readers of classical works is sparse. Labouring men and women rarely enjoyed sufficient education and leisure time to read classical authors either in the ancient languages or in English translation. Additionally, new books and journals were prohibitively expensive, free or public libraries from which a worker might borrow a book cost-free were non-existent and cheap lending libraries still rare. Circulating libraries existed in Britain from the 1720s onwards for readers who could afford to borrow books, but workers were excluded not only by the fee but by the mode of payment, often by subscription with a discounted upfront down-payment. Public libraries that loaned books without a fee were rarely available until after the 1850 Public Libraries Act.4

A few exceptional working-class people successfully accessed classical literature, however, even though the apparent anomaly they constitute reveals the effectiveness of the general exclusion of the poor from ‘high’ cultural activity. Chapter 4 will show that, following the astronomical rise in the 1730s of the Thresher Poet, Stephen Duck, a few workers deliberately became acquainted with the Classics to conform with and financially exploit contemporary literary tastes. Others taught themselves classical languages and literature in order to be of practical use in their community, whether in the role of the village cobbler, who often acted as unofficial adviser, or as a religious leader.5

The great age of literary translation from classical authors was, in Britain, the 18th century, but hot-off-the-press new translations were expensive. They took time to become the primary route to classical wisdom for working-class readers of English. Works in Latin, both scholarly treatises in neo-Latin and ancient Roman texts, were available second-hand at lower prices. Even tattered schoolbooks could be exchanged for money because their value was tangible. Picked up as bargains from stalls, discarded school-books often gave impoverished autodidacts their first contact with classical culture: learning Latin was a productive way to spend one’s meagre leisure time, or—with luck—even working hours. Determined 18th-century autodidacts taught themselves Latin from standard textbooks including Thomas Ruddiman’s The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue (1714),6 Thomas Dyche’s Vbcabularium Latiale, or Latin Vocabulary (1709),7 Richard Valpy’s Delectus sententiarum et historiarum (1788) and Latin dictionaries— Adam Littleton’s Linguae Latinae Liber (1678) or Robert Ainsworth’s Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendiarius (1732).

Two years into his apprenticeship to a Buckingham tailor, Robert Hill (1699-1777), intrigued by Latin epitaphs in his church, acquired two beaten-up reference works that would change the course of his life: ‘an imperfect Accidence and Grammar, and about three Quarters of a Littleton’s Dictionary’.8 According to Joseph Spence, a scholarly clergyman, academic and patron of under-privileged poets,9 Hill devoured these dry tomes hungrily:

From the first Moment of so great an Acquisition, he was reading whenever he could; and as they would scarce allow him any Time from his Work by Day, he used to procure Candles as privately as he could and indulge himself in the violent Passion he had for reading, for good Part of the Nights."’

Hill began running errands in his free time for pupils at the Buckingham Free School in exchange for explanation of the Latin grammatical rules he found difficult.11 ‘By such slow and laborious Means’, Spence reports that Hill ‘enabled himself to read a good Part of a Latin Testament which he had purchased, and a Caesars Commentaries that had been given him, before he was out of his Apprenticeship’.12

Once qualified, he was given a Horace and a Greek Testament by a gentlemanly employer and started learning Greek. In exchange for fishing lessons, another gentleman helped him with Greek grammar.13 It took Hill seven years to learn Latin and twice that to learn Greek.14 Later in life he enjoyed reading poetry, including Horace, Ovid and the Iliad, which, Spence relates, ‘he had read over many Times’ in Greek. When he first met Spence, he yearned to read the Odyssey, so his patron sent him away with the epic both in Greek and in Pope’s English translation. Hill was apparently ‘charmed with them both; but said, “He did not know how it was, but that it read finer to him in the latter, than in Homer himself’”.1

Hill remained poor throughout his life despite the financial assistance of Spence and his network of supporters of‘natural genius’. He worked as a schoolteacher, learned Hebrew and wrote Christianity the True Religion: An Essay in Answer to the Blasphemy of a Deist (1775). As a tradesman qualified to make an informed comparison between Pope’s and Homer’s texts, he was exceptional, but in his passion for Pope’s translation, he was not. The shopkeeper Thomas Turner (1729-1793) noted in his diary for 22nd March 1756 that after his day’s work he ‘read part of Homer’s “Odyssey”, translated by Alexander Pope, which I like very well, the language being vastly good and the turn of thought and expression beautiful’.16 Two days earlier he drew a moral lesson from book XIII.200-.16:

I think the soliloquy which Ulysses makes when he finds the Phaeacians have, in his sleep, left him on shore with all his treasure, and on his native shore of Ithaca (though not known to him), contains a very good lesson of morality.17

Pope’s version was crucial in providing access to Homer for the working classes, not because it was written for them, but because it was such a commercial success that it quickly filtered down to the bustling second-hand book market, frequented by readers of the lower social orders. As Penelope Wilson has noted, by 1790, Pope’s Iliad had been through 27 editions, and the Odyssey 33.18 Along with Dryden’s translation of Virgil (1697), Pope’s Homer stands on the summit of the British Parnassus of‘vernacular Classics’, the slopes of which became crowded over the long 18th century with translations of the Greek and Roman poets.” For Wilson, the defining characteristic of these vernacular Classics was their ‘commitment to the broadest possible spectrum of “literary” readers; collectively they ensured the continuing awareness and prestige of ancient texts in what was in many ways an aggressively modern world’.20 In a comparable way to the collateral beneficence of the BBC’s ‘Third Programme’, which aimed to deliver a high-brow cultural experience to a higher class of listener, but was in practice also accessed by culturally engaged but undernourished workers, these translations, printed in increasing numbers, reached constituencies that Homer and Virgil had never seen before, via market stalls and hawkers’ baskets. And sometimes they took root and flourished.21

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