Some tell us that Homer was a beggar, and we all know that Virgil was a keeper of sheep, and no doubt Sappho plied her distaff; so that is one of the greatest mistakes to suppose that the smith must leave his anvil, the shoemaker his last, the weaver his loom, the seamstress her needle, the laundress her furnace, the shepherd his crook, or the labourer his spade, pickaxe, or hammer, before either of them can relish the sweets or enjoy the transports of poetry.1

The anonymous author in the Working Man’s Friend (1850), perhaps John Cassell himself, here reveals the ‘remarkable fact’ that ‘the classics studied at our universities were not written by university men’. Although they were composed by people closer to the land and manufacture than most mid-Victorian gentlemen, we may question his assertions about the ancient poets’ relation to labour.2 But that would be to bypass his central point that ancient Greek and Roman classics need not belong to the educated elite alone. Artisanal trade and literature, even that of antiquity, were compatible. This was a powerful message to readers who felt trapped by their circumstances in an uncultured underworld of labour and subsistence living.

This chapter reaches back over a century before Cassell’s Working Man’s Friend to explore the rich classical engagement of labouring poets who left their humble jobs only if they could finance themselves by the pen. There are three types of classical presence in 18th-century working-class poetry. First, poets use classical materials to ridicule the upper classes to working-class readers or their sympathisers. Second, working-class poets draw upon classical civilisation to convey the extremity of workers’ suffering, and the magnificence of their skills. Third, they sometimes invoke ancient pastoral themes and the notions of leisure and retirement so important to Roman poetry, especially Horace. After some remarks on the satirical approach, the discussion engages with all three types of classical presence in the poetry of Stephen Duck, Mary Collier, Thomas Blacklock and Ann Yearsley, respectively.

Workers' satirical classicism

Working-class satire may rely on a level of education for its jokes to land, when class-conscious writers who have somehow amassed more cultural capital than their peers critique the reactionary establishment, as in these verses:

Ye Muses who mount on Parnassian towers,

Come trooping to Sheffield, and help me to sing

The time when our sons have all got out their sours, And relate all the joys that our Saturdays bring.

But hard words and Greek-em

Let learned folks speak-em;

It’s epic and tragic, bombastic we’ll write;

And loudly we’ll sing O, In plain English lingo,

The stirring in Sheffield on Saturday night.3

The anonymous street poet who penned this 18th-century broadside invites the Grecian muses to industrial Sheffield, while distancing himself from ‘learned folks’ whose ‘hard’ poetry is customarily decked out with classical flourishes. He sets up the familiar ‘them and us’ dichotomy: ‘they’ are classically educated upper classes; ‘we’ are fun-loving workers (here Sheffield cutlers and their variously employed female counterparts), who speak ‘in plain English lingo’.

The same dichotomy appears in a later 19th-century broadside poem by Samuel Laycock of Stalybridge (1826-1893), an out-of-work cotton mill worker. Written in Lancashire dialect, it was produced originally as a broadsheet (i.e. on a single side of usually cheaply printed paper and sold in large quantities for negligible sums). ‘Quality Row’ is a nosey, funny, door-to-door exploration of the residents of a particular street in his hometown:

Th’ next dur to this parson, at heawse number three,

Ther’s a young ladies’ schoo’ kept bi Miss Nancy Lee;

Aw’ve a cousin ’at gooas, an’ aw met her one neet,

An’ hoo is rarely polished! hoo is some an’ breet!

An’ hoo does spread her fithers abeawt when hoo walks,

An’ screws up her meawth when hoo simpers an’ talks!

Hoo’s goin’ up to Lunnon hoo tells me next week, To translate th’ word ‘turnip’ to Latin an’ Greek.4

The poem offers a performer—originally Laycock himself—a rich opportunity for parodying a prim-and-proper teacher. Laycock venomously distinguishes her from the uneducated ‘us’ by her ‘polish’ and ‘brightness’, a comically overemployed anaphora of the relative pronoun ‘hoo’ (for ‘who’, ‘whom’ and thrice ‘she’), and her resemblance to a strutting peacock. The extravagance and futility of her expensive journey to the capital to translate the mundane ‘turnip’ into a classical language reveals how detached Miss Lee at number three is from the reality facing Stalybridge during the 1860s Cotton Famine.

Robert Burns shared his dismay at the apparently ineffective classical education in a dialect epistle to his fellow farmer and ‘Scotch Bard’, John Lapriak (1727-1807):

What’s a’ your jargon o’ your Schools.

Your Latin names for horns an’ stools?

If honest Nature made you fools,

What sairs your Grammers?

Ye’d better taen up spades and shoots,

Or knappin-hammers.

A set o’ dull, conceited Hashes,

Confuse their brains in Colledge-classesl

They gang in Stirks, and come out Asses,

Plain truth to speak;

An’ syne they think to climb Parnassus

By dint o’ Greek!’

The supposed transformative potential of a Classics education is reduced to the transformation of young cows into ‘asses’, dimwitted beasts of burden. Burns, like Laycock, observes the futility of knowing the ancient words for common things, here animals not turnips, but his real point is his own right to the ascent of Parnassus, by dint of his native wit and poetic competence rather than the rote-learned knowledge.

As Vicinus reminds us, ‘Broadsides along with the unstamped press were the poor man’s newspaper until the rise of the popular press in the 1850s’.6 These broadside ballads of Yorkshire, Lancashire and rural Scotland show that poetic activity was not limited to the metropolitan world of‘book poetry’, controlled by aristocratic subscription lists and/or commercial enterprise. While lavish tomes containing Dryden and Pope’s ‘Englished’ classics were sold to the gentry for sums equivalent to many months’ wages, old poetry books were circulating for a fraction of the price and extempore poetry was chanted in the street; rhyming songs were printed on thin paper and handed round crowds at public executions and sold by hawkers from baskets or directly by poets, sometimes one and the same.

To avoid imposing contemporary notions of ‘the poet’ on the past, we here examine ephemeral, anonymous rhyming broadsides alongside more formally ambitious and accomplished verses by named and published poets and introduce some casualties of canonisation. The subject of classical presences in working-class poetry is vast, unexplored and can here be only cursorily surveyed. It is ripe for further investigation.

In the 18th and long 19th centuries, readerships for poetry expanded commensurately with cheaper printed material resulting from technological innovations, improving literacy levels and the social advance of the poorer classes who increasingly enjoyed the means and leisure for cultural consumption. Poetry was accessible across classes since it was often short enough to be printed as a broadside or a short section in a newspaper or journal and read or heard quickly by those with restricted leisure time and/or reading ability.

Broadsides generally ignore Classics altogether or satirise them, projecting contemporary earthly hierarchies onto a ‘lang syne’ mythological plane inhabited by gods as well as mortals, thus absurdly emphasizing the class biases of the present. There is, however, another order of broadside classicism. This occurs in pseudo-panegyric, which extols mundane phenomena, thus cutting elevated ones down to size. In Dublin, in 1728, a poet named Miles Aston published An Heroick Poem on the Powerful and Commanding Art of Brewing. He asks what the Olympian gods would have made of contemporary Irish brewing practices.

The heav’nly Guests, wou’d their Ambrosia scorn,

Had They but known the virtue of this Corn.

‘If Bacchus boast, the Invention of his Wine,

Prest from the Clusters of the creeping Vine:

Equal applause, attend the Brewer’s Pain,

Distilling Nectar from the solid Grain.7

The poem’s epigraph is Horace, Epistles 1.5.19: fecundi calices quern non fecere diser-tum? (‘Whom does not the flowing bowl make eloquent?’) No translation was provided, which might suggest that an educated readership was assumed. Yet Latin legends and epigraphs were de rigueur in the verse genre this poem mimics. Moreover, the Latin source is charged by class politics; the freedman Horace’s subsequent line asks, ‘Whom does wine not liberate even in pinching poverty?’

The Latin epigraph to Aston’s later poem, celebrating the weaving trade, reads nec factas solum vestes, spectare iuvabat/ turn quoque, cum fierent: tantus decor adfuit arti (Ovid Met. VI.17-18, ‘And it was pleasant not just to see her [Arachne’s] finished work, but to watch her while she worked—such grace and artistry’).8 Ovid stressed Arachne’s humble origin as daughter of an obscure dyer named Idmon and a deceased plebeian mother (VI.7-8, 10). A contemporary poem, anonymously printed, celebrates the Journeymen Sheermen and Dyers by also invoking Arachne’s example: ‘The Tedious Spinster twines the Distaff-Thread, / And Ariadne’s [sic. read Arachne] Care prepares the Webb’. A footnote declares, ‘Ariadne [Arachne] was Metamorphis’d into a Spider, suppos’d to be first Inventress of Spinning and Weaving’.1

Sadly, we know little about Aston, who wrote several other poems.10 But the two other identifiable poets then employed in writing similar poems in Dublin were from working-class backgrounds. These were the bricklayers Henry Jones

(1721-1770), discussed further below p. 215, and Henry Nelson (floruit 1725-1729), author of Cavalcade: A Poem on the Riding of the Franchises (c. 1720). Nelson’s trade and social status were intrinsic to his poetic identity. He refers to them in all his works. As William Christmas has noted, aside from the anomalous ‘waterpoet’John Taylor (1578-1653), no earlier author’s original trade is known to have been thus advertised in print.11 Nelson uses classical references to establish the appropriate tone for his genre as a lofty but accessible panegyric and to provide a humorous mythical aetiology for the recipient of his praise.12

On 1st August every third year, a mounted procession took place in Dublin. The 25 trade guilds demonstrated their work on large carnival floats. Cavalcade is a poetic catalogue of tradesmen, delivered like a live commentary on the procession. Nelson begins by invoking the Muses, and returns to them and other classical allusions, often absurdly, to propel him through his arduous literary feat.

Next march the Smiths, Men bravely us’d to fire,

Without whose aid all Arts must soon expire:

Before them clad in Armour in his Pride

A Brawny Vulcan doth in Triumph ride;

Not like the limping God whom Poets feign

In Bands of Wedlock join’d to Beauty’s Queen:

But like the God of War, prepar’d to charge.13

Vulcan, as the smith of Olympus, has forever been metal-workers’ divine representative,14 but Nelson comically dodges his lameness. The butcher’s trade required more thought:

Not great Pelides on the Trojan Plain

E’re slaughter’d more, each has his Thousand Slain.1

Rather than ‘Achilles’, Nelson calls this hero ‘Pelides’, which might have been confusing for some of his audience, although others would know the patronymic from Pope’s Iliad. And likening a butcher to Achilles as prolific slaughterer is a masterstroke, enhanced by the following mock-heroic reference to widowed farm animals:

Their pointed Steels have many Widows made,

And sent vast Colonies to Pluto’s Shade.16

The saddlers, ‘On sprightly beasts’, with golden saddles, led by an imposing warhorse, are treated to a more obscure myth, that of Philyra, abducted by the Titan Saturn in equine form:

Just such a Colour, Limbs, and such a Size

Old Saturn took, when fearing Jealous Eyes

Of angry Spouse, who caught him in a Rape,

The Letcher gallop’d off and made his ’scape.17

The parallel is awkward, its self-conscious artificiality and mock learnedness driving its humour. Nelson was an entertaining mock-panegyrist. His classical learning feels at odds with his occupation, and it is this incongruity that engenders laughter. The erudition tests the boundaries of ‘common’ classical knowledge, sometimes becoming arcane, lending the poem a textured quality.

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