Pliny, Apelles and James Woodhouse

According to Pliny the Elder, a lowly shoemaker once pointed out that the famous painter, Apelles, had inaccurately rendered a sandal.9 Apelles corrected his work. But when the shoemaker continued to criticise him, Apelles shut him down: ‘Sutor, ne ultra crepidam’ (‘Shoemaker, don’t extend yourself beyond sandals’). Classically educated writers across the English-speaking globe often quoted these words to police boundaries of expertise, usually in order to expose another’s ignorance."’ But ambitious workers including shoemakers deleted the negative ‘tie’, and used the slogan to promote progressive individualism: ‘Sutor ultra crepidam’, ‘Shoemaker: more than sandals!’

The first to use it was the ‘Poetical Shoemaker’ James Woodhouse (Figure 20.1), baptised in 1735 at Rowley Regis, a few miles west ofBirmingham. The eldest son of yeoman farmers, Woodhouse was educated until the age of seven or eight, probably in the local free school." Woodhouse dedicated early poems to his first patron, the poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone (1714-1763), who lent him English translations of the Classics in the 1760s.12 Pliny’s doctored adage first occurs as the epigraph to ‘Epistle to Shenstone, In the Shades’, written in 1784 and printed in his 1803 collection Norbury Park, ‘Sutor ultra crepidam’.13 It is a bold start to a bold essay demonstrating that

‘Mr [Janies] Woodhouse the Poetical Cobbler’, 1765, reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. Etching, 1765, reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

FIGURE 20.1 ‘Mr [Janies] Woodhouse the Poetical Cobbler’, 1765, reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. Etching, 1765, reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

beauty is not the preserve of the rich, classically educated and powerful, heralding Woodhouse’s later radicalism:

Know, boasting Bard! a Rustic may be found,

Who never trod on Learning’s labour’d ground—

Ne’er studied Nature’s charms, in classic school,

Yet tries her beauties, not by line and rule,

But inbred taste and feeling, which decide,

With more precision than pedantic pride.14

Woodhouse, apparently responding to a critical fellow poet, pitches his inborn taste and feeling against classical pedantry. The learned languages are not required to describe a fish’s scales, the plume of birds, or other-worldly insects:1

No vegetable’s cloth’d in leaves of Greek;

No insects, birds, or beasts, in Hebrew speak ...

The list of things unnecessary to ‘beauty, music, love and language’, grows:

Nor needs he skill Horatian verse to scan,

Or [sic] old Homer’s epic plan—

To fathom Plato’s philosophic sense,

Or try the powr’s of Tully’s eloquence.16

This is a recusatio—a description of what an author claims not to be doing which takes the form of doing it. Woodhouse is confident in talking about ancient authors he cannot read in the original; after all, Plato had become widely available in the English edition of Madame Dacier’s famous abridgement, frequently reprinted since 1701, while translations of Homer, Cicero and Horace abounded. Indeed, William Popple’s Ars Poetica (1753) was sold by Robert Dodsley (1704— 1764), Woodhouse’s next patron, who kept a successful booksellers at Tully’s Head, London. Woodhouse, also a working-class poet, had originally been apprenticed to a weaver, but set up the bookshop after publishing A Muse in Livery, or, The Footman’s Miscellany (1732), written while working as footman to ‘a person of quality at Whitehall’ (John, Viscount Lonsdale).17

In 1764, Woodhouse’s Poems on Sundry Occasions by a ‘journeyman shoemaker’ was printed by subscription, and an expanded edition was printed two years later. Both contain the rhapsodic encomium that won over Shenstone, ‘An Elegy to William Shenstone Esq, of the Lessowes’: ‘Arcadian shades!/Where dwells Apollo’; classical references proliferate: daffodils line the stream’s bank, and, ‘like Narcissus, fondly pine away’.18 Fragments of Arcadian poetry are poetically strewn around the garden, in English, Latin and Greek:

To read them ALL would be my humble pride;

But only part is granted, part denyed:

I feel no GRECIAN, feel no ROMAN fire;

I only share the BRITISH muse’s lyre;

And that stern penury dares almost deny;

For manual toils alone my wants supply:

The awl and pen by turns possess my hand,

And worldly cares, e’en now, the muse’s hour demand.

Woodhouse’s assured handling of classical mythology culminates in his address to Shenstone, as his Maecenas (Virgil’s, Propertius’ and Horace’s patron).19

In ‘The Lessowes, a poem’, a virtuosic marathon of rhyming sycophancy, Woodhouse returns to these classical inscriptions. Shenstone has translated one from Horace for him, and now, Woodhouse claims, he can forget the dreariness of a worker’s life and inhabit the garden of poetry, as Horace tended his beloved country estate.20 The imagined act of Horatian translation is at the centre of this idyllic 18th-century portrait of class division: educational imbalance distinguished master from grateful servant, who now understands that a ‘good life’ does not require great wealth after all.21

Other patrons were Elizabeth Montagu (whom, as Vanessa/Scintilla, he repaid with vitriolic satire in his The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus (1814), first published after both their deaths) and the promoter of men of‘natural genius’, Joseph Spence.22 By around 1780, Woodhouse was running his own bookseller’s shop and learned to despise Montagu.2’ But in a poem about Hannah, his wife (nee Fletcher), whom he consistently addresses as ‘Daphne’, Woodhouse praises her beauty, laments her psychological sensitivity and compares her toil with Ixion’s:

Ixion like, her fate she moans,

Whose wheel rolls ceaseless round;

While hollow sighs, and doleful groans,

Fill all the dark profound.

For oft she sighs, and oft she weeps,

And hangs her pensive head;

While blood her furrow’d fingers steeps,

And stains the passing thread.24

This is a capricious translation of a worker’s suffering into a cultural language that their master-class readers must understand.25 But there is more to Woodhouse’s poems than might have occurred to readers of superior class.26 In comparison to being bound eternally to a fiery wheel, Daphne’s pricked finger seems negligible. Yet there is something disturbing about being asked to find humour in the image of Daphne’s bleeding fingers,27 which also implies that labouring women’s misery is eternal, the task forever ‘undone’.28

Woodhouse developed into an evangelical Methodist and defiant class rebel,29 and elsewhere reveals a commitment to social justice, of which such ambiguities might be early manifestations. Christmas suggests that a passage attacking the Prince Kegent in Crispinus Scriblerus indicates Woodhouse’s ‘social-levelling notions, tinged with an antimonarchical strain’.3" The volume carries three epigraphs. In the first, he crowns himself ‘Unpension’d Poet-Laureat of the Poor’. In the third he quotes Samuel Johnson’s pithy epigram about Heraclitus, in turn inspired by Diogenes Laertius’ account of his intolerance of stupidity (IX.1-3, 16):

Begone, ye blockheads! Heraclitus cries,

And leave my labours to the truly wise.

Woodhouse encountered these lines in Johnson’s own epigraph to the much reprinted 208th and final edition of The Rambler in 1752.31 Johnson’s defiant epigraph would have attracted the now cantankerous Woodhouse by marshalling an establishment figure and the allusion to Greek philosophy in his cause. He turns the weapons of the establishment back on themselves.

But his second epigraph reuses the subverted exemplum from Pliny, proudly establishing him as ‘Sutor Ultra Crepidam’. As Van-Hagen argues, each epigraph makes a separate ‘claim to singularity: poet-satirist, (ex-)shoemaker and philosopher’.32 Woodhouse, like Stephen Duck before him, had transitioned from obscurity to the public sphere as a working-class intellectual. But he posed a more serious threat because he struggled against the system of patronage, positioning himself explicitly as a representative of the poor with access to the public, an exemplar of meritocratic success.

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