Session 5C: Aesthetics and the New Canon

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5C. Aesthetics and the New Canon: Challenges of Class and Gender

Kevin Binfield (Murray State): "Towards a Working Class Romanticism: The Aesthetics of the Luddites"
Katherine Harris (New York): "Considerable Minorities in British Annuals/Gift Books: A Selection of Poetry Published in Friendship's Offering"
Frankie Allmon (Indiana): "Paradoxes of Propriety and Property: The 'melancholy tale' of Hannah More and Ann Yearsley"

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"Towards a Working Class Romanticism: The Aesthetics of the Luddites"
Kevin Binfield
Murray State

Changes in the Romantic canon, especially the (re)discovery of several women writers, have added bulk and variety to the body of literature available for reading and teaching, without, however, reconsidering the class orientation of the canon itself. Prior to and at the early stages of the expansion of Romanticism, books such as Martha Vicinus's The Industrial Muse and Donna Landry's The Muses of Resistance pointed readers toward authors and texts that might challenge an established Romantic aesthetic. Landry's book, in particular, gets its share of praise from scholars, but even most of the scholars engaged in the creation of the new anthologies maintain a leisure-class orientation and its accompanying aesthetic in selecting texts for inclusion. The new Romantic canon might include Charlotte Smith, Joanna Baillie, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Felicia Hemans, but it includes them on the basis of an aesthetic that suggests their influences upon established male Romantics, or their priority in engaging a Romantic dialogue of political interest, or their employment of a (highly classed) sentimental gaze upon the plight of the poor. The aesthetic itself has not changed (as one participant at the "Scenes of Writing" Conference said, "Doggerel is doggerel") despite the new availability of texts that might point the way toward a further reconsideration of the aesthetic basis of canon formation.

In this paper I propose that an initial step toward reconsidering the classed aesthetic underlying the current Romantic canon might be to outline the poetics of a community of working-class authors, specifically the Luddites. The Luddites not only were breakers of the textile machinery used by capitalist hosiers and mill owners to drive down wages but also were writers of a wide variety of texts: petitions, threatening letters, broadside proclamations and, most importantly for this paper, poems and songs. I shall illustrate my argument with a few selections from over twenty songs and poems that I have collected as part of a book, The Writings of the Luddites, currently under contract with Johns Hopkins.

First, why study a community of plebeian writers whose textual work was not only usually collective but also anonymous? Studying working-class writing outside of such a working-class community would raise interesting questions of reception by a larger (or a smaller, but more dominant) culture. For example, studying the work of Elizabeth Hands, a Warwickshire domestic servant whose single published volume, The Death of Amnon, attracted the support of over 1000 subscribers and minor literary artists of the leisure classes, would tell us much of the reception of working-class poetry by the leisure classes and the poet's crafting for such reception. A study of poetry which is written "from below" but which looks "above," as Hands's verses do, nevertheless assumes from the beginning a critical anchoring in an established and more easily discernible poetics. I believe that a remedy to this tendency can be found in attending to the dynamics of authorship within a closed community, a circle of writers similarly situated. Such an approach might indicate the parameters of a working-class aesthetic undertaken or manifested more on its own terms. A question might be phrased in the following manner: What aesthetic is possible or likely in a group whose dominant external discursive interest is socio-economic change advantageous to the trade and to the community rather personal Parnassian glory or personal material gain?

In addressing that question, it is necessary to make some qualifications. Luddite writers did, in fact, look "above" to the recipients of some, but not all, of their writings; however, the mode of looking above is probably more restricted to a material and non-aesthetic effect than Hands's mode, for example. Hands sought an aesthetic approval that would have a material significance^÷the underwriting and purchasing of her volume^÷but the Luddites sought no approval of that sort. When a known Luddite, Thomas Large, a framework knitter from Nottingham, sent to Thomas Allsop, a framework knitter at Leicester, some verses enclosed in letters, Large sought only the approval of his fellows in the framework knitters' company. Allsop shared Large's poems ("The Death and and Last Confession of Colting," for example) with other knitters, who reportedly derived tremendous pleasure from them, but the poems were never circulated outside of the knitting trade. In fact, most Luddite verses were songs composed communally in homes or taverns, added to and revised in processes that are mentioned but not thoroughly described in documents from the period^÷among them, the prosecutor's notes for the case Rex v. Milne and Blakeborough. When the verses were posted on walls, they were not received with aesthetic pleasure. Rather, the authorities and the master hosiers read them as threatening and Luddite sym non-aesthetic effect than Hands's mode, for example. Hands sought an aesthetic approval that would have a material significance^÷the underwriting and purchasing of her volume^÷but the Luddites sought no Triumph") against external, threatening texts (such as "Well Done, Ned Ludd" and the "Declaration" against Charles Lacey) indicates.

As internally aestheticized texts, the Luddite verses have a number of more or less distinguishing traits. Some traits, such as the poems' metrical resemblance to dissenting and Anglican hymns and their employment of "low" customary forms or their parodying of "high" literary and legal forms, are predictable; other characteristics are less obvious. The Large-Allsop correspondence indicates one less obvious characteristic of Luddite versifying: the Luddite poet assumed shared but limited knowledge of an immediately pertinent context. Generally speaking, the verses do not establish or create a sense of context accessible to those outside of the discursive circle. Luddism has, of course, its own vocabulary, but, more importantly, it also permits its verse to begin without preface or introduction. such differences in reception, as a comparison of wholly internal documents (such as Large's poems and the anonymous "General Ludd's).

The dominant mode of Luddite verse is exhortation. Despite the predominance of balladry represented in collections of the songs of the folk (Roy Porter's volumes serve as excellent examples of such collections), narrative is remarkably absent from Luddite verse. More precisely, narratization of past events is absent. For the most part, anything resembling narrative appears within exhortation as a projected configuration of present threat, present recognition, and future action. Past threat is less important than present recognition and action in the immediate future. Furthermore, the nature of the past is especially significant, and demonstrates an alignment of Luddite poets with pre-Romantic and early Romantic poets. The Luddite writers assume the special value of a geographically local past; however, the Luddite local past differs from the Wordsworthian local past in that the Luddite past is much more highly troped and far more unusually temporalized than Wordsworth's. The Luddite writers speak, for example, of a return to the economic practices of a recent past but summon a variety of tropes form a distant past (Robin Hood tropes, as one example) to hearten listeners and readers to take action to retrieve that past.

At this very promising time, when cultural materialism and research into plebeian culture is discovering and making accessible texts that permit Romantic-period writers of the working classes to speak for themselves rather than be spoken about from above, attending to the collective and internally aesthetic nature of closed circle plebeian writing might enable Romantics scholars to question the aesthetic presupposition underlying the Romantic canon. It might be possible to look beyond the doggerel and find an alternative conception of poetic craft.

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"Considerable Minorities in British Annuals/Gift Books: A Selection of Poetry Published in Friendship's Offering"
Katherine Harris
New York

The phrase "literary canon" has become the subject of numerous books, talks, and curriculum in recent years, especially with respect to women's poetry of the long nineteenth-century. Should we consider works by women solely based on gender? Or should we consider these works by an aesthetic valuation? Both questions create more questions than answers: Does eliding gender difference discriminate against poetry written by women or enhance it?

Canonization or anthologizing women's poetry from the nineteenth century may also perform the same aesthetic discrimination against men solely based on gender. On the other hand, doesn't grouping poetry based on gender still marginalize that poetry, extracting it from the standard "canonical" texts because the aesthetic valuation is rigidly based on a patriarchal value system? How do we integrate this "re-discovered" poetry that was lost because women didn't have an easily available outlet to publish their works? The questions above have fueled my readings of lesser known women poets. I resist marginalizing women's writing based on their gender and seek to enhance our understanding of some early Victorian women's poetry, tracing an echoing voice among some of the poetry while still allowing for individuality within the private sphere of the feminine.

Women writers of the 19th Cent. were divided between social expectations and private pursuits, reflecting the public and private binary and masculine and feminine conflict within women's poetry. Women had been taught rigid definitions of femininity, and those who explored the masculine realm of writing suffered "not simply the powerlessness which derives from not seeing one's experience articulated, clarified, and legitimized in art, but more significantly, the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self, the consequence of the invocation to identify as male while being reminded that to be male--to be universal-- . . . is to be not female." (Schweickart 41-2). The repressed, the antithetical, the borders -- these are the areas I'm probing in this re-discovered poetry in order to examine the subject and object position that a woman poet grapples with in her poetry (Gilbert & Gubar).

With the introduction of literary Annuals in 1823, women became privileged as readers due to the popularity of the Annuals and economic benefits to publishers. Gender becomes central to economic success: women as poets attract the largest readership -- women. Women's poetry supposedly advocated the Angel in the House (though pre-Patmore), insisting on an ideology centered around "the primacy of the male head of the household." In this passive role, women give up subjectivity and merely occupy an object-role. Women's poetry in the Annuals was intended to reflect this ideology, but the women poets managed to subvert the ideology and still have their work published.

In establishing the female poetic voice, the Victorian women echo one another in their poetry, imitating a conversation of sorts which considers topics of fame and domesticity and allows the poets to speak as women to women without objectifying themselves. The obscure poetry examined in this essay comes from British Annuals or gift books, published between 1824 and 1850. Poetry published in these Annuals, i.e., Friendship's Offering, The Gem, The Iris, etc., became categorized with other popular literary culture publishings. As a result, it is devalued aesthetically in its own historical moment and in present academic archaeology. There has been no significant study of the publication, practices, evolution, popularity, and literature of the Annuals (aside from Andrew Boyle's index of the authors).

Between 1800 and 1830, Romantic aesthetic and Victorian preoccupations become a liminal space for women's poetry -- at first only allowing women individuality through subversive metaphors in poetry. Women adopted the poetic devices of the major Romantic poets, but they incorporated undertones of negative domesticity. Women poets in these Annuals also recapture the feminine sentiment usurped by the Romantics -- the sentimental private space of the poets mind that is able to interpret nature in conjunction with personal feelings.

Specifically examined in this essay are poems from three volumes of Friendship's Offering, published in Britain in 1827, 1831, and 1832; the poets include Felicia Hemans, Mary Howitt, Maria Jane Jewsbury, Mrs. Josiah Conder, L.E.L., Mrs. Norton, Agnes Strickland, Susanna Strickland, Mrs. Cornwell Baron Wilson, and "Rosa." Very few of these poems appear in the recent anthologies, which endeavor to recover women poets of the nineteenth century. The poems come from a collection of gift books that I excavated from the Fales Special Collections Library at New York University.

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell