"The Poets in Low Life": Working-Class Poets
The Romantic period of English literary history is coextensive with what historian E. P. Thompson influentially referred to as the period of "The Making of the English Working Class." It was a time that witnessed not only the emergence of new forms of government, industrial production, and literature, but also the emergence of class consciousness and a true working-class movement in England. The nineteenth century also witnessed the beginnings of a canon of working-class, or laboring-class, poetry. Robert Southey's essay "On the Lives and Works of Our Uneducated Poets," an introductory essay to Attempts in Verse, by John Jones, an Old Servant, is a formative document in this process. Southey referred to them as "the poets in low life," showing that notions of class were still inchoate, but growing in significance. Southey, who was the Poet Laureate of England from 1813-1843, actively supported working class poets and helped to bring their work into print. Politically radical in his youth, Southey had by this time turned quite conservative, and his interest in working-class poets was ideological in that he promoted the work of those who expressed contentment with their 'low' position in life.
In the Victorian period, galvanized by the Chartist movement from the 1830s to the 1850s, working-class poets increasingly identified their literary work with working-class politics. As scholar Peter Scheckner points out, "Chartist poems were read every week by hundreds of thousands of active Chartist workers and supporters throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; the ideas and commitment behind these works were translated month by month into political action." The Chartist movement is represented in the exhibit by the work of Gerald Massey and Ebenezer Jones, both of whom also worked for the Chartist press. Of the Victorians, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others in his circle, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, take the role that Southey played earlier in the nineteenth century, preserving and promoting the poetry of working-class authors threatened with extinction.