English and Drama blog

29 June 2012

Peasant poets in Writing Britain

While researching the group of items about farming in the Rural Dreams section of Writing Britain, I got really interested in the peasant poet movement. These writers, seen through the sometimes patronising eyes of the 18th and 19th century rich and middle classes, were the authentically rustic voice of the countryside – agricultural workers who published poetry in addition to their ‘day jobs’.

The most famous example is the tragic John Clare, the Northamptonshire son of a farmer who worked variously as a gardener and a barman, struggled with mental health issues for most of his life and lived in an asylum for many years. He experienced great financial hardship whilst trying to support himself and his family through his poetry, and in Writing Britain you can see (in addition to his manuscript draft of his poem ‘Summer Morning’ – Additional MS. 37538 F) his letter to the Royal Literary Fund begging for financial assistance (Loan MS. 96 1/808/7). On the RLF’s file Clare is identified as ‘John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant’.


British Library Loan MS 96 1/808/7, Image used with kind permission from the Royal Literary Fund

While Clare’s poetry often focussed on the natural world (he was a skilled botanist), other peasant poets wrote about their working lives. In 1730 Stephen Duck (known as the Thresher poet) published a poem called ‘The Thresher’s Labour’. It describes life as a labourer, and the intense hard work associated with haymaking, but was also notable for its presentation of female labourers as useless chatterboxes who had an easy life and who would work while the master watched but slack off when left to themselves:

‘Ah! were their hands as active as their tongues
How nimbly then would move the rakes and prongs!’

Mary Collier, a washerwoman from Petersfield in Hampshire took issue with Duck’s depiction of the women, and was inspired to write a rebuttal – which also features in Writing Britain. The Woman’s Labour was published in 1739, by which time Duck had received patronage from Queen Caroline and no longer worked as a labourer. Collier wrote a lively and at times humorous depiction of the role of women on farms, the jist of which is that women work just as hard as the men in the fields, with the very great exception that when they go home in the evening, the men can put their feet up while the women cook the evening meal; care for the children; do washing, mending and other chores, and then spend the night getting up to look after screaming babies, before getting up early to make breakfast and repeat the whole process over again:

To get a Living we so willing are,
Our tender Babes into the Field we bear,
And wrap them in our Cloaths to keep them warm,
While round about we gather up the Corn ;
And often unto them our Course do bend,
To keep them safe, that nothing them offend :
Our Children that are able, bear a Share
In gleaning Corn, such is our frugal Care.
When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too ;
Weary, alas ! but 'tis not worth our while
Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile ;
We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;
While we, alas ! but little Sleep can have,
Because our froward Children cry and rave ;
Yet, without fail, soon as Day-light doth spring,
We in the Field again our Work begin
And there, with all our Strength, our Toil renew,
Till Titan's golden Rays have dry'd the Dew ;
Then home we go unto our Children dear,
Dress, feed, and bring them to the Field with care.

I found Collier’s story really fascinating. Her poem is the earliest description of female labourers written by a female labourer. She worked as a washerwoman for most of her life (retiring from it at the age of 63), and although her poetry had a certain popularity she obviously never made enough money from it to stop working. But The Woman’s Labour was so well-written that evidently authorship was disputed, and the second edition includes a statement from the people of Petersfield confirming that indeed, their neighbour Mary was the author and not some learned male poet.

A final interesting literary link: Collier spent her last few years in Alton in Hampshire, dying in 1762. Alton is very near Chawton where Jane Austen was to move in 1809, and where she died in 1817.

You can read the full text of The Woman's Labour online here, and you can come and see the first edition (and the John Clare manuscripts) in Writing Britain until 25th September.


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