Poetry and Class: a new book from Dr Sandie Byrne

Poetry, perhaps more than any other literary form, has a reputation for elitism, both in terms of its practitioners and its readership. While the twentieth century, at least, has produced plenty of working-class dramatists and novelists, most of us would find it harder to call to mind more than a handful of working-class poets.

We’d be wrong, however, to think of poetry as being the preserve of the upper and middle classes. Dr Sandie Byrne, Associate Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing, has just published a book called Poetry and Class that looks at the relationship between class and the practice of poetry from the fourteenth century on.

Dr Byrne became interested in the topic through her work on the contemporary poet Tony Harrison, who, she says, ‘writes extensively about language and class and about the relationship between high art and low art’ and about ‘the exclusion of working-class people from high art’. Harrison, himself from a working-class background, is the perfect illustration of this: when he started writing in his own voice, he was sometimes criticised for having a ‘chip on his shoulder’ or writing ‘doggerel’, Dr Byrne points out.

Her books on Harrison led her to look more closely at the subject of class in twentieth-century poetry, and that led her ‘further and further back’. The book isn’t only about working-class poetry, however, says Dr Byrne: ‘It’s about all sorts of class ­– for example the way in which poetry was circulated in the court in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, and the way in which writing poetry for money was somewhat frowned upon and not seen as an occupation for a gentleman, and how that changed, and how professional writers came into being.’ She enjoyed looking at some ‘old favourites’ such as Gawain and the Green Knight, which is the focus of a discussion on the representation of chivalry.

Poetry – not the preserve of the upper classes

Poetry has never been exclusively the preserve of the upper classes, Dr Byrne points out. ‘There’s a great oral tradition of poetry and ballads, so there is poetry of all classes for as long as there has been poetry.’ (In this case, she makes clear, ‘class’ is a shorthand for ‘social status’: before the nineteenth century, class didn’t exist in the modern sense.) 

In the eighteenth century, there was a vogue for working-class poets (or ‘labouring poets’, as they were known), who relied on patronage. The relationship wasn’t always good, Dr Byrne explains: ‘Some of them wanted to keep control over the labouring-class poet and what they earned and dole it out to them because they couldn't be expected to spend it thriftily for themselves.’ One example was Stephen Duck, an eighteenth-century thresher working in a precarious seasonal occupation. ‘He wasn’t earning a lot of money, and he must have been exhausted at the end of each day,’ says Dr Byrne. And yet, she points out, he was literate, and, whenever he could, he got hold of books, including the classics, and ‘taught himself to be a poet.’ Another eighteenth-century example is milkmaid Anne Yearsley, who eventually fell out with her patron Hannah Moore in a row over money.

The rise of Chartist poets

The nineteenth-century saw a ‘great upsurge of working-class poetry in print in Chartist publications’. Most of it wasn’t of high quality, however: ‘I wouldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that the many people who wrote the poetry of Chartism were great poets, but they were suffering and they were articulating the suffering of thousands and I’m very glad that they found a voice.’ The First World War saw poetry being written by all ranks, and although much of it was mediocre, says Dr Byrne, it ‘did a good job, it kept up morale, it made people feel they had a vehicle for expression.’

Although there have been other books looking at the relationship between social class and poetry in specific periods, Dr Byrne’s may be the first to investigate the topic over seven centuries. Her hope, she says, is that ‘students will find it useful as a starting point to send them off to look at some texts that they might not otherwise have thought about – and to stimulate some ideas and some conversations about the relationship between poetry and language and class.’

Published 29 April 2020