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The relationship between Ann Yearsley (1753-1806), or ‘Lactilla’ the Milkwoman of Clifton, and her patron, the bluestocking poet Hannah More, is well documented.87 Yearsley (Figure 4.3) illustrates how worker-poets could challenge their upper-class readerships by creative engagements with classical material. Early in their relationship, More was struck, typically, by her under-educated protegee’s ‘natural genius’. She wrote to Elizabeth Montagu,
All I see of her, raises my opinion of her genius ... Confess, dear Madam, that you and I know many a head competently stored with Greek and Latin which cou’d not have produced better verses. I never met with an Ear more nicely tuned.88
FIGURE 43 Ann Yearsley by Joseph Grozer, after Sarah Shiells (1787) Reproduced by courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Yet More was not inclined to educate Yearsley: ‘I am utterly against taking her out of her Station. Stephen [Duck] was an excellent Bard as a Thrasher, but as the Court Poet, and Rival of Pope, destestable’.89
Yearsley had hit rock bottom after the severe winter of 1783—1784.*° Destitute, she lay with her husband, elderly mother and five children, starving in a barn, but was rescued by a local gentleman named Vaughan. In the autumn of 1784, Yearsley was again collecting hogwash and selling milk door-to-door. Yearsley came to More’s attention because her cook was Yearsley’s client. Despite her fear of disrupting her new charge’s class position, More bestowed on her a carefully partial education in the form ofjames MacPherson’s Ossian (1760), John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700) and ‘the most decent of the Metamorphoses’.'n Scottish epic and translated myth granted Yearsley amateur access to classical stories without risking of a professional or scholarly grasp of the original literature.
But Yearsley realised quickly that it was through the Classics, especially Virgil, that she should stake her claim to significance. When More asked, in
August 1784, who her favourite authors were, she replied, ‘Among the Heathens ...I have met with no such Composition as Virgil’s Georgies’.92 More was astonished: ‘How I stared! besides, the choice was so professional’.93 Yearsley had clearly read at least the Introduction to Dryden’s translation, in which he states that the Georgies were ‘the best poem of the best poet’.94 Throughout her poetic oeuvre, the juxtaposition of her classical learning and her lack of education attracted and repelled her middle- and upper-class readers. Her poetry was socially and culturally transgressive, in a bold, incendiary manner fitting to her revolutionary epoch.
Yearsley campaigned against the slave trade on which her native Bristol’s fortune was founded,9’ and spoke out against the most powerful.96 Stepping beyond ‘the ghetto of folk poetry’,97 and into the realm of polite and politically engaged letters was to breach decorum. Against her patron’s wishes and protests, Yearsley demanded to be read on her own terms as a professional poet and one who disdained the pedantry of the reactionary elite.98 More simply had nothing further to do with her.99
Rose observes that Yearsley ‘could only find her independent voice by mastering classical literature, which she appropriated as the collective property of all classes’.100 In place of the depoliticizing force of previous neoclassicism, Yearsley instrumentalised neoclassical tropes on behalf of the oppressed and was consequently criticised. In ‘Addressed to Ignorance, Occasioned by a Gentleman’s Desiring the Author Never to Assume a Knowledge of the Ancients’, she reveals that her own self-definition has been shaped by canonical authors, yet she questions their right to receive the reverence long bestowed upon them by elite, and male, society. She shows off her knowledge of ancient figures, while insouciantly arguing that if Pythagoras’s theory of reincarnation is to be believed, these august figures may all be engaged in lowly occupations now. She, conversely, may in a previous life have possessed a high status.101 Rose calls the poem ‘a high-wire burlesque’, which ‘transforms the great Greeks and Romans into Hogarthian lowlife’ and in which Yearsley’s levelling message is uncompromising: ‘this is my culture as well’.102
She skilfully balances nonsense with witty pictures that display her learning. Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher who wore rags and slept rough, is reincarnated as ‘an ambling old Beau’; the loquacious Nestor is now ‘quite dumb’; the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus is hanged as a thief‘by his own rule’. Democritus and Solon ‘bear baskets of moss, / While Pliny sells woodcocks hard by’. Sly Ulysses is reincarnated as a fox; chaste Penelope has five lovers and the cuckold Menelaus is a ‘doubly horn’d’ Buck.102 These allusions are accessible to people who have read their Classics in translation or adaptation. Lactilla, protected by the ‘dark veil’ of Ignorance, concludes,
Heav’n knows what I was long ago;
No matter, thus shielded, this age I defy,
And the next cannot wound me, I know.104
Yearsley’s The Rural Lyre was published in 1796. It includes three fictional verse epistles set in ancient Rome,105 apparently from an unfinished project, which demonstrate her confidence in handling classical authors and culture.106 But 1796 was a turbulent time (see Chapter 13). British working-class men were either dying in Caribbean and European wars or starving with their families at home. The book begins by addressing the Right Honourable Earl of Bristol and Bishop ofDerry, Augustus Frederick Hervey (1730-1803), with a quotation from Vicesimus Knox:
It is asserted that, “if Alexander and Caesar had been born in a cottage, they would have died in obscurity” ... . If the “walls of a cottage” could have entombed forever such mighty spirits as those of Caesar and Alexander, how must the clown “dazzle”, who emerges from the sequestered gloom with his wits about him!
The educator Knox supported revolution in Britain, denouncing William Pitt’s assault on civil liberties and war against revolutionary France. He also supported women writers, including Yearsley, and endorsed their work in print.107 It was thus with the radical left that Yearsley associated this volume.
The frontispiece is a sentimental engraving of the mournful goddess ‘British Liberty’, beside a monument to Brutus (the mythical Trojan founder of Britain). With one exposed breast, she leans a liberty-cap standard against her shoulder.108 The Anglicised symbology of the French Revolution is unmistakeable. Waldron attempts to undermine Ferguson’s reading of Yearsley as an early feminist and/ or class warrior, instead understanding her as representative of‘a certain benevolent conservatism’.109 But this interpretation is not supported by the major poem in this collection, ‘Brutus’, an epic ‘fragment’, in which native Britons, with divine intervention, peacefully capitulate to the Trojan invaders. Brutus (son of Ascanius), is led to Britain by Jove, on Venus’s supplication. Liberty herself commands Brutus to ‘let fall thy spear’, since ‘To yield is to deserve a throne’. She continues: ‘My Britons are not slaves: / There lives no conqueror but the man who saves,’ i.e. Jesus of Nazareth. When Brutus yields, making peace with an invading foreign power, it has desirable results in Yearsley’s utopian vision: peace, plenty and liberty.110
Throughout the collection, Yearsley portrays the bitter plight of the poor under Pitt’s war-hungry government. In ‘Prayer and Resignation’, she comes close to overt criticism of Pitt.111 Whilst there were working-class pro-war ‘Church and King’ mobs during Pitt’s ministry, the intensity of impressment and punitive taxation made him deeply unpopular among the poor; in October 1795 George Ill’s carriage was bombarded by protesters calling for ‘Bread’, ‘No War’ and ‘No Pitt’.112 In her ‘Elegy to Bristol’, Yearsley details the shameful murder by the military of around 20 people protesting against the collection of bridgetolls.113 The turbulence of the times would soon produce a distinctive proletarian literary culture, but Yearsley, despite her humble origins, cannot be said to be writing proletarian literature. She was writing, successfully, in the dominant literary style of higher classes. As we see in other chapters, labouring-class literature reached its height in the Chartist movement, which had its own autobiographers, newspapers, novelists, visual artists, poets and dramatists, and established a literary culture whose echoes continue to reverberate today.114