“Selected Poems,” by Ann Yearsley

Selected Poems; by Ann Yearsley. Ed. Tim Burke, foreword by Donna Landry. The Cyder Press, xxiv+88 pp. £5, softcover only. ISBN 1-86174-1324.

A review by William J. Christmas

     Ann Yearsley, the milkwoman-turned-poet from Clifton, has always been known more for the extraordinary circumstances of her poetic career than for the poetry she actually produced. To be sure, hers is a remarkable story of discovery near death, development under patronage, and fiercely fought-for independence. Yearsley was one of only a handful of eighteenth-century laboring-class poets who achieved something like a sustained career in letters; hence, for modern critics, the material circumstances and larger cultural tensions surrounding that career — so carefully chronicled by players in the drama like Hannah More and Horace Walpole and given public vent in the periodical press — are important, if also difficult to resist.

     Criticism about Yearsley certainly has required a careful rendering of biographical events, especially those arguments concerned with feminist literary history, class antagonisms in the late-century period, and/or patronage. This work has led to a healthy variety of interpretive discrepancies (was Yearsley really a laboring-class woman?), but has also, to some extent, kept us from fully realizing her poetic achievement. Tim Burke’s “Introduction” to this edition of Yearsley’s poems — the first of its kind though Yearsley has been part of the critical conversation in eighteenth-century studies since the mid-1980s — serves up the “biographical drama” with grace, concision, and his own dollop of didacticism: “There are dangers involved in succumbing to the guilty pleasures of Yearsley’s tale . . . and these dangers are not entirely overcome even when it is being deployed for its instructive feminist force” (xi). Just so, and it is this insight which likely informs the organization of this edition. Key texts such as Hannah More’s “Prefatory Letter to Mrs. Montagu” and Yearsley’s public defense of herself, “To the noble and generous subscribers,” which appeared as prefatory material to Yearsley’s first two volumes of poetry respectively, are given here, but relegated to the end of the book as appendices. The result, of course, is that the reader is gently led to engage with the poetry right off the bat.

     And what of the poetry itself? Yearsley could be imitative and obtuse in her verse, but more often bold and interesting. Burke’s selections are meant to support the latter view, and they succeed mightily. When she’s at her best, Yearsley can be seen “straying from the trodden path” of form, content, and custom (2). “On Mrs. Montagu” opens with a strident argument for female intellectualism; men may be stronger but they’re not smarter:

          Why boast, O arrogant, imperious man,
     Perfection so exclusive? are thy powers
     Nearer approaching Deity? cans’t thou solve
     Questions which high Infinity propounds,
     Soar nobler flights, or dare immortal deeds,
     Unknown to woman, if she greatly dares
     To use the powers assign’d her? Active strength,
     The boast of animals, is clearly thine;
     By this upheld, thou think’st the lesson rare
     That female virtues teach; and poor the height
     Which female wit obtains. (7)

Later in her career, Yearsley would say publicly that she was “no Amazon,” yet even her advice to a friend on motherhood in “To Mira, on the Care of her Infant” is tinged with progressive views:

     Permit me, pensive friend, who long have known
     A mother’s duty, pleasing cares to own,
     Teach thee to gently nurse thy beauteous boy —
     Lest Custom gentle Nature’s pow’r destroy:
     So young an infant should reposing lie,
     Unswath’d and loose, that the fair limbs may ply
     To every motion happy Nature tries,
     Whilst life seems fluid, and from pressure flies. (47-8)

Many years ago, when I was teaching Yearsley in an undergraduate survey course, one of my students described her in class discussion as a “punk-rock poetess,” which still strikes me as an apt (if also anachronistic) description. She’s at her punk-protest best when she takes on the Bristol establishment in the opening lines of her important abolitionist piece, A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade:

     Bristol, thine heart hath throbb’d to glory. –Slaves,
     E’en Christian slaves, have shook their chains, and gaz’d
     With wonder and amazement on thee. Hence
     Ye grov’ling souls, who think the term I give,
     Of Christian slave, a paradox! to you
     I do not turn, but leave you to conception
     Narrow; with that be blest, nor dare to stretch
     Your shackled souls along the course of Freedom.
          Yet, Bristol list! nor deem Lactilla’s soul
     Lessen’d by distance; snatch her rustic thought,
     Her crude ideas, from their panting state,
     And let them fly in wide expansion; lend
     Thine energy, so little understood
     By the rude million, and I’ll dare the strain
     Of Heav’n-born Liberty till Nature moves
     Obedient to her voice. (28)

And, in “To Mr. ****, an Unlettered Poet, on Genius Unimproved” (an epistle addressed to another laboring-class poet, now identified by Burke as the gardener-poet William Job, a fellow Cliftonian) Yearsley’s commitment to her art and to the idea of artistic independence are on display:

     I’ve patient trod the wild entangled path
     Of unimprov’d Idea. Dauntless Thought
     I eager seiz’d, no formal Rule e’er aw’d;
     No Precedent controul’d; no Custom fix’d
     My independent spirit: on the wing
     She still shall guideless soar. . . (22)

In spite of the sometimes tangled syntax, the sense of the lines and Yearsley’s passionate, spirited voice are still heard loud and clear. There is value in that “wild entangled path,” and one may follow its course throughout this thin volume.

     Selected Poems is short on glitz — witness the plain cover and straightforward formatting — but long on substance, evidenced by excellent editorial work from the introduction through the uniformly helpful annotations. Burke is also to be commended for not succumbing to the editor’s trick of excerpting for the sake of representation. If there’s a better book value in the field of eighteenth-century poetry for a fiver, I don’t know what it is. The Cyder Press, based at the University of Gloucestershire, is doing academics, students, and general readers a great service producing these accessible, scholarly (affordable!) books. For ordering information and the complete Cyder Press catalogue, visit the website at http://www.cyderpress.co.uk.

About the reviewer
William J. Christmas is Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State University where he teaches courses on Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture. His main research field is laboring-class poetry of this period. His book The Lab’ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730-1830 (U Of Delaware, 2001), includes a chapter on Ann Yearsley. Christmas is also Editor of vol. I of a three-volume series titled Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700-1800 (Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

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