The Poetics of Labor: Visions of Work and Community in England, 1730-1890

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



The Poetics of Labor argues for a reconsideration of how manual labor functions within poetic texts in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. As scholarship over the last forty years and onward has demonstrated, eighteenth-century poetry illustrates widespread changes in the way that poets and artists choose to situate labor and laborers in their work, as well as the increasing presence of plebeian authors. However, scholarship often fails to consider the central aesthetic role that labor plays in a text, especially as poets experiment with the perceived boundaries between manual labor and intellectual or artistic creation. I argue that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century laboring-class poets and authors use writing as a way of re-imagining their experiences of manual labor, simultaneously exposing the practices of labor in an emerging capitalist market while also advocating for seeing labor from local, communal perspectives. Within the fields of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and ecocritical scholarship, I also contend that the revival of laboring-class poets, and their inclusion into the canon, remains dependent upon scholars seeing these poets for their aesthetic capabilities, rather than merely their socioeconomic status.

The introduction investigates the formal and socioeconomic changes in early- to mid- eighteenth-century England that result in attempts to make labor appear more authentic poetically. I define what this project means by “labor”, and provide a background for popular poetic forms, such as the pastoral and georgic, and how labor has traditionally related to poetic representations prior to the eighteenth century. My first chapter sketches out a portrait of the emergence of laboring-class poetry and literature in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Comparing and contrasting the depictions of labor that emerge in both laboring- and middle-class poetry, I interrogate whether the scholarly focus upon class perspective matters when discussing labor and economics. I argue that rather than pitting class perspectives against one another, scholarship should examine the literary discourse about labor that is emerging in the century, and how it imagines a form of labor that relies upon human dependence rather than monetary profit. Close readings of Stephen Duck, John Clare, George Crabbe, and William Wordsworth, among others, provide the literary foundation for my arguments.

My second chapter considers the conclusions drawn in the first chapter through the lens of women laboring writers, whose laborers were often deemed unworthy of “useful” employment. My chapter positions a reading of these women from the perspective of shadow labor, investigating how Mary Collier, Elizabeth Hands, and Ann Yearsley develop formal and structural parallels between their poetry and their thematic content, mimicking the hidden realities of their work. While all these women advocate for new definitions or practices of labor that would permit their labors to be recognized, their vision fall shorts of enumerating how such communities could be envisioned.

My final two chapters analyze literary works that directly attempt to demonstrate an alternative to capitalist-driven agricultural life through fully developed, imagined communities. My third chapter examines The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), a poetic collection by the rural laboring-class poet, John Clare, whose work embodies both a kind of rural idyll and a harsh realism. Analyzing the rhythms of the seasons against the aesthetic and formal patterns in his collection, I argue that Clare’s focus upon habit and ritual life challenges economic approaches to labor equality that emerge in the eighteenth century, specifically reading Clare’s poems against the work of Marx, Engels, and British socialists. My final chapter further considers the influence of socialism upon labor and community in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), a socialist utopian prosaic romance. I read Morris’s text as an attempt to bring into fruition the rejection of capitalist principles and communities that poets have been hinting at throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, this chapter also queries what happens when a perspective of labor conflates labor with other activities, particularly pleasure and art, so that neither of these activities can distinguish themselves from one another. Considering the delicate balance between nightmare and paradise that exists in utopian visions, I argue that Morris’s highly aesthetic forms of labor place unequal demands upon men and women, threatening the equality of person and occupation that socialism demands.

While my research responds to important trends within the fields of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship, especially the revival of laboring-class poets and the turn toward ecocriticism, my project attempts to portray a comprehensive view of labor that assesses both the degrading and redemptive qualities found in the work of laboring poets. As opposed to the division between manual and intellectual labor that often appears in criticism, I attempt to demonstrate poetic depictions of laboring experiences that bring the imagination and body together. Seeing manual labor as an experience that can influence both the body and the mind allows, in turn, for laborers to be seen as multi-faceted authors worthy of serious scholarly critique, beyond the implications of their socioeconomic status.






Sroka, Michelle Christine (2019). The Poetics of Labor: Visions of Work and Community in England, 1730-1890. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.