Patrons, Influences and Poetic Communities in James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus

Steve Van-Hagen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


While the eighteenth-century has been seen for critical generations as a period of great sociability – an age of clubs, coffee-houses and salons, of The Scriblerians, The Kit-Kat Club, The Hillarians and The Bluestockings (to name just a few) – its chronological successor, the Romantic Age, has traditionally been defined in opposition as the age of individualism and solitary genius. Romantic scholarship has seen something of a reaction to this in recent years, away from models of isolated, solitary genius that it has come to deem venerable but outmoded, and instead towards alternative models of the age as one of great collaboration and poetic community. Like the ‘Contesting Creativity’ project led by scholars at the University of Leeds, very many monographs, chapters articles and conferences have set out ‘to explore different forms and ideas of creativity in the period, especially those beyond the traditional domain of genius and originality’ and instead emphasise ‘collaboration and sociability in order to shed light on cultural production in the period and thereby challenge what is still seen as one of Romanticism’s major ideological assumptions.’1  Increasingly, labouring-class studies have come to be accepted as an indispensable part of the Romantic critical landscape, a status firmly cemented by the Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets anthologies, 3 vols., gen. ed. by John Goodridge (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003) and their companion nineteenth-century volumes (2006). In the study of labouring-class poetry in the period, too, a turn has been made towards sociable and communal models of poetic production, in such major critical studies as Simon White’s Robert Bloomfield, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) and, most recently, John Goodridge’s John Clare and Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
As the most represented poet in The Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets anthologies (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003), the prolific James Woodhouse (1735-1820) is central to the emerging canon of labouring-class poetry in the period. His seventeen-chapter, 29,000-line verse autobiography, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus (complete in draft by 1795, first published in part in 1814 and 1816, but not published in its entirety until 1896) has been of particular interest to recent critics. Nonetheless, this chapter will argue that no-one has yet satisfactorily examined the degree to which the poem constitutes an extended working out (and arguably the definitive expression) of Woodhouse’s multivalent relationships to his many poetic, social and political models. The poem contains myriad passages and digressions in various of its chapters under the sub-heading ‘Social Reflections’. Early chapters contain extensive meditations on the geographical and social environments in which Woodhouse grew up, for instance, and accounts of the social processes by which Woodhouse, an evangelical Methodist, arrived at the (very) radical political and theological views of his later life. 
The emergence of labouring-class poets in the mid-eighteenth century (Woodhouse was a shoemaker until the early 1760s) was a necessarily social process, since only through patronage could such a figure come to public notice. While the story of Ann Yearsley’s break from her Bluestocking patron, Hannah More, is broadly well known because of its public nature, the tale of the other vitriolic labouring-class poet / polite-patron rupture in the late 1780s, between Woodhouse and Elizabeth Montagu, is less well-known. This chapter will provide a full account not only of this vitally important moment in the history of poet-patron class relations, but of Woodhouse’s extended narration of all of his high-profile relationships with patrons in The Life of Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus. These communities of patrons – at various times Woodhouse was patronised by social and aesthetic groups rather than individuals working in isolation – included not just Montagu but also William Shenstone (whose relationship with Woodhouse was much more positive), George Lyttelton and John Ward, 1st Viscount Dudley and Ward. 
Woodhouse is also concerned in the poem, however, with claiming various writers and thinkers as part of his intellectual and poetic ‘kin’. These include the philosopher Heraclitus and the satirist John Wolcot / Peter Pindar (both of whom Woodhouse salutes in the poem’s opening epigraphs, and thereafter), and the ‘Thresher Poet’ Stephen Duck (c.1705-56), who Woodhouse constructs as his labouring-class ancestor and poetic forebear. Yet The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus is arguably even more valuable, for its revelation of Woodhouse’s complex relation to his canonical poetic models – the ‘elders’ of his aesthetic community, as it were – and especially Pope and The Scriblerians. The enormous influence of Pope and Swift has already occasioned some critical controversy, in that existing models of the poetic influence of canonical writers upon the labouring-class poets have too often seen the latter only as either in thrall to, or in open rebellion from the former,2  therefore generating discussion of the ‘double-voicedness’ of labouring-class poetry.3  The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus is profoundly Popean in medium, consisting entirely of heroic couplets, and employing an obviously Popean satire, yet simultaneously articulates a political and theological philosophy completely at odds with Pope’s, narrating recollections of the events and thoughts of a life far removed from Pope’s own. Indeed, as the allusion to the Scriblerians in the poem’s title suggests, Woodhouse constructs a poetic alter-ego who is a meta-satiric / counter-satiric response to Scriblerian stereotypes of endlessly productive, verbose Grub-Street hacks, labouring through the night in order to escape their menial, artisanal occupations by seizing the opportunities provided by the emergent print culture of the day. This chapter argues, therefore, that The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, more so than any poem yet recuperated as part of the project of recent decades of critical recovery of eighteenth-century labouring-class poetry, demands that we arrive at models of poetic influence which embrace this contradictory, simultaneous homage and rejection of canonical models. To do so we must move beyond the existing paradigm of the ‘double-voiced’ quality of labouring-class verse, and towards recognition of Woodhouse’s engagement with his poetic and intellectual communities as truly contradictory, multiply-voiced and dialogic.

[1] David Higgins and John Whale, ‘Introduction to special issue: Contesting Creativity’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century, 34.2 (2011), 143-45 (p.143).

[2] See, for instance, Tim Burke, ‘Introduction’, in Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poetry, Volume III: 1780-1800, ed. by Tim Burke (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003), pp.xvii-xxxiv (p.xxvii). Burke bemoans the ‘rather familiar’ view that ‘envisages the labouring-class poet as striking two poses only. The first ... involves the author clinging, gratefully, to the coat-tails of high culture ... The second conceives of the author employing satire, parody or revision to subvert texts or genres which exclude matters of concern to the labouring classes.’

[3] See, for instance, Bridget Keegan, ‘Introduction’, in Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poetry, Volume II: 1740-1780, ed. by Bridget Keegan (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003), pp.xv-xxvii (p.xv-xvi).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSocial Networks in the Long Eighteenth Century
Subtitle of host publicationClubs, Literary Salons, Textual Coteries
EditorsIleana Baird
Place of PublicationNewcastle Upon Tyne
PublisherCambridge Scholars
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)1443866784, 978-1443866781
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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