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Creative and Critical Literary Responses to Enclosure Laws in Nineteenth-Century England

Authors: Lucien Meadows*, University of Denver
Topics: Cultural Geography, Rural Geography, Historical Geography
Keywords: literary geographies, enclosure, locality, poetry, laboring-class, peasant, England
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In the nineteenth century, the decline in rural topographical themes in British laboring-class poetry coincided with the rise of enclosure laws and resulting (sometimes forced) displacement and migration of these populations. Within the English county of Northamptonshire, as Briony McDonagh and Stephen Daniels note, 50-60% of the county was enclosed by straight roads and over 200,000 miles of planted single-species hedgerow from 1750 to 1850. Similarly, Rex Russell finds 3,400+ laws of English parliamentary enclosure enacted from 1750 to 1815, and these laws worked alongside other attacks on rural culture from 1780 to 1850, such as publications against and suppression of village feasts, plough plays, and Morris dancing.

Working in cultural geography and anthropology, McDonagh and Daniels, like literature scholars John Barrell, Janet Todd, and Alan Bewell, also cite the laboring-class British writer John Clare (1793-1864) to show how enclosure impacts identity and society, with implications visible in poetic verse. In particular, Bewell explores how Clare moved from lyric description of immediate natural experience to, after witnessing enclosure of his home village and surrounding lands, exile beyond existing alienation and displacement felt by laboring-class people or creatures of nature. Thus, this interdisciplinary cohort of scholars connects enclosure, geography, and locality to laboring-class identity.

Along with a review of Clare’s creative response to enclosure, this presentation will engage the critical editorials in newspapers and magazines of this period on enclosure as adjacent to Clare, other laboring-class poets, and their creative responses to this significant phenomenon.

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