A German acquaintance once observed that the English liked their poets to
have regional accents and their novelists to speak in ominiscient RP tones.
I know that accent isn't an accurate register of class, but likely he was
saying something about class, and perhaps implying the culture's uneasiness
It's significant, Michael, that you'd have to go back that far for a
positive take on middle-class poetry, and surely the term with respect to
Chaucer would mean something quite different - essentially the merchant
class, as would his work as a civil servant (though there I'm only
guessing). There's also a fair body of aristos to add in, as David was maybe
implying, from Wyatt and Surrey through to Rochester and Byron. Though after
that they seem to have kept to their castles. For the working class poets
prior to Blake and Clare they're mainly called Anon and include the Ballads.
Well, that's my 'potted history'.
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people used to make large statements about the novel being of the
middle-classes and poetry belonging to the top and bottom of society.
I'd be interested who you had in mind David, was it Northrop Frye?
In reply to Jamie, I can't indeed think of many exceptions to what you say,
but I do remember that Chaucer's middle-class-ness has often been acclaimed
as a positive virtue. Donald R. Howard, e.g., wrote inspiringly about that.
I also remember C.S Lewis speaking in praise of the middle classes as the
class that created (among much else) nearly all our literature. That was of
course just an assertion, when what is really needed is research. But given
that literacy hardly extended to the working classes until the mid-19th C,
it's a reasonable assumption that the body of English poetry that's been
written down is predominantly the work of middle-class authors.