Articles of interest
06th May 2021
Book in Focus
The Common Touch
Volume I: Popular Literature from the Elizabethans to the Restoration
Volume II: Popular Literature from 1660 to the Mid-Eighteenth Century
By Paul A. Scanlon and Adrian Roscoe
This two-volume anthology of English popular literature is intended to offer a fresh and more complete picture of an era of literary history hitherto dominated by an established literary canon.
Consequently, it is not meant to replace the existing texts that cover this tradition, but, rather, to be read alongside them.
During these eventful two hundred years, from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign to the middle of the eighteenth century, quite different levels of readership functioned in English society, though with an overlap that increased as generations passed. Because the privileged classes, with leisure and opportunity for learning and travel, generally preferred authors like Spenser, Jonson and Donne, who were steeped in the writings of Greece and Rome, an elitist literary canon emerged. This was all but inaccessible to the common man, who, by contrast, had inherited the medieval oral tradition—which was eagerly put to paper by a host of London printers and hack writers, who exploited a ready market in the city’s streets and inns, as well as in provincial towns and among rural folk.
However, in addition to reproducing this familiar material from an earlier age, the presses also introduced new and different forms of writing, including pamphlets, jest-books and chapbooks. Their topics were often of a contemporary nature, dealing with political and religious controversy, crime and the underworld, fashion and taste—whatever caught the eye of the general public. Sensational events had a great appeal, yet rarely lacked moral significance. Although both prose and verse were composed and published hastily, amidst all this frantic activity, the beginnings of the modern magazine and newspaper are clearly evident.
In the eighteenth century, however, with increasing middle-class literacy filtering down to servants and the poor, the gulf between the two traditions narrowed sharply. By the end of the century, with the rise of romanticism, the common man, as it were, came into his own. Indeed, it can be seen that poems like Stephen Duck’s The Thresher’s Labour and Mary Collier’s riposte The Woman’s Labour presage key elements of the Romantic Movement. Although not yet breaking with literary form (with the heroic couplet still remaining dominant), such pieces carry voices from the very heart of rural fields and lanes, echoing the experience of the labouring poor, their grinding work of planting and harvesting, and closeness to nature and seasonal rhythms. With its stress on the individual, emotion and lyricism, this writing turned its gaze from town to country, from high-born to low-born, and from men to women (and children), hinting at social protest and broadly setting the scene for the entry of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge.
It seems clear, therefore, that if modern scholarship is to provide a complete picture of literary activity during these years (from the beginning of the Elizabethan Age to the middle of the eighteenth century), then this substantial body of writing—formerly the concern mainly of antiquarians and specialist scholars—needs exposure and attention. Certainly, after immersion in both of these literary traditions, students, as well as the general reader, can only emerge better informed than they are at present.
Selections for university and college curricula and course textbooks have long been shaped and approved by generally accepted critical criteria. However, such criteria, like hemlines in dress or fads in diet, are sometimes fickle and prone to change. Romanticism generally dismissed the certainties of Pope and Dryden, and who among Donne’s contemporaries in the seventeenth century would have tipped him for acclaim in the twentieth?
Inclusion, as Ruskin reminds us, involves exclusion, and we can see that a great deal of writing during these times failed to be accepted into the literary canon. Sidney, Wyatt, Surrey, Pope, Dryden and Milton have succeeded, but the early chapbooks have not. Marlowe and Jonson are favoured, but not the Robin Hood playlets or even—extraordinarily—the comedy of Mucedorus, an all-time runaway hit unmatched until Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in modern times.
As such, The Common Touch fills out a picture hitherto incomplete. Among other types of popular literature, various ballads like “The Great Boobee,” “A Caveat for Cut-purses” and “The Cucking of a Scould” are included. Robin Hood’s exploits are also represented, as well as the folk comedy Mucedorus and excerpts from the Newgate chronicles. There is much fun and joking in D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth, and high adventure can be found in the tales of Captain Morgan and the Caribbean buccaneers.
The editors trust, then, that this anthology, with its concise sectional introductions, copious footnotes and extensive bibliography, will open new vistas on an era of history already celebrated for its more illustrious forms of literature.
Paul Scanlon was educated in Canada, the United States and Ireland, receiving a doctorate in English Literature from Trinity College, Dublin. He taught in various universities in different parts of the world, including Canada, the West Indies, Africa, Japan and the Middle East, and held chairs and deanships in several of them. His books and articles focus on South African writing, Elizabethan prose fiction and the eighteenth century novel. More recently, he has written two historical novels: The Princess Is No Lady, which follows the career of the ‘German Princess,’ and Jonathan Wild: Mob Boss, England’s most infamous thief-taker.
During a long international career, Adrian Roscoe held professorships of English in Oman, New Zealand, South Africa and Malawi, and a visiting professorship in British and African Literature in the State University of New York. His recent work includes The Columbia Guide to Central African Literature in English; Literacy, Literature and Identity; Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice (with Rahma Al-Mahrooqi); and Methodologies for Effective Writing Instruction in EFL and ESL Classrooms (with Rahma Al-Mahrooqi and Vijay Singh Thakur).
The Common Touch: Popular Literature from the Elizabethans to the Restoration, Volume I and The Common Touch: Popular Literature from 1660 to the Mid-Eighteenth Century, Volume II are available now in Hardback and Paperback formats at a special 25% promotional discount. Enter the code PROMO25 to redeem.