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William Wordsworth’s Definition of Poverty

  • Heidi J. Snow

…plus d’informations

  • Heidi J. Snow
    Principia College

In the index to Pamela Woof’s edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, a curious pattern appears. Under the entry for “Wordsworth, William” and the subheading “Writing,” Woof carefully notes each journal entry discussing William’s work with a poem. For most poems, Woof lists only one entry; for a few, she lists two or three. But for one poem, “The Pedlar,” later to become the section entitled “The Wanderer” in The Excursion and sometimes referred to as “The Ruined Cottage,” Woof chronicles eight entries. Woof’s summary of the journal entries, too, tells us something significant was happening with this particular poem:

Pedlar, The, (read, 24; in good spirits about, 50; ill with altering, 58; and tired with, 60,61, 62, 63; got to some ugly places, 65; worn out, D also, 67; W the worse for work, 70; disaster, 73; D re-writes, 74-75; read over and altered, 76; read to C, 81; arranged, D writes out, 280 lines of it, 118).

No other poem mentioned in these journals took such time or trouble. In her notes, Woof explains William Wordsworth’s concern with “The Pedlar”: “The poem was particularly close to W since, as he later told Miss Fenwick, the character of the Pedlar offered ‘an idea of what I fancied my own character might have become in his circumstances’ (PW v. 373): the Poet too loved wandering and observing human life” (214).

In the 1802 manuscript, the connection between the Pedlar and the author seems particularly clear. Crammed into the bottom of one page and the top of the next, five lines appear:

His history I from himself have heard
Full often after I grew up & he
Found in my heart as he would kindly say
A kindred heart to his. His father died
Could never be forgotten.

MS D, Transcription E, 65-68 and 107, editor’s italics [1]

Wordsworth, of course, had lost his own father, and the tenderness of the last line, “Could never be forgotten,” suggests one source of their “kindred hearts.” In a later version, he removed these lines, perhaps the most personal he ever wrote regarding his father’s death, replacing them with a less heartfelt version:

His history I from himself have heard
Full often, after I grew up, and he
Found in my heart, as he would kindly say,
A kindred heart to his. Among the hills
Of Perthshire he was born: his Father died
In poverty, and left three Sons behind.

MS E, 99-104

Between the idea of “kindred hearts” and his father’s death, Wordsworth has now inserted “Among the hills/ Of Perthshire he was born.” Instead of connecting the narrator and the Pedlar through a shared personal disaster, the poem now relates the two men through their common birthplace among the hills. It is this relationship to nature that Wordsworth wishes most to emphasize, not a personal history.

Like Wordsworth, the Pedlar felt the sublime power of the natural landscape as a child:

…He, many an evening, to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness, all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travell’d through the wood with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
So the foundations of his mind were laid.

MS E, 121-9

The imagery recalls several scenes in The Prelude—both the skating and the boat stealing episodes come to mind. It is clear from these lines of intense communion with nature, and the overall atmosphere of the entire poem, that Wordsworth does see the Pedlar as an example of what he might have been “in his circumstances.” But what is Wordsworth imagining exactly? When he says in his letter that it gives “an idea of what I fancied my own character might have become in his circumstances,” to what circumstance does he refer? And why would that circumstance be of interest to him?

The answer may lie in another pattern found in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal. Woof carefully annotates Dorothy’s meetings with two categories of people: “People Encountered on the Road” and “Poor People Who Call at DC.” If the entries are organized chronologically, with the Alfoxden entries preceding the Grasmere ones, a distinct pattern emerges. Most of the entries fall before Friday, June 18, 1802—fifteen for people on the road (with the exception of two or three all who are clearly vagrant) and twenty for poor people who call at Dove Cottage. Only one entry of either type exists after June 18, 1802. The date is significant: on that day, the Wordsworths received word that the long contested debt owed their family by the Earl of Londsdale was to be settled: “When we were sitting after Breakfast, William about to shave Luff came in. It was a sweet morning he had rode over the Fells—he brought news about Lord Lowther’s intention to pay all debts &c &c a letter from Mr. Clarkson” (110). It was indeed a sweet morning; the settlement was no small affair. Woof indicates that the Wordsworth family was to be paid ₤8500, all in one year (256) [2]. Their circumstances were about to change dramatically. The change seems to have brought about a shift in Dorothy’s attentions towards the poor as well. The poor could not have stopped appearing at their door or along the roads. Conditions in England became worse, not better, after 1802.

While this change raises some potentially troubling questions about her relationship to the poor, instead of focusing on Dorothy’s attitude after they received word of the settlement, I would like instead to turn to her attitude before this date. [3] What was it about Dorothy and William’s condition before June 18 that would make Dorothy note her encounters with the poor in such careful detail? I would argue that it is the same sensibility that makes William struggle with “The Pedlar” until Dorothy’s final journal entry of July 7, 1802 when suddenly something seems to have freed him to write 280 lines (118). That consciousness is their identification of themselves as poor; they see themselves in those they pass in the road. That identification in turn creates both a fascination and a fear that manifests itself in Dorothy’s careful notations and in William’s struggles with “The Pedlar.”

To modern, especially American, sensibilities, this identification seems a far stretch. Dove Cottage was a two-story house with an ample garden, and Dorothy and William employed two local laborers to help with both the house and the yard. But as Sarah Lloyd explains, this time period defined poverty more broadly than we might today. “Two definitions predominated,” she notes:

First, the poor were the destitute whose needs for discipline and sustenance were to be addressed either by voluntary donation or through statutory provision…. Second, the poor were a more general category of labourers toiling to create the nation’s wealth. This double definition overlay a tenacious belief in inherited status which underpinned the concept of the genteel poor, those unable to live according to the expectations of their rank. And it tended to supersede a long-established Christian tradition, reasserted by John Wesley, that the poor formed a spiritual category, closer to salvation than the rich and respectable.


Despite Lloyd’s assertion that two definitions are at work here, I see four in her description: 1) the destitute, 2) the labourers who have to work for a living, 3) those who are “unable to live according to the expectation of their rank,” and 4) the spiritually rich but materially poor who are closer to heaven. Of these four categories, Dorothy and William, before June 1802, would have certainly identified with the third category. In January of 1795, William’s friend Raisley Calvert had died, leaving William ₤900. Calvert’s estate paid out the money sporadically (Gill and Wu 84), and by 1802, most of the money must have been gone. Had William received simply the interest at the usual five percent rate, the annual income would have been ₤45. If, as is more likely, the money was distributed to him evenly over the course of the years, it would have amounted to a little less than ₤130 per year. The only other income he seems to have earned in the meantime was ₤80 for the sale of Lyrical Ballads (EY, 244) and ₤50 a year as long as they took care of Basil Montague to cover his upkeep (Hebron 33). Edward Copeland explains the type of living one could expect on such an income:

₤100 a year: this is the lowest income that can support the price of a ticket to a circulating library. It embraces poor curates, clerks in government office (both only marginally genteel), and moderately prosperous tradesmen. It could supply a family only with a young maid servant, and at a very low wage.


In July of 1798, Dorothy places their expenses at £110 for the last year with one servant (EY 197). Yet for some of these years, William and Dorothy had two servants. As Copeland notes,

Numbers of servants mark incomes at the lower levels….Servants, an unfamiliar reckoning device these days, might be considered as the equivalent of modern household conveniences….


Living at the level at which Dorothy and William were living in 1802, it’s safe to assume that their money was about to run out if it had not already. Reflecting back upon this period in later years, William wrote, “we had at that time little to live upon” (EY 463). Combining their two settlement amounts, at the usual 5% of the day, the interest on the money would give them around ₤200, an amount that “makes a claim to gentility, but only with the narrowest style of life” (Copeland 135). [4]

Most likely, Dorothy and William would have wanted to identify themselves with Lloyd’s fourth category, those who are materially poor but spiritually wealthy. And Bruce Graver has also pointed out William’s desire to identify with the second group, to see his poetry as labor [5]. One can see, then, that from many different aspects of the definition of the poor, Dorothy and William would have been able to think of themselves as poor, and society in general would have labeled them as such.

Dorothy’s journals and both their letters describe vividly how the two felt their financial existence to be extremely precarious. With the word “poor” shared by both the genteel poor and the destitute, it was not a far slip in their imagination to see themselves as potentially destitute. At times, they had to borrow money to cover their daily expenses, and they both loaned money to and borrowed from Coleridge occasionally. As early as 1795, when Dorothy and William make plans to settle at Racedown, Dorothy articulates the importance of the move in a letter to her friend, Jane Pollard. The move will be good for William in that it will give him a settled place to work,

and on my account that it will greatly contribute to my happiness and place me in such a situation that I shall be doing something, it is a painful idea that one’s existence is of very little use which I really have always been obliged to feel; above all it is painful when one is living upon the bounty of one’s friends, a resource of which misfortune may deprive one and then how irksome and difficult is it to find out other means of support, the mind is then unfitted, perhaps for any new exertions, and continues always in a state of dependence, perhaps attended with poverty.

EY 141, her italics

Having to rely upon others is a mental drain as well as a physical one. It acts in a way that dulls all activity and places one at risk of poverty. Despite Dorothy’s hopes for independence at Racedown, however, their situation did not dramatically improve, and they continued to be in need of money.

In a clear example of the kind of dependence she deplored, in 1801 Dorothy writes repeatedly to her brother Richard asking for ten pounds promised her by her seafaring brother John and payable by Richard. She has bills to pay, and she is anxious about the money. Perhaps the most poignant of Dorothy’s appeals comes in her letter to Richard on June 10, 1802, just days before they learn that the Earl’s debts are finally to be settled. William is about to be married. Though she knows she can count on William and Mary to keep her in their home, she is also acutely conscious of the fact that the home that has been hers and Williams is about to become theirs and that as a single woman, she will be dependent on their goodwill. She tells Richard that while she trusts her brothers to care for her, she does wish to state her needs clearly:

With sixty pounds a year I should not fear any accidents or changes which might befall me. I cannot look forward to the time when, with my habits of frugality, I could not live comfortably on that sum (Observe I am speaking now, of a provision or settlement for life, and it would be absurd at my age (30 years) to talk of any thing else). At present with 60 pounds per ann. I should have something to spare to exercise my better feelings in relieving the necessities of others I might buy a few books, take a journey now and then—all which things though they do not come under the article of absolute necessaries, you will easily perceive that it is highly desireable that a person of my age and with my education should occasionally have in her power. As to the mode of doing this for me, I will say no more than that it seems to be absolutely necessary, to give it any effect, that it should as much as possible, be independent of accidents of death or any other sort that may befall you or any of my Brothers, its principal object being to make me tranquil in my mind with respect to my future life.

EY, 299-300

Something of Dorothy’s fears of poverty can be seen in the last lines. The money is needed to make her mind tranquil, something it is not in early June. Until they receive the windfall from the Earl’s estate, they are, according to the broader definitions in operation in the day, poor. They are not living at the standard expected of their class, and the fear of destitution underpins Dorothy’s letter.

This complex attitude towards the poor, a sense of identification and fear, is reflected in her journal. It contains a range of responses from a simple entry on November 16, 1801, “Two Beggars today,” to much longer and more detailed accounts (39). Read together, one after another, her journal entries of these encounters paint a picture of a country filled with struggling vagrants: “At Rydale a woman of the village, stout & well-dressed, begged a halfpenny—she had never she said done it before—but these hard times!” (1). “As I was going out in the morning I met a half crazy old man. He shewed me a pincushion, & begged a pin, afterwards a halfpenny” (3). “A little girl from Coniston came to beg. She had lain out all night—her step-mother had turn’d her out of doors. Her father could not stay at home ‘She flights so’” (3). “A poor Girl called to beg who had no work at home & was going in search of it to Kendal. She slept in Mr. Bensons Lathe…” (9). “On Tuesday, May 27th, a very tall woman, tall much beyond the measure of tall women, called at the door…She led a little bare footed child about 2 years old by the hand & said her husband who was a tinker was gone before with the other children. I gave her a piece of Bread” (9-10). “We met near Skelleth a pretty little Boy with a wallet over his shoulder he came from Hawkshead & was going to ‘late’ a lock of meal. He spoke gently & without complaint. When I asked him if he got enough to eat he looked surprized & said ‘Nay.’ He was 7 years old but seemed not more than 5” (11). The effect of even these short accounts is overwhelming. No one seems exempt from “these hard times” in which a boy would be surprised at the idea of having enough to eat. Those on the margins of society—women, children, and the insane—seem to be the most common victims of poverty.

Also striking in these entries is the lack of moral judgment on the poor. In only a few places does Dorothy seem to draw any conclusions about those she encounters. The “pretty little Boy” does speak “gently & without complaint,” a quality Dorothy refers to with respect. After she meets the very tall woman, she overtakes her two boys who beg for money and try to tell her that their mother is dead, but, she writes, “I persisted in my assertion & that I would give them nothing” (10). But even her disapprobation of their lying is softened at the end of the entry when she sees the family again:

On my return through Ambleside I met in the street the mother driving her asses; in the two Panniers of one of which were the two little children whom she was chiding & threatening with a wand which she used to drive on her asses, while the little things hung in wantonness over the Panniers edge. The woman had told me in the morning that she was of Scotland…that they could not keep a house, & so they travelled.


It is as if Dorothy cannot remain upset with the boys for lying to her; she must in the end place them emotionally under the care of their mother as “little things” and place them physically without a home, forced into vagrancy.

If any moral element enters in these scenes, it seems to lie in a requirement of generosity on the part of those who have something to give to those who have nothing:

As we came up the White Moss we met an old man, who I saw was a beggar by his two bags hanging over his shoulder, but from a half laziness, half indifference & wanting to try him if he would speak I let him pass. He said nothing, & my heart smote me. I turned back and said You are begging? ‘Ay’ says he—I gave him a halfpenny.


Dorothy’s indifference indicates how common an occurrence it must be to pass a beggar in the road. She is temporarily tempted into forcing the disparity between their places in the social strata, to make him be the one to beg rather than she the one to offer help. But her conscience, her recognition of their common humanity and perhaps their connection as the poor in society, strikes at her heart, and she must turn back. She may feel poor, she may be afraid of destitution, but she also feels an obligation to help those who are in worse straits than she is.

Gary Harrison places William Wordsworth, and consequently one presumes Dorothy, in the middle class and suggests that the shifting perspective offered in William’s poetry stems from general conditions in society, in “the precarious and arbitrary nature of the self in a society that exposes individuals to political, economic and social flux” (58). It is true that in terms of class, the two belonged to the middle class. But poverty was not limited to class, as Lloyd’s identification of the fallen gentry indicates, and the general insecurity of the middle class in the Wordsworths’ day does not explain entirely their close identification with the poor. Before June of 1802, when Dorothy and William see the poor, they see people like themselves or those they love. The identification is not abstract or based on general societal conditions. On March 15, 1802, a destitute sailor calls at their house and shares horror stories of his time on board a slave ship. But as disturbing as the stories of the slave ship are, Dorothy relates them without much emotion. The most moving section of the account comes at the end when the sailor tells them how

he had called at a farmhouse to beg victuals & had been refused. The woman said she would give him nothing—‘Won’t you? Then I cant help it.’ He was excessively like my Brother John.


Certainly the resemblance may have stemmed from the fact that John was a sailor, but the pathos of the last lines lies in the juxtaposition of the helplessness of “Won’t you?” and the similarity she sees with John. This compassionate identification with the poor surfaces again in her entry for February 12, 1802 when a poor woman and her son come to their house to beg. Dorothy notes that her looks have declined and that her son, “whom I have loved for the sake of Basil, looks thin & pale” (67). Here, as with the sailor, she makes a connection between a beggar and someone she loves, and she concludes her description:

When the woman was gone, I could not help thinking that we are not half thankful enough that we are placed in that condition of life in which we are. We do not so often bless god for this as we wish for this 50₤ that 100₤ &c &c. We have not, however to reproach ourselves with ever breathing a murmur. This woman’s was but a common case.

67, her italics

In this passage, the poor woman acts as a double reminder—she reminds Dorothy of their own want, their own wishing for more, and she acts as a rebuff, a message that their case could be worse. It could be a common case of vagrancy.

One entry in particular shows some of Dorothy’s terror of this common case. Dorothy describes a woman met along the road 4 May 1802, just months before she will learn that her own poverty will end soon:

On the Rays we met a woman with 2 little girls one in her arms the other about 4 years old walking by her side, a pretty little thing, but half starved. She had on a pair of slippers that had belonged to some gentlemans child, down at the heels, but it was not easy to keep them on—but, poor thing! young as she was, she walked carefully with them. The Mother when we accosted her told us that her Husband had left her and gone off with another woman & how she ‘pursued’ them. Then her fury kindled & her eyes rolled about. She changed again to tears. She was a Cockermouth woman—30 years of age a child at Cockermouth when I was—I was moved & gave her a shilling, I believe 6d more than I ought to have given. We had the Crescent moon with the ‘auld moon in her arms’—We rested often.


The detail of the account is striking. The girl’s shoes and her attempts to walk in them, the rolling of the mother’s eyes—these details show Dorothy’s intense attention to the scene before her. Dorothy seems drawn to the woman—she and William accosted her, after all—and very little distance between the woman and Dorothy already exists by the time Dorothy reaches the startling revelation that the woman grew up in the same town she had, that they were children there at the same time. The similarities between the two of them move Dorothy to give more than she should—not more than the woman needed certainly, since Dorothy notes that they are nearly starving, but more than she believes she and William can afford in May of 1802. There but for the grace of God go I, her philanthropy seems to say. The cradling comfort of the moon becomes sorely needed, and they must rest often to recover and to be consoled by the motherly lunar image.

The poor are ever with them, and because of their own precarious situation, they make connections between themselves and the poor. The sailor like John, the boy like Basil, the woman like Dorothy—all of these vagrants act as mirrors that reflect back their own poverty. In like manner, “The Pedlar” disturbs and disrupts William because of his own fear of destitution. William works to position himself in relation to the Pedlar in the 1802 draft, to find the affinities he wishes to have reverberate between the two characters. Would poverty be the final correspondence between the two men? Once that fear is removed, William can write 280 lines for Dorothy to copy out.

But it is not only in “The Pedlar” that we see this tendency to identify with the poor. It emerges in many of William Wordsworth’s early poems. In particular, “The Last of the Flock” not only expresses his concern with poverty, it demonstrates his desire to expand the definition of poverty even beyond the categories Lloyd ascribes to the era. In the poem, the narrator encounters a shepherd carrying a Lamb in his arms. Wordsworth underscores the decidedly Christian imagery by noting that the shepherd’s “cheeks with tears were wet:/ Sturdy he seemed, though he was sad” (8, 9). The narrator asks for an explanation of the tears, and the shepherd explains how he once had a strong and growing flock, “Full fifty comely sheep I raised” (33). But now, hard times have reduced his flock:

—This lusty Lamb of all my store
Is all that is alive;
And now I care not if we die,
And perish all of poverty.


As the man explains his hard situation, which has brought him beyond material poverty to a spiritual one of indifference toward his own life, he tells how the parish he turned to for help denied his plea:

They said, I was a wealthy man;
My sheep upon the uplands fed,
And it was fit that there I took
Whereof to buy us bread.
‘Do this: how can we give to you,’
They cried, ‘what to the poor is due?’


The Anglican parish operates under the first definition of the poor (as I have sub-divided Lloyd’s categories)—those who are destitute. They cannot operate under the second definition, those who labor, because they would not then have enough resources for the destitute. In particular, the parish argues, because the shepherd owns property, he cannot be defined as poor. The shepherd also does not fit the third definition since he is not gentility. The parish does not seem to concern itself with the fourth definition, spiritual wealth through poverty, though Wordsworth’s Biblical imagery and his concern for the man’s mental state indicate that he does want to address that last category. Property, according to the parish, constitutes the dividing line between the poor who need help and those who do not. And the shepherd has property.

Wordsworth’s portrayal of such a man could have been founded upon examples he and Dorothy had seen in their own area. On June 20, 1800, Dorothy records the visit of a beggar:

On Wednesday evening a poor man called, a hatter—he had been long ill, but was now recovered & his wife was lying-in of her 4th child. The parish would not help him because he had implements of trade &c—&c—We gave him 6d.


Like William’s shepherd, this man cannot receive the aid he needs from the parish because he owns property, in this case his tools.

Such situations as the hatter and his shepherd faced apparently affected Wordsworth deeply. The shepherd’s struggles with his poverty lie in the conflict between two powerful loves, the love of his property—his flock—and the love of his children. He has had to sell his flock one by one to feed his family, with spiritually devastating effects:

Sir! ‘twas a precious flock to me,
As dear as my own children be;
For daily with my growing store
I loved my children more and more.
Alas! It was an evil time;
God cursed me in my sore distress;
I prayed, yet every day I thought
I loved my children less;
And every week, and every day,
My flock it seemed to melt away.


His time of plenty deepens his affection towards his children, but his decreasing property, the other home of his affection, causes him to look at his children with resentment, a feeling that he recognizes as a growing evil. Wordsworth underscores the man’s helplessness and the inevitability of the situation: “My flock it seemed to melt away.” The process becomes almost natural; like snow before the sun, his property disappears before the power of poverty. Unspoken in this line, and thus more powerful for its absence, is the fact that his love for his children must also be melting away from the same irresistible force. Poverty destroys property but it also destroys love.

The spiritual destitution of the man resounds as the greatest evil in the poem. Not only does poverty create a chasm between the shepherd and his children, it leads him to contemplate “wicked deeds” (71). The deeds remain unnamed, and, in the light of his admission about his attitude toward death, horrifying. Does he intend evil toward himself or his children or others? The reader cannot be sure, but the shepherd believes everyone who sees him knows what he is thinking:

And every man I chanced to see
I thought he knew some ill of me;
No peace, no comfort could I find,
No ease, within doors or without;
And crazily and wearily
I went my work about;
And oft was moved to flee from home,
And hide my head where wild beasts roam.


So severe is his mental turmoil, he cannot find relief even among his sheep but must look among wild animals, for his love for his sheep condemns him for his growing resentment toward his children.

In fact, in his 1801 letter to Charles James Fox, which accompanied a gift of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth complains that “the most calamitous effect, which has followed the measures which have lately been pursued in this country, is a rapid decay of the domestic affections among the lower orders of society” (EY 260). More specifically, as we see from the poem, all this evil occurs because those who control the relief of poverty operate within too narrow a definition. The contemporary attitudes towards the poor and the legislative actions deemed appropriate to deal with them only make the problem worse, as Wordsworth tells Fox:

The evil would be the less to be regretted, if these institutions were regarded only as palliatives to a disease; but the vanity and pride of their promoters are so subtly interwoven with them, that they are deemed great discoveries and blessings to humanity. In the meantime parents are separated from their children, and children from their parents…

EY 261

Wordsworth argues for better treatment for the poor—in particular, for a broader definition, one that will recognize that an owner of property can still be poor. Wordsworth’s own perceived poverty brings him into alliance with the poor shepherd of the “Last of the Flock.” He is not a freeholder. But this positioning is still no conceit in his eyes. It stems from his own precarious situation before 1802.

Both Dorothy’s journal accounts of the poor and William’s intense psychological proximity to his poor shepherd in “The Last of the Flock” indicate that identification with the poor brought the two of them to see the indigent they encountered in powerfully personal ways. Because they defined themselves as poor, others who suffered from poverty moved them. For Harrison,

…Wordsworth’s poetry often moves up close to the poor, leaving behind a troubling sense that this visit to the Other enacts a return of the repressed—a confrontation with more than just a spectacle of poverty, but with an empowered pauper who holds a mirror up to the reader’s own impoverishment.


But that closeness Harrison notices comes not from the view of the Other but from Wordsworth’s view of himself in his fellow poor man. It is not only the reader’s impoverishment that is held up to the mirror; it is Wordsworth’s own.

Parties annexes