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Labor, Leisure, and the Yeoman in Coleridge's and Wordsworth's 1790s Writings

  • Daniel S. Malachuk

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  • Daniel S. Malachuk
    Daniel Webster College

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In his Politics, Aristotle described how the labor of slaves and women in the oikos enables citizens to have the leisure necessary to act with virtue in the polis. James Harrington, the most important of the seventeenth-century English republican philosophers, developed this same idea in his Oceana (1656). As J.G.A. Pocock argued in his seminal study of the modern republican tradition, The Machiavellian Moment, "the end of land [in Oceana] is not profit but leisure: the opportunity to act in the public realm or assembly, to display virtue" (390). As Pocock and other historians have shown, Harrington's ideas formed the basis of an eighteenth-century "country republican" tradition, emphasizing the necessity of rural leisure for the ruling class to cultivate civic virtue. [1]

Rural physical labor, too, was associated with virtue in the eighteenth century, though a moral rather than a political virtue, as those who labored were generally not yet recognized as political beings. Through the middle of the eighteenth century, republican theorists, at least, retained a highly elitist understanding of the nature of rule. This changed though with the new interest in democracy in the late eighteenth century. Republicans schooled in Harrington were faced with the question of increased participation in the commonwealth, and those that believed in democracy began to imagine how everyone—every free white man, that is—could cultivate the civic virtue necessary for participation in government. Where Harrington's landed citizen would have relied upon a class of laborers to cultivate his property (just as Aristotle's citizens had), the democratic republicans of the eighteenth century described a citizen who not only held land but also worked that land himself. For these democratic republicans, rural labor, like rural leisure, came to signify political virtue, and the figure in which both politicized labor and leisure could be found was the yeoman farmer.

Highly compelling in this way, the yeoman was nevertheless a politically unstable figure, for the meanings of his leisure and of his labor could easily drift in opposite directions. Leisure, after all, had always been the province of the few, and it had time-honored associations with a conservative rural—that is, anti-urban and anti-commercial—elitism. In contrast, labor had long stood for the moral (though not political) worth of the humble working man. Its politicization in the late eighteenth century represented one of the most progressive developments in republican theory. Because of this unstable combination within the figure of the yeoman, commentators have often been perplexed by the politics ascribed to this figure by late-eighteenth-century writers: the debates that have centered upon the significance of Rousseau's yeoman, say, or Jefferson's, come immediately to mind. This essay examines the equally complex status of the yeoman in the political thought of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s.

While little criticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge has focused primarily on the yeoman in their writings, scholars have thoroughly established the republicanism of these two writers in the early 1790s. [2] And, until recently, there was also consensus among scholars that this republicanism ended with the Terror and Wordsworth's and Coleridge's subsequent "apostasy," as E.P. Thompson put it (176). By and large, this remains the view of Coleridge: progressive democrat before the Terror, reactionary elitist after. But the same is not true of Wordsworth: the major criticism of the last two decades has argued either for the poet's early conservatism or his late progressivism. [3] Focusing on the status of the yeoman in these two authors' 1790s writings, I reach the opposite conclusion in both cases: that when it comes to Wordsworth, Thompson's thesis basically still makes sense—but not actually when it comes to Coleridge. That is, while both Wordsworth and Coleridge began the decade committed to the yeoman and the republican principles he symbolized, by the decade's end only Coleridge did. For Wordsworth by the mid-nineties, the yeoman's leisure took on only moral (rather than political) significance. Coleridge, in contrast, continued to understand leisure in the political, republican sense: as the basis for civic reflection and action. By the end of the decade, however, Coleridge concluded that the overworked yeoman was incapable of converting what little free time he had into true civic virtue, and Coleridge therefore began to examine means other than propertied leisure for realizing one's political worth, such as a free press and (later) a clerisy.

This focus on the status of the yeoman throughout the 1790s writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge, then, reveals two things. One is that republican theory remained a vibrant tradition at the turn of the century in the hands of Coleridge, who sought to articulate new means, other than propertied leisure, for citizens to realize their political existence. Coleridge's work was consequently invaluable to nineteenth-century liberals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold, who, while committed to newer liberal ideas like progress, individualism, and the extension of rights to more people, continued to value the same old civic virtues at the heart of the republican tradition. A second thing revealed by this focus on the yeoman is the evaporation by the mid-nineties of any constructive political program in Wordsworth's writings, due to his new and exclusively moral understanding of leisure. Instead, Wordsworth's writings, while suggestive morally (to Mill and Arnold, not least), provided nineteenth-century liberals with nothing in political terms beyond a critique of their emerging liberalism, what I will call in conclusion a "country" rhetoric that was also heard in writers like Carlyle and Cobbett.

Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Yeoman in the Early 1790s

Wordsworth went to Switzerland in 1790 with an idealized understanding of the yeoman, partly from his youth among the "statesmen" as they were known in the Lake country (Johnston 22-25), partly from his reading of Rousseau's and Montesquieu's descriptions of the Swiss shepherds (Chard 96). Writing to his sister from Keswill on Lake Constance on September 6, 1790, Wordsworth expressed his disappointment with the Swiss citizens he had actually met but concluded that "it must be remembered that we have had little to do but with innkeepers, and those corrupted by perpetual intercourse with strangers [. . .]." "[H]ad we been able to speak the language [. . .] and had time to insinuate ourselves into their cottages," he surmised, "we should probably have had as much occasion to admire the simplicity of their lives as the beauties of their country" (Early Letters 35).

The Swiss shepherd was of course a popular idea among the revolutionary French, too, as this passage from the republican Bishop Grégoire suggests, delivered in a sermon which Wordsworth, on his second trip to France, most likely attended in Blois on March 3, 1792:

On the brow of the mountains of [. . .] the Alps one often still finds man in all his dignity, gifted with exquisite reason, manly virtue, and even crowned with broad understanding; [. . .] it is [. . .] there that at the head or the rear of his flocks he marches carrying a sword, a crook, and some books.

qtd. in Johnston 307-08

At the time, Wordsworth was finishing his Descriptive Sketches (1791-92) memorializing his earlier European tour, and his description of the shepherd-citizen follows Grégoire's closely. Wordsworth describes Rousseau's first man: "nature's child" disdainful of all above him except God and doing "all he wish'd and wish'd but what he ought" (521, 525). Then he describes the contemporary Swiss citizen, who retains "traces of primaeval Man":

The native dignity no forms debase,
The eye-sublime, and surly lion-grace.
The slave of none, of beasts alone the lord,
He marches with his flute, his book, and sword
[. . .]


The distinctive emphases of the yeoman ideal—represented by his implements of both labor and leisure—are both obvious here. [4]

The idealized shepherd shows up again in Wordsworth's unpublished 1793 letter to a different bishop, the Bishop Watson of Llandaff. Bishop Watson had protested the execution of Louis XVI in a January 1793 sermon, and, in response, Wordsworth wrote a vigorous (though never mailed) defense of the Jacobins in either February or June of the same year. His letter emphasizes the same points Harrington did about the agrarian—including a deistic understanding of the republic within the cosmos, the nearly sacred importance of self-governance, and the indispensability of a rotating Parliament (Chard 83-91)—but Wordsworth's most passionate prose is dedicated to a defense of the people's ability to choose virtuous representatives (pace Watson's skepticism), his final proof being the Swiss shepherd. "[G]overnments formed on [a representative republican] plan," he argues, "proceed in a plain and open manner [. . .]. [A]nd, at the same time, as it would no longer be their interest to keep the mass of the nation in ignorance, a moderate portion of useful knowledge would be universally disseminated. If your lordship has travelled in the democratic cantons of Switzerland you must have seen the herdsman with the staff in one hand and the book in the other" (Prose 39). Proof, in short, of the shepherd's civic virtue and his republican readiness for representative democracy can be found in both his honest labor and his reflective leisure, symbolized by his staff and book.

Thanks to his and Robert Southey's letters in the early 1790s about "pantisocracy," Coleridge's youthful commitment to the yeoman is even better known than Wordsworth's. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge had read the important French sources, particularly Rousseau (Holmes 62). Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge had also read many popular reports about life in late-century America, most of which exaggerated the amount of leisure time enjoyed by independent farmers there. [5] The Girondist J.P. Brissot de Warville in his Travels in the United States (1794), for example, noted with some disappointment that while "[a] man in that country works scarcely two hours in a day for the support of himself and family[,] he passes most of his time in idleness, hunting or drinking" (qtd. in Eugenia 1072). (Coleridge would later cite Brissot at length on the duty of Spartan living in a February 1795 lecture [Lectures 45].) The ample leisure of the yeoman was essential to Coleridge's and Southey's vision of pantisocracy, for they believed that during this leisure time the yeoman would be engaged in the civic reflections and actions required for effective self-governance, as Thomas Poole, their older friend and experienced Devonshire farmer, reported in a September 22, 1794 letter:

Twelve gentlemen of good education and liberal principles are to embark with twelve ladies in April next [. . .]. [Coleridge and Southey's] opinion was that they should settle in a delightful part of the new back settlements; that each man would labor two or three hours in a day, the produce of which labor would, they imagine, be more than sufficient to support the colony [. . .]. The produce of their industry is to be paid up in common for the use of all; and a good library is to be collected, and their leisure hours are to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children [. . .].

qtd. in Eugenia 1072

In Southey's vision of pantisocracy, leisure and labor are equal signs of the political worthiness of the enterprise: "When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics; criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plow" (Southey 72).

Wordsworth's Yeoman and Coleridge's Republicanism in the Late 1790s

Crossing into the late 1790s, we now find a very different Wordsworth, at least if we remain focused on the status of the yeoman in his writing. For while Wordsworth continues to emphasize the importance of leisure to the yeoman, that leisure is no longer political (as signified once by the book and sword, for example) but moral, dedicated strictly to the cultivation of domestic affections. [6] The point can be made most efficiently by citing two letters Wordsworth wrote to others (in 1801, actually) about Lyrical Ballads. In a January 14, 1801 letter to Charles James Fox, Wordsworth asks the leading Whig MP to turn his attention to the "rapid decay of the domestic affections among the lower orders of society" (Early Letters 260). Wordsworth traces this decay to the spread of manufactures throughout the country, heavy war taxes, and the new welfare state, including workhouses and soup-shops. "[T]he bonds of domestic feeling among the poor," he argues, "have been weakened, and in innumerable instances entirely destroyed" (261). Wordsworth then explains to Fox that this great loss is what he hoped to capture in two poems in particular:

In the two poems, 'The Brothers' and 'Michael' I have attempted to draw a picture of the domestic affections as I know they exist amongst a class of men who are now almost confined to the north of England. They are small independent proprietors of land here called statesmen, men of respectable education who daily labour on their own little properties. The domestic affections will always be strong amongst men who live in a country not crowded with population, if these men are placed above property. But if they are proprietors of small estates, which have descended to them from their ancestors, the power which these affections will acquire amongst such men is inconceivable by those who have only had an opportunity of observing hired labourers, farmers, and the manufacturing Poor. Their little tract of land serves as a kind of permanent rallying point for their domestic feelings [. . .]. This class of men is rapidly disappearing.


That Wordsworth was particularly interested in his poetic portrait of the yeoman or statesman is also apparent in a letter he wrote Thomas Poole later that year, April 9, to inquire if "Michael" in fact hit the mark:

I have attempted to give a picture of a man, of strong mind and lively sensibility, agitated by two of the most powerful affections of the human heart; the parental affection, and the love of property, landed property, including the feelings of inheritance, home, and personal and family independence. This Poem has, I know, drawn tears from the eyes of more than one—persons well acquainted with the manners of the Statesmen, as they are called, of this country; and, moreover persons who never wept, in reading verse, before. This is a favourable augury for me. But nevertheless I am anxious to know the effect of this Poem upon you, on many accounts; because you are yourself the inheritor of an estate which has long been in possession of your family; and, above all, because you are so well acquainted, so familiarly conversant with the language, manners, and feeling of the middle order of people who dwell in this country.

Early Letters 266-67

In 1801 what matters about the yeoman to Wordsworth are his "affections," a domestic sensibility which includes "the feelings of [. . .] independence." Where independence in 1792-93 had meant the guarantee of civic virtue, symbolized in the book and sword, Wordsworth now views independence as a rare and valuable feeling whose loss is to be regretted on moral grounds but not political ones. Like a country republican, Wordsworth recognizes the threat of modernity to rural virtues; however, Wordsworth seems no longer interested in the once concomitant ideal of self-government, only in the private cultivation of domestic affections.

There would seem to be ample evidence in his late 1790s letters and poetry that Coleridge remained as preoccupied with the yeoman as Wordsworth. In the fall of 1796, in particular, when he was planning his new life as a farmer in Stowey, Coleridge becomes almost delirious about yeoman life. [7] But in his lectures, if not in his day-to-day life, Coleridge was in fact rapidly moving beyond the yeoman ideal, imagining different ways in which a democratic republic could work. I will conclude first by showing that even the pantisocratic Coleridge of the early 1790s recognized the limitations of the yeoman ideal and second by showing that by 1795-96 Coleridge was explaining ways all citizens—with or without land—could enjoy a politicized leisure, foreshadowing the more sophisticated republicanism found in The Friend (1809-10) and On the Constitution of Church and State (1829).

After meeting Southey in July 1794 at Cambridge and then heading west on a walking tour of Wales, Coleridge makes clear his boyish enthusiasm for pantisocracy in the letters to his new partner, opening his missives with "Health and Republicanism" and closing them with "Farewell, sturdy Republican" and "Fraternity & civic Remembrances" (Letters 1: 84-85). In a series of passionate letters to Southey in the fall, Coleridge reveals this interest in pantisocracy to be more about democratic republicanism than about a yeoman fantasy. In an October 21 letter, Coleridge questions Southey's decision to give restricted roles in the pantisocratic community to women and servants. "I should assent to this innovation," Coleridge writes, and "I will most assuredly go with you to America on this Plan—but remember, Southey! this is not our Plan—nor can I defend it" (114). Coleridge cites Southey's reasoning—"'Let them dine with us and be treated with as much equality as they would wish [. . .] but perform that part of labor for which their Education has fitted them'"—and then critically asks, "[i]s every Family to possess one of these Unequal Equals—these Helot Egalité-s? Or are the few, you have mentioned [. . .] to do for all of us 'that part of Labor which their Education has fitted them for'" (114)? Coleridge himself cannot accept Southey's conservative roles for servants and women. Coleridge's progressive view is that, provided with the proper leisure time, all men and women are capable of civic virtue. This is clear also in his suggestion in the same letter that the men assist in traditional woman's work in order to allow women time to develop themselves, too: "and what will that all be—? Washing with a Machine and cleaning the House. One Hour's addition to our daily Labor—and Pantisocracy in its most perfect Sense is practicable" (114).

Coleridge repeats his democratic commitments in an October 23 letter: everyone in the community must "be incessantly meliorating their Tempers and elevating their understandings," and all must be educated, including the mothers lest the children be "tinged with the prejudices and errors of Society" (119). In a November 3 letter Coleridge worries again about the status of servants. "Oxen and Horses," he writes, "possess not intellectual Appetites—nor the powers of acquiring them." He continues:

We are therefore Justified in employing their Labor to our own Benefit [. . .]. But who shall dare to transfer this Reasoning from 'from Man to Brute' to 'from Man to man'! To be employed in the Toil of the Field while We are pursuing philosophical Studies—can Earldoms or Emperorships boast so huge an Inequality?


What Coleridge realized as early as 1794 is that the yeoman ideal was a perhaps unworkable combination of labor and leisure, one in which labor inevitably dominated the equation unless traditional elitist measures were taken to ensure the leisure of the few. And so, unlike Wordsworth or Southey, Coleridge began by 1794 to reject the yeoman ideal, and by 1795 he began to theorize different means by which a democratic polis might be realized. In some lectures given at the height of his opposition to the war against France in February and March 1795, later published in December as Conciones ad populum, Coleridge argues that it is everyone's duty to speak truth, "especially at these times, when to speak Truth is dangerous" (Lectures 27). The reason for this, he writes,

confirms the regulation of the Athenian lawgiver [Solon], which ordained, that it should be infamous for a Man, who had reached the years of discretion, not to have formed an opinion concerning the state of affairs in his country, and treasonable, having formed one, not to propagate it by every legal mean in his power.


Coleridge concludes with this call to action:

Are we men? Freemen? rational men? And shall we carry on this wild and priestly War against reason, against freedom, against human nature? If there be one among you, who departs from me without feeling it his immediate duty to petition or remonstrate against it, I envy that man neither his head or his heart!


Nowhere in this 1795 pamphlet does Coleridge describe the ideal yeoman in rural isolation; everywhere he describes how free citizens must use their leisure time for political action.

How, though, are citizens to form political opinions if they do not have the leisure guaranteed by private property? The six Lectures on Revealed Religion of May and June 1795, based on Coleridge's extensive reading in republican sources at the time, begin to answer this question. In the second lecture, Coleridge explains how the ancient republican Jews received from God not only land (Lectures 125) but instruction (via the Levites) (136-37), because their freeheld land was actually not enough to guarantee their civic virtue. In an interesting anticipation of his argument in On the Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge argues that the priestly caste was necessary, for "before the Art of printing was discovered, when knowledge was vastly more difficult of attainment than it is at present, it became necessary that a number of men should be set apart whose business it might be to acquire such knowledge—that otherwise they could not be Teachers" (137).

Coleridge by 1795 was no longer convinced of the tutorial power of freeheld property on its own and was instead much more interested in the free press as the best means to educating citizens for self-governance. His December 1795 pamphlet The Plot Discovered concluded with a celebration of the press in this regard (Lectures 312). Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge was also willing to consider—though by no means enthusiastically—the republican potential of commerce. In the first number of his 1796 periodical The Watchman, for example, Coleridge sees the institution of large manufacturers as—in part—a positive development because newspapers are read aloud there to the workers (Watchman 13-14). And in the fourth number, Coleridge mirrors Jefferson, who around the same time also learned to see the value in the "comforts" brought to us by commerce as opposed to the "luxuries" (Appleby 90-91), in defending a certain kind of commerce, dedicated to making men free rather than corrupting them with false wants. "Whence arise our Vices?" Coleridge asks at the beginning of his essay "On the Slave Trade." "From imaginary Wants" (Watchman 130). "[I]f each among us confined his wishes to the actual necessaries and real comforts of Life, we should preclude all the causes of Complaint and the motives to iniquity" (130-31). [8]


There are two conclusions, then, that can be drawn from this analysis of the status of the yeoman in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's 1790s writings. The first is that Coleridge remained deeply involved in republican theory through the 1790s and beyond, as seen in his commitment to two ideas: first, that all human beings are political creatures and, second, that the just state is necessarily "consecrated," as he wrote in On the Constitution of Church and State (1829), "to the potential divinity in every man, which is the ground and condition of his civil existence, that without which a man can be neither free nor obliged, and by which alone, therefore, he is capable of being a free subject—a citizen" (52). While some of his proposed measures for realizing this "divinity" within citizens were indeed cautious ("conservative" is too misleading a word), Coleridge never lost sight of this fundamentally republican and democratic truth. As a result, his creative articulations of different ways to realize humans politically—from the leisured agrarian to the free press to the national clerisy—were extremely influential among nineteenth-century liberals similarly concerned with the cultivation of civic virtue in a democracy, such as (to name his most famous readers in that century) Emerson in "Self-Reliance" (1841), Mill in Considerations on Representative Government (1861), and Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869).

The second point is equally important, though its significance is less clear. To value the yeoman's leisure for moral rather than political reasons, as the later Wordsworth did, does not provide one with a political program, but it does provide one with a comfortable position from which to assail the progressive aspects of liberalism, such as the city or commerce or bourgeois individualism. We lack an established term for this kind of anti-liberal rhetoric, and I would suggest "country," as this rhetoric echoes the language of the eighteenth-century country republicans. However, unlike country republicanism, country rhetoric has no clear political program, and can be used, as it was by major practitioners like Wordsworth, Cobbett, or Carlyle, for conservative as well as progressive purposes. It is the language of the "countryman," to adopt the word Raymond Williams uses to describe Cobbett, a language that precisely lambastes modern commerce for (as Cobbett put it in 1821) "reducing the community to two classes: Masters and Slaves" but only vaguely laments the loss of a world "[w]hen master and man were the terms, everyone was in his place, and all were free" (qtd. in Williams 15). David Simpson's conclusions about Wordsworth could as easily apply to Cobbett and even Carlyle: "[his] views on civil society are much more coherent as an attack on urbanization than as a positive alternative in country life" ("Wordsworth's" 77).

Parties annexes