In 1798, a small book was published anonymously that changed the way people thought about the world. It was written in a plain style and it dealt with common-place topics: birth and death, family and childhood, wealth and poverty, superstition and belief. It also made serious and critical comments on eighteenth century philosophy and politics especially the French Revolution. It began with ominous forebodings about the fate of human society, but it concluded with the hope that through patient reflection and imaginative foresight, human beings might be able to change things for the better. The object of some controversy in its day, the book exerted a profound influence over nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought. The book is, of course, Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population.
This book could also, obviously, be Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. That may seem a surprising coincidence. It is widely assumed, as Phillip Connell notes, that “in terms of their intellectual formation, ideological orientation, and perhaps even moral sensibilities, Malthus and Wordsworth were fundamentally inimical to one another” (15). Certainly, Malthus’ population principle, that human population will inevitably outpace food production resulting in poverty, misery, and vice seems to confirm his hard-nosed reputation as the inventor of the “dismal science.” Malthus and the “mechanico-corpuscular theory” (as Coleridge called it) that he stood for were frequent targets of the Romantics’ polemical outrage. But this does not prove that Romanticism is “fundamentally inimical” to political economy. Rather, it proves just how interested in political economy the Romantics actually were and how much that interest shaped their beliefs.
Connell debunks the idea that Malthus and the Romantics were ideological and temperamental opposites by outlining in the first chapter the similarities in their educational and philosophical backgrounds. Malthus was born in Dorking, Surrey in 1766. His father was a personal friend of Rousseau and Hume who employed a variety of Rousseau-like tutors to educate his son. Such a “skeptical” upbringing may account for Malthus’ impatience with the optimistic pieties of late-eighteenth-century thought, his belief in the inevitability of mortal suffering, and his faith in statistical evidence and inductive reasoning. All of these traits would become hallmarks of the discipline of political economy through the nineteenth century and Malthus one of its most famous cultivators. Indeed, following the success and influence of the Essay on Population, Malthus was appointed Professor of Modern History and Political Economy at the East India College in Haileybury in 1805, the first academic chair of its kind. But Malthus was never comfortable with the narrow “classical” doctrines of political economy that would later be associated with his friend and sometime adversary, David Ricardo. Rather, Connell stresses, “Malthus was clearly working within the eighteenth-century tradition of natural theology associated above all at this time with the Whiggish and latitudinarian tendencies within Cambridge University” (27). He entered Jesus College in 1784, was ordained a Church of England minister in 1788, and matriculated in 1791. His views on natural theology were “unconventional” but not adamantly so. Like Paley, Malthus believed that mortal suffering has a purpose. But he did not believe that this suffering was necessarily a step toward ultimate salvation or, as in Godwin, the spur of human perfectibility. Rather, the distresses of overpopulation and hunger are part of God’s plan to make human beings understand the limits of their bodies and minds and improve themselves accordingly.
Given this background, it seems odd to Connell that Wordsworth and Coleridge should be assumed to have dismissed Malthusianism. Malthus’ Cambridge affiliation, doubts about Paley and Godwin, and views on suffering and self-awareness were similar to the young Romantics’ and might well have endeared him to them or, at the very least, not have antagonized them. After reading the Essay in 1798, Coleridge related to Josiah Wedgwood that he found the book “illogical” and unimaginative. But he did not outright disagree with Malthus’ basic claims. In fact, in a newspaper article written with Tom Poole in 1800, Coleridge outlined a theory of food distribution that contains many Malthusian elements. Southey shared Malthus’ concern about the harmful moral and environmental effects of the manufacturing and commercial systems. Wordsworth’s “The Old Cumberland Beggar” and 1801 letter to Fox both embody many of the moral and even political arguments regarding charity, personal self-consciousness, and political responsibility found in the 1798 Essay.
So where did the Romantics’ “opposition” to Malthus come from? For Connell, it was simply a matter of political expediency. The second edition of the Essay appeared just as hostilities against France resumed in 1803. The country was in the grips of yet another invasion alarm; national unity was the order of the day. Many former radicals, including Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge felt compelled to redefine their liberal views in patriotic terms. The poets had seen their works castigated in the Edinburgh Review and other venues for being, in Francis Jeffrey’s famous words, the product of a “sect of poets” whose aesthetic idiosyncrasies and political seditiousness threatened the moral fibre of the nation. To defend Malthus at such a time risked further calumny. So in his review of the second edition of the Essay in the Analytical Review—the review that most scholars point to as the first flowering of Romantic anti-economism—Southey condemned it for suggesting that overpopulation is a matter of scientific inevitability and not moral choice. Malthus’ population principle implied that faith in a benevolent God or, more to the point, pride in one’s country and the progressiveness of its institutions, would have little effect on the cause of national unity. Such views would effectually “starve the poor” (cited Connel 40) and thus encourage social division. Southey sidestepped the fact that Malthus had addressed this question in the 1803 edition in much the way that Southey and Coleridge wanted, by suggesting that religious leaders might encourage “moral virtue,” i.e. sexual restraint. But, Connell claims, the theory of population and its moral and philosophical assumptions was simply not the point of Southey’s attack. By attacking Malthus, Southey (and indirectly Coleridge) could at once establish their credentials with the governing Pittite party (who were not necessarily opposed to Malthus anyway) and, at the same time, refashion their democratic radicalism to suit the moderate Whiggism of wartime.
In the chapters that follow, Connell weaves a complicated web of influences and associations that bound Romanticism and Malthusian political economy together between 1780 and 1830. Expanding on his remarks about the importance of the press in chapter 1, Connell’s main argument is that whatever differences there were between the economists and the Romantics tended to settle on the question of how to improve and reform education in the wake of Britain’s massive commercial, industrial, and population growth, that is, how to enhance the profile and influence of their own intellectual work. Again, therefore, the differences were primarily political, not doctrinal. Malthus supported the establishment of state-wide primary education (at the very least) because a sound understanding of the basic principles of growth and restraint fundamental to the population principle were, Malthus argued, the best means of counteracting it. The philosophical inspiration for the education reform movement was the “influential lectures” on political economy of Dugald Stewart (74). Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Stewart was responsible for “extending the intellectual range” of political economy (more so even than Smith) to encompass moral philosophy, law, science, and literature. In his lectures, Stewart applauded the growth of print and learning as part of the stimulus for Britain’s economic wealth. The more people knew about themselves, the more productive they would be. Even when in the 1790s the reaction against the French Revolution seemed in some quarters to poison political economy with the taint of jacobinism, Stewart continued to promote its social benefits, albeit in an Anglicized form, “by dissociating specific constitutional questions from the legitimating methodological grounds of political science, and distinguishing the productive economic relations disclosed by Whig ‘experimental philosophy’ from the violent excesses of French revolutionary ideology” (74). Stewart helped create the profession of the intellectual within the division of labour. It is his job to formulate and disseminate the abstract principles that will allow those who work in the more “mechanical” fields of industry to understand society and the principles which govern it. Literature, then, plays as big a part in education as the more abstract disciplines, for the spread of print culture had already proved how immediately it could communicate to the greatest number of the people.
Through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, educational institutes promoting commercial and literary knowledge were established in the trading and industrial cities like Liverpool and Sheffield by prominent Whig entrepreneurs like Samuel Bailey and William Roscoe. But Stewart’s influence was most directly felt in the prominent Whig intellectual circles of the day: in London, James Mill (a pupil of Stewart’s), Samuel Whitbread, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and eventually his son, John Stuart Mill; in Edinburgh, Francis Horner, Francis Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Henry Brougham, the founding editors of the Edinburgh Review and all Stewart alumni. Like Stewart, Mill believed that the establishment of permanent principles of commerce and economy was the final, crucial stage in the process of human civilization, whereby the spread of ideas made possible by commerce, industry, and technology would be codified into “a ‘common stock… one vast engine’ of intellectual improvement” (82). By contrast to Mill’s optimism, Francis Jeffrey’s “historical sociology of literature and learning… was concerned above all with the progressive erosion of the conditions under which serious literary and intellectual endeavour might be fostered” (93-4). Jeffrey’s reviews of the Romantic poets are not, in Connell’s estimation, merely sneering witticisms. They express Jeffrey’s general dismay at the collapse of the Scottish enlightenment ideals of engaged, comprehensive knowledge in the wake of an increasingly diffuse and fragmented field of publications that produced “superficial literary forms united only by their transient mediocrity” (95). Connell’s reading of Jeffrey resembles Jon Klancher’s well known account in The Making of English Reading Audiences of the Edinburgh editors’ efforts to revive Enlightenment standards of taste to combat the spread of ill-formed ideas made possible by the expansion of commerce and print. Connell adds to Klancher’s reading the fact that Jeffrey’s was a decidedly democratic enterprise. Jeffrey set out to correct the waywardness of print culture in such a way that… “a few hundred families of the highest rank and greatest wealth” (cited 97).
But though Malthusian education reform played a major part in the growth of the secular Whig ideology, it also strongly influenced Christian Toryism. An ordained Anglican minister with Paleyite tendencies, Malthus had always claimed that his proposals for political and intellectual reform in the wake of the population principle were fundamentally Christian. Since, Malthus had shown, government itself could do little to stop the tide of overpopulation, and the Universities were beyond the means of most citizens, the responsibility for communicating the harmful effects of and possible remedies for sexual license must fall to the institution already entrusted with the moral welfare of the nation: the Church. Among the most important Christian Malthusians was Thomas Chalmers. A prominent Presbyterian minister, Chalmers believed strongly in the benefits of a healthy commercial state. But he also campaigned vigorous on behalf of a Christian doctrine that could teach people how to cope with the effects of commercial and industrial expansion.
For Connell, Chalmers represents an important precedent for the “liberal Toryism” he finds in the later economic writings of Coleridge and Southey on such questions as national education, public debt, and Catholic Emancipation. Coleridge, for instance, supported the Liverpool government’s continuation of the suspension of cash payments because he believed that national debt fostered the circulation of the “symbols” of rank, achievement, and Christian reason that sustained the nation. Following Burke, Coleridge did believe that the responsibility for harnessing the potential of commerce must lie with an aristocratic class who were already empowered by birth with the trust of the nation’s intellectual and economic heritage, that is, honour and land. Coleridge’s ambition to turn this heritage into the foundation for a class of intellectual elite—what he called the “national Church” and later the “Clerisy”—resembles Chalmers’ Malthusian mandate for putting the education of the country in the hands of the Ministry. Coleridge’s abstract hermeneutics is not, therefore, the antithesis of political economy, in spite of Coleridge remonstrations against its materialist doctrines. Rather, Coleridge was working in the tradition of political economy itself, offering another version of the national education program that was its intellectual motivation.
Though he gives what may be the fullest and more detailed account of Coleridge’s and Southey’s political and theological prose currently in print, Connell barely touches on their poetry. This is a pity, as many of their poems reflect on questions of political economy: human suffering, public education, national unity, divine understanding. Although those reflections may be somewhat oblique (accounting perhaps for Connell’s reticence) the poems are in many instances more epistemologically complex than the prose. Instead, Connell focuses on two poems of the period that engaged with political economy overtly: Wordsworth’s Prelude and Excursion. Wordsworth seems to have held moderate views of Malthus’ population principle and its implications. In book 12 of 1805 Prelude, a book that Connell argues is as much a response to Malthus as book 10 is to Godwin, Wordsworth asked “Why is this glorious Creature to be found/ One only in ten thousand?... What bars are thrown/ By nature in the way of such a hope?/ Our animal wants and the necessities/ Which they impose, are these the obstacle?” (12. 90-95). These questions are restated, Connell argues, in the final books of the Excursion which show signs of Wordsworth’s growing support for the causes of economic and imperial liberalization. The “pervasive nostalgia” for traditional agrarian values espoused by the Wanderer (and strongly influenced by Southey) is “subverted” in the poem by the Solitary’s repeated interjections on behalf of commerce, manufacturing, free trade, and with them educational reform.
The most surprising figure in Connell’s discussion is Percy Shelley. Shelley’s distaste for Malthus was vitriolic: “The author of the Essay [on Population] was ‘a priest of course, for his doctrines are those of a eunuch and a tyrant’ Shelley wrote in A Philosophical View of Reform in 1819 (cited Connell 212). This has led many critics to assume that Shelley was antipathetic to political economy tout court. Again Connell shows that this simply was not the case. For instance, on the question of the adverse effects of machinery which Shelley addressed in the Defense, he is in agreement with Malthus (213). The proper context for understanding the political significance of the Defense is the “complex and extensive network of social relationships linking the philosophical radicals and the Hunt circle” (214). Connell finds Shelley’s call for reform to be most in line with the utilitarian thought of Jeremy Bentham. Shelley’s adoption of the “hermit” persona in his pamphlets and particularly in Loan and Cyntha was also adopted by Bentham. Understanding commerce to be alienating and isolating, Shelley’s View is fundamentally Benthamite. Like Shelley, Bentham regarded the body as the primary site of moral right (the famous pleasure-pain principle) and of genuine sympathy. Shelley’s demand that poetry play a fundamental role in legislative reform at a global level, in spite of its Godwinian idealism, corroborates Bentham’s view that constitutional change can only occur at the fundamental level of the individual mind and, at the same time, on a global scale: education, and with it literature, are crucial to this change. “Shelley’s Philosophical View,” Connell concludes, “should in fact be viewed as a contribution to a larger debate within the Hunt Circle, sparked by Bentham’s growing influence as a legislator and a radical, and centred on the relationship between the literary culture of poetry and the practicalities of political and constitutional reform” (225). Shelley’s Defense is not a mandate for poetry’s moral superiority to politics, but a demand for poetry’s continuing relevance in politics. When Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he means that he actually wants them to legislate.
This is a scrupulously researched book. It establishes once and for all that literary culture in the early nineteenth century was not opposed to political economy: on the contrary the two disciplines were utterly and inextricably bound together. Indeed, the level of historical detail in support of this claim is astonishing, if at times a bit hard-going. On occasion, the parallels are a bit thin: that Bentham and Shelley both adopted the rhetoric pose of the retired philosophe is no surprise as, by the 1810s, this Rousseau-like figure had been perhaps the most common such figure for two generations or more. But that said, Connell’s knowledge of what the Romantics’ and their contemporaries’ were reading, whom they knew and liked, whom the attacked, whom they wanted to impress, and what effects the politics of intellectual life itself did for the entire system of modern knowledge and disciplinarity is unsurpassed. No one interested in the political context of Romanticism can afford to miss this book.