Apocalyptic Economics and Prophetic Politics: Radical and Romantic Responses to Malthus and Burke
Fulford, Tim, Studies in Romanticism
We will do some Michief if you don't lower the Brade for we cannot live.... We have give you a fair offer to do it before you don have your Town & Towns set on fire ... we will begin on the One End and Continue to the other. Be all of one Mind we can do it because we cannot But be killed then & we shall die as it is. (1)
AT THE END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, POOR PEOPLE WERE HUNGRY all over England. Rising prices, falling wages and increasing population produced many desperate threats to set towns on fire. To the comfortably-off, they seemed a menace. Real men and women became the frighteningly generalized "poor," a personified spectre haunting the imagination of the propertied. It was important not to provoke them: Jackson's Oxford Journal advised its readers to "give to no dog or other animal, the smallest bit of bread or meal." The King urged the rich to cut the oat rations of their pleasure horses. (2)
If the poor seemed a menace, they also felt like a burden. Under laws for their relief which dated from Elizabeth I's reign, local ratepayers were obliged to contribute to the welfare of deserving cases. As wages failed to keep pace with wartime prices, ratepayers found themselves subsidizing not only the disabled and elderly, but working men whose pay was too little to feed their families. Contributions soared from less than 2 million [pounds sterling] in 1783-85 to nearly 8 million [pounds sterling] in 1817. To the ratepaying (and voting) public, the poor were a national problem.
It was in a climate of fear and resentment that, in 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus first published An Essay on the Principle of Population. (3) Few books have had as immediate and as powerful an effect on social and political history. Malthus' argument that population increase, if not checked by misery, disease and famine, would necessarily exceed food supply rapidly persuaded William Pitt, the Prime Minister, to change government policy towards the poor. He had previously advocated giving laborers subsidies to support large families; after reading Malthus he abandoned the idea. (4) Later editions of the Essay spread Malthus' influence further still; his discussion of the Poor Laws shaped the legislation passed in 1834. (5) Malthus had made increase in population, once a government objective, into a problem that legislators tried to tackle by discouraging the poor from breeding.
Malthus shaped the political course of nineteenth century Britain; he also influenced its literary history. When the Essay appeared in 1798, it was read with particular attention by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a former undergraduate at Malthus' Cambridge college. Coleridge had reason to pay attention: not only was this a book by his former tutor but it was a refutation of the theories of William Godwin, a personal friend with whose thought he had become dissatisfied. Coleridge, then, might have been expected to welcome Malthus' demonstration that Godwin's secularized millenarianism was based on a logical fallacy. He did not. Nor did the other dissenting radicals in Coleridge's circle--some of whom had known Malthus at Cambridge. In this essay I shall explore some of the reasons why they did not, examining the reception of Malthus in the context of the language of politics (not least that of Cambridge Unitarians) and of political economy. Malthus, I shall argue, was received in the wake of Burke and in the context of Burke's rhetorical attacks on radicals and dissenters. And he was received not only in the explicit critiques which the radicals made of him, but in the alternative vision of nature that they attempted to elaborate. Malthus helped shape the rhetoric of romanticism.
I. Burke in the 1790s: the Sublime Language of Politics
The most powerful political discourse in 1790s Britain was Edmund Burke's. Burke had attacked the French Revolution, and British radicals who supported it, with an apocalyptic rhetoric. To those who were, directly or indirectly, Burke's targets, his rhetoric amounted to an enthralling and awe-inspiring sublime. It destroyed his opponents because it left many who heard it--opponents included--under his sway. Using a style derived from the Bible and from Milton, a style that Burke himself had already identified as sublime and that Malthus was later to use, the orator and writer successfully stigmatized radicals as traitorous men of violence.
In 1757-59, Burke had discussed the sublime theoretically in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. (6) He had paid particular attention to the personifications which Milton had made a feature of his adaptation of the Bible--Paradise Lost. (7) I quote Burke on the figure of Death who appears with his mother/sister Sin in Book n of Milton's epic poem:
No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton. His description of Death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors: --The other shape If shape it might be called that shape had none Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb; Or substance might be called that shadow seemed; For each seemed either; black he stood as night; Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell; And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree. (8)
Burke went on to criticize painters who made clear and certain images of Sin, Death and Satan. The obscurity of the "images raised by poetry" on the other hand, ensured "the mind is hurried out of itself" (A Philosophical Enquiry 62). Milton's obscure yet suggestive imagery made his personifications of Death and of Sin "sublime to the last degree."
Milton's Sin was a monster, a personification of incestuous lust who embodied male revulsion at female sexuality. She served Burke well in the 1790s, as did Death, for he began to put the personifications that he had previously analyzed to political use. He adapted Milton to depict the French Revolution and its supporters as terrible and monstrous. He imagined the tomb of the murdered monarch in France and, rising out of it, Death, personified as a "tremendous, unformed spectre ... a hideous phantom." (9) This spectre owed much to Milton's Death: Burke's was "unformed," Milton's had no shape. But it was, Burke suggested, female. Burke had changed the gender of Death; his version of the spectre resembled the mother and sister of Milton's Death--Sin. (10) Sin, in Milton's poem, had given birth to Death after committing incest with Satan, her father. This is how Milton described her:
The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair, But ended foul in many a scaly fold Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed With mortal sting: about her middle round A cry of hell hounds never ceasing barked With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung A hideous peal: yet, when they list, would creep, If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb, And kennel there, yet there still barked and howled, Within unseen. (Paradise Lost 2.650-59)
Burke used rhetoric of this kind to terrify and revolt his readers. He adapted the figures of epic poetry to make the revolution a specifically sexual monstrosity. The revolutionary women, he declared, were "obscene harpies, who deck themselves in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey, (both mothers and daughters)." (11) By participating in the murder of their king and queen, Frenchwomen had corrupted their proper femininity. They had perverted motherhood, so that they resembled Milton's incestuous Sin, delivering the spectre of revolution--Death--to the world. That spectre was itself a representation of the perverse misunion of male and female, man and animal. It was Burke's personification of the effects of revolutionary violence, the terrifying power of which lay precisely in its ability to pervert proper hierarchy and order. Revolution, through Burke's personification, became incestuous rape and monstrous birth.
Dissenting radicals suffered from Burke's anti-revolutionary Miltonics. With politics sexualized by Burke's figures, Coleridge was accused of deserting wife and children; Godwin was called a pander; Mary Wollstonecraft a whore. The Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) had singled out Wollstonecraft's mentor, the leading Unitarian intellectual Dr. Richard Price. Price had welcomed the revolution in prophetic tones: "be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defence! `The times are auspicious.'" (12) But Burke turned Price's prophetic style against him by vilifying Price as a false prophet "viewing, from the Pisgah of his pulpit, the free, moral, happy, flourishing, and glorious state of France, as in a bird-eye landscape of a promised land" (Writing and Speeches 8.115). As Frans De Bruyn has observed, "the Miltonic vantage point permitted Adam and Jesus in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained is sarcastically denied to Milton's spiritual descendant, who is derided as a footling, latter-day Moses." (13) The authority of Price's religious radicalism is …
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Publication information: Article title: Apocalyptic Economics and Prophetic Politics: Radical and Romantic Responses to Malthus and Burke. Contributors: Fulford, Tim - Author. Journal title: Studies in Romanticism. Volume: 40. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2001. Page number: 345+. © 2008 Boston University. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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