Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Pests, Parasites, and Positionality: Anna Letitia Barbauld and "The Caterpillar"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Pests, Parasites, and Positionality: Anna Letitia Barbauld and "The Caterpillar"

Article excerpt

READERS WHO WERE FIRST INTRODUCED TO ANNA LETITIA BARBAULD (1743-1825) as the prudish school matron who wrote prose hymns for children and complained that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" lacks a "moral" (1) may be surprised to find this same woman supporting the thieves who prey immorally upon the rich:

   When a rich West India fleet has sailed into the docks, and wealth
   is flowing in full tides into the crammed coffers of the merchant,
   can we greatly lament that a small portion of his immense property
   is by these means [fraud and thievery] diverted from its course,
   and finds its way to the habitations of penury? (2)

Responding to A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis by Patrick Colquhoun (1796), Barbauld refuses to condemn the prowling poor who are "forever nibbling at our property," suggesting that such thieves should be seen, albeit in macrocosmic terms, as necessary to a balanced economy rather than as agents of injury or damage. "I would rather wish to consider them," she writes in her "Thoughts on the Inequality of Conditions" (1807), "as usefully employed in lessening the enormous inequality between the miserable beings who engage in them, and the great commercial speculators, in their way equally rapacious, against whom their frauds are exercised" (S 352-353). Barbauld recognizes, in other words, that the rich merchants in their colonizing and slave trading practices have no more right to their property than do the prowlers, and she ponders why the legal system protects the rich while perpetuating hegemony over the poor (S 347). Although she focuses in other texts on chastising the exploitative tyrants ("Corsica," "Epistle to Wilberforce," "Sins of Government," etc.), she strives in her "Thoughts" essay to sympathize with those who plunder out of need rather than greed. And although she cautions, in her role as middle class educator, that "fraud and robbery are not right" and that individuals with "higher notions of virtue" are forbidden to steal, she nevertheless returns to the immense satisfaction she receives from contemplating this "providential" system of "imposition and peculation" whereby "property is drawn off and dispersed, which would otherwise stagnate" (S 354).

The ability to see the whole system in motion, to appreciate relations among individuals as functions of a larger communal process, and to recognize the relative ethics of leveling practices regardless of the questionable contents raises Barbauld above the petty realm of technical morality to which Coleridgean scholars have often condemned her. (3) Indeed, her "great acuteness" of mind--which Coleridge admired and even envied in the early years of their acquaintance (4)--gives her insight into the dependencies and counter-dependencies underlying various subject positions and leads her to reject a static social system. "I am apt to suspect that the greatest good done by the numerous societies for the reformation of manners," she writes, "is by bringing the poor in contact with the rich" ("Thoughts" S 355). Somehow she recognizes that the basis of morality is more corporeal than love or pity. First comes a contact, a face to face meeting, a bodily interrelation. Only then is there some hope that hierarchical oppression will be unsettled: "The distress which might languish at a distance, will be amply relieved if it comes near enough to affect the nerves" (S 351). And yet, at what point do prowlers come too close for comfort? At what point do the weak become the strong, the useless become the basis of meaningful relation? And at what point do the relative positions one plays become more significant than the contents one professes? This essay traces several of these issues in Barbauld's poem "The Caterpillar," which struggles to articulate the interrelations between proprietor and prowler, privileged and unprivileged, victor and survivor, in conventional and yet potentially subversive ways. …

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