Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth, Count Rumford, and Poverty Relief

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth, Count Rumford, and Poverty Relief

Article excerpt

Wordsworth objected to "workhouses, houses of industry," and "soup shops" to relieve poverty because they destroy "the bonds of domestic feeling among the poor." In 1801, writing to Charles James FOX., he says: "The evil would be 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; the wife no longer prepares, with her own hands, a meal for her husband, the produce of his own labour; there is little doing in his house in which his affections can be interested, and but little left. in it that he can love (De Selincourt 313-314). In the 1790's, these institutional solutions to poverty were identified with the American scientist and adventurer, Count Rumford. Promoting his work in books and magazines, Rumfbrd claimed that his soup kitchens and workhouses could turn an idle population into productive citizens. His designs and organizational methods, implemented and promoted by English philanthropists, became the dominant symbols of the "science" of poverty relief. Even before Bentham's, Rumford's projects for poor relief were routinely lauded (by others and by himself) as "great discoveries and blessings to humanity" in ways that could provoke Wordsworth's objections in the letter to Fox.

The promotion of Rumford's institutions for the poor fueled the English Poor Law debates, particularly concerns about the impact of wartime unemployment and food shortages on poor rates. Rumford's supporters argued his supporters argued that his technological and organizational innovations could permanently solve the problem of poverty. As Tim Fulford comments, Rumford "made it seem as if a marriage between science and We state could transform all aspects of poverty, creating an ordered, harmonious and happy society" (Literature 257) . As a poet who thought deeply and in nuanced was about the place of the "low and rustic" in society) (1) Wordsworth is uncharacteristically polemical on institutional solutions to poverty in The Old Cumberland Beggar. In this poem, the speaker criticizes the "heart-swol'n" "statesmen" who would confine the beggar to a "house, misnamed of industry.' and concludes with an injunction to let. the old man die outside in the "frosty air" rather titan inside the institution. The speaker indicts institutional approaches to poor relief. and exposes the rhetoric of such innovation as mere euphemism. Read alongside the "Rumford gospel"of institutionalized poor relief (Redlich 202), The Old Camberland Beggar challenge's the dehumanizing tendency of such efforts, and demystifies the language of benevolence in which reformers cast those efforts.

Greeting the first volume of Rumford's Experimental Essays in late 1795. reviewers associated his name with the institutional solutions he proposed. (2) Rumford (whose real name was Benjamin Thompson) was hailed by a reviewer at The Critical as a "great political character, whose exertions for the benefit of mankind may vie with those of any person in this century" (67). In The Monthly Review, he was compared him to Franklin, Priestley and Lavoisier, whose widow lie later married (319). The Monthly Magazine enjoined "every friend to humanity" to read Rumford's Account of an Institution for the Poor ("Practical Oeconomy" 484). Coleridge declared in The Watchman that posterity "will reckon" "... the restoration of [beggars] to happiness and virtue ... among the miracles of the 18th century" (177). (3) What excited contemporaries about Rumford's work was the scientific precision that he used to solve everyday inconveniences. As an inventor, he was best known for improving fireplaces, cooking stoves and lamps so they created less smoke, increased heat and light, and sated fuel. (4) He also designed public gardens (such as the English Gardens in Munich) and improved military equipment and uniforms. …

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