Medicine, the "Manufacturing System," and Southey's Romantic Conservation

By Budge, Gavin | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Medicine, the "Manufacturing System," and Southey's Romantic Conservation


Budge, Gavin, Wordsworth Circle


Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Southey has traditionally been vulnerable to the charge of political apostasy, and yet recent studies of his political writings emphasize the consistency of his social thought. David M. Craig's 2007 monograph, Robert Southey and Romantic Apostacy, claims "strong continuities" between Southey's "'radical' sympathies of the 1790s" and his "conservatism of the 1820s" (215), which he suggests are mediated by a providentialist religious position akin to Unitarianism (125, 212). David Eastwood's useful survey in his 1989 article, "Robert Southey and the Intellectual Origins of Romantic Conservatism," emphasizes the "kinship of Southey's repeated expressions of foreboding at the high social costs of industrialism with the mid 19th century Tory radicalism of Thomas Carlyle and the Young England movement (315, 331), and identifies his "preoccupation with the well-being of the poor" as a "legacy of Southey's early Jacobinism" (325).

Whilst not taking issue with these accounts, in this essay I would like to draw attention to a strand in Southeyan social thought which seems to have been overlooked by modern commentators: Southey's deployment of a specifically medical vocabulary of "stimulants," "excitement" and "irritability" in his analysis of social problems. Eastwood notes that Southey shared Coleridge's "organic" view of society (328), but the full implications of this commonplace of 19th century intellectual history have not been adequately explored. Neil Vickers' 2004 monograph, Coleridge and the. Doctors, documents Coleridge's personal and intellectual preoccupation with medical thought without, however, undertaking the critical reassessment of Coleridgean organicism which attention to its early 19th century medical context arguably makes necessary, an issue broached in my 2007 essay, "Indigestion and Imagination in Coleridge's Critical Thought." The present essay extends this approach to Southey's social and political writing, suggesting that the kind of Brunonian medicine represented by Thomas Beddoes underlies one of the key features of Romantic organicism--its assertion of a relationship of continuity between body and mind in which one cannot simply be mapped onto the other, as materialist determinism would demand. Mike Jay's recent biography has described Beddocs's friendship with and treatment of both Southey and Coleridge in their Bristol days.

The significance of the medical context for an under-Standing of Southey's Romantic conservatism can be illustrated by the lengthy footnote included in the version of Southey's well-known essay on the manufacturing system which appears in the 1832 collection, Essays, Moral and Political. Significantly expanded from the three line footnote which appears in the equivalent place in the version published in 1812 in the Quarterly Review (355 fn), this four-page note summarizes arguments from Dr Jarrold's Dissertations on Man to support the claim that the working classes reproduce more quickly than the classes above them, the key reason for which Southey identifies as the greater mental demands life makes on the upper classes, since "the more the mind is exerted, the more the body suffers" (152 fn). In the context of the anit-Malthusian argument presented in the essay, this invocation of a dualistic relationship in which the development of the mind uses up the constitutional resources required to nourish "animal passion" (152 fn) constitutes a providentialist modification of Malthus's famous claim that "vice and misery" are the only effective controls on population growth; coupled with Southey's advocacy of a national education system at the end of the essay, it suggests that, better education would naturally lead to a decline in population growth because it would constitute a diversion of the bodily vitality which sexual activity requires.

Southey's criticism of Malthus, then, invokes a medical model in which the body's vital energy is subject to a limited economy in which high expenditure on one bodily function leads to inactivity, or even atrophy, in other functions. …

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