William Wordsworth and the Theology of Poverty

By Phelps, David Michael | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

William Wordsworth and the Theology of Poverty


Phelps, David Michael, Journal of Markets & Morality


William Wordsworth and the Theology of Poverty

Heidi J. Snow

Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2013 (152 pages)

It is to Heidi J. Snow's great credit that in William Wordsworth and the Theology of Poverty she manages to maintain a steady academic examination of her subject while at the same time avoiding an error commonly found in discussions of both poverty and poetry: the elimination of the personal. This book is not quite successful in accomplishing its central goal--establishing how Wordsworth was influenced by religious thinking on poverty--but it is successful in making a much more fundamental point.

That Wordsworth was directly influenced by the theological climate of his day is an argument this book never completely establishes, although it comes closest when discussing the possibility of Quaker influence. The number of careful perhapses and might haves in this work regularly reminds the reader that the matter of influence is one of speculation. However, this book does clearly identify strong similarities between certain religious attitudes toward the poor--in particular those from Wesleyan and Quaker perspectives--and the attitudes found in Wordsworth's poetic portrayals of poverty, thus strongly suggesting that if one cannot establish in this work a direct influence from these traditions, then one can certainly observe a distinct kinship with them.

This is not to say there are no strong suggestions of direct theological influence on Wordsworth's poetry. His sister Dorothy was involved in the Anglican-Methodist Sunday school movement, and his younger brother, Christopher, was an Anglican clergyman whose sermons contained a nuanced view of the poor--one that combined (according to Snow) a typically Anglican contentment with poverty as part of the social hierarchy with an evangelical sense of kinship with the poor. Wordsworth's admiration for the Quakers is also adequately established. There is a particularly convincing point of history that does seem to make direct influence more plausible--that of the close friendship between the Wordsworths and William Wilberforce. However, the book offers nothing from Wordsworth's own writings that definitively shows that his "unique blending of multiple religious sensibilities towards the poor" was, in fact, derived from or directly influenced by any particular religious tradition's perspective on poverty. Again, it is clear that his work shares emphases and sympathies with certain theologies, but the contention that the theologies and Wordsworth's thinking are directly linked simply does not move beyond informed speculation.

In the end, however, whether or not the book's argument is immaculate is immaterial. Even if it were incontrovertible that Wordsworth derived his thought on poverty from these theologies, the complicated relationship between proposition and art, between theology and poetry, remains such that any critical claim that one translates directly and cleanly to the other is usually specious. Wordsworth was a highly original thinker and a poetic innovator--meaning one would be extraordinarily hard pressed to argue that his work was, in the main, a product of external doctrines and not of his confidence in the formative power of imagination. (I do not here suggest that Snow argues that his work was a product of certain theologies, only that she argues for the existence of a religious influence.) Whether or not theologies of poverty directly informed his work, it is clear that Wordsworth's poetry covered much of the same ground and that is a point valuable enough. The implicit rather than the explicit point of the book is the striking one: Wordsworth's "poverty poetry" is notable in that it did not deal with poverty so much as it dealt with the poor. In other words, in considering the poor, his poetry does not preach so much as it portrays. …

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