Supernaturally chattering teeth: Romanticism and the politics of gathering winter fuel, by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

In recent years I’ve been researching and teaching on rural landscape and the way it has been represented in England since the late eighteenth century.  It is widely agreed that the Romantic movement, and in particular the Romantic poets, played a key role in shaping these representations.  Romanticism is often criticized for purveying a lush, idealized vision of rural life, with much of the hardship and social conflict written out of it.  Poets such as Wordsworth and Keats and painters like Constable are seen by many as progenitors of the so-called ‘rural idyll’ which scholars have devoted much attention to debunking.  However, although there may be some truth in this view, closer attention to some of the foundational texts of English Romanticism and to the social context in which they were written suggests that the simplification and distortion lay more in the subsequent reception and (mis)use of these works than in their original message.  In this blog I want to look at one of the poems published in the first edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), often regarded as the first major Romantic statement in English literature.

Poems by William Wordsworth (1815), Volume I, Wikimedia Commons

The poem in question is Wordsworth’s ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, which tells the story of how a well-to-do farmer, Harry Gill, apprehends a poor woman, Goody Blake, when she attempts to steal some firewood from one of his hedges in the midst of winter.  Goody curses him and, thereafter, his teeth will not stop chattering, however many overcoats he puts on.  Superficially this could be read as a conventional seasonal injunction to the wealthy to show charity to the poor, with a whimsical and even sentimental come-uppance for the hard-hearted, from the same ideological stable as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and John Mason Neale’s ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (1853).  But a closer reading and contextualization of Wordsworth’s stanzas show that his social criticism was sharper and more penetrating.

At first sight, Wordsworth’s choice of a farmer as protagonist is surprising.  Farmers were not at the apex of rural society at this time – that place was occupied by the aristocracy.  Farmers were several rungs down the social ladder and most of them rented their land from aristocrats and other landowners.  If Wordsworth wanted to compose a parable to teach charity, it would have been more natural to juxtapose Goody Blake with a wealthy landowner, rather as ‘yonder peasant’ is matched with King Wenceslas in Neale’s carol.  However, Wordsworth was well aware that the rural poor in fact had few points of contact with landowners.  It was farmers who employed most of them, and as population growth depressed agricultural wages from the late eighteenth century onwards, a social gulf opened up between farmers and the rural poor.  Commentators observed that newly genteel farmers were buying pianos and sofas, while there were tales of labourers being paid through holes in farmhouse walls so their employers should not have to sully themselves with direct social contact.  In pitting Harry Gill against Goody Blake, Wordsworth was drawing attention to the human consequences of this widening chasm in rural society, a chasm that over the next half century would spawn repeated outbreaks of politically motivated arson and machine-breaking culminating in the ‘Captain Swing’ riots of the winter of 1830-31.

Elderly Woman Gathering Firewood, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading

Wordsworth’s decision to focus his poem on collecting firewood underlines the extent to which he had his finger on the pulse of the tensions racking Georgian rural society.  As Wrigley and others have demonstrated, England was suffering from a growing fuel crisis in the eighteenth century.  Across much of the country, wood was the cheapest fuel but it was in competition with food crops for land, and as population grew, the latter proved more profitable.  Tree cover decreased and firewood became an increasingly valuable commodity, often fiercely protected by farmers and landowners.  In this situation it was coal that came to the rescue, but because road transport was difficult and expensive, only for those with good access to navigable water.  This rarely applied to inland parts of rural counties like poverty-stricken Dorset, where Wordsworth set his poem:

This woman dwelt in Dorsetshire,

Her hut was on a cold hill-side,

And in that country coals are dear,

For they come far by wind and tide.

Nor is it an accident that Goody Blake’s income derives from spinning.  Ironically the Industrial Revolution resulted in a deindustrialization of rural England, especially in southern counties like Dorset, as small-scale, cottage-based industries were out-competed by larger, factory-based enterprises, mainly in urban settings.  The result was that the price of yarn fell and independent producers like Goody Blake, reliant on it for their income, had to work longer hours to earn enough to feed themselves, often having to work long into the night to do so.  But this brought further problems.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the sheer darkness of the countryside in winter before the arrival of mains electricity.  Candles, the only tolerably bright and durable light source, were an expensive luxury.  These issues particularly affected women, who were the mainstay of domestic industry in the countryside, above all widows and ‘spinsters’ (as the name implies), who were unlikely to have any other major income source.  Wordsworth draws attention to these interlinked issues in a few succinct lines:

Auld Goody Blake was old and poor,

Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;

And any man who pass’d her door,

Might see how poor a hut she had.

All day she spun in her poor dwelling,

And then her three hours’ work at night!

Alas! ’twas hardly worth the telling,

It would not pay for candle-light.

Beyond this, the poem addresses a more fundamental change – the hardening of property rights as pre-modern paternalism gave way to a capitalist market economy.  The old ‘moral economy’ whereby the wealthy recognized reciprocal obligations to the poor and property rights were often non-exclusive was rapidly waning in the 1790s and this was felt especially acutely in the countryside.  Firewood like the sticks Goody Blake attempted to take from Harry Gill’s hedge was just one example of the commodification of rural resources.  This was also the great age of Parliamentary enclosure, whereby the commons with their multiple users were fenced and made over to exclusive private ownership, and of the rapid withering away of gleaning, the practice of allowing the poor to gather grains spilled during harvesting for their own use, now increasingly prohibited by farmers.  Wordsworth calls into question the legitimacy of these vast changes in social custom and mores, and the legislative framework that codified them, by framing property rights in relation to two even more fundamental sources of authority: nature and divinity.  Although Harry Blake lays claim to the hedge, it is also a natural object and, especially in the context of other poems in Lyrical Ballads that identify nature as a source of transcendent truth and meaning, the implication is that it resists subordination to ‘unnatural’ purposes such as Harry’s.  Nature in early Wordsworth is often difficult to distinguish from divinity but here the supernatural curse that falls on the young farmer is clear evidence that he has outraged the divine as well as the natural order.  Hence, although Wordsworth’s poem might appear to be no more than a seasonal folk tale enjoining a clichéd conventional moral, once restored to their social history context Harry Gill’s chattering teeth turn out to have a surprisingly sharp political bite.

Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English rural society.

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