The Reading Room

The Poet as Intellectual: How the Romantics Took on Thomas Malthus

The Romantics—Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, and a dozen others—are probably the poets whose names we recall best from school. As a movement in English language poetry, Romanticism towers over all others and still influences the popular imagination with themes such as identification with nature, imagination as a creative force, a revolutionary liberal spirit, the heroic poses of an earlier age, and many others.
I wonder how many readers, if I raised the question of economics and political economy in the ideas and poems of those poets, would anticipate—at most--a close reading of the texts in search of metaphors, imagery, and oblique references with subtle implications for political economy?
In fact, poets of the Romantic period (1750 to 1830, with variations by art form and country) engaged explicitly and persistently with the emerging science of economics. Arguably, they were the group, apart from economists and social philosophers, most vocal and influential in bringing the new ideas of economics to the nineteenth century British public.
I can discuss, here, only the opening chapter of this intellectual history. It began with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), whose little book, first published anonymously in 1798, changed public thought about birth and death, wealth and poverty, and the future itself. Malthus’s now famous Essay on the Principle of Population predicted, contrary to eighteenth-century optimism, that population inevitably would outpace production of food; man’s fate was poverty and misery. (But it is a myth that “the dismal science,” a moniker coined by Thomas Carlyle half-a-century later, applied to Malthus.)
The impression that Malthus predicted inescapable doom for mankind is false. But later in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century--and to this day--his prediction of doom has predominated. Malthus, in fact, concluded that widespread education and foresight might yield a better outcome. Modern-day Malthusians treat that, at best, as an afterthought. But Malthus and the Romantic poets who engaged with his thinking devoted subsequent decades to urging solutions.
A book of the same period (1798), Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and Wordsworth (which included “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), probably is the equal in influence of The Principle of Population—but, of course, on literature, philosophy, and natural theology.
So, weren’t Malthus and the Romantics of utterly different outlooks, ideologies, and moral sensibilities—from inimical “universes of discourse” as postmodernists would say?
They were not, and that reveals something about their era. The Ages of Science, Reason, Enlightenment, and even the (much earlier) Renaissance still had an immediacy and freshness we probably cannot imagine. Intellectuals tended to take all new knowledge as their domain. The age of the specialty and the sub-specialty lay far in the future.
Malthus, Coleridge, and Wordsworth all attended Cambridge University. Malthus and Coleridge were both in Jesus College. Malthus was ordained at Cambridge as a Church of England minister.
Certainly, the Romantics published polemics attacking Malthus, with Coleridge calling his theory “mechanico-corpuscular,” but that merely confirms that Malthus and the poets shared excitement about the new economics. 
Malthus did not tend to confine his thought to classical political economy as did David Ricardo, his friend and sometimes intellectual adversary. Instead, he took as his context natural theology. His broadest perspective was shaped by the view that the pain of overpopulation and hunger were part of God’s plan for men to understand their inherent limits and thereby improve their lot.
Coleridge read the Essay and commented that he found the book “illogical” and unimaginative. And yet, a couple years later, in a newspaper article, he proposed a theory of distributing food that borrowed its ideas from Malthus. Poet laureate Robert Southey echoed the Essay’s alarm at the moral and environmental impact of manufacturing and commerce.
The poets wrote a good deal of prose on themes in Malthus, and historians have paid less attention to those themes in their poetry. But Wordsworth’s poem in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” made many of Malthus’s arguments, including political arguments, about charity, personal self-awareness, and political responsibility:
The prosperous and unthinking, they who liveSheltered, and flourish in a little grove
Of their own kindred;--all behold in him
A silent monitor, which on their minds
Must needs impress a transitory thought
Of self-congratulation, to the heart
Of each recalling his peculiar boons,
His charters and exemptions; and, perchance,
Though he to no one give the fortitude
And circumspection needful to preserve
His present blessings, and to husband upThe respite of the season… [Emphasis added]
Percy Shelley, more than any other Romantic poet, tended to “flame” when it came to liberty. About Malthus, he was vitriolic, disparaging him as “a priest of course, for his doctrines are those of a eunuch and a tyrant.” And yet, Shelley did not disparage political economy as such. For example on the adverse effects of machinery he agrees with Malthus. (The proximate inspiration for Malthus's essay was a book by Shelley's father-in-law, William Godwin, Of Avarice and Profusion (1797).
In Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of Culture,  a definitive work on the subject, Philip Connell challenges the idea that the Romantic defense of spiritual and humanistic culture was a reaction against individualistic, supposedly “philistine” values of classical economics.
Key to his argument is his interpretation of why earlier rapprochement of the Romantics with Malthus turned to public hostility. The explanation rings true with readers today: political expediency.
The second edition of Malthus’s book, no longer anonymous, appeared in 1803 when English hostilities with France had flared up anew. England was in a full-blown invasion panic; national unity was not “optional.”
Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge all entertained “radical” liberal views. Now, they were denounced in the Edinburgh Review and elsewhere as a “sect” aesthetically marginal and politically seditious. It was time to shore up their patriotic credentials. To defend now any ideas of Malthus risked charges of disunity in the face of national peril. When Southey reviewed the second edition of the Essay, he condemned the thesis that overpopulation was a scientific inevitability instead of a moral choice. Malthus’s principle of population seemed to imply that faith in a good God, pride in nation, and progress of British institutions could not be relied on to promote national unity. National disunity, especially when it came to the poor, was unavoidable. 
Southey, however, conveniently passed over the remedy proposed by Malthus. Religious leaders (like Malthus himself) could encourage “moral virtue” (that is, sexual restraint) and so mitigate the risk of overpopulation. But Southey’s attack on Malthus was intended to refashion his democratic radicalism to square with moderate wartime Whiggery.
Thus ends round one of the history of the complicated influences that made Romanticism and Malthus’s views on political economy bedfellows—if uneasy ones—for the half-century from 1780 to 1830. 
Broadly, the differences between the Romantics and economists reduce to the question of reforming education to rise to the challenges of Britain’s explosive growth in commerce, industry, and population.
The locus of the next chapter of this movement is the influence of Dugald Stewart, chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who widened the intellectual range of political economy to embrace moral philosophy, law, science, and literature. He urged and inspired the growth of print and public learning as a stimulus to Britain’s economic wealth—and, it is said, promoted the new profession of “intellectual” within the division of labor. 
Among such new intellectuals, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and Shelley loomed large. In his landmark 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth appears to challenge Malthus, and certainly glances at Adam Smith: 
“…how dire a thing is worshipped in that idol proudly named ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ where alone that wealth is lodged, and how increased; and having gained a more judicious knowledge of the worth and dignity of individual man…the man whom we behold with our own eyes—I could not but inquire—Why is this glorious creature to be found one only in ten thousand? What one is, why may not millions be? What bars are thrown by Nature in the way of such a hope? Our animal appetites and daily wants, Are these obstructions insurmountable? If not, then others vanish into air.”
Here is another attack that contrasts the supposed “idol” of the liberal economists—economic man—with the true “worth and dignity” of that “glorious creature”—the one we observe around us in the real world. Regrettably, Wordsworth, like Southey, neglects to mention Malthus’s proposed solution: education to instill moral insight and restraint that empower the individual to surmount economic determinism and take his destiny in his own hands. 
Indeed, Malthus proposed universal primary education (as just a start) because a solid grasp of the basic concepts of growth and restraint at the root of his “population principle” were the best hope of counteracting it. 
His ideas for education reform fed into growth of secular Whig ideology and influenced Christian Toryism. Malthus viewed his proposals as rooted in Christianity and, deeming government impotent to stem the tide of overpopulation, and the universities as limited to an elite, he wanted to entrust the task of education reform to the church.
Nevertheless, Wordsworth and other Romantic poets who challenged economic pessimism—and affirmed man as the master of his economic destiny—went far to shape public debate throughout the remainder of the Nineteenth Century and far beyond.