Wordsworth and Cobbett: a Comparison

Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


This chapter compares the Golden Age ideals of William Wordsworth and William Cobbett during the Industrial Revolution in England. The common elements of their moral critiques can be gauged from the several heads below. The main concern here is the social perspective involved. Wordsworth and Cobbett are compared as members of the dependent ranks of the old landed order, in general, and the lower-middle ranks of small independent producers, in particular. Or, better still, their similar social and economic beliefs are explained by direct reference to their rural educations and upbringings in Old England. Both men are viewed as representatives of an anti-modernist tradition, in Old England, which was resisting the growth of modern, urban society, on the one hand, and the rise of industrial and commercial capitalism, on the other. Their rural assumptions and experience provide a social and economic framework for understanding the origin and significance of their Golden Age ideals of small-scale farming communities in the Lake Counties and in the south-east of England. They explain the writers’ specific commitment to old standards of rural education, domestic economy, cottage industry, and the cult of the ‘whole man’. Likewise, they explain the writers’ general support of paternal relationships between the ranks of the old landed order, as well as the appearance of populist ideas in their radical, whig and tory creeds: for example, their vehement opposition to the development of class relationships and collective action in the new factory towns, enclosed fields, and commercial centres of the day.


Lake District Rural Labourer Rural Life Cottage Industry Romantic Critique 
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    PR (30 Aug. 1823) quoted in G. D. H. Cole, op.cit., p. 259. Cf. too I. Pinchbeck and M. Hewitt, Children in English Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), Vol. 1, p. 407: in 1832, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe was published in Manchester. In this plebeian work, William Wilberforce was strongly criticised ‘for only pleading the black slave’s cause, never that “of that homely kind, as to embrace the region of the home-cotton-slave-trade”’. Blincoe had been ‘taken at seven years’ of age ‘as a parish apprentice from St Pancras workhouse [in London] to Lowdham Mill, near Nottingham, and subsequently moved to Litton Mill, near Tideswell, Derbyshire’. His Memoir was ‘intended to show that the comparison between the lot of the young factory worker and that of the slave was not without substance’. For example, at ‘Lowdham Mill, “from morning till night he was continually being beaten, pulled by the hair of his head, kicked or cursed” by the overseers who had to have so much work produced or be dismissed. His hours of work were fourteen a day for a six-day week, plus frequent overtime, despite Peel’s Factory Act of 1802, which was then in “operation”, and laid down that no poor law apprentice was to work more than twelve hours a day’.Google Scholar
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    S. Pollard, The Idea of Progress (1968), p. 71. Adam Smith believed that ‘every individual … neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … by directing … industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which has no part of his intention’ (Adam Smith quoted by Sidney Pollard, ibid., p. 72).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 80–1. Cf. too R. Williams, op.cit., pp. 62–3. For a clear account of Marx’s views of ‘patriarchal industries’ and the ‘natural’ division of labour and property in pre-industrial times, see the helpful extracts from Das Kapital (1867), in T. B. Bottomore and M. Rubel (eds), Karl Marx. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (1963), Part Two, Ch. 1: ‘Forms of Property and Modes of Production’, passim.Google Scholar
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    F. D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution [pub.1947], rev.edn (1968), p. 103. Klingender argued that Wordsworth’s strong stand against the factory system was the result of his earlier hopes that science and technology would liberate men from heavy labour and improve the material quality of their lives. Such a view was evident in the poet’s famous ‘Preface to’ the Lyrical Ballads (1800/1802): see, for example, the statements made in J. O. Hayden, loc.cit., Vol. 1, p. 881. Unfortunately, Dr Klingender’s marxisant study of the poet’s ‘Romantic’ writings missed the wider rural assumptions and ‘populist’ perspective involved in Wordsworth’s Golden Age theories during the Industrial Revolution in England: 1770–1850.Google Scholar
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    Cf. W. Cobbett, Cottage Economy (1926 edn), p. 7; PR (14 April 1821) quoted in G. D. H. Cole, op.cit., pp. 266–7; and R. Williams, op.cit., pp. 35–7. On these grounds, too, they argued against the rise of trades unions. Such bodies, whether legal or not, undermined the independence of the individual worker to make his way in the world and set master against man.Google Scholar
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    Cf., for example, Phyllis Deane, op.cit., p. 97: ‘Between about 1820 and about 1845 the [cotton] industry’s total output quadrupled and total incomes generated in Britain increased by 50 per cent, but the workers’ wages barely rose at all’. See too Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 18.Google Scholar
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    William Wordsworth quoted by Henry Crabb Robinson, diary entry dated 31 May 1812, in Thomas Sadler (ed.), Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson (London: Macmillan and Co., 1869), Vol. 1, p. 389. See too William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis, op.cit., p. 90. Cf. PR (14 April 1821) quoted in Raymond Williams, op.cit., p. 36: addressing the Nottingham stocking-weavers, who wanted to keep ‘bagmen’ out of the industry, and thereby prevent competition with the factory workers, Cobbett wrote: ‘You are for cutting off the chain of connection between the rich and the poor. You are for demolishing all small tradesmen. You are for reducing the community to two classes: Masters and Slaves’.Google Scholar
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