What Reading Wordsworth Teaches Us About Poverty


Jamison Kantor in The Brooklyn Quarterly (Photo: Wikimedia Commons):

How does one get from British Romantic writers to Paul Ryan? The answer may lie in the language that each of them used.

Before turning to the emotions that are associated with poetic language, let’s look briefly at the emotional logic of the system itself. With the emergence of industrial labor in England, rural workers had to dramatically change their mindset. Now, people who had never lived under the rule of capitalism were expected to enter the industrial marketplace, endure the vicissitudes of prices—and the poor-relief to which they were connected—and reorganize their lifestyle around an administration over which they had almost no control. Swift market fluctuations did not just mean that foresight and planning were difficult. Existence under this new regime also meant a change in consciousness. In order to tolerate such insecurity, workers would have to believe in the promise of the new capitalist enterprise; that, despite the incessant variability built into their lives, rising industrial productivity would eventually bring them comforts far greater than what they had through rural work.

Ironically, the Speenhamland system may have played a role in this. “Hope,” the economic historian Karl Polanyi writes in his classic The Great Transformation (1944), “…was distilled out of the nightmare population and wage laws, and was embodied in a concept of progress so inspiring that it appeared to justify the cast and painful dislocations to come.”[3] This belief has remained a part of modern urban poverty. The endless, small decisions that the working poor have to make merely in order to survive act as a cruel stand-in for the sanctified idea of capitalist choice. In actuality, the constant pressure of evaluation and selection can fatigue people so much that their cognitive function is diminished. Recently, a group of contemporary neuroscientists from the University of Warwick have shown that poverty actually impedes cognitive function by putting this burden of choice on workers continually: which bus to take, which groceries will be least expensive, which residential utility will be most essential for living.[4] Add to these factors the inherent bustle of urban life, and poverty becomes a twofold deprivation: not only do people lack material provisions, but they also lack the time for deeper moments of contemplation. Poverty literally trades intellection for survival.

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