John Bird: Just like in Wordsworth’s day, the wounds of poverty are open

We are in unprecedented times, not unlike the late 18th century

I am so enjoying reading The Making of Poetry by Adam Nicolson that I wish it would last beyond its 390 pages. And with woodcuts and paintings by Tom Hammick there’s an added bonus.

The only problem is these two poets have never interested me in the slightest up until now. And the ‘Now’ that has driven me to pick up the book is the turmoil of the hour in which we live.

In other words, Mr Nicolson’s book seems to be a kind of rescue job on surviving what we are now going through, the stalemate of stalemates that will break sometime soon and propel us into something even nastier. Why? Because compromise does not seem to be on the horizon.

Wordsworth and Coleridge walking through Somerset at the end of the 18th century at a time when the continent of Europe was going through a re-con does not seem much relief from our current parlous political times. The re-con was the increasing post-French Revolution growth of an Imperial Army. With Napoleon champing at the bit to take over. And make the whole of Europe one big France.

And hopefully and finally subduing the British Isles and make of them part of a Greater France also. The sea walls that surrounded Great Britain were never going to hold when Napoleon had his way; that is if he kept to a master plan that allowed no deviations.

The Making of Poetry has the sub title “Coleridge, the Wordsworths and their year of Marvels”. It is a book – I’m still in the middle of it – that shows how their poetry leaped in 1797-8. Coinciding with the rich times of political oppression in Great Britain to head off the spread of a French-inspired revolutionary fever. Coinciding also with hunger and poverty, collapse and failed crops to add to misery of a people about to enter the biggest of revolutions, the Industrial Revolution.

The Making of Poetry is not a book to hide in to avoid our current political climes. There is in the background and at times the foreground of the book the sense of big bloodlettings in preparation, or recently happened.

Wordsworth himself had a few years before the book’s opening walked through revolutionary France and been inspired; and appalled.

Appositely, but perhaps not intentionally, there is a sense of the big political machinery of today visible in its earlier form 200 years ago. How politics lives and breathes even in the lost lanes of the countryside where suffering was always at hand. It’s the same in the here and now. I sat and read part of the book in a supermarket cafe in Derbyshire. And looking around could see people who were struggling with this life of theirs. But now it was a different, less-wretched kind of poverty. People were not cold and in rags, but sat eating poor food that would do their nutritional needs no good. It was a kind of poverty that if you’re in it, reminds you that you live in a society created for others, and not for you.

As with late 18th-century rural England, here described, so now in our times the wounds of poverty and need seem open. We have spent a long time, it seems, trying to keep the wounds of society, failing 35 per cent of children at school et cetera, hidden. But Brexit has let the wounds become apparent. And whereas once people tried desperately hard to keep the wounds hidden, or even seen as containable, now certain people celebrate every sign of the ills of society made manifest. Every foodbank is a further proof of why we should not be leaving Europe. Seeing social failure everywhere is used as a political reality, but also as a tool in the hands of some.

Appositely, but perhaps not intentionally, there is a sense of the big political machinery of today visible in its earlier form 200 years ago

There is another part of the story of this book that rings true for today. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had been allowed by the children of a Caribbean slave-owning plantationist to live in one of the family houses, to which the poet Coleridge travels. The Pinneys of Bristol, a leading slave port, have prosperity from their slave wealth. And once again we are becoming more fully aware of the damage done to the current world by wrongs of hundreds of years ago.

Wherever we turn we seem unable to avoid the long shadow of our forefathers and the ruling class of that time who leave an echo of their wealth everywhere to be seen. In museums and galleries, in hospitals and universities. And we in some senses seem to need to clean up the past and rejig our contemporary world freed of the oppression of old wealth. It’s as though the deepest of all spring cleans needs to be applied to all parts of the public fabric.

And there in North Dorset at a house called Racedown, the Wordsworths seemed to touch hands and be enabled by the blood of sugar and slavery. How many others of those times we now admire also took the slaver’s shilling?

We are in unprecedented times, not unlike the late 18th century. The strife, the discord, the division though seems now more incapable of resolution. Perhaps we should insist in future that all MPs swear an oath to the fact that they understand what they are voting for. And not wish to dispute later because they did not understand what they were voting for.

I’m a Remainer; but I tell you what, it’s getting difficult to keep the faith.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.