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"The fault is their own": The Undeserving Poor in 1790s Conservative Poetry

conference contribution
posted on 2023-07-26, 13:32 authored by Steven M. White
Representations of the suffering poor were an integral part of radical poetry in the years that followed the French Revolution. Writers like Southey and Wordsworth cast the impoverished as victims of an uncaring state and an unjust social hierarchy, making them fictional martyrs in the cause of political and social reform. Conservative poets responded to such depictions by blaming the poor for their own suffering. In this paper I will examine Hannah More’s poems ‘The Gin Shop’ and ‘Patient Joe’, and George Canning’s ‘The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-grinder’, and argue that such poems place people bearing visible signs of poverty and destitution into an underclass: the undeserving poor. The homeless, the ragged, the unemployed and other such figures are depicted as having brought about their own dire situation through idleness, impiety, profligacy and an uncontrollable appetite for alcohol; as such, they are deserving of neither sympathy nor help. Indeed, the poems suggest that such figures are not only undeserving of help, but beyond it. I argue that this stigmatisation of poverty serves two main functions: first, to dissuade middle class readers from sympathising with the plight of the poor, and with the radicals who advocated reform; and second, to pressure lower class readers into hiding the signs of their poverty and silencing their complaints.


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British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 43rd Annual Conference


Oxford, UK

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ARCHIVED Faculty of Arts, Law & Social Sciences (until September 2018)

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