Labor and Commerce in Locke and Early Eighteenth-Century English Georgic

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This essay will argue that the revival of Virgilian georgic in English poetry at the start of the eighteenth century by John Philips and Alexander Pope must be understood in the context of the relationship between labor, commerce, and the state articulated by John Locke in chapter 5 of the Second Treatise of Government (1690, revised 1698). The first half of the essay argues that Locke's chapter on property in the Second Treatise, in the process of establishing the priority of property rights over political institutions, gives labor the rhetorical task of legitimating the money economy in the face of traditional (Aristotelian) objections. In this role, manual labor stands for, and naturalizes, a commercial system in which it is fully integrated, and which is historically and morally prior to the state. The second half of the essay will show that the representation of labor in Cyder by Philips (1708) and Windsor Forest by Pope (1713) must be understood in its dialectical relationship with both classical georgic and the assimilation of labor to commerce found in the Second Treatise. These poems use agricultural labor to naturalize the imperial state on the Virgilian model, but in doing so confront an alternative conceptualization of labor in which commerce, not politics, provides its ultimate moral horizon. This explains why commerce is prominent in Philips and Pope as it is not in Virgil: in their post-Lockean moment, the English poets must re-enclose the money economy within politics, necessarily evoking international commerce even as they subject it to various kinds of suppression and mystification.

By understanding Cyder and Windsor Forest in this context, I hope to supplement a recent essay by Pat Rogers, which identifies the specific party-political commitments encoded in these two poems, and thereby attaches their meaning firmly to the specific point in history at which they were published.1 A great deal of excellent work has been done on eighteenth-century georgic in the last two decades, much of it prompted by an interest in the role of empire in British culture in the period, or in the prehistory of Wordsworthian romanticism.2 Yet because the British imperial project is assumed to be much the same in 1770 as in 1700, and because of the obvious dangers of teleology in literary history, both critical frameworks have the unfortunate effect of homogenizing eighteenth-century georgic verse, reading each poem as an example of a genre performing essentially the same ideological function throughout the period, and developing only in response to its own internal generic logic.3 I follow Rogers in returning these poems to their particular historical moment, but understand that moment in terms of the different conceptions of politics and commerce that it brought into opposition; conceptions that may find expression in, but do not simply correspond to, the party opposition between Whig and Tory in the last years of the reign of Queen Anne.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)963-988
Number of pages26
JournalELH: English Literary History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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