Inexpressible: The Agrarian Roots of Romantic Rhetoric investigates the rhetorical and figurative language used by supporters and opponents of the first English Board of Agriculture and the ways in which such discourse is shaped by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and permeates the poetry of William Wordsworth.
Parliament funded the Board of Agriculture under royal charter from 1793 to 1822 in response to persistent grain scarcities and an escalating price of provisions. The Board worked to “encourage and improve English agriculture” by publishing General Surveys of every county in Britain, several volumes of correspondence, and multiple collections of improvement essays. Meanwhile, its opponents took to the popular press and articulated criticisms of the Board’s administration, methods, and recommendations. These included investigations of increased farm size, monopolization of grain, and marketization of commodities; vociferous arguments about whether local farmers or “stranger” land agents were best qualified to survey the agriculture of the country; invectives about the utility or danger of farm literature itself and whether following written “systems” of agriculture would ruin “practical” farmers; and questions of whether any language could adequately represent local methodologies and/or generalized standardization of food production.
Close readings of these arguments reveal that persistent representations of both material and linguistic interactions with land in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries offer new insights into the Romantic period’s debt to Milton, as well as its fascination with authority and epistemology. My analysis of this largely unread body of agricultural literature also presents a new historically materialist interpretation of Wordsworth’s famous depiction of the “growth of the poet’s mind” while surrounded by “permanent forms of nature.” An agrarian poetics resonates throughout Wordsworth’s work, and it depends upon a recurring manifestation of what I call agrarian inexpressibility; the persistence of such tropes as occupatio, adynaton, and impossibilia demonstrate a new Romantic critique of Enlightenment conceptions of rationality and observation.