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The Consumer-Based Economy

Urban LifeUrban life in 19th Century London as shown in this watercolor of Holburn, London.
For England, life in urban centers facilitated the development of a consumer-based economy in the late 18th century. Numerous shops selling desirable objects began to open up throughout the city. These shops contained various items that served to decorate the home, as well as goods that were considered valuable and signified the status of the individuals who possessed them. Because of England’s imperial conquests, a number of these items came from countries and cultures from around the world that were considered exotic by British citizens. This changing economy created a desire-based mode of shopping; this constructed desire became a source of both pleasure and pain, with the pain stemming from the fact that people wanted these items and sometimes could not possess them. The fact that urban citizens were surrounded by these shops and goods intensified this desire for possession. These alterations in the economy engendered the idea that shopping could be pleasurable rather than mundane because individuals began shopping for items that were wanted rather than needed.

Romantic critic Andrea K. Henderson has noted that this world of consumer goods had an effect on the poetry that was written during the Romanic era, as this poetry often portrays a sensation of desire for the unavailable. These poets were members of an urban-based, desire-oriented society and were accordingly familiar with the painful pleasure associated with wanting something that could not be possessed as opposed to easy, instant gratification. This made unavailability a pervasive theme in Romantic poetry. The past and the natural world, because of its separation from urban environments, becomes associated with the unattainable. In a poem like John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” antiquated objects and the past they represent are distant. The urn and the scene depicted on the urn are unreachable for the speaker, so he must construct a narrative to make sense of this distant object.

The ungratified desire that resulted from this consumer world also created a sense of transience for these poets because the objects desired simply led to more desire. Literary critic Jerome McGann, says of Romanticism, “[t]he most characteristic difference between the idea-dominated Romantic poem and its idealized but non-Romantic predecessors lies in the perceived status of the idealizations. In a Romantic poem the realm of the ideal is always observed as precarious--liable to vanish or move beyond one’s reach at any time” (72). As McGann illustrates, anxiety over the temporary status of ideal concepts permeates Romantic poetry. This culture of consumerism indicated the temporary nature of desire and gratification, and, thus, was a possible influence on this sensation that was so common in this poetry.

Brandon Haynes

Select Bibliography

Henderson, Andrea K. Romanticism and the Painful Pleasures of Modern Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University
     Press, 2008.

McGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.