Enclosure of the English Commons Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Enclosure of the English Commons

Commentary on the enclosure of land in England is most commonly concerned with the years 1750–1830, the era of parliamentary enclosure, although the process of changing the agrarian landscape had been occurring as far back as Shakespeare's time. In general, the term enclosure refers to the shift from communal to individual agriculture through the consolidation of scattered properties, usually under one landlord/landowner, and the abolition of grazing and planting rights to common lands. Many recent studies have focused on economic and historical considerations and have addressed both the advantages and disadvantages of enclosure in terms of its effect on agricultural production, on the rural laborer and farm employment, on the widening gap in income distribution between the small and large landowner, and on the growth of English population overall. In the eighteenth-century some English critics argued that these changes enriched the large landowners at the expense of the poor. Others argued that although the new allotments to small farmers might have been inadequate for their needs, the positive change in the nature of agriculture in England as a whole, from subsistence farming to a source of wealth for the nation, cannot be ignored. The fact that enclosure was a significant social and historical phenomenon in England is undisputed by commentators.

Recent examinations of the changes wrought by enclosure of the commons tend to place them within the context of transformations occurring in other areas of English life at that time: changes in industrial production, for example, or the development of mechanical processes, the introduction of interest rates, or the increase in population. However, for nineteenth-century poets like John Clare and, to a lesser extent, William Barnes, enclosure brought only suffering and injustice. Clare lived in Northamptonshire, one of the counties in England hit hardest by parliamentary enclosure. Clare was not concerned with the economics of enclosure or how it affected England's trade with other countries, but with its altering of the landscape and its effects on rural laborers in terms of their happiness and freedom. A poor man often referred to as a “peasant-poet,” Clare belonged to a tradition of rural dissent, and his poems are those of social protest; they are not nature lyrics or landscape poems.

William Barnes also opposed enclosure in his poetry. Unlike Clare, Barnes's primary concern was with returning to a pre-industrial past of cottage industry in which the burgeoning social problems of England did not exist. He advocated self-help for the sake of self-respect and abhorred the idea of an idle rich class.