In his TED Talk “What art and poetry can teach us about food security,” Professor Richard Marggraf Turley dives deep into two classic works of British Romanticism: John Keats’ poem “To Autumn” (1819) and John Constable’s painting The Hay Wain (1821). Both present picturesque scenes from the English countryside that, on initial glance, appear far removed from the period’s volatile political debates. But Professor Turley encourages us to look closer. Both works, he suggests, bear the mark of one of the major social problems of the time: hunger. Both Keats and Constable lived through times in which the English countryside underwent considerable change: food prices, growing at a rapid rate, brought wealthy speculators to England’s agricultural areas, many of whom bought up large swaths of the land. The results were devastating: families who had tilled the ground for generations found themselves pushed off the land as early versions of industrial farming took root. Mass unemployment ensued, inflated food prices soared even higher, and much of the country went hungry.
As Professor Turley fleshes out the deeper layers of each work, he shows us how even the most seemingly apolitical subjects, like a solitary artist’s contemplation of nature, bear the weight of major political controversies. He also shows us how these artists can help us to have our own conversations about hunger and poverty today: in our time as in the Romantic period, many in the middle and lower classes regularly struggle to put food on the table. Have a listen to Professor Turley’s talk to learn more about how writers like Keats and painters like Constable can help us face our greatest obstacles, as food waste, soil erosion, and economic turmoil create a whole new set of hunger problems in the twenty-first century.
Richard Marggraf Turley is Aberystwyth University's Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination. He has published and taught widely on the Romantics, and he is one of the organisers of the International Keats Conference. He is also a blues guitarist and velocipedist.