Romanticism and Revolution

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The Romantic movement of 19th century art and literature was influenced by revolutionary events such as the French and American revolutions.[1]

The 18th century Romantic poets were influenced by many outside influences but chief among them was the revolution occurring in France. Their poetry reflects the social turmoil raging across Europe and their own dreams and worries. The link between the French Revolution and poetry is best shown by examining three English Romantics: Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge, and their political interests and activities in the French Revolution, and how that was reflected in their poems.

Wordsworth[edit | edit source]

Wordsworth’s politics and his poem “Tintern Abbey” demonstrate how his work and social life was influenced by the revolution. Politically, Wordsworth didn’t become involved in the French situation until 1791 when he revisited France, became friends with Beaupuis, and came across a poor girl who was starving because of the way France was being run.[2] As Hancock puts it, this “experience sank deep into Wordsworth’s heart. It made him an advocate of the cause of rebellious France."[3] After this, Wordsworth’s ideas on politics and government changed completely. He took an eager interest in the revolution and emitted his enthusiasm and energy, but he “thought little about the abstract principles of human rights”.[3] He became interested in politics and government as he had never been in England, since he felt a connection to the French cause and people. However, as the Revolution continued it became increasingly dark in the optimistic and visionary eyes of Wordsworth and it ended with him becoming disillusioned and depressed as the Revolution’s outcome fell short of his goals.

“Tintern Abbey” echoes William Wordsworth’s anxieties about the French Revolution. This poem was written towards the end of the French Revolution, so by this time, Wordsworth has experienced the effects of Revolution. “Tintern Abbey” is a poem about the loss of innocence and childhood as well as the loss of dreams. For Wordsworth, one of these dreams was the ideas brought forth by the Revolution that fell short of his expectations. As Yu Liu says, “he was utterly disenchanted with his own activism, but was unable to change his perception of the French Revolution as what should or ought to succeed in theory, and”… “he was utterly disillusioned with the turns of events in France."[4] “Tintern Abbey” has a melancholy tone, full of reminiscence and loss. In lines 83-85 this longing for the past is exhibited “time is past and all its aching joys are now no more, and all its dizzy raptures."[5] These lines and the ones before it are referring to growing up and the ending of dreams, including Wordsworth’s interest in the French Revolution. This poem also shows Wordsworth’s love of nature, and his use of it to express the thought and ideas inside him. “While he was still under the spell of the Revolution, he could boldly result to natural metaphor."[6] However, when he lost faith in the Revolution he sank deeper into nature instead of making a “sacrifice of himself for what had already proven to be a lost or losing cause, his response in the event, as it so richly and fruitfully worked itself out in the triumphant publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, was an instinctive and analogical movement toward nature."[4] Through many of Wordsworth’s poems, one can see the effect the French Revolution had on his mind and his poetry, from his initial hopes and joys to his devastated dreams.

Percy Bysshe Shelley[edit | edit source]

Percy Bysshe Shelley is another well known Romantic poet who was affected by the French Revolution. He embodied the spirit of the Revolution shown “in an unrestrained denunciation of the past with its tyrannical government of priests and kings, and an unshakeable faith for a future with its perfected humanity."[7] Shelley had a lot of ideas about the ideal future that he thought the Revolution could bring about. His excitement for change was shown in his poetry by using such emotions as anger to demonstrate his point. Stauffer points out that “Shelley was attracted to anger precisely because of its renovating force."[8] His poems are distinct by the emotion he puts into them and an example of this, combined with his political feelings, is the poem “Queen Mab.”

“Queen Mab” is an interesting poem, especially since it is “Shelley’s first poem of importance, broadly professing his radical ideas”.[9] The part to focus on when applying it to Shelley’s stance on the Revolution is the final two parts. These describe his vision of the perfect world or “Shelley’s picture of the Golden Age”;[10] one that he hopes can be achieved with the help of the Revolution. In canto eight, Shelley describes a fantastic vision of peace and harmony overtaking the world from “Hope was seen beaming through the mists of fear; Earth was no longer a hell”[11] to such frivolous images of “Fruits”… [being] “ever ripe, flowers ever fair”.[12] This shows how this new, heavenly earth will be perfect in all things, from Earth’s peacefulness as a planet to the little things. An important line to consider is one found a few lines later predicting “the lion now forgets to thirst for blood”.[13] The lion in this line demonstrates that, if a natural predator like a lion no longer needs to kill, neither will human beings have to kill each other, and there will be world peace. An interesting perspective is Stauffer’s where he says “Shelley’s poetry almost invariably contravenes its own wrath with more conciliatory and hopeful imaginings”.[14] It is these “hopeful imaginings” that make up his beliefs and stance towards the government and politics. After this Utopian view for the future, the next canto goes one step further. “Then, that sweet bondage which is freedom’s self, and rivets with sensation’s softest tie the kindred sympathies of human souls, needed no fetters of tyrannic law”.[15] These lines show that to achieve this unending and unlimited peace, “tyrannic law” needs to be gone. In this poem, Shelley’s vision and politics come through. His hopes for a peaceful future are defined by the absent of government and his excitement for the French Revolution embodies this.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge[edit | edit source]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the third example of an eighteenth century poet who was affected by the French Revolution. However, he wasn’t necessarily physically involved in the Revolution, but both he and Wordsworth “were thinkers, but of the emotional and imaginative, not of the ratiocinative, order”.[16] Both Wordsworth and Coleridge are often grouped together but Coleridge “was more open, sensitive, more receptive to the multitudinous impressions of a world of human affairs”.[17] Coleridge exhibited as much emotion and enthusiasm for change as Wordsworth but Coleridge often looked through a religious lens. As Dowden puts it, “the idea of God possessed him,” and this was reflected in his writings and in the way he viewed the world.[18] Coleridge’s poem “Destruction of the Bastille” shows his emotional devotion and interest in the French Revolution.

In Coleridge’s “Destruction of the Bastille,” his love for freedom and the French Revolution become incredibly apparent. This poem, written shortly after the Bastille fell, contains the proud tone of a victor. The speaker declares his victory “Go, Tyranny! Beneath some barbarous sky thy terrors lost, and ruin’d power deplore!"[19] This is an exhilarated cry taunting “Tyranny” and it’s loss of power over the French people. This victorious and proud tone continues into the later stanzas. “Yes! Liberty the soul of Life shall reign, shall throb in every pulse, shall flow thro’ every vein!”[20] Now, the speaker isn’t just talking about a victory over “Tyranny,” he is talking about hope for the future though “Liberty.” A final aspect of this poem to consider are the questions in stanza six “Shall France alone a Despot spurn? Shall she alone, O Freedom boast thy care?”[21] The lines after these expand upon this idea of universal revolution and political upheaval. This poem ends considering the chance that Europe is presented right now, the chance for a loss of “Tyranny,” a gain of “Liberty” and a new political order.

Everyone in Europe was affected in some way by the French Revolution, the question is to what extend did this influence affect their lives. By examining a few eighteenth century poets, it is clear that the revolution was on the mind, even in a different country. Being a Romantic writer means reacting to the surrounding world, and part of that was the French Revolution. As Butler put it “the French Revolution was new because it involved more of the people more crucially in national affairs, ‘big’ politics, than had ever been the case in European, or perhaps any politics before."[22] Duff phrases it a little differently by saying that “the French Revolutionaries complained of everything."[23] But the Revolution was about change, and it couldn’t happen without complaining, talking and writing. Writing and poetry was a way to express this change in political and emotional relations. Writing was as important to the French Revolution as the French Revolution was to eighteenth century writers. “Words, discourse, the media of communication did matter in the French Revolution” and is did “indeed appear to have mattered to an unprecedented degree."[24]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the romantic era, 1760-1850, vol. 2
  2. Hancock, p. 131-132.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hancock, p. 132.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Liu, p. 3.
  5. Wordsworth, lines 83-85.
  6. Bear, p.39.
  7. Hancock, p. 50.
  8. Stauffer, p. 112.
  9. Hancock, p. 51.
  10. Hancock, p. 56.
  11. Shelley, lines 13-14.
  12. Shelley, line 119.
  13. Shelley, line 124.
  14. Stauffer, p. 111.
  15. Shelley, lines 77-81.
  16. Dowden, p. 156.
  17. Hancock, p. 157.
  18. Dowden, p. 172.
  19. Coleridge, lines 3-4.
  20. Coleridge, stanza 5, lines 9-10.
  21. Stanza 6, Lines 1-2.
  22. Butler, p.2.
  23. Duff, p.15.
  24. Butler, p. 3.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Beer, John. Romanticism, Revolution, and Language: The Fate of the World from Samuel Johnson to George Eliot. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Butler, Marilyn. Devolving in Deep Time: The French Revolution as Narrative. Revolution and English Romanticisim: Politics and Rhetoric. Keith Hanley and Raman Selden. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. 1-22.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Destruction of the Bastille.” 6 Feb 2010.
  • Dowden, Edward. The French Revolution and English Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1897.
  • Duff, David. Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Hancock, Albert Elmer. The French Revolution and the English Poets: A Study in Historical Criticism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1899.
  • Liu, Yu. “Crisis and Recovery: The Wordsworthian Poetics and Politics”. Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 36 Issue 1, 2000, 19-23. Madcat. Memorial Library, Madison, WI. 07 Feb 2010.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Queen Mab: The Complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1901. 07 Feb 2010
  • Stauffer, Andrew M. Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Wordsworth, William. “Tintern Abby.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature 8th Ed. Vol. D., Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. 258-262.