The impact of the French Revolution upon English poets, and especially Wordsworth, is well known. Wordsworth’s Prelude , which was begun in 1798 appeared only after Wordsworth’s death, is an account not only of a poet’s coming of age, but also of his disillusionment with the radical political causes that propelled the unexpected violence following from the first revolutionary acts that culminated in the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Writing The Prelude in 1798, Wordsworth expresses the ecstasy he and his contemporaries felt “When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights / A prime enchanter to assist the work / Which then was going forward in her name” .
These hopes were dashed, when, as Wordsworth writes, revolutionaries “now, become oppressors in their turn, / Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defense / For one of conquest, losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for”.
A year after Wordsworth began to write The Prelude, notes Simon Bainbridge: Coleridge [wrote] to his friend and fellow poet Wordsworth identifying the Revolution as the theme for the era’s definitive poem, writing .
. . that “I wish you would write a poem, in blank verse, addressed to those who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind. . . . It would do great good”. It was, Bainbridge further notes, Coleridge’s urgings that “informed Wordsworth’s examination of the Revolution’s impact in The Prelude and The Excursion . . . but poems on the events in France had begun to appear very quickly”.
The early period of the Revolution appeared to the English poets as the realization of a poetic ideal. When reflecting in The Prelude on his visit to France in 1790, Wordsworth famously writes that the period was “a time when Europe was rejoiced, / France standing on top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again”.
“It was in such millennial terms,” writes Bainbridge, that many poets responded to events in the early years of the decade, understanding these events through biblical [eyes] . . . as the second coming of Christ, bringing about the end to the old world and the creation of a new one. Referencing M. H. Abrams influential essay, “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age” (1984), Bainbridge acknowledges that the increasingly violent disasters overtaking the revolutionary movement caused poets such as Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth to recast the notion of revolution, not as a political project to be enacted in reality, but as a personally transformative endeavor undertaken within the individual imagination . For the English poets writing at the turn of the century, Abrams states, “hope is shifted from the history of mankind to the mind of a single individual, from militant external action to an imaginative act”.
Wordsworth actually lived in France during some of the most stirring scene of the new order .he became a convinced revolutionist and was eager to join the Girondists. (Sampson, 1975, p.476)
William Wordsworth’s attitudes to the French Revolution underwent significant changes during his two visits to France. His differing views of the Revolution were motivated by the fact that that he visited revolutionary France in slightly different periods. Wordsworth visited France for the first time in 1790. At that time France celebrated the first anniversary of the fall of Bastille. During his first visit Wordsworth did not experience any significant political event of the period. On the other hand, during his second visit in 1791-92, the situation in France was quite different. Politics in France became quite complicated as several political fractions were fighting for power and influence. Revolutionary France was also in danger of invasion of Austrians and Prussians. Wordsworth was also still present in France during the first revolutionary massacres when the Jacobin Terror began. During the first visit to France in 1790, Wordsworth’s views of the Revolution were mostly optimistic.
Wordsworth’s predominantly optimistic views of the Revolution were motivated by several factors. The basic motivation for visiting France was not to examine or observe political processes of the period. Wordsworth intended to experience the sublimity of the Alps. Wordsworth was then rather accidental observer of the situation in France and he did not examine political processes of the country very deeply. Wordsworth and his companion Robert Jones visited France in 1790, one year after the beginning of the Revolution, when the prospects for a successful issue of the Revolution were very bright. Wordsworth also visited mostly small towns and rural areas. He was not a witness to turbulent political meetings of the period, he did not experience revolutionary atmosphere in bigger towns. Wordsworth entered France at the first anniversary of the beginning of the Revolution. At that time the whole France celebrated the glorious beginning of the Revolution.
Wordsworth was impressed by these festivities and the overall optimistic atmosphere. He praised the brotherly spirit of the French united during these festivities. As the basic motivation for the visit of France was to see the Alps, Wordsworth did not focus on the description of political situation and he mostly describes the scenery. Wordsworth also visited Switzerland, where he praised liberty of the people and the republican regime. During his visit to Switzerland he describes the country as a model to follow. In fact he projects his enthusiastic hopes about the Revolution in France into the Alpine republic. Wordsworth uses the political status of Switzerland to envisage his hopes for rebirth of the human race signaled by the French revolution. In Wordsworth’s description of Switzerland the description of the scenery often mingles with his revolutionary ideals. Wordsworth projects the freshness and purity of the Alpine landscape with freshness of revolutionary ideals.
Wordsworth creates with his descriptions in The Prelude almost “pastoral” impression, when he associates the pure, untamed landscape with pure revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that cannot be “tamed” as well. During his first visit, Wordsworth saw France “standing on the top of golden hours”, as a symbol of a new era for mankind. It cannot be said that Wordsworth examined the situation in France very deeply. In the descriptions in The Prelude Wordsworth focused on the newly achieved liberty and equality of the French. He contrasts the new situation with that of the old regime which he associates with oppression and inequality. He does not focus very much on contemporary political situation in France. In his descriptions he predominantly focuses on revolutionary festivities and brotherhood of the people. He is charmed by the basis ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. It can be said that Wordsworth does not see the Revolution as a political phenomenon, or he does not interpret it politically. On the contrary, he interprets it in a more abstract and idealistic way.
The Revolution is a phenomenon when human nature, bound by inequality and oppression, is born again. He praises freedom and equality, but he does not speak about their practical use. Unlike during his second visit, he does not mention practical aspects of the Revolution. He does not speak about people’s participation on power ,he does not really have clear political vision of the Revolution. He is optimistic about the future of revolutionary France, on the other hand he speaks about the future on abstract level, his liberty and equality are not really political, but rather idealistic ,abstract concepts. He observes liberty and equality via the lens of revolutionary festivities. He does not speak about liberty in practice, in real life or in politics. Wordsworth in his descriptions focuses on liberty and equality as abstract concepts that unite the whole nation. During the second visit to France in 1791-1792, Wordsworth’s attitudes to the Revolution become more complicated, on the other hand it cannot be said that he became really disillusioned with the Revolution. One his motivations for the visit was to become more fluent in French, on the other hand he was also attracted by the spirit of the Revolution which he had experienced during his first visit.
During the second visit to France Wordsworth had more opportunities to examine the situation in France more deeply. He observes that his new “urban” experience is different from the “rural” one of his first visit. He observes the situation in Paris and he finds out that the political scene in France is fragmented into numerous rival parties. As he experiences every-day life of the French and not revolutionary festivities of his first visit, he reveals that huge numbers of the French are not loyal to the Revolution at all. One can observe certain confusion in his views of the Revolution. On the one hand he remains loyal to the ideals of the Revolution, on the other hand he observes that political situation in France is no longer really optimistic or enthusiastic and the Revolution is not only liberty and equality as abstract concepts, but it is predominantly real political struggle. During the second visit to France he fell in love with a young French lady Annette Vallon. She gave birth to their child in 1792. Wordsworth had not chance to see his daughter or Annette since 1792 to 1802 because of the war between Britain and France.
Wordsworth visited France briefly in 1802 when the war between the two countries was interrupted. It can be said that Wordsworth’s concern about his daughter in turbulent revolutionary France during the war in many respects affected his views of France and revolution. Wordsworth, being separated from his daughter, was concerned about her fate what made him belief in bright prospects of the Revolution. Wordsworth believed in an optimistic future of France and the Revolution and this belief or hope conditioned his enthusiastic support to the principles of the Revolution. In the years 1791-1792 Wordsworth also experienced his first disillusionment with the Revolution. Wordsworth mentions French soldiers’ unwillingness to fight and their anti-revolutionary, non-patriotic thinking. During the second visit to France Wordsworth also experiences that the situation in France might be even dangerous. Wordsworth fears possible invasion of Austrians to France, he is not sure that patriots and supporters of the Revolution will be that numerous to oppose the invading forces.
He is afraid of the fact that anti-revolutionary powers might join invading armies what would cause a terrible bloodshed. At this moment Wordsworth raises the question whether the revolutionary powers will not be overthrown. Wordsworth’s deep belief in the Revolution receives a serious blows and he observes that support to the Revolution is not as strong as he thought. Another important moment when Wordsworth experiences disillusionment with the Revolution, is the time of so called September Massacres, when furious mob killed numerous people in French towns. Wordsworth is frightened by these occasions and he realizes that Revolution is not only a “fight” for liberty and equality, but a real life-or-death struggle. It can be postulated that Wordsworth’s complicated attitudes to the Revolution during his second visit were conditioned by growing radicalization and violence in France. On the other hand it cannot be said that these episodes made Wordsworth hesitate about revolutionary ideas. Wordsworth left France in 1792 as an enthusiastic supporter of revolutionary ideas although he knew that the actual political situation in France was not ideal.
He observed that influence and power was being usurped by the radical political groups, such as radical left-wing party Jacobin Party and left-wing politician Maximilien Robespierre. Wordsworth believed that this usurpation of power and influence was in conflict with original revolutionary ideals. It can be said that during the second visit to France Wordsworth’s attitudes to the Revolution become more complex. Wordsworth do not focus on abstract notions of liberty and equality, on the other hand, it can be said that Wordsworth’s revolutionary thinking has now a clearly defined vision. He met a French soldier, Captain Michel Beaupuy who deeply influenced Wordsworth in his thinking. Under Beaupuy’s guidance Wordsworth realized that Revolution was not only a fight for abstract ideals, but also real political and social program.
Wordsworth now encounters the idea of peoples’ participation on power, he believes that people should have to right to create their own laws. On the other hand, Wordsworth is not blind to facts, he observes that huge masses of people are blind to the great ideals of the Revolution and he knows that “some men are set apart for rule and honour by their virtues and knowledge” (Harper 163). In Wordsworth thinking appears a strong aspect of democracy as he stresses the fact that individuals who lead the country should be chosen for their virtues and knowledge and not for their noble origin. In Wordsworth’s thinking also appears a strong social aspect. He finds out that revolutionary ideas can be only empty abstract concepts when majority of people live in starvation and poverty. Revolution and its outcomes have clearly defined shape in Wordsworth’s thinking. In Wordsworth’s view, the Revolution is a great chance to improve peoples’ lives.
Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature,(London:Cambidge University Press, 1975).