FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE ENGLISH POETS

MA English Part 2 Notes Essay | FRENCH REVOLUTION AND THE ENGLISH POETS

The old world which Dr. Jonson regarded as permanent, a world of static-social order, with its elegance and taste and long-accepted gradation of rank and privilege was now breaking-up. The romantic Revival in English literature was in no small degree due to the ideas of French Revolution. The restrictions of classicism were too stifling for the poets, who had drunk deep at the idea of liberty. Cowper, Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron were all greatly influenced by the events of France. Some were, of course, disillusioned by later events, yet most of them regarded, “Bliss it was in that age to live; and to be young was very Heaven.” A spirit of equality and liberty breathes through the works of writers of this age. The following English poets caught these ideas and proclaimed them in impassioned language.

1.    William Wordsworth

Wordsworth accepted the French Revolution as a matter of course. It involved no revolution in his outlook. The cry of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, did not come to him as surprise. After being an eye witness to the mad Joy of French, his attitude to the revolution was altered. In 1790, he made his first visit to France and his second visit took place in 1792. The sight of devastation wrought by the mad mob excited his imagination until he saw with his mental eye the whole sense of horror and ruthless destruction. He is most superficially understood of all the poets of the Romantic age. If he could remain completely indifferent to the revolution from the very beginning of his career like Keats, his poems would have been read differently with different meaning. To those for whom Shelley and Byron in England have been the high priests of the revolution, Wordsworth is no better than a renegade, a turncoat, a traitor.

Wordsworth’s poetry gives cogent proof of his revolutionary ideals. His poem An Evening Walk bears some influence of the revolution. In his poems of Fancy and of the Imagination, man and Nature play their respective roles. He sings of joy and sorrow in widest commonalty. In the lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth did not only choose incidents and situations from common life, but also to use the language really used by men.

The prelude is the worst autobiography of Wordsworth. The theme is the growth of a poet’s mind. The Prelude portrays grandly and delicately the perfect relationship of the poet with the world. Swept by revolutionary zeal, he began to think more of man than Nature. However, his poetry gives a faithful reflection of his humanitarianism. If we regard him an upholder of the Revolution, let us call him a royalist as well, because at the end of his life he accepted the poet laureateship of England against his inclination, an escapist, a lost leader, merely because he stood for the sublimated and not the coarse and vulgar form of the ideal of the revolution.

2.    Coleridge:

Coleridge had deep sympathy for France. He hailed the French Revolution because it was based upon the ideal of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. According to S.A. Brook, it was an enthusiasm taking fire from the fire of the world, which made Coleridge think in the hope and joy, which filled his heart that all things were possible to faith so strong and aspiration so intense. In his essay Ode to the Departing Year, he denounces the undesirable forces of reaction against France. He was disillusioned and in his Ode to France he expressed it:

    O France, that mockest Heaven, adulterous, blind,
    And patriot only pernicious tiols!

His frustration set aside the old love for humanity and thereby revived his patriotic fervour and love for his country Stafford A Brook remarked, “Almost all his best poetic work is coincident with the Revolution; afterwards everything; incomplete. The weakness of will was doubled by disease, and trebled by opium and his poetic life, his philosophic work, was a splendid failure.”

3.    Sir Walter Scot:

Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, he accepted the principles of the Revolution at first with joy, but he was disgruntled at the region of terror. He vitalized the past with full vigour and zeal. The spirit of the early ballads of England and Scotland is the spirit of his poetry.

4.    Robert Southey:

He was one of a trio with Wordsworth and Coleridge in the  younger and more revolutionary days of them all. He was also disillusioned with the course of the Revolution and he became Tory. His shorter and simper poems with their quite humanitarian morality are quite successful. In his poem, The Battle of Blenheim, he denounced the horror and terrors of war.

5.    Shelley:

He was an idealist and a dreamer who was turbulent with storm and coloured with high position. He was the revolutionary poet of the second generation, and was fundamentally the poet of the future. His lyrics deal with the emancipation of mankind. He was the champion of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. He hated Kings, priests and other tyrants even against tyrant God. His well-know Ode to West Wind illustrates his faith in the revolution of the mankind.

This lyric separates him from the other lyrical poets of England. He was a great rebel and revolutionary. In the poem Prometheus Unbound, Shelley made his hero arch-rebel and he compared him with Satan of Paradise Lost. He also thought that love was the remedy for the tyranny, injustice and high headedness, which he expressed in his poem, The World’s Great Age Behind Anew. His poems, whether lyrical, dramatic, or political are all unified by hope in the regeneration of the world.

6.    Byron:

Although Byron did not mention the name of French Revolution in his poetical work, yet he was saturated with revolutionary spirit. Being a rebel against society, he is the one supreme exponent of the Revolution. He is, from the first to the last a great iconoclast. He had a real passion for liberty.

7.    John Keats:

He was totally untouched by the French Revolution. “The Revolution influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake on the sentimental side, Shelley on the intellectual side, Byron on the political side, but had no discernable influence on Keats.” He was inspired by an un-satiable love of beauty. As he says in Endymion: “A thing of Beauty is a joy for ever.” Beauty is truth and Truth Beauty in the Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

8.    Godwinian:

A far more strenuous development of the novel was going on at the hands of a revolutionary group, of romantics of whom William Godwin was the chief. With the novel became a tract; it was put out simply as propaganda.

9.    Burke:

He denounced the revolution in strong terms in his book Reflections on the French Revolution. He remarked: “The French have proved themselves the ablest architect of ruin who have hitherto existed in the world. The doctrines of the revolution would spread beyond the frontiers of France, which will subvert the existing institutions and social order.”

However, we have noted above the historical, political, economic, social and literary significance of the French Revolution. The frightful uprising proclaimed the natural rights of man and abolition of class distinction. Its effect on the whole civilized world is beyond computation. Patriotic clubs and societies multiplied in England, all asserting the doctrine of liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the watchwords of the Revolution. Young England led by Pitt the Younger, hailed the new French republic and offered it friendship. Old England, which pardons no revolution, but her own, looked with horror on the realm, forced the two nations into war. Even Pitt saw blessing in this at first. Thus, the French Revolution was potent force, which deeply influenced the English Romantic Movement. The works of Wordsworth and Coleridge were written during the days of their Revolutionary enthusiasm. Even without the revolution, Byron and Shelley would not able to write poems full of gusto, vigour, force and inspiration.

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