The Influence of the French Revolution on English Literature

It would be peremptory to treat the French Revolution as just another historical incident having political significance alone. The French Revolution exerted a profound influence not only on the political destiny of a European nation but also impinged forcefully on the intellectual, literary, and political fields throughout Europe. It signalised the arrival of a new era of fresh thinking and introspection.

The conditions prevailing in England at that time made her particularly receptive to the new ideas generated by the Revolution. In literature the French Revolution was instrumental in the creation of anew interest in nature and the elemental simplicities of life. It accelerated the approach of the romantic era and the close of the Augustan school of poetry which was already moribund in the age of Wordsworth.

Poetry and Politics:
The age of Wordsworth was an age of revolution in the field of poetry as well as of politics. In both these fields the age had started expressing its impatience of set formulas and traditions, the tyranny of rules and the bondage of convention. From the French Revolution the age imbibed a spirit of revolt asserting the dignity of the individual spirit and hollowness of the time-honoured conventions which kept it in check. Thus both in the political and the poetic fields the age learnt from the Revolution the necessity of emancipation-in the political field, from tyranny and social oppression; and in the poetic, from the bondage of rules and authority. The French Revolution, in a word, exerted a democratising influence,both on politics and poetry. Inspired by the French Revolution, poets and politicians alike were poised for an onslaught on old, time-rusted values. It was only here and there that some conservative critics stuck to their guns and eyed all zeal for change and liberation with suspicion and distrust. (Thus, for instance, Lord Jeffrey wrote in the Edinburgh Review that poetry had something common with religion in that its standards had been fixed long ago by certain inspired writers whose authority it would be ever unlawful to question.) But such views did not represent the spirit of the age which had come under the liberating influence of the French Revolution.
It is perhaps quite relevant to point out here the folly of the belief that the new literary and political tendencies, which had a common origin and were almost contemporaneous with each other, always influenced a given person equally strongly, that a person could not be a revolutionary in politics without being a revolutionary in literature, and vice versa. Scott, for example, was a romantic, but a Tory. Hazlitt, on the contrary, was a chartist in politics but was pleased to call himself an “aristocrat” in literature. Keats did not bother about the French Revolution, or even politics, at all. Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two real pioneers of the Romantic Movement in England, started as radicals and ended as tenacious Tories.
The Three Phases of the French Revolution:
It is wrong to think of the French Revolution as a sudden coup unrelated to what had gone before it. In fact, the seeds of the Revolution had been sown long before they sprouted in 1789. We can distinguish three clear phases of the French Revolution, which according to Compton-Rickett, are as follows:
“(1)       The Doctrinaire phase-the age of Rousseau;
(2)                 the Political phase-the age of Robespierre and Danton;
(3)                 the Military phase-the age of Napoleon.”
All these three phases considerably influenced the Romantic Movement in England.
The Influence of the Doctrinaire Phase:
The doctrinaire phase of the French Revolution was dominated by the each thinker Rousseau. His teachings and philosophic doctrines were the germs that brought about an intellectual and literary revolution all over England. He was, fundamentally considered, a naturalist who gave the slogan “Return to Nature.” He expressed his faith in the elemental simplicities of life and his distrust of the sophistication of civilisation which, according to him, had been curbing the natural (and good) man. He revived the cult of the “noble savage” untainted by the so-called culture. Social institutions were all condemned by him as so many chains. He raised his powerful voice against social and political tyranny and exhorted the downtrodden people to rise for emancipation from virtual slavery and almost hereditary poverty imposed upon them by an unnatural political system which benefitted only a few. Rousseau’s primitivism, sentimentalism, and individualism had their influence on English thought and literature. In France they prepared the climate for the Revolution.
 Rousseau’s sentimental belief in the essential goodness of natural man and the excellence of simplicity and even ignorance found a ready echo in Blake and, later, Wordsworth and Coleridge. The love of nature and the simplicities of village life and unsophisticated folk found ample expression in their poetic works. Wordsworth’s love of nature was partly due to Rousseau’s influence. Rousseau’s intellectual influence touched first Godwin and, through him, Shelley. Godwin in Political Justice embodied a considerable part of Rousseauistic thought. Like him he raised his voice for justice and equality and expressed his belief in the essential goodness of man. Referring reverently to Political Justice Shelley wrote that he had learnt “all that was valuable in knowledge and virtue from that book.”
The Influence of the Political Phase and the Military Phase:
The political phase of the Revolution, which started with the fall of the Bastille, sent a wave of thrill to every young heart in Europe. Wordsworth became crazy for joy, and along with him, Southey and Coleridge caught the general contagion. All of them expressed themselves in pulsating words. But such enthusiasm and rapture were not destined to continue for long. The Reign of Terror and the emergence of Napoleon as an undisputed tyrant dashed the enthusiasm of romantic poets to pieces. The beginning of the war between France and England completed their disillusionment, and Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, who had started as wild radicals, ended as well-domesticated Tories. The latter romantics dubbed them as renegades who had let down the cause of the Revolution. Wordsworth, in particular, had to suffer much criticism down to the days of Robert Browning who wrote a pejorative poem on him describing him as “the lost leader.”
Let us now consider briefly the influence of the French Revolution on the important romantic poets one by one.
As we have already said, Wordsworth’s theory and work as a poet were much influenced by the teachings of Rousseau. It was under this powerful influence that he came out with his epoch-making work (in collaboration with Coleridge), the Lyrical Ballads (1978), which, in the words of Palgrave, “was a trumpet that heralded the dawn of a new era by making the prophecy that poetry, an unlimited and unlimitable art of expressing man’s inner and deep-seated joys and sorrows, would not be fettered by the narrow and rigid bonds of artificial conventions and make-believe formalism.” The Lyrical Ballads led a revolt against the artificial sentiment and equally artificial and mechanical poetic style of the eighteenth century, as also established he truth that poetry, if at all it is to remain poetry, must express the feelings and joys and fears of common men and women close to the soil, and interpret their day-to-day activities of life. Thus the sense of mystery which led many persons to a remote past was believed by Wordsworth to be capable of satisfaction closer at hand. Wordsworth found it-instead of the Middle Ages and Greek art-in the simplicities of everyday life-an ordinary sunset, the fleecy clouds, a morning walk over the hills, a cottage girl, the song of the nightingale and so forth. He turned for the subjects of his poetry to the life of the unsophisticated village folk who lived away from the recognised centres of culture.
At the time of the Revolution (1789) Wordsworth was a young man of only nineteen. In The Prelude he describes how thrilled he was by the occasion. He felt that Europe itself
was thrilled with joy, France standing at the top of golden hours,
And human nature seeming born again.
And further:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.
He believed that in front of the Frenchmen
shone a glorious world,
Fresh as a banner bright unfurled       
To music suddenly.
He visited the land of his dreams twice-in 1790 and 1791. But his youthful rapture came to an end with the Reign of Terror and the emergence of Napoleon. This rude blow sent him reeling into the arms of his first love-Nature. Thus Wordsworth passed through a mental and spiritual crisis, and though he recovered himself finally yet the influence of the Revolution remained as vital impression on his mind. Though he ultimately became a Tory yet he continues believing in the dignity of man, and consequently, applying his poetic faculty to the commonest objects and the lowest people. It is a noteworthy point that the best poetic work of Wordsworth was done during the period of his revolutionary fervour.
Coleridge and Southey:
The impact of the French Revolution on Coleridge and Southey was of the same pattern as in the case of Wordsworth-youthful exuberance at the rising of the masses ending in despair and disillusionment with the Reign of Terror. But after this disillusionment Wordsworth and Coleridge followed different paths in search of an anodyne. Whereas Wordsworth found consolation in Nature, Coleridge sought to burke his discontent with abstract philosophy and intellectual idealism. Coleridge failed to receive from Nature the joy which he was wont to. Metaphysics interested him and claimed his almost full attention. His poetic spirit also declined with the decline of his revolutionary fervour. By 1811 he had become not only an “anti-revolution” Tory but also an incorrigible “antiGallican.”
On Byron the French Revolution exerted no direct influence. But he was a revolutionary in his own right. He was against almost all social conventions and institutions, and felt an almost morbid pleasure in violating and condemning them with the greatest abandon. In his poetry he most vigorously championed the cause of social and political liberty and died almost as a martyr in the cause of Greek independence. A critic observes: “Byron excelled most other poets of England in his being one of the supreme poets »f Revolution and Liberty. His poetry voices the many moods of the spirit of Revolution which captured the imagination of Europe in the early years of the last century. A rebel against society but also against the very conditions of human life, Byron is our one supreme exponent of some distinctive forces of the Revolution. Of its constructive energy, its social ardour, its utopianism, there is no trace in his work.” Byron was excited by the imposing personality of Napoleon who appealed to him as a “Byronic” hero.
When Shelley started writing, the French Revolution had already become, as a historical incident, a thing of the past However, the spirit of the Revolution breaths vigorously in his poetry. After his characteristic way he overlooked physical realities, and was attracted by abstractions only. Says Compton-Rickert: “Ideas inspired him, not episodes; so he drank in the doctrines of Godwin, and ignored the tragic perplexities of the actual situation.” To Shelley the Revolution, to quote the same critic, appealed “as an idea, not as a concrete historical fact.” In all his important poems, such as The Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound, and the incomparable Ode to the West Wind, breathes a revolutionary spirit impatient of all curbs and keenly desirous of the emancipation of man from all kinds of shackles-political, social, and even moral. Love and liberty are the two ruling deities in Shelley’s hierarchy of values, and in his exaltation of them both he comes very near the Rousseauistic creed. The French Revolution had failed miserably in the implementation of its three slogans “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But Shelley always envisioned ahead a real Revolution which would rectify all wrongs once and for all. This hope for the millenium is the central theme of much\df his poetry.
Keats was almost entirely untouched by the French Revolution, as by everything earthly. A critic observes : “In the judgment of Keats, philosophy, politics and ethics were not suitable subjects for verse. While, therefore, Wordsworth and Coleridge were reflecting upon the moral law of the universe, while Byron was voicing the political ideas of Europe in the poetry of revolt, and Shelley was writing of an enfranchised humanity, the music of Keats luxuriated in classical myths and medieval legends, and was inspired by an insatiable love of Beauty.” From a study of Keats’s poetry it is hard to believe that such an incident as the French Revolution ever took/place at all!
From what has gone before it is clear how powerful an influence the French Revolution exerted on English literature. The ideas that awoke the youthful passion of Wordsworth and Coleridge, that stirred the wrath of Scott, that worked like leaven on Byron and brought forth new matter, that Shelley reclothed and made into a prophecy of the future, the excitement, the turmoil, and the life-and-death struggle which gathered round the Revolution were ignored by few poets of England. Henceforth their poetry spoke of man, of his destiny, and his wrongs, his rights, duties, and hopes, and particularly, the gyved and fettered humanity. One is tempted to endorse G. K. Chesterton’s paradoxical remark that the greatest event of English history occurred outside England!
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