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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Influence of the French Revolution on Romantic Literature

Romanticism neither has a set beginning or end, but it does have an inspiration point for many early romantic authors. Enlightenment ideals of human rights and liberty led to the French Revolution, which resulted in Counter-Enlightenment and opened the doors to a new literary movement known as Romanticism. The influence the French Revolution had on Romanticism is clear in many well-known Romantic authors texts including William Blake, William Wordsworth, Edmund Burke, and Percy Shelley. The high hopes going into the French Revolution and the devastation that occurred internalized in these creative minds resulting in a new literary genre inspired by disillusion and false hope.
The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted until 1799. During this time there was radical political and social changes being made a fought for. The French Revolution marked a time in history when France went from having an absolute monarch to a republic to a constitutional monarchy and also ruled by two different empires. The French Revolution has many suspected causes but historians still debate whether or not there is a specific one. The main causes recognized by historians are the Ancien Regime, economic disparity, financial crisis, and social and political factors that people didn’t agree with.
The Ancien Regime also known as the Former or Old Regime was established in France during the Valois and Bourbon dynasties. Under this government system, known as “absolutism,” France was divided into three groups of people known as the Estates of the Realm. The First Estate was the Roman Catholic clergy, the Second Estate was the French nobility, and the Third Estate included the rest of the population without any recognition of national citizenship. France was united under the slogan “one king, one law, and one faith.” At the end of the 18th century the clergy made up about zero point five percent of the population and the members of nobility made up about one to one point five percent of the population leaving 98 percent of the population to feel inferior. Since the Parliament of Paris met at Versaille and was always kept private, this caused turmoil with the people who were left in the dark in relation to decisions of their country. When Parliament decided to increase taxes to pay off their debt from multiple wars fought by Louis XV, the already poor population became inspired to take control of what was going on in government.
Other then the unbalanced government system, widespread famine and malnutrition was taking place across France. Although famine spread to other parts of Europe, the French people were already upset with the way government was set up and were able to use this as motivation to demand or force a change in the government.
Inspired by the Enlightenment, ideals such as absolutism were resented, along with nobility and clergy having privileges and control over public life, but eagerness for freedom of religion, mainly by Protestants, liberty and republicanism for France.
After a long and devastating Revolution filled with highs and lows for the people France concluded to function as a constitutional monarchy where the king would share his power with an elected Legislative Assembly. They met for the first time in October of 1971 but a year later the new government system failed leaving France again in a state of confusion.
William Blake saw the results of the French Revolution in London, a city where he spent most of his life. Blake wrote “London” in 1792, which portrayed a society that was distraught over the status quo. The picture that is painted for the reader is one in which “all souls and bodies were trapped, exploited and infected.” (Korner) In the very beginning of the poem Blake says that the streets and the river Thames are “charter’d” showing the reader the early capitalistic nature of government, that the streets and river are privately owned. He describes the people as visibly weak and showing signs on sickness and misery. In the second verse Blake really pushes his point of the common suffering by all by repeating the word “every” five different times. He says:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear:

Then he goes on to describe specific examples of what people were dealing with at the time. The chimney sweep, in lines 8-9, was a figure that was known for multiple reputations including one of crime and lawlessness. Because their work was seasonal they were often known to beg or commit crimes and the church saw them as a menace and were fearful of what they were capable of. Another interpretation is that Blake was making a stand against the Catholic Church who was known to take part in child labor, many of them being sweeps. The final verse shows the cycle that seems never ending of misery being passed down. The young harlot, like the young chimney sweep, is deprived of loving her baby because the child was conceived as a result of commerce not love and this misery will be put on her child and their child, etc,. Along with her misery being passed to the child, she passes on disease to the wealthier men who she works for, who then pass it on to their wives. The seemingly never-ending cycle of misery and emptiness that the people in the poem portray are a direct reflection on the failure of the French Revolution to inspire hope like it was supposed to.
Another famous romantic author who was inspired by the French Revolution was William Wordsworth. His fourteen part Prelude, a reflection on his life experiences, he spends time discussing his time in France and the effects of the Revolution. In 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille, Wordsworth traveled to France to witness the spectacle of “human nature being born again.” He begins his time in France in Book Ninth Residence in France and takes the reader through his journey visiting the historical sights of the Revolution. Wordsworth says, “I saw the Revolutionary Power, Toss like a Ship at anchor, rocked by storms.” He recognizes the power of it, but also the fact that it wasn’t exactly what people had planned. Storms weren’t predicted but happen in any case, and although the revolution sparked change, storms leave a mess behind just as the revolution did. He later states in Book Tenth that the “truth is most painful to record!” Wordsworth demonstrates the false hope people had in Book Tenth in line 400:
“Such ghastly visions had I of despair,
And tyranny, and implements of death,
And innocent victims sinking under fear,
And momentary hope, and worn-out prayer,
Each in his separate cell, or penned in crowds
For sacrifice, and struggling with forced mirth
And dungeons where the dust
Was laid with tears.”
In this section Wordsworth gives life to the people in history books, he shows the reader what they were feeling by such vivid descriptions and thorough passion. The time Wordsworth spent in France contributed immensely to his most acclaimed work of his life-time. Not only does Wordsworth recap what he experienced in France at such an interesting time of history but he uses his creative mind to bring to life the people who lived through this period of turmoil and change.
Percy Bysshe Shelley also made his contribution to literature in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Shelley’s England in 1819 portrays the kind of society that came out of the failure of the French Revolution. He talks about the kings saying they are
“Rulers who neither see nor feel now know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.”
Shelley shows the rulers being disconnected from their people, not caring about them but sucking the life and worth out of them until there isn’t anything left. The people are left with nothing, barely the land they walk on while the rulers are blinded by their wealth and don’t feel any repercussions from their selfish behavior.
Many more of the romantic authors were inspired by the events of the French Revolution. The devastation that was felt when the revolution didn’t equate to immediate improvement for the average person was deeply internalized by these authors because they couldn’t do anything about it physically. With these ideas of revolution but no means to attain it, they were able to produce passionate works of art through literature and express the feelings that other people couldn’t get across.

Works Cited

Stillinger, Jack, Lunch, Deidre Shauna,
Greenblatt, Stephen, Abrams, M.H., eds.
The Norton Anthology, English Literature: The Eight Edition, Volume D: The Romantic Period

Korner, Simon. “William Blake’s London.” January 8th 2008.

Woods, Alan. “British Poets and The French Revolution. Part Two: Wordsworth and Coleridge The Death of an Ideal.” July 2003

Neely, Sylvia. A Concise History of the French Revolution. Rowman & LittleFieldPublishers, Inc. 2008. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Admittedly, I was a bit confused by the term “Counter-Enlightenment,” which you used as if in opposition to Romanticism. Many of our discussions in class touched on the fact that Romanticism is not a complete rebuttle of the Enlightenment. So perhaps keeping stricter pace w/ the notion of Romanticism as boundless (with which you opened the post) would be more helpful. That being said, I was somewhat confused as to what your intended argument was in this post. You provided some good summarized data on the French Revolution, but what about Blake’s poem, ‘London,’ for example, did you want to reveal? I liked that you took on Wordsworth’s (failed) experience of witnessing “human nature being born again.” And I thought this could have been an interesting pivot around which to discuss the impact of the French Revolution on the British psyche (specifically, on Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, according to their poetry). And while there were many good details that could have led to this realization, they didn’t cohere toward a common goal.