French revolution impact on Romantic poets

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      One of the main foreign influences on the English Romantic Poetry of the early nineteenth century is that of the French revolution which practically shook the whole of western Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century. The French Revolution in itself was the result of certain doctrines which were preached by the famous French philosophers Rousseau, voltaire, Tourgot, etc. as well as of the centuries of political and social tyranny and repression. These philosophy held before their contemporaries the hope of better world to come and were full of tender sentiments and noble thoughts.

The lure of, the great political drama that was going on in France proved irresistible to him and he went to France to fight for the Revolutionary cause.
French Invasion

      They taught the lessons of reason and love as the proper guides to life. They exposed the worthlessness of the social and political institutions of the time, which according to them, were the relics of the barbarous and Superstitious middle ages. They challenged and questioned every custom, every institution and were out to destroy them as they were out-moded and would fain establish a new world order based on reason and love. Thus these philosophers exercised a powerful influence on the youthful minds of the age, not only in their country but all over Europe. The ground was thus prepared and in 1789 the Revolution broke out in Paris with the storming of the Bastille promising the dawn of a new age and society, based on 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity', which were the watch-words of the revolutionaries.

The English romantic poets of the time were stirred to the depth of their imagination by this greatest historical event of the modern age. Wordsworth hailed it with an enthusiasm that finds utterance in his famous words :

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!"

      The lure of, the great political drama that was going on in France proved irresistible to him and he went to France to fight for the Revolutionary cause. He joined the Girondists, that is, the extremists, and would have probably shared the fate of the Girondist leaders if the stoppage of his allowance from relatives had not recalled him to his home. It was Paris rather than London that had obsessed his youthful imagination. But when the Revolution ran to excess of bloody horrors, by starting the scenes of bloodshed in the streets of Paris, executed its King and at last submitted to another King in the person of Napoleon, his enthusiasm grew cold and a bitter mood of disillusionment seized him. In this crisis his greatest comforter was his sister Dorothy, who turned the brother to Nature for consolation.

      Thus began his nature-worship, altogether a new thing in English poetry. The shock of the invasion of Switzerland by Napoleon has completely cured him of his republicanism and in a series of inspired sonnets dedicated to "National Liberty and Independence" he denounced Napoleon as tyrant and sang impassioned songs of Liberty. But if he shed his Republicanism he was still a democrat at heart and a disciple of Rousseau. He felt that if he could not change society by political revolution, he would try what poetry can do to change people's hearts and enlarge their sympathy for men. Thus the doctrinal side of the Revolution especially the teachings of Rousseau gave him the inspiration. Rousseau supplied the positive side of the Revolution - "the return to nature, to primitive methods of life, to the re-establishment of human nature and society on the elements of love and simple relations among the simple folk." Hence his poetry dealing with rustic life and nature and the influence of Nature on man. Rousseau thus had been a very potent influence on Wordsworth. Thus if the fire and storm of the Revolution do not figure much in his poetry, it is the calm of the great Revolutionary movement that is amply represented in his poetry.

      Coleridge's attitude to the Revolution is not merely that of a fervent votary but of a deep critic and philosopher. His Years in Solitude, Ode on the Departing Year are some of the poems on the Revolutionary theme. But it finds fullest and most eloquent expression in the famous France: An Ode. When France shook her giant body in wrath and stood up against age-long tyranny the poet had sung his song of praise. He even lost his faith in England when it banded with the European monarchs to check the rising aspirations of the new Republic. As the Revolution developed its excesses he at first took them as passing phases and hoped that the storm would blow off and the Sun of Liberty would shine. But all his hopes were shattered when France treacherously attacked the Swiss Republic and took away its liberty. The poet's indignation is at a white-heat when he denounces France as "adulterous, blind, patriot only in toils, France mixed with Kings in the low lust of sway." The famous lines of the ode - "The sensual and the Dark rebel in vain, slaves by their own compulsion' are a terrible denunciation. It is a complete recantation of the poet's earlier Republican faith. Evil centres in the heart of man and Liberty resides in Nature - this is his conclusion. Thus, like Wordsworth, Coleridge in his spiritual crisis drew strength from the philosophical faith in Nature though to this idea he did not stick for long.

      While the two older poets recanted their Republican faith and became conservative, the younger poets of the generation, Byron and Shelley became the idealistic worshippers of liberty and zealots of their own inclinations in all fields of thoughts and activity. "They were Radicals they acknowledged no law but of their own inspiration. Dissatisfied with the existing order their sympathies were with strong will and passion and defiant independence." Both of them, of course, were too younger to have any direct experience of the horrors and excesses of the historical revolution, quite unlike the older ones. And this probably accounts for their unabated enthusiasm for the Revolutionary ideals. But there is a difference between the two. Theirs was the time when Napoleon was the main actor in the political drama of Europe. Byron, whose nature was intensely egoistic saw in the revolution the conflict of personalities. The force of personalities especially of Napoleon intoxicated him and runs through his poems. It is the revolution as a negative power, as an instrument of tyranny became the dream-lands of his millennium. In impassioned and vehement verse he sang the song of liberty and hatred of tyranny and finally laid down his life in the cause of the liberty, of Greece serving as a volunteer in the Greek struggle of Independence.

      Shelley was the impassioned and whole-hearted singer of the Revolution. He was in fact the child of the French Revolution. His imagination was abstract rather than concrete. Ideas moved him more than facts and personalities. Hence it was the Revolution as an idea and not as a concrete historical event that appealed to him most. He drank in the doctrines of the Revolution - propagated by his father-in-law William Godwin and ignored the horrors and perplexities of the actual situation. Hence the catch-words of the Revolution - 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' found no more impassioned champion among the Romantic poets than Shelley. He looked beyond the immediate horrors and disasters to a future reconstruction. He had a radiant vision of a regenerate world coming out of the ashes of the present and he veritably believed in it.

      The business of reforming the world through his poetry - a task which politicians have found so hard to tackle filled him with a creative spirit. It is this passion for reforming mankind, the prophecy of a millennium the golden age of the world, that is the main theme of his beautiful lyrics, The Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, etc. His passion for liberty is intense and by Liberty he meant not freedom from restraint. Liberty to him is not licence but a moral quality - 'rule of the empire of the Self' Love is to reign supreme in the new order he envisaged and it will enkindle all things into beauty. Thus Shelley is the metaphysical singer of the Revolution.

      Keats was a 'detached aesthete', who stood completely aloof from the ideals of the French Revolution. He lived in the world of his imagination, playing his poetic game with love, beauty, romance, etc. and never liberty or tyranny. His mind was full from all dogmas and political or social ideals-quest for beauty was the sole preoccupation of his poetic self.

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