British poets and the French Revolution. Part One: England and France at the close of the 18th C.

Alan Woods continues his series on Art and Revolution. This is the first part of a five part article that looks at how the French Revolution affected British poets. It struck Britain like a thunderbolt affecting all layers of society and this was reflected in its artists and writers.

Revolution in general acts as the locomotive of history. This profound observation of Leon Trotsky applies not just to the development of the productive forces but equally to that of culture in its most general sense. The French Revolution was a fundamental turning point in world history. Like a heavy stone dropped into a silent lake, it caused waves that disturbed the most distant shores. No aspect of life remained untouched: military, economic, political, philosophical or literary. The minds of men and women were changed forever and in a most fundamental way.

The hidden wellsprings of human energy that lie dormant in the masses are released by revolution. It reveals powers of creativity the existence of which are unsuspected by the dominant classes and their intellectual eunuchs. A revolution stirs up society to the depths, arousing a new spirit of freedom in the most downtrodden layers of society. In every revolution, ordinary men and women discover their sense of dignity and pride in themselves; they begin to see themselves as human beings, not slaves. This revolutionary spirit was what enabled France to stand against the whole of monarchist Europe and defeat it.

The French Revolution reached its flood tide in 1793 with the plebeian dictatorship of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the most revolutionary section of the middle class who leaned on the semi-proletarian masses of Paris for support. But by this time the Revolution had already exhausted all its possibilities as a bourgeois revolution. Inevitably, reaction began to set in, as the bourgeoisie became frightened of the "excesses" of the masses and began to call for "Order". After the Thermidorean counter-revolution, the pendulum swung steadily to the right. Having lost confidence in itself, the bourgeoisie took refuge first in the Directorate and then in the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French revolution had stirred up the whole of Europe. It challenged the old, rotten stagnant order and shook it to its foundations. The new ideas that sprang from the Revolution were a source of inspiration for all that was alive and vibrant in European society. They attracted the best of the intellectuals, artists, writers, philosophers and composers: Kant and Hegel, Beethoven and Shelley, Clausewitz and Goethe - all were, in different ways, children of the French Revolution.

When the Revolution exhausted itself and began to sink back under the weight of tradition, habit and routine, disillusionment set in. In the period of its ascent, it inspired enthusiasm for the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. But under the regime of Thermidor, followed by the Directorate, the Consulate and finally the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, its appeal began to wane. The bourgeois values of Barras and Sieyes could not provide much inspiration to anyone.

Even when the original ideals of the Revolution were sinking under the leaden rump of bourgeois-Bonapartist reaction, however, the waves that emanated from the events of 1789-93 continued to roll across Europe, even unsettling the autocratic regime of tsarist Russia. It was as if a whole generation had awoken from the slumbers of centuries, opened their eyes, stretched their limbs and began to speak out.

Artists and society


The relation between art, literature and history is a complex one. The way in which broad historical processes affect art and literature is not a direct one. The poets and writers of England and other lands did not necessarily set out to express political ideas in a conscious way, though some did. The processes we are dealing with here are far more subtle and indirect. They do not express themselves as a conscious decision or trend, but rather a certain mood. However, unconsciously, or at best semi-consciously, poets and writers can and do reflect the general trends in society.

This is quite inevitable, and it is surprising that anyone should deny it. Society - that is to say all classes in society - is affected by great events that shape and mould its general opinions and state of mind. This can be positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, depending upon circumstances and the point of view of conflicting classes. When society is going forward, the productive forces are developing, there tends to be a general optimism, a cheerfulness in relation to the here and now and the future.

We saw this in the period of mercantilism, when capitalism was developing with a full wind in its sails. There was a spirit of optimism abroad that found an expression in the English novels of the 18th century - the works of Fielding, Sterne and Richardson. It was true even in the Elizabethan period, when English literature enjoyed its golden age. Men like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson expressed many different moods, but pessimism was not among them. There was no room for doubts about the existing social order or England's favoured destiny in the world.

Things begin to change with the development of capitalism and the resulting development of the class struggle. Poets and dramatists gradually begin to reflect the existence of class antagonisms, although at first only dimly, as in Goldsmith's Deserted Village, which reflects upon the horrors of the forced Enclosures that dispossessed the English peasantry in the 18th century. In France, however, the class struggle was far more directly expressed in philosophy and the works of the Encyclopaedists.

On this side of the Channel, capitalism was developing rapidly. The last decades of the 18th century witnessed the huge economic and social upheaval that we call the Industrial Revolution. Large numbers of poor agricultural labourers and their families were thrown off the land and driven by hunger to the towns where they suffered all kinds of hardships. The ruling class therefore had good reason to be alarmed by the threat posed by the French Revolution. It might light a fuse that could ignite the smouldering discontent of the masses in England.

The rise of capitalism was accompanied by an all-out assault on the English peasantry through the notorious Enclosure Acts by which the rich robbed the peasants of their lands and reduced them to starvation and beggary. Grasping landlords seized the common lands that the peasants had had access to for centuries. A popular poem of the time denounced this evil:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The horrors of the industrial revolution and the depopulation of the countryside as a consequence of the enclosure acts were compellingly reflected in The Deserted Village by the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith written in 1769:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroy'd can never be supplied.

The dispossessed English peasants were forced to flee to the towns. The expropriated peasants and their families fled to the cities, clutching their pathetic bundles of possessions, in search of work. Here they were delivered into the tender mercies of the landlords, usurers, pimps and thieves. This is the poetry of intense human suffering and indignation:

If to the city sped - What waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combin'd
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow creature's woe.
Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies the sickly trade;
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.

Marx wrote that Capital comes onto the scene of history "dripping blood from every pore", and this is quite true. The genteel absentee landlords and their cold-hearted, calculating managers cared nothing for the sufferings inflicted by their actions. Together with the port-sodden parson they were the real powers in rural England, and the common people counted for nothing.

The English artists and writers of the period were repelled by the horrors of industrial capitalism. Their feelings were best expressed in Jerusalem - that marvellous poem by William Blake (1757-1827) that became a hymn of the British Labour Movement:

Give me my bow of burnished gold.
Give me my arrows of desire!
Give me my shield - o clouds unfold!
Give me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Effects of the Revolution in England


"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!"
(Wordsworth, The Prelude)

At the close of the 18th century Britain was ruled by a complacent and self-satisfied Whig oligarchy, installed by what was amusingly called "The Glorious Revolution" but was in fact a most inglorious coup d'etat that placed on the throne of England the Dutch adventurer William of Orange. The Radicals complained that the Revolution had been hijacked by scoundrels, corrupt politicians and placemen who got into office by buying votes at election time. This practice was very well depicted by Hogarth in his painting of election day.

The Revolution of 1789 hit England like a thunderbolt. It shook up the whole social and political edifice of Britain. British Radicals were unambiguous in their attitude to events across the Channel. They enthusiastically toasted the "fall of despots" in France and eagerly awaited the new age of Liberty in their own country. Dr. Richard Price warned George III he would end up like Louis XVI "more properly the servant than the sovereign of the People." They were all Republicans at that time. The French Revolution was the focal point for the struggle between antagonistic classes in Britain. The Party of Church and King was led by the young Prime Minister Pitt, who organised a counterattack of the forces of reaction.

The ruling oligarchy regarded the French Revolution with undisguised horror and alarm. The Irishman Edmund Burke, who had earlier welcomed the American Revolution, soon saw the danger posed to the status quo in England of the events across the Channel. Burke hated the Whigs and people like Charles Fox for stirring up forces they could not control. In his Reflections on the French Revolution, using the usual argument about violence, he launched a vitriolic attack on the Revolution. In essence, the present day attacks on the October Revolution are no different. Originality is not the main strength of the intellectual defenders of the status quo.

Burke was immediately answered by Tom Paine, the most outstanding representative of revolutionary democracy. In 1791 he wrote his famous book The Rights of Man in answer to Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution. And he wrote it in the language of the common people - the "swinish multitude", as Burke had called them. 40,000 copies were sold in the first few months. Most of the purchasers were ordinary men and women - people who were new to politics. This shows that revolutionary ideas were falling on fertile ground in England.

The Party of Church and King were alarmed. William Pitt, the 34 year- old former "progressive" began to beat the Patriotic drum to whip up the mob. Homes were burned and democrats beaten up. Paine fled to France and was sentenced for treason in absentia. The democratic opposition went underground in England.

There was now a profound ferment among English intellectuals. The Radical Liverpool publisher Joseph Johnson courageously opened his house to people like the poet Blake and the pioneer of women's rights Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A vindication of the Rights of Women (a "hyena in petticoats" Horace Walpole called her). She went to France, where she narrowly escaped the Guillotine under Robespierre's terror. There was also William Godwin, the precursor of anarchism, who rejected both marriage and private property.

The great artist and poet, William Blake, whose extraordinary genius has only won full recognition in recent years, was regarded as a lunatic by his contemporaries. He was, in truth, rather a strange character. From a very young age, if we are to believe him, Blake saw visions of angels and strange figures that he later painted. He claimed they sat beside him in the garden, or on trees, gathering around him as naturally as a group of friends. Much of his work is heavily influenced by this strange outlook, and contains a symbolism that is not always easy to grasp.

However, there is nothing hard to grasp about his attitude to the French Revolution. He welcomed the Revolution with undisguised joy, walking around the streets of London with the red cap of Liberty on his head. In 1790 he published his Song of Liberty. Blake was a red-hot republican and showed colossal courage in the face of the reactionary regime that suppressed every opposition tendency and treated the friends of France with great brutality. It was Blake who saved Tom Paine from arrest by warning him against going home twenty minutes before Pitt's agents turned up.

All this time the Revolution was forced to defend itself arms in hand, against the assembled powers of Europe. Her most active opponent was her old rival England. Despite the reactionary war hysteria, the best poets of England continued to side with France. The revolutionary poets of the 1790s did not confine themselves to the written word but attempted to establish links with the people, identifying themselves with the poor, the oppressed, the insulted and humiliated. Hazlett wrote: [they] scorned "degrees, priority, place, and the distinctions of birth," and "were surrounded by a rabble of idle apprentices and Botany Bay convicts, female vagrants, gipsies, meek daughters in the family of Christ, of idiot boys and mad mothers, and after them 'owls and night-ravens flew'."

The war with France marked the nadir of reaction in Britain. Habeus Corpus was suspended and a reign of terror against the revolutionary democrats followed. The British ruling class was terrified of the spread of revolution. In April and May 1797 the English fleet at Spithead mutinied twice against intolerable conditions. This was followed by another mutiny at the Nore. The red flag was hoisted on the ships. The mutiny was eventually crushed, but the government decided to intensify the repression. Opposition printing presses were smashed.

In 1798 an attempted rising in Ireland with French support failed but further increased the atmosphere of paranoia. The defeat of the uprising of the United Irishmen led directly to the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, which banned trade unions in Britain altogether. Brutal reaction was now in the saddle, cracking down on all dissidents. The reactionaries fought ideas with clubs and books with fire. The houses of known or suspected radicals were burned and oppositionists were beaten up in the streets. Tom Paine was tried in proxy and condemned to prison. At this time William Blake said that if Jesus Christ were alive he would be in one of Pitt's jails.