British poets and the French Revolution. Part Two: Wordsworth and Coleridge - The death of an Ideal

In their youth, Wordsworth and Coleridge were profoundly affected by the revolutionary fervour unleashed by the French Revolution. But as Bonaparte crushed the most radical elements they became disillusioned and moved back to the right. This is a phenomenon seen many times in history, where the intellectuals and artists (with some notable exceptions) swing to the left and right with the ups and downs of the revolution.

The fashion for landscape painting that developed in 18th century England, and which was also expressed in the poetry of Wordsworth, tells us something about the psychology of the intelligentsia at that time. The Romantics longed for wild, untamed landscapes that breathed the spirit of freedom. This idea is at least as old as the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his notion of the noble savage. Those who followed Rousseau thought of the countryside as pure and uncorrupted by the evils of town and court life. This in turn was a reaction against a decadent aristocratic society that was too sophisticated, too artificial, and too unnatural. Rousseau put forward the idea of the return to a natural state, where man's natural instincts would be free to develop.

Rousseau's ideas formed part of the general ferment among the French intelligentsia before the Revolution. Here the love of nature was really a code for revolution. These artists wished fervently for a storm that would blow away all the cobwebs and stale, suffocating air. The depiction of stormy weather in landscape paintings contained a subliminal message that stood for the great storm that finally broke out in 1789-93. The wild, untamed forces of nature stood for the revolutionary forces that were to be unleashed to sweep away a decaying social order.

The fashion for landscape painting in England was part of this yearning to return to nature and thus to turn one's back on the evils of capitalism, to return to a purer and more innocent age. This was later expressed in the poetry of William Wordsworth and the school known as the "Lake poets", after the picturesque and unspoilt Lake District in North West England that provided the inspiration for Wordsworth's best poetry. However, as we shall see, the real content of this "nature poetry" underwent a radical change in the course of Wordsworth's lifetime, and the cause of this transformation must be sought, not in nature, but in society and politics.

Despite the frenzied hostility of the English ruling class, the events in France aroused the most enthusiastic support of the foremost artists and intellectuals across the Channel. Literature, which had played so prominent a role in the battle of ideas, could not escape the consequences of its actions.

From his youth, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was infatuated with nature. But in the poetry of the young Wordsworth, nature appears as a wild, uncontrollable force, akin to the forces unleashed by the French Revolution, which he greeted with enthusiasm. In 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille, the 19-year old Wordsworth went to France, where he gazed in wide-eyed amazement at the spectacle of "human nature being born again". The young Wordsworth carried the British flag on a Jacobin demonstration - a fact that was duly noted by Pitt's secret police.

Perhaps the most remarkable poetic tribute to the French revolution is Wordsworth's famous autobiographical work The Prelude, where we have a vibrant and truthful picture of what a revolution is:

" [...] 'Twas in truth an hour
Of universal ferment; mildest men
Were agitated; and commotions, strife
Of passion and opinion, filled the walls
Of peaceful houses with unique sounds.
The soil of common life, was, at that time,
Too hot to tread upon."

(The Prelude, ix, 163-9)

The Prelude is Wordsworth's greatest masterpiece. It is at once a celebration of revolution and nature. The two ideas are here so mixed up as to be inseparable. Just as the experience of the elemental forces of nature inspired him in his infancy, so the experiences of the young Wordsworth in revolutionary France burned themselves on his consciousness and gave rise to a powerful spiritual uplift:

"O pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For great were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!" (The Prelude, x, 690-4.)

That there was an element of naivety in the support of these literary men for the French Revolution is clear, nor did this revolutionary sympathy survive intact in all cases. In 1792 a Republic was declared in France. Austria and Russia invaded and the long period of revolutionary wars began that was to reshape the map of Europe. The revolutionary people of Paris responded to the aggression with the September massacres. The Terror had commenced. This began as a desperate measure of revolutionary self-defence. The "National Razor" commenced its deadly work. All foreigners were now liable to fall under suspicion of being spies. Even foreign revolutionaries like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft narrowly escaped execution at this time.

When the Jacobins were overthrown by the Thermidorean reaction, the Revolution entered into a phase of decline that ended in the dictatorship of Napoleon. The rise of Bonaparte disillusioned many erstwhile supporters of the Revolution, just as did the Stalinist political counterrevolution in Russia after the death of Lenin. In later years, disappointed by the ebb tide of the revolution under Bonaparte, both Coleridge and Wordsworth moved to the right.

A war always polarises public opinion. Only the bravest spirits can withstand the blast of patriotism that accompanies it. At first the radical poets tried to fight against the stream. In the Spring of 1793, when war broke out between France and England, the poet Coleridge, a close friend and collaborator of Wordsworth, wrote indignantly:

Like fiends embattled by a wizard's wand,
The Monarchs marched in evil day,
And Britain joined the dire array;
[...] For ne'er, O Liberty! with partial aim
I dimmed thy light or damped the holy flame;
But blessed the paeans of delivered France,
And hung my head and wept at Britain's name.

The Napoleonic wars developed into a titanic struggle on a world scale. From India to Egypt, from Spain to Russia, the conflict raged. The noisy chorus of chauvinism gradually drowned out the voices of reason. The English nation was now mobilised to a degree hitherto unheard of. Men and women were forced to choose.

In 1797 Coleridge was criticising the French Revolution from the left. In fact he had decided communist leanings, as Thelwall noted:

"[…] I found him a decided Leveller – abusing the democrats for their hypocritical moderatism, in pretending to be willing to give the people equality of privileges and rank, while, at the same time, they would refuse them all that the others could be valuable for – equality of property – or rather abolition of all property." (Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Romantics, p. 131.)

But by 1798 both Wordsworth and Coleridge were feeling the pressure. The patriotic hysteria was intense. Coleridge wrote:

"You cannot conceive the tumult, calumnies and apparatus of threatened prosecutions which this event [the presence of Wordsworth] has occasioned round about us. If you too should come, I am afraid that even riots and dangerous riots might be the consequence." (Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Romantics, p. 49.)

In a climate of ferocious reaction, many erstwhile sympathisers of the French Revolution had second thoughts. Repelled by the Napoleonic reaction and frightened by the pressure of the reaction, many intellectuals and writers now distanced themselves from the Revolution. In the Summer of 1799 Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth bitterly criticising those who "in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophies." (ibid., p. 58.)

This is an excellent description of the behaviour and morality of the ex-revolutionary apostates of every period. Unfortunately it was soon to become applicable to Coleridge and Wordsworth themselves. They fled to Germany to escape military conscription. Wordsworth briefly visited France during the armed truce of 1802 to visit the woman he had made pregnant and then shamefully abandoned. By this time the Napoleonic reaction had liquidated all the political gains of the Revolution. He noted the changed atmosphere in the country where twelve years earlier he had seen "banners, and happy faces, far and nigh":

"[…] now, sole register that these things were,
Two solitary greetings have I heard,
'Good morrow, Citizen!' a hollow word,
As if a dead man spoke it. Yet despair
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare."

Despite these brave words, Wordsworth soon became disillusioned with revolution in general. He wrote a sonnet in which he attacks Bonaparte, but in effect blames the French people for his rise to power ("Shame on you, feeble-heads, to Slavery prone!"). It is always the habit of the intellectual who deserts the revolutionary movement to blame the masses for his own apostasy and cowardice. He soon became a rabid enemy of the French Revolution and an ally of Pitt. Wordsworth enthusiastically joined in the patriotic chorus.

A mood of black reaction set in in intellectual circles in England. The hired servants of Conservatism emptied a bucket of cold slops on the idealistic dreams of the youth. Men rationalised their abandonment of the revolutionary cause by repudiating their youthful ideals as impracticable dreams. Thus Coleridge wrote of his disillusionment with the ideal of revolutionary Freedom:

"Those feelings and that grand ideal of Freedom [...] do not belong to men, as a society, nor can possibly be either gratified or realised under any form of human government: but belong to the individual man, so far as he is pure and inflamed with the love and adoration of God in Nature."

The retreat from politics expressed itself in a flight back to nature. Wordsworth ends the second book of The Prelude thus:

"[…] if in these times of fear,
This melancholy waste of hopes o'erthrown,
If, 'mid indifference and apathy
And wicked exultation, when good men,
On every side fall off we know not how,
To selfishness, disguis'd in gentle names
Of peace, and quiet, and domestic love,
Yet mingled. Not unwittingly, with sneers
On visionary minds; if in this time
Of dereliction and dismay, I yet
Despair not of our nature; but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,

The blessing of my life, the gift is yours,
Ye mountains! Thine, O Nature!"

Wordsworth and Coleridge retreated into the Lake District, seeking safety in complete isolation from the world and all its sinful works. About this time the inner meaning of nature in British art and poetry undergoes a subtle but decisive transformation. Central to this transformation was a change in the representation of nature.

In the early poetry of Wordsworth, nature had revolutionary connotations. In The Prelude, nature and freedom went hand in hand, and freedom and revolution were inseparable. There was a wildness about nature that challenged the existing order. Nature appears here as an untamed and elemental force, like revolution itself. But now the poetic presentation of nature became transformed into its opposite.

To the degree that Wordsworth and others turned their back on politics, the idea of nature becomes a convenient excuse for abandoning social life altogether. The idea of "going back to nature" becomes a synonym for escapism. This smug, comfortable, English view of the hills and streams became a subtle code word for patriotism and conservatism. It is meant to produce the same kind of reaction that some middle class Englishmen feel when they listen to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches.

True, in the poems of the later Wordsworth there are sometimes vague echoes of earlier social concerns, of sympathy for the plight of the rural poor, but these too are transformed into a kind of impotent reformism – a variant on the theme of Christian charity and sentimentality. This is quite logical: since there was no way out on the road of revolution, the only thing left to the poor was to throw themselves on the magnanimity of their wealthy masters. In place of revolution and the self-movement of the masses, we have Victorian bourgeois charity, which treats the masses with pity – and therefore contempt.

"Liberty" now becomes a synonym for solitude – the solitude of the comfortable middle class person who, having reached retirement age, can retreat to a cosy cottage in the Lake District, from where he can mediate to his heart's content on the beauties of nature and the follies of mankind.

This interest in nature as a mode of escape accurately conveys the mood of the intelligentsia in England in this period of general reaction. In effect, nature was mobilised for war service just as the English apprentices and farm labourers were pressed into service in Pitt's armies. It was advisable to sign up with the majority, because the fate of dissenters was not an enviable one. The patriotic chorus drowned out all voices of protest and dissent. Nature had been recruited to the cause of English patriotism. And English patriotism was now on active service against revolution.

In the early poetry of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, nature appears as a revolutionary force, and is identified with the fight for freedom. But in later life, when their revolutionary passions cooled they turned to Nature for their "secure haven"- or rather, escape. Hence the obsession with nature in general and the Lake District in particular (hence the epithet "the Lake poets" later bestowed on them). Having lost all faith in the human race, they sought to derive morality from Nature.

This is entirely characteristic of Romanticism in general. The Romantics revolted against the existing bourgeois order, with its cold calculation and sordid money-grubbing. But, in the absence of any real alternative, it took refuge in a flight from reality. This took the most varied forms: nature-worship, particularly in remote and inaccessible places "uncontaminated" by the presence of human beings, or the exotic, or a non-existent idealised (feudal) past, or, as in Coleridge's case, the supernatural. Coleridge, without doubt, produced some of the finest lyrical poetry in the English language.

The unfinished fragment known as Kublai Khan is a perfect example of the exotic element of Romantic poetry. The story goes that the poem came to Coleridge in a dream, which was rudely interrupted by the visit of a "person from Porlock". Alas! The dreams of the Romantics were always being interrupted by such persons, the physical embodiment of the prosaic bourgeois everyday world from which they strove with every fibre of their being to escape.

This flight from the present at times takes the most comical forms. Coleridge collaborated with Wordsworth to produce a famous poetical anthology: Lyrical Ballads. In this collection there is a poem by Coleridge entitled The Foster Mother's Tale. This is about a youth who becomes very learned and "ere his twentieth year had unlawful thoughts of many things." Here we have the perfect picture of Coleridge and Wordsworth in their young days when they flirted with the French Revolution - most definitely "unlawful thoughts" in those days. As a result he is put into a dungeon for heresy, where he dreams of the wide-open prairies.

Actually, this dream corresponds closely to reality, since throughout the 19th century a large number of Europe's most energetic young people left for America after the defeat of revolutionary movements (after 1848, for example). He sails up a moonlit river in the New World (alone, of course), where he finds a new life, running, stark naked, with the Indians and is never seen again.

Wordsworth countered with another poem in the same anthology entitled Ruth. This is the story of a romantic young man who, having lived in mistaken idealism among the American Indians, longs for a more respectable relationship with an English maiden, whom he beseeches to return with him to the wide-open spaces. But, having learned the vices of the Indians (who, as we all know, were neither Christians nor gentlemen) abandons her, whereupon she goes mad. She is last seen playing on a rustic pipe and communicating with Nature, before receiving a suitably Christian burial. It is, in fact, the burial of youthful idealism that, as all middle class middle-aged gentlemen know, can only end in madness.

Coleridge and Wordsworth discarded their youthful revolutionism and lived on to become as respectable a middle-class conservative as even Hazlett could wish. Such violent swings from revolution to reaction are not uncommon in the history of the relations between artists and revolutions. It always seems to be the case that intellectuals who flirt with revolution in their youth end up by swinging very far in the opposite direction. They seem under some inner compulsion to atone for the sins of their youth by fervently embracing all the values they had earlier rejected. There is no middle way here!

The struggle between the classes culminated with the slaughter of unarmed demonstrators in Manchester, known as the Peterloo massacre. In August 1819 at Saint Peter's Field in Manchester a mass rally demanding the restoration of Habeus Corpus, a free press and the vote, was viciously attacked by the militia. The peaceful protest meeting was brutally attacked by mounted troops and militia, who cut down men, women and small children indiscriminately. Eleven people were killed and another hundred wounded by these cutthroats in uniform.

Byron and Shelley raged against this bloody slaughter, while William Cobbett denounced the government in ringing terms. But in the midst of all this turmoil, Wordsworth continued to contemplate his daisies and daffodils, while pocketing the rewards so generously conferred upon him by a grateful state. His adoration of Nature did not imply total indifference to politics. It did not prevent him from standing as a candidate against a Radical. He wrote:

"I cannot but be of the opinion that the feudal power yet surviving in England is eminently serviceable in counteracting the popular tendency to reform […] The people are already powerful far beyond the increase of their information and their improvement of mind." (Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Romantics, p. 68, my emphasis, AW.)

Wordsworth's services to the ruling class did not go unrewarded. The poet was awarded a pension in the Civil list worth £300 by Sir Robert Peel, who further named him Poet Laureate - which he stipulated must be a sinecure. He was also made distributor of stamps for the county of Westmoreland. Wordsworth was now His Majesty's most loyal subject. In his last years, he became a Tory and a devout Christian. This ex-revolutionary even wrote a poem protesting against the introduction of the secret ballot, beginning:

"Forth rushed from Envy sprung and self-conceit
A power misnamed the Spirit of Reform stoops she to entreat
Licence to hide at intervals her head
Where she may work, safe, undisquieted
in a close box!" (ibid., p. 77)

But Wordsworth the poet did not escape unpunished for his apostasy. If he gained a pension he lost his soul. It is no accident that his poetic inspiration ebbed away together with his revolutionary spirit. The poetry of the older Wordsworth is mostly worthless. Ifor Evans says of him: "He died in 1850, but poetry died in him in about 1815, only to return fitfully, almost painfully." (Sir Ifor Evans, A Short History of English Literature, p. 49). This comment is entirely justified. The Wordsworth of The Prelude, is the voice of great poetry; but the clapped-out, withered old reactionary of The Excursion and Ruth is fit only for the dustbin.

Evans continues: "As a young man he had high hopes for humanity: he had been nurtured in the Lake District, where everything had led him to think well of man. The teaching of Rousseau and his own experience convinced him that man was naturally good. In the French Revolution he saw a great movement for human freedom, welcoming it as many welcomed in our own days the Union of Soviet Republics. Wordsworth himself confesses that the greatest shock of his life came when England declared war on the young French Republic. In the years which followed he had to endure an agony of spiritual disillusionment. He saw that the France of the young Buonaparte was following, not the vision of the liberties of man, but the path of Charlemagne. Partly under Burke's influence, he came to regard England as the protector of freedom against this new imperialism." (ibid.)

Evans is too kind. Just as many of the middle class fellow travellers of the October revolution swung over to the camp of reaction, using the crimes of Stalin as an excuse for their personal cowardice, so Wordsworth betrayed the ideals of his youth in the most cynical manner, hiding behind the crimes of Bonaparte. The bitter old reactionary tried to hide from his own conscience by burying himself in the hills of the Lake District, where he posed as a poetic mystic, lost amidst the beauties of Nature, where he could in complete safety meditate on the follies of mankind. But poetic inspiration had deserted him entirely.

In The Prelude we have fine descriptions of nature, especially Wordsworth's beloved Lake District, where the ecstatic unity of subject and object - the total identity of the poet and nature - reaches a pitch of intensity that brings us close to pantheism. By contrast, in late Wordsworth, we have mere bathos, verging on the comic, as when he addresses a spade in a poem incredibly entitled "To the Spade of a Friend (an Agriculturalist), Composed as we were labouring together in his Pleasure Ground" (i.e., his garden!). Here bankrupt politics go hand in hand with bad poetry. In a merciless parody on one of Wordsworth's best-known sonnets, J.K. Stephen exposes his poetic decline:

"Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine...." (Quoted in R. Graves, The Crowning privilege, p. 130.)

Of course, it cannot be maintained that the production of great art or poetry depends on the political standpoint of the artist or writer. The relationship of social developments and art is not so direct or mechanical. But what is true is that great art must be linked to humanity, and thus cannot be utterly indifferent to the fate of the human race. The greatest artists have always been finely tuned - in one way or another - to the changes in society. This is particularly true of those great events (like wars, religious reformations and revolutions) that mark turning points in human history. Great poetry has derived its inspiration from such events which make the soul of the poet vibrate to the heart-beat of history.

No-one can deny that the poetry of Wordsworth declined at the same time that he swung to the right in politics. This cannot be ascribed to accident. Wordsworth was inspired by the French Revolution, and his poetic Muse took flight, spurred on by the spirit of youthful generosity and enthusiasm, and by a vision of the future which was full of hope. When this vision died, poetic inspiration began to dry up with it.

Of course, this did not happen all at once. A capable poet (as he was) can live for some time on his accumulated skills and can for a time compensate for the lack of human inspiration with technical ability. But it is equally a fact that as time went on, the emptiness of his soul was reflected in an emptiness of his literary production.

Inevitably, this affected the personal relations between Wordsworth and Coleridge. They quarrelled with each other and parted company. This process can also be explained by the way in which they broke with their past. The speed with which both men slid into the arms of reaction differed. Wordsworth, the hypocritical "poet of Nature" displayed the greater cynicism and lack of principle.

Coleridge followed suit. As early as 1796 he wrote: "I have […] snapped my squeaking baby-trumpet of sedition, and have hung up its fragments in the chamber of Penances. I wish to be a good man and a Christian – but I am no Whig, no Reformist, no Republican." (Quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Romantics, p. 38.)

It is always the same with intellectuals who desert the revolution. They invariably go to the opposite extreme and "find religion". In the end Coleridge revealed himself to be an out-and-out reactionary with a contempt for the "lower classes", as revealed in a letter to one of his friends on the subject of servants:

"As for your servants and the people of Stowey in general, you have been often unwisely fretful with me when I have pressed upon you their depravity. Without religious joys and religious terrors, nothing can be expected for the inferior classes of society." (ibid., p. 16.)

In turning their back on humanity, both Wordsworth and Coleridge destroyed the source of their poetic inspiration. After all, there is nothing poetic in the bitterness of an old reactionary. In his disillusionment, he attempted to find solace in mysticism and metaphysics. But his inspiration, too, was withering on the vine. Gone was the youthful sparkle and ebullience that characterised him in his revolutionary period. He was now tired, ill and increasingly addicted to laudanum. He felt that his muse was deserting him and complained that he was unable to finish his long poem Christabel. He managed to finish the second part, but the lack of inspiration was so obvious that he gave up all thought of a third. He expressed the sad reality in his verse:

"Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live

These despairing lines have the feel of an epitaph about them. It is the epitaph for the death of English poetry for the remainder of the 19th century. With the later Wordsworth we enter another world: that of middle class Victorian England. Paradoxically, it was Wordsworth himself who condemned the values of Victorian England in his sonnet "The world is too much with us" with its attack on "getting and spending" - the motor-force of 19th century English capitalism. Yet he ended up as one of its most enthusiastic converts.

The obsession with nature was only a convenient disguise to conceal the crude reality of this hard-hearted, flint-faced world of business, with a profit-and-loss sheet in place of a soul. For the "Lake Poets" it afforded a convenient escape-route from reality. For the newly risen moneyed middle classes who grew prosperous out of the blood, sweat and tears of little children in mines and factories, the products of such poets acted as a sedative, like a consoling sermon on Sunday, or a good joint of roast beef at dinner, or a glass of laudanum before bedtime.