Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER II

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION:

COLERIDGE

Ar a time when the study of literary influences, the influence of nation on nation, of poet on poet, of book on book, threatens to claim the whole field of literary history, the case of Wordsworth has a special interest. The rainbow of Romanticism has been unweaved; the imports of Romanticism have been traced to the places of their growth. One man read Shakespeare; another buried himself in Northern mythology; a third, weary of the monotony of his own good sense and sound judgment, brought drugs and perfumes from the East. A whole tribe of workers busied themselves with the resuscitation of the ideas and arts of the Middle Ages. And it cannot be denied that the Middle Ages, misunderstood, in its own way and for its own purposes, by the Eighteenth Century, furnished the most picturesque part of its outfit to the Romantic Revival. Of all literary influences in the England of the close of

the century Percy's Reliques was incomparably the most powerful. But the complex machinery of loans, imports, bequests, letters of credit, and orders of affiliation does not in the end explain Romanticism. The compass of human expression is limited; the variations of human thought are, after all, slight variations; and an age that seeks expression for its philosophy is always to be found wisely foraging in the storehouse of the past. Its philosophy, nevertheless, is its own, and, unless it is no better than a foolish imitation, derives from experience of life. One and the same tendency of thought and feeling, resulting from the pressure of a single age and civilisation on the eternal motives of human nature, is manifested in many minds at the same time; and then, and then only, does the search for expression begin.

It is the interest of Wordsworth's career, studied as an episode in literary history, that it takes us at once to the root of the matter, and shows us the genesis of poetry from its living material, without literary intermediary. The influence of the Reliques, the reaction from the "gaudy and inane phraseology" of the school of Pope, though both are to be reckoned with, are symptoms merely, indications of the natural affinities and differences of a poetry which sprang neither from imitation nor from disgust. The

dominant passion of Wordsworth's life owed nothing to books. There was for him no question of the return to Nature; he had never deserted her. There was a question, nevertheless, akin to this, suggested by the events of his own time, which he wrestled with and solved. The horrors of the French Revolution cast a doubt on the legitimacy of his youthful joys and discoloured his view of human nature. When he regained his delight in nature and his faith in man, and taught that delight and that faith to others, it was a triumph for the deepest of the feelings that had given strength and vogue to the doctrine of Rousseau, the father of the literary Romantics. So it is that Wordsworth's poetic career is a history of Romanticism in epitome. The country-bred youth was marked by fate to be the champion of the ideas that turned the current of European thought; and while those ideas were struggling darkly and confusedly in the arena of the Revolution, soiled with dust and blood, he was winning for them a pure and lasting victory elsewhere. His simple fidelity to his memories and his severe devotion to truth earned him his success where others, more sumptuously equipped, had been betrayed by the deceits of the heart. If Rousseau had survived to witness the Revolution, would he have kept the kernel of his faith; or would he rather have been found, blinded by clouds of vanity

and sentiment, urging on the murderous fury of the mob?

In

The Revolution, in its earlier phases, involved no revolution in Wordsworth's mental life. common with a large number of his countrymen, he accepted it gladly, and expected for its principles a peaceful and beneficent triumph. The societies with which he had been most familiar in his youth were, as he explains, essentially democratic in their basis. Among the dalesmen of Cumberland there reigned an absolute equality. The sole distinguished individual of each of these valley communities was their minister, who, except on the Sabbath day, differed not at all in clothing or in manner of life from themselves. "Everything else, person and possession, exhibited a perfect equality, a community of shepherds and agriculturists, proprietors, for the most part, of the lands which they occupied and cultivated." At Cambridge, again, he found that strong infusion of democratic principles which from the first has been the mark of university life

All stood thus far

Upon equal ground; that we were brothers all
In honour, as in one community,

Scholars and gentlemen.

Political problems were almost indifferent to him; they seemed cold and theoretic; and history

was valued only as another form of fiction, a collection of tales that

made the heart

Beat high, and filled the fancy with fair forms.

Even after his first visit to France his attitude was little changed. The walking tour in Switzerland that he adventured with his friend Robert Jones took him on foot through France, going and returning. When he saw the Brabant armies making ready for war, he says,

I looked upon these things

As from a distance; heard, and saw, and felt,
Was touched, but with no intimate concern.

The joy of life and the sure and easy faith in a glorious outcome for the new spirit of fraternity possessed him, to the exclusion of reflection. Kings had never impressed his imagination, and he was willing to do without them.

The record of this first visit to France supplies an interesting comment on the usual conception of Wordsworth's character. He was naturally, he says, of a violent, impulsive, and passionate disposition. But to most of those who make acquaintance with him he is known as the solitary of the Lakes, the embodiment of mild wisdom and gentle precept, who was to be seen day by day wandering on the public roads muttering to himself. Many of his critics find in him too little of those

« PreviousContinue »