Wordsworth & Coleridge: The Radical Years, Second Edition, by Nicholas Roe, Oxford University Press, 352 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198818113
What has feeling to do with politics? What does it mean to feel when a blissful millennium foretold by generations of prophets seems, at long last, to be just around the corner? What does feeling entail when we face not only an elysium but also an impending apocalypse (religiously conceived or not) that promises to overthrow inherited privileges and unjust institutions – a paradise regained in the very world of all of us, where selfishness yields to fraternity, where liberty and equality are actually realised, reified? What does it mean to feel – and who dares to feel anyway – when forces conspire, in the name of the law and in the interests of “security”, to drag us from our bright dreams, when to dream is to risk imprisonment, exile and forfeiture of all that is dear to us, to hazard even death? And does feeling have any valency, any use at all, when, subsequently, the beatific visions themselves prove delusory and, once again, we are left with nothing except things as they are?
English writers who lived through the 1790s knew all too well the significance of feeling in politics. In 1789, when the fall of the Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution, English liberals, dissenters and reformists welcomed that glorious moment. France had long had a double reputation in Britain: known for its fashionable elegance, its couture, but also for the authoritarian and repressive measures pursued by state and church. That resounding eighteenth-century ballad “The Roast Beef of Old England” contrasts “all-vapouring France” with a Merry England whose “mighty Roast Beef” “ennobled our veins and enriched our blood”. Drawing on this longstanding English perception, William Hogarth’s The Gate of Calais (1748) famously portrays a fat Catholic friar fingering and salivating over a gigantic joint of beef that is being delivered to an English tavern in the French port. By way of contrast, Hogarth shows ragged, emaciated soldiers feeding on their soupe maigre and enviously eyeing up the beef. Three superstitious fishwives with crosses on their necks are worshipping a skate in the foreground. Catholicism, superstition, state-sponsored poverty and even Jacobitism (in the shape of the miserable Irish and Scottish soldiers in exile) are all brilliantly skewered here, at the same time as English prosperity is celebrated.
The French Revolution changed all that. All of a sudden revolutionary France shook off its mind-forged manacles. As the poet William Wordsworth said, the country stood “on the top of golden hours”, and, with the outbreak of the revolution, “human nature” seemed to be “born again”. The French Revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité encouraged in particular those progressive English people who, after the Revolution of 1688, regarded themselves as custodians of liberty and were advocating parliamentary reform, religious toleration and the abolition of the slave trade. In various parts of Britain patriotic societies sprang up, giving political agency to lower-class labourers such as shoemakers and plumbers: they published and distributed cheap or free radical pamphlets and broadsides, organised debates, lectures and petitions, supported those prosecuted for sedition and treason and presented congratulatory addresses to the French revolutionaries. There were also British radicals in Paris actively participating in the revolutionary agenda. At home, polemical treatises proliferated, the most influential being Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791 and 1792), a powerful retort to Edmund Burke’s counter-revolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
A rich political culture gained creative momentum: visual propaganda and pictorial satires responded to the latest developments on both sides of the English Channel by using a series of ready-made but never-exhausted images: Britannia, Erin, John Bull, Marianne, sans-culottes, stylised portraits of politicians such as William Pitt (prime minister) and Charles James Fox (opposition leader), English bulldogs, French greyhounds, frogs, the beef of old England, sabots, bonnets rouges, the Royal Oak, arbres de la liberté. In addition to this vibrant visual culture, the revolutionary age had a distinctive soundscape: the popular songs Ça ira, La Carmagnole and La Marseillaise have come down in history.
Many years later, the English essayist William Hazlitt recalled the general euphoria at “that glad dawn of the day-star of liberty”. For Hazlitt, who was eleven in 1789, the French Revolution had ushered in the “spring-time of the world, in which the hopes and expectations of the human race seemed opening in the same gay career with our own”. With post-revolutionary hindsight, though, Hazlitt acknowledged that the revolution had been an “airy, unsubstantial dream”. Through a similar metaphor, Wordsworth recalled how his “youthful mind” had worked “beneath / The breath of great events” during the revolutionary years. As Nicholas Roe points out in Wordsworth & Coleridge: The Radical Years, the word “breath” here seems to make light of the cataclysmic “events” during the French Revolution – although “breath” also suggests a more invisible, more profoundly inspirational, almost vivifying kind of influence reminiscent of the “breath of life” that turns Adam into “a living soul” in Genesis.
Be it compared to air, breath, or a “glorious dawn”, and despite the initial rejoicings, the French Revolution caused unpalatable and all-too-substantial reactions in Britain. Strident accusations of anarchy and atheism were made, particularly after Burke’s eloquent Reflections appeared in 1790. The war between Britain and revolutionary France broke out in February 1793; fears of invasions persisted and were corroborated and exacerbated when the French sent expeditions to Bantry Bay in Co Cork in 1796 and to Carregwastad near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire in 1797. Habeas corpus was suspended, and government repression reached its most draconian form in the two “Gagging Acts” of December 1795, which silenced the popular reform movement. Revolutionary France itself was plunged into violence and bloodshed and came to adopt an expansionist policy, invading Switzerland in 1798. Throughout Britain, government spies, local informers, counter-revolutionary societies, and “Church and King” mobs were vigorously active. The French Revolutionary “dream” might have been “unsubstantial”, but the nightmarish fears both in Jacobin France and in counter-revolutionary Britain were real.
What, then, did it mean to be a feeling person in that turbulent age? Nicholas Roe probes into the complex ramifications of this question in the second edition of his study (the first edition appeared in 1988). Delving into motives and actions, causes and consequences, doubts and convictions, thoughts and feelings, disruptions and continuities, as well as their embodiments in words, Roe brings to life the emotional landscape of English radicalism in the 1790s. He places the poets William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) – co-authors of the ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads (1798) – firmly at the heart of the intellectual and social networks of radical England and asks how the French Revolution shaped their imagination and their writing careers.
Roe follows Wordsworth to revolutionary France in the summer of 1790, where the young poet and his Cambridge friend Robert Jones witnessed the first Fête de la Fédération; the book then delineates Wordsworth’s subsequent residence in London in 1791, where he formed connections with radical dissenters such as Samuel Nicholson, Joseph Johnson and Joseph Fawcett (a Unitarian preacher who would inform in due course Wordsworth’s portrayal of the misanthropic Solitary in The Excursion of 1814). He details Wordsworth’s return to France towards the end of 1791, where he mingled with counter-revolutionaries and engaged with revolutionary politics, becoming acquainted with, and gaining political knowledge from, revolutionaries such as Michel Beaupuy and, quite possibly, Henri Grégoire. Wordsworth returned to England in December 1792 as a republican who sought to justify the revolutionary cause and even the execution of Louis XVI in his (unpublished) Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff. He was to acquaint himself with the English radical leaders of the day.
Coleridge on the other hand, as Roe observes, though intellectually committed to radical politics, never physically experienced the French Revolution; his emergence from Jesus College, Cambridge as a radical Unitarian in the wake of William Frend and George Dyer also distinguished him from Wordsworth’s less religiously inflected radicalism. Coleridge left Cambridge in 1794 without a degree, but his subsequent career as a lecturer, Unitarian preacher, writer and editor of The Watchman placed him on a par with eminent radicals such as John Thelwall, who was to visit Coleridge and Wordsworth in Nether Stowey and Alfoxden in July 1797. (Thelwall – charged with treason, attacked, maligned and spied on – wished to live “in philosophic amity” with Coleridge and William and Dorothy Wordsworth, “Alfoxden’s musing tenant, and the maid / Of ardent eye”.) With Robert Southey and others, Coleridge devised a blueprint for a Pantisocracy in 1794, a “scheme of emigration on the principles of an abolition of individual property”, first in Kentucky and then on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Despite (and perhaps even because of) embodying Coleridge’s political ideal that the “intensity of private attachment” would lead to “universal philanthropy”, Pantisocracy came to nothing, but the idealism that had inspired it endured for a while. Coleridge continued to “fight the bloodless fight / Of Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ” even whilst Wordsworth experienced a series of doubts and changes from which he was nevertheless to emerge as the poet we know today – the poet of “Tintern Abbey”, The Prelude and The Recluse.
As Roe puts it: “Whereas Coleridge’s experience of 1794-8 was of intellectual assimilation and continuity, over the same period Wordsworth lurched uneasily through a succession of political and philosophical identities, from republicanism through Godwinian rationalism to his own version of Coleridge’s One Life”. He demonstrates convincingly that this succession of shifting identities can be traced through Wordsworth’s major imaginative writings of the 1790s: Salisbury Plain (1793, expanded in 1795), The Borderers (1796–7), The Ruined Cottage (1797–8) and then Lyrical Ballads (1798), which moved from a strident tone of pro-revolutionary and anti-war protest, through Godwin-influenced ideas of crime and punishment, to a quieter but more affectively engaged poetry of “suffering”, of “inward life” and of “hope” arising from “the mind’s receptivity to nature and memory”.
Unlike many of their radical contemporaries who were imprisoned, transported to Botany Bay or even executed, Wordsworth and Coleridge were never tried for sedition or treason, though they did attract the attention of the Home Office and were spied on in August 1798, as Roe vividly shows. Some of the poets’ fellow radicals retired, went underground, recanted or emigrated. Others grew embittered and misanthropic. Still others rechannelled their radical ideals into other pursuits. Later in life, Coleridge was to deny his former connection with radical societies and to declare publicly his opposition to “jacobinism” and “democracy” – though Thelwall remembered him as a “downright zealous leveller”. Wordsworth too, who in 1794 had considered himself to be one of “that odious class of men called democrats”, was to embrace the unreformed political establishment, as well as the Anglican church. When the tide of reform surged again after 1815, and especially in the lead-up to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the 1832 Reform Act, Wordsworth was on the side of the “Hereditary distinctions and privileged orders” which, in 1794, he had thought “must necessarily counteract the progress of human improvement”.
The trajectory of the poets’ political “disenchantment and apostasy” has become a familiar narrative and academics have endeavoured to determine when Wordsworth’s “political reversal” happened. Attempts to pinpoint this “reversal” are often made by identifying similarities between Wordsworth and major political writers of the age, especially Edmund Burke, who cherished the “gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns” which constitute “common life” and which are incompatible with “metaphysical rights”. Burke’s counter-revolutionary emphasis on “human passions” and his rejection of abstract political theory are too often mapped onto the reputed intellectual vacuum following Wordsworth’s disenchantment with William Godwin’s radical rationalism. James Chandler’s Wordsworth’s Second Nature (1984) has, for example, identified Burke’s “conservative” presence in Wordsworth’s recourse to human passions in Lyrical Ballads, even though other influences seem more immediate and more pertinent, such as the “private attachments” that informed Coleridge’s radical scheme of Pantisocracy. What distinguishes Nicholas Roe’s study is that he resists placing too much emphasis on Wordsworth’s intellectual allegiances, but where allegiances are inevitably discussed (particularly in relation to Godwin), he scrutinises the currents, undercurrents and counter-currents of thought, never losing sight of biographical evidence.
Wordsworth & Coleridge: The Radical Years thus offers an intimate account of a plurality of intermeshed intellectual influences and connections. One instance is Roe’s subtle evocation of “Godspierre” – a deep-seated connection in Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s minds between “Robespierre’s politics” and “Godwin’s philosophy”. He examines the politics of prospect views to elucidate Coleridge’s simultaneous fascination with and resistance to Maximilien Robespierre, the principal architect of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. In his lectures of 1795, Coleridge praised the “thinking and disinterested patriots” – Joseph Gerrald, Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer and Maurice Margarot, all of whom were transported to Botany Bay – for looking forward to “that glorious period when Justice shall have established the universal fraternity of Love”. As these radicals “advance”, Coleridge said, “the scene still opens upon them, and they press right onward with a vast and various landscape of existence around them”. During the same period, Coleridge brought forth a lofty vision of the “Imagination”, figured through a prospect view which was at the centre of his forward-looking radical ideals: the Imagination “stimulates to the attainment of real excellence by the contemplation of splendid Possibilities that still revivifies the dying motive within us, and fixing our eye on the glittering Summits that rise one above the other in Alpine endlessness still urges us up the ascent of Being, amusing the ruggedness of the road with the beauty and grandeur of the ever-widening Prospect. Such and so noble are the ends for which this restless faculty was given us – but horrible has been its misapplication.”
As the last sentence indicates, the “ever-widening Prospect” of the imagination has its dangers, and this is evident in Coleridge’s account of Robespierre, who travelled towards a “distant prospect” which “appeared to him grand and beautiful”, but which so much engrossed him that he neglected “the foulness of the road”. Coleridge’s portrayal of Godwin also features an enchanting prospect view. However, unlike Robespierre, who pursued a “grand and beautiful” end through dubious means, Coleridge suggests that Godwin’s radical treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), “proposes an end without establishing the means”: the “perfectness of future Men” – the fundamental principle of Political Justice – is “indeed a benevolent tenet”, but “a distant prospect, which we are never to reach, will seldom quicken our footsteps, however lovely it may appear”.
Although Roe does not mention it, Coleridge’s discussion of means and ends, as well as his political rendering of prospect views, found its way into Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion. There, the Solitary compared the fall of the “dread Bastille” to a vision of “Glory – beyond all glory ever seen, / Confusion infinite of heaven and earth, / Dazzling the soul” – a prospect view he saw in the Cumbrian mountains. Even in his post-revolutionary despondency, the Solitary remains sympathetic towards visionary aims:
Slight, if you will, the means; but spare to slight
The end of those, who did, by system, rank,
As the prime object of a wise Man’s aim,
Security from shock of accident . . .
In the latter half of the 1790s, however, Robespierre’s violent “means” – along with his recourse to the Godwinian language of “reason”, “justice” and “virtue” and his Godwinian claim of having risen above the “storms of jarring passions” – could not simply be “slighte[d]”. Roe establishes an important parallel between Wordsworth’s treatment of revolutionary violence and Godwin’s philosophy. As the poet remembers in The Prelude, Godwin at first attracted him because, when revolutionary hopes “tended fast / To depravation”, Godwin’s Political Justice “promised to abstract the hopes of man / Out of his feelings” – thus “shaking off / The accidents of nature, time, and place / That make up the weak being of the past”. In 1794, Wordsworth had drawn inspiration from Political Justice for his own projected radical journal, The Philanthropist, and subsequently, in 1795, he met Godwin himself in London. Yet, like Coleridge, who disapproved of Godwin’s rationalism and atheism from the very beginning, Wordsworth came to distrust the dangerous potential of Godwin’s “independent intellect”. As Roe argues, the murderous villain Rivers in Wordsworth’s tragedy The Borderers embodies both “Godwin’s arrogant abstraction and Robespierre’s ruthless politics” in justifying the paramount role of reason.
In The Prelude, Wordsworth remembers that, during a period of intellectual perplexity after Godwin’s philosophy had proven not only inadequate but dangerous, Coleridge lent “a living help / To regulate [his] soul”, just as his sister Dorothy at that time also helped him communicate “With [his] true self”. Wordsworth and Coleridge first met in Bristol in late August-September 1795 but they did not become close friends until June 1797. By the time they started their creative collaboration, which would lead to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had regained his conviction that the “hopes of man” could never be “abstract[ed]” from “feelings”. And this is a conviction that runs through Roe’s book. In his epilogue, he provides a close reading of Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude”, a poem written almost immediately before the Irish rebellion of 1798, when fears of a French invasion escalated in Britain. Coleridge’s poem sees invasion as a punishment for Britain’s national crimes: imperialism, the slave trade, a pervasive “scheme of perjury” and warmongering. At the heart of Britain’s moral failings is an inability to “feel”. Coleridge voices his fears:
Are coming on us, O my countrymen!
And what if all-avenging Providence,
Strong and retributive, should make us know
The meaning of our words, force us to feel
The desolation and the agony
Of our fierce doings?
As Roe observes, “for Coleridge, Britain’s crisis is caused, in part, by a depreciation of language, a failure to think, feel, and connect with what we say, hear, and read”. Throughout their radical years in the 1790s, Wordsworth and Coleridge – in different ways, and despite changes in their own literary methods and emphases – aimed to revive and repair language in order to sharpen their readers’ perception of the “meaning” of words, and thence to make them “feel”.
In France in 1792, with his revolutionary friend Michel Beaupuy, Wordsworth had stumbled across a “hunger-bitten Girl / Who crept along, fitting her languid self / Unto a Heifer’s motion”. Beaupuy responded to the scene: “’Tis against that / Which we are fighting”. To feel “into” the minds of ordinary people such as the “hunger-bitten Girl” was to begin to change the world, even though the means – revolution? reform? or, more profoundly and fundamentally perhaps, moral regeneration? – remained a vital question for the poets to tackle in subsequent years.
Much of the literature of social and political protest in the 1790s shone a bright light on the plight of the poor. Pictorial satires of the age –for example James Gillray’s John Bull’s Progress (1793) – also imagined the feelings of the poor in order to convey a range of (often-ambiguous) political messages. In Peace and Union (1793), William Frend (Coleridge’s tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge), who was to be banished from the university because of his radical dissenting tract, wrote of the poor women he had met from Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire: “Let others talk of glory, let others celebrate the heroes, who are to deluge the world with blood, the words of the poor market women will still resound in my ears, we are sconced [taxed] three-pence in the shilling, one forth of our labour. For what!” Similarly, in 1794, Coleridge wrote to Southey: “It is wrong, Southey! for a little Girl with a half-famished sickly Baby in her arms to put her head in at the window of an Inn – ‘Pray give me a bit of Bread and Meat’! from a Party dining on Lamb, Green Pease, & Sallad.”
The French Revolution had thus drawn radical English writers irresistibly to human feelings, so much so that, as Roe shows, The Anti-Jacobin, or, Weekly Examiner came to define a genre of Jacobin poetry in which the author “contemplates, he examines, he turns [a poor person] in every possible light, with a view of extracting from the variety of his wretchedness, new topics of invective against the pride of property”.
Wordsworth’s early imaginative treatments of the poor – the Female Vagrant and the Sailor in Salisbury Plain – opposed the British government’s war policies and may indeed be construed partly as “invective[s] against the pride of property”. However, as the 1790s moved to a close, a more distinctive – and we may say Wordsworthian – voice was emerging. In poems such as “The Ruined Cottage”, we see a poet whose imagination, in Roe’s words, “curves inward”: protest gives way to a more deeply engaged understanding of human sufferings which ultimately shed light on our inherent dignity.
Such insights were to resurface in the churchyard tales in The Excursion, where Wordsworth explicitly explores the extent to which “seeing into” the feelings of the poor can help restore a person’s confidence in the post-revolutionary world. In 1799, Coleridge set out his expectations for Wordsworth’s lifelong, never-completed project The Recluse, to which The Prelude is the introduction, and of which The Excursion is one portion. Coleridge hoped that The Recluse would revive the confidence of 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 philosophes”. Alluding to Coleridge in The Prelude, Wordsworth situates his greatest work “in these times of fear, / This melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown”,
’mid indifference and apathy
And wicked exultation, when good men,
On every side, fall off, we know not how,
To selfishness, disguised in gentle names
Of peace and quiet and domestic love,
Yet mingled, not unwillingly, with sneers
On visionary minds . . .
Regenerating feeling and “activating” his readers through a “real” language stripped of the dead weight of conventional associations became a major preoccupation for Wordsworth in the post-revolutionary years, in a world where industrialisation, urbanisation, utilitarianism and populist politics were all blinding us to “what we are and what we may become”.
At the close of Part Two of his Rights of Man (1792), Thomas Paine envisioned that trees in their “leafless winterly appearance” would soon blossom throughout England, just as radical political consciousness would spread widely. Paine wrote: “What pace the political summer may keep with the natural, no human foresight can determine. It is, however, not difficult to perceive that the spring is begun.” If the French Revolution eventually failed to bring the “spring-time of the world”, those radical years did leave an enduring legacy to Wordsworth, making him the great poet both of feeling and of hope.
Broad in its scope and tenacious in its attention to historical and verbal details, Nicholas Roe’s book remains the most sympathetic and most thoroughly researched account of the poets’ radical years. It will not escape the reader’s notice, of course, that Wordsworth & Coleridge: The Radical Years – now newly revised and expanded – has a special relevance to our own age of “indifference and apathy”.
Brandon C Yen holds a PhD from Queens’ College, Cambridge and is an IRC Fellow at University College, Cork. With Peter Dale, he is writing a book on Wordsworth’s trees for Reaktion Books. He has recently collaborated with Trinity College, Dublin on the exhibition Ireland and the English Lake Poets: https://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/lake-poets/
Images: William Hogarth: The Gate of Calais, 1749, courtesy of Boston Public Library;
James Gillray: John Bull’s Progress, 1793, courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library