French Revolution and English Romanticism

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Scott, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth...

Probably there was not a single gifted mind in any country of Europe upon which the tempest of the French Revolution did not come with a stimulating or disturbing influence. Young men- hasty counselors ever, from the days of Rehoboam,- thrilled with hope and flushed with excitement, announced and believed that a golden age had opened for mankind. Wordsworth hastened from Cambridge in 1792 to France, where he lived more than a year, and formed some Girondist acquaintances; Coleridge invented a scheme for an ideal community which was to form a model settlement, to be conducted on principles of pantisocracy, on the blanks of the Susquehanna; Southey nearly got himself into trouble by publishing Wat Tyler, a dramatic sketch of an inflammatory and seditious character. On the other hand, the young Walter Scott looked with shrewd, clear eyes on the tumultuous scene, and was not tempted to throw himself into the vortex ; for him the treasures of Europe’s mighty past were real and precious, and not to bee bartered for any quantity of visionary hopes and fairy gold. Soon the proceedings of the Revolutionist made clear enough that human nature and human motives were not change ; and the ranks of reaction were rapidly filled. In England an immense effect was produced by the appearance of Burke’s Reflection on the French Revolution in 1791. the sympathizers with the French republicans dwindled in the number so fast, that at the end of the century, as it was sportively said, the whole of the opposition to Pitt’s Government in the house of the lords went home from the debate in a single hack cab. Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge change round to the conservative side. The appearance in the France of the Genie du Christianisme (1802) by Chateaubriand marked the commencement of the great continental reaction. The public policy of England became essentially conservative ; she endeavoured to prop up all the old monarchies on the Continent, whether they deserve to live or not ; she harboured thousands of French priest ; she supported the temporal power of the pope. A remarkable dissonance hence arose between the policy of the country and some of the finest notes in its literature. While the English aristocracy was putting forth its full strength to combat Jacobinism by land and sea, the spirit of revolution breathed from the pages of Shelley and Byron. The war with Napoleon was waged with the approval of the great majority of the nation ; but the able critics and publicist who conducted the Edinburgh Review (started in 1802) were vehemently opposed to it, and would, if their influence had prevailed, have withdrawn the sword of England from the contest at least ten years before Waterloo.

The romantic poems of the Scott (Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, Lady of the Lake,&c.) were popular because they were in sympathy with the return (now strongly pronounced) of the European mind towards chivalry, feudalism, and the mediaval spirits. The works of the Renaissance were not longer praised ; its art was held to be imitative or debased, its refinement to be superficial, its enthusiasm factitious. Taking its cue from Rousseau, all the world was thirsting, or pretending to thirst, after nature and simplicity ; the naivete and spontaneity, real or imagined, of the " ages of faith " seemed incalculably better than the finesse and self-consciousness of modern times. Working this vein somewhat too long, Scott was at last outshone by it Byron, romantic tales (Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, The Giaour, &c.) were still more remote from the dullness, and conventionality of ordinary life than those of Scott. In Childe Harold, a poem finely but unequally versified in the Spenserain stanza, the noble poet described himself,- for no one ever doubted that he was himself "the great sublime he drew," – traveling through Spain, Italy, and grace, a prey to melancholy discontent,...
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