Consider the historical development of the French Revolution and its aftermath over the course of the 1790s and its impact on British poets. The French Revolution was born out of an age of extraordinary triumph where man decided to fight for the rights of his kind. It was described by Thomas Paine as a period in “which everything may be looked for” (The Rights of Man 168) and attained. “Man” was readily developing into an idealistic concept that had the capability to accomplish things that had only previously been matters of thought. However this glorious Revolution soon showed signs of weakness and was eventually marked a failure by the Jacobin “Reign of Terror”, resulting in William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge facing profound disillusionment with man. This essay explores the way in which these poets turned their loyalties to Nature, viewing her as the true superior that could achieve in her society what man could not in his. It begins by addressing how the poets perceived mankind at the dawn of the Revolution by looking into aspects of Wordsworth’s Prelude and Coleridge’s poem “France: An Ode”. The essay then goes on to expose the poets’ transformed attitudes as the Revolution progressively worsened by analysing the way in which Wordsworth and Coleridge perceive Nature in relation to man in “Lines Written in Early Spring” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”.
The early days of the French Revolution were lit up with the promise of a Utopian state that would be built on man’s individual rights and freedoms. Wordsworth reveals this heightened atmosphere by declaring in the Prelude that “great change wandered in perfect faith” (IX, 308). Man had absolute faith in his own kind to transform this ideal into a reality and therefore conceived him as a Messiah with the divine capability to achieve anything he set out to. This perception of man is further reinforced by the poet in the Prelude when he alludes to his dinner with the revolutionaries and states that “Guests [were] welcome almost as angels were/ To Abraham of old” (VI, 396-97). In reference to to the Biblical tale of Abraham, Wordsworth displays the guests, or potential patriots, as “angels” and therein denotes them as divine beings with the exteriority of a human. In his book, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, Edward Thompson emphasizes Wordsworth’s perception of man by stating that the poet had “boundless aspiration[s]” (37) for man; one of which was to achieve “perfectibility” (38). The use of the word “perfectibility” insinuates that Wordsworth envisioned man as having the power to surpass all odds and create a Utopia that celebrated the ideals of the Revolution, and therefore the freedoms of humankind.
Coleridge also upholds this unconquerable belief of man’s superiority in the beginnings of the Revolution, and reveals this by comparing France to a mythical giant in “France: An Ode”. He announces in the second stanza that “[...] France in her wrath her giant limbs upreared, / And with that oath, which smote air, earth and sea, / Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free” (22-4). In these lines France is shown to have abilities that exceed those of man, which Coleridge accentuates further when he reveals the nation’s ability to “smote” (23) earth’s elements with her Revolutionary oath. The word “smote” alludes to the actions of the divine Lord, and thus man’s pledge to succeed in the Revolution was as good as a promise from the heavens. However these perceptions soon shifted when the Revolution developed cracks that eventually grew into bottomless craters. Man’s failure in the Revolution transformed the poets’ ideals towards valorising Nature, and focused on the ways she succeeded where man could not during these years of promise. Aidan Day accentuates this binary switch of superiority by stating that Wordsworth and Coleridge’s later 1970’s poetry exemplifies “[a] sense of the health and integrity of life of nature, in contrast...
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