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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 4. The French Revolution

But his practice of descriptive poetry was interrupted for several years, at the very time when he was giving the finishing touch to these poems. The influence of the French revolution on this part of his life cannot be overrated. Characteristically, he was rather late in becoming an adept. He uttered no paean on the fall of the Bastille. To move him, it was necessary that his senses should be aroused. Now, the revolution turned her most enticing smile towards him. It so happened that he had first landed at Calais on the eve of the federation of 1790; so, the unparalleled mirth of that time seemed a festivity prepared for his welcome. The glee and hopefulness of the season turned into a charming benevolence, which he tasted with all the relish of a student on a holiday trip. Then came his prolonged stay in France, chiefly at Orleans and at Blois, from November, 1791, to December, 1792, in times already darkened by civil mistrust and violence. But, chance would have it that he should be eyewitness to heartstirring scenes, such as the enlisting of volunteers and the proclamation of the republic. Above all, he had the good fortune to make friends with one of the true heroes of the day, Captain Michel Beaupuy, whose chivalric nature and generous enthusiasm for the new order warmed the young Englishman. Exquisite is the portrait drawn of Beaupuy in The Prelude. The fine traits of his character are all confirmed by what has since become known of his career, with this reservation, that, through an irresistible tendency to idealise, Wordsworth may have toned down some of the features. Beaupuy was the revolutionary apostle described by the poet, but there was less of the philosopher and more of the soldier in his composition. It is clear from his letters and diaries that he was an ingenuous and soldier-like reasoner, and, also, that he could utter an oath or two when in a passion. Anyhow, he found Wordsworth a bewildered foreigner and left him a determined revolutionist, one might almost say a French republican. A spirit of revolt and indignation against all social iniquities pervaded Wordsworth for years, together with a sympathy, which never left him, for the poorer and humbler members of the community. When he came back to England, he drew near the Jacobins without becoming one of them; but he was a decided reformer. Alienated from his own country when she went to war with France, he heartily hated king, regent and ministry. His letter to the bishop of Llandaff and his poem Guilt and Sorrow (or Incidents on Salisbury Plain) are the best testimonies of his feelings. Society appeared to him responsible for the wretchedness, and even the crimes, of individuals—his pity went to vagrants and murderers. His abhorrence of war was shown in insistent and gruesome pictures of war scenes.

When the French revolution passed into the Terror, and especially when the republic changed a defensive into an aggressive war, Wordsworth lost his trust in immediate social reform. He turned more and more to abstract meditation on man and society, chiefly under the guidance of William Godwin—a period of dry intellectualism that went against the grain. He suffered from the suppression of his feelings, from being momentarily deaf to “the language of the sense.” Besides, his analysis of men’s motives soon convinced him that the evils he fought against were not so much the results of social forms as of something inherent in man’s nature. A man of commanding intellect may be wantonly cruel and vicious; he may use all the powers of logic for his detestable ends; reason is non-moral; the wicked “spin motives out of their own bowels.” Hence, a wellnigh absolute, though transient, pessimism, which vented itself in his play The Borderers. If the traditional bonds of morality are relaxed, the fixed rules of our actions or the intuitive guidance of the feelings repudiated, then full scope is given to bold, intelligent, bad men; then are the well-meaning blinded and betrayed to abominable deeds. Then is the Terror possible. Scarcely any hope of betterment is left. The kind-hearted Girondin Marmaduke will be an easy prey to the villainous Montagnard Oswald.