The French Revolution and Nature
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.
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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 with the depredations wrought by humanity” (Romanticism: The New Critical Idiom 39).
Therefore their poetry displays Nature as a healthy society that performs in a manner in which man cannot, and thus succeeds where man causes “depredation” (39) upon his kind. The first failure of the Revolution that the poets focus on is the uniting of the multitude under one harmonic voice. This was a necessity in order to progress forward in the attainment of human rights. However from the onset the Revolution was faced with opposing beliefs which broke its hope for absolute unity and hindered its strength.
In Book IX of the Prelude, whilst referencing his conversations with the opposing Royalists, Wordsworth states that these “defenders of the crown” (198) did not refrain from trying to win him over to their side (197-200). This inability to achieve a unified body is however countered in Wordsworth’s “Lines written in Early Spring” as he reveals Nature’s success at accomplishing what man failed to. In the first line of the poem Wordsworth declares, “I heard a thousand blended notes” (“Lines written in Early Spring” 1) and therefore, in this beautiful grove, the poet reveals the presence of multiple sounds that grow in harmony with each other.
The choice of the word “blended” (1) highlights the unification of Nature’s sounds into one cohesive body of song. Along with this, the use of sibilance also emphasizes this fusion as it produces one peaceful sound that pervades the rest of the stanza, therein mimicking the successful union of nature into one voice. In a manner similar to that of Wordsworth, Coleridge emphasizes Nature’s ability to collaborate into one harmonious body. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” he expresses this through the unification of Nature’s diverse colours as opposed to her sounds. In viewing the sunset over the surrounding landscape he asserts:
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb, Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds! Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves! And kindle, thou blue ocean! (34-37) The poet declares that all of Nature’s society now “Shine[s] in the slant beams” (34) and “Live[s] in the yellow light” (36) and thus projects that as the sun descends, its glow encompasses everything that it touches. In doing so he expresses that Nature’s multitude of colours, from the purple flowers growing on the heath, to the infinite blue of the ocean, all unify under the sun’s radiant tint and converge into one.
Meyer Abrams re-emphasizes Coleridge’s perception of Nature in his book A Correspondent Breeze as he reveals that the poet saw Nature as “a universe of correspondences, through which beats the pulse of one shared life” (219). Abrams thereby expresses that Nature is a complex diversity that interacts with each other and thus unites into one “shared” (219) body of life, which man failed to fully accomplish. Another failure of the Revolution which is addressed by the poets in relation to Nature’s success is the severe lack of human freedom afforded by the establishment of the new republic.
The Jacobin government was supposed to exert the ideals of the Revolution and thus “equal rights / [a]nd individual worth” (The Prelude IX, 248-249). In light of this, every member of society should have the right to express his/her own unique views. However the “Reign of Terror” expressed the utmost failure of this ideal as those thought to differ in opinion from the Jacobins were either imprisoned or sentenced to death. The Guillotine was connected to what Thomas English describes in the Annual Register as the “atrocities of democracy” (qtd. in Haywood 70), and thus highlights this counter-revolutionary practice.
Although the Jacobins failed to establish individual freedom, Nature is portrayed by Wordsworth to succeed. In “Lines Written in Early Spring” he projects that each unique plant coexists in harmony and therefore exists as different, yet without violent consequences. In the third stanza the poet expresses this by writing: “Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, / The periwinkle trailed its wreaths” (9-10). Wordsworth reflects that through the primrose, which grows close to the trees in the bower, the periwinkle flourishes in its trailing wreaths.
He therein denotes that Nature’s entities exist in their own diverse forms but are able to live together in harmony. This harmony is accentuated by the use of euphonic sounds produced by the repetition of the liquid consonant “r”, which alongside sibilance, creates a soft and peaceful tone. In relation to Wordsworth and his projection of Nature’s superiority to man, Coleridge takes it even further. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” he not only conveys that Nature’s different forms live alongside one another in peace, but that their diversity leads to a positive outcome as opposed to one of imprisonment or death.
The poet expresses this by highlighting the effect that ivy has on the elm trees, projecting that two contrasting entities lead to the reward of heightened beauty: “the ancient ivy, which usurps / Those fronting elms, and now, with the blackest mass / Makes their dark branches gleam a brighter hue” (53-55). The word “usurp” (53) reveals that the ivy is wrapped around the elm trees, and due to its dark colouring, the different forms collaborate to bring out the colour of the elm’s braches. The “blackest mass” (54) accentuates the colouring of the elm so that it emits a brighter than normal hue.
Therefore instead of the expression of difference in the Jacobin republic leading to oppressive measures, diversity in Nature is rewarded with beauty. Lastly the poets address Nature’s success in relation to the Jacobin’s hindrance of any progress the Revolution could have had. In order for the Revolution’s ideals to take root and accelerate further, man had to depend on one another for support and elevation. Wordsworth highlights this concept in the Prelude by declaring: “how the multitude of men will feed / And fan each other” (IX, 379-380).
This statement insinuates that man will “feed” (379) off his fellow’s Revolutionary stances and therein nourish his own, allowing the humanitarian ideals to thrive. However the Jacobin terror filled the nation with fear, alienating man from one another, and preventing the Revolution from flourishing. Wordsworth however exerts Nature’s superior ability to establish this productive dependence in man’s failure. In “Lines Written in Early Spring” the poet projects Nature’s entities as being able to achieve a dependence that enables accelerated growth.
This successful kinship is expressed through the relation of the primrose tufts and periwinkle wreaths to the “green bower” (9). Both flowers are reflected to grow amongst the trees and therefore depend on the shade created by them in order to flourish. The words “tufts” (9) and “wreaths” (10) highlight this successful relationship as they denote the formation of clusters and therefore a multitude of growth. Nature thus attains what man could not in the Revolution- a dependence that accomplishes what man could not in an alienated state. In his essay, “Green to the Very Door?
The Natural Wordsworth”, Paul Fry accentuates Wordsworth’s celebration of Nature as a society of dependence, whilst also reflecting the poet’s dismay of man in his alienated form, and thus uselessness to the Revolution. Fry writes that Wordsworth’s experience of the environment “taught him that he was not alone in an ‘inanimate cold world’ but with an ‘active universe’” (100). The word “inanimate” reflects a society that lacks human traits and thus the ability to interact or depend on one another; however Nature, described in contrast, is portrayed as an “active” society and thus one of interdependence.
Coleridge proceeds to further explore Nature’s ability to form a successful dependence that enables her to thrive. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” the poet states that the ivy “usurps” (53) the elm tree and climbs up its branches, which thus projects that the plant uses the tree for upward growth. In accordance to the Royal Horticultural Society, ivy depends on trees to reach the sunlight and therein to flourish. It affirms that only at the canopy of the trees can ivy achieve “mature growth” (“Ivy on Trees”).
Thus Coleridge’s description of the ivy as a “[black] mass” (54) in “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” conveys the success of Nature’s dependence as the plant has managed to thrive as a result of such kinship. In conclusion, the French Revolution transformed the perceptions of Coleridge and Wordsworth from valorising man as the ideal to valorising Nature. Man failed in the Revolution in every aspect that Nature portrays to have the ability to succeed in, and therein proves her ultimate superiority to mankind.
The poets therefore reflect that like them, society needs to embrace the Natural world and turn to her for answers. Nature possesses the information that would enable man to establish a society of kinship and thus a Utopia built on the freedoms of every individual. Works Cited Abrams, Meyer. A Correspondent Breeze. London: W. W Norton & Company Inc, 1984. Print. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “France: An Ode. ” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 630-633. Print. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison. The Norton Anthology: English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. London: W. W Norton & Company Inc, 2006. 428- 430. Print. Day, Aiden. Romanticism: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print. Fry, Paul. H. “Green to the Very Door? The Natural Wordsworth. ” The Wordsworthian Enlightenment: Romantic Poetry and the Ecology of Reading. Ed. Helen Regueiro Elam and Frances Ferguson. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 2005. 97-111. Print. Haywood, Ian. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Print. “Ivy on Trees and a Ground Cover Weed. ” The Royal Horticultural Society Online. The Royal Horticultural Society, 2011. Web. 26 Oct 2011. Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. Print. Thompson, Edward. The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. Suffolk: The Merlin Press, 1997. Print. Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written in Early Spring. ” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. London: W. W Norton & Company Inc, 2006. 250. Print. Wordsworth, William. The Prelude 1805. Project Gutenberg, 2007. Web. 14 Oct 2011.