The French Revolution and Wordsworth's Poetry

1. WORDSWORTH: Democratic Background
An important event of the closing years of the eighteenth century, which stirred all Europe, and the English Romantics in particular, is the French Revolution. ‘The Prelude’ tells us much about Wordsworth’s reaction to the French Revolution. Wordsworth was the first of the great Romantics to be influenced profoundly by the Revolution, which had a far reaching impact on his life and poetry. But its ideals – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – were not new to him. The societies, which he had been familiar with, in his youth were essentially democratic. Even at Cambridge he found a strong democratic spirit:
“All stood thus far/Upon equal ground..”

For these reasons, “The Revolution, in its earlier phases, involved no revolution in Wordsworth’s mental life”(Raleigh). During his third summer vacations, Wordsworth visited France with his friend, Robert Jones. They landed in Calais on July 13, 1790, the eve of first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, and of, “that great federal day”, when the King was to swear allegiance to the new constitution; as he mentions in ‘The Prelude’ they met,
“The Brebant armies on the fret,
For battle in the cause of Liberty.”

They found evidence of the wonderful enthusiasm of the people on all sides. The nation was rejoicing and captured all his ardour for the cause and he felt:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.
(The French Revolution)

All this was, no doubt, very exhilarating. Yet Wordsworth was less affected by such experiences than might have been expected. He himself writes:

Heard, and saw, and felt,
Was touched, but with no intimate concern.

Nature and the wonders of the “ever-living universe”, interested him far more than political excitement and the awakened hopes of man.

Wordsworth visited France for a second time in November 1791. This time he stayed there for more than a year. Although he stayed there for learning French, yet the influence his growing interest in the French Revolution exerted on him cannot be ruled out. While going to Orleans he passed through Paris, where he stayed for a few days. He listened to the debates in the National Assembly. He also made a visit to the ruins of Bastille (the prison in which political prisoners were kept).

And from the rubbish gathered up a stone
And pocketed the relic , in the the guise
Of an enthusiast.

Yet as he himself confesses, there was something rather articficial and unreal about his emotion. He was not deeply and really stirred. The great principles of Fraternity, Equality and Liberty were in his very blood and what was happening seemed to him very much a matter of course.
P.S. This post is to be continued in the second part (Divided into two parts due to shortage of time now)

The Echo of Black Death in Chaucer's Age

W.H. Hudson has rightly said, “Every man belongs to his race and age; no matter how marked his personality, the spirit of his race and age finds expression through him.”

For a comprehensive study of an author’s literary works, what is also required (among other things) is the social background of that period – the kind of society the author was living in. Apart from many other changes in the English society in the age of Chaucer, the most dramatic change was a demographic one – the occurrence of the most devastating plague called Black Death. It erupted first of all in Dorset in 1348 and was at its peak in 1349. This epidemic wrought havoc and around one-third of the population of England perished in it. The true medical causes of this plague could not be established but the effects of this devastation were long-term as well as social, political and religious in nature.
The socio-economic system of England was paralyzed. The Black Death led to an acute shortage of labour. This aggravated the social tensions between the workers and landlords and other employers. This was also one of the causes of the traumatic Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, under the rule of Richard II. The Kentish priest, John Ball, who preached the dignity of labour, raised the question:

“When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then a gentilman?”

There was a demand for higher wages by the workers, which according to Compton-Rickett was “a dim foreshadowing of those industrial troubles that lay in the distant future.”
The Church too was deeply affected by the unstable nature of the society and its medieval beliefs. The Parish clergy suffered a decline not only in numbers but also in quality, both morally and intellectually. This inadequacy of the parish clergy proved a recurrent theme in Langland’s poetry. In his ‘Prologue to Canterbury Tales’ Chaucer says:

That if gold ruste what shal iren doo?
(This means: If gold rusts what shall iron do?)

The theologian and reformer, John Wycliffe criticized the misuse of papal powers and revenues. Thus, we can see that the influence of Black Death was not limited to a single sphere of life, rather it was manifold and engulfed the whole society.

Children's Day in India

On the occasion of Children’s Day (celebrated in India on 14 November every year). Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was born on 14 November, 1889. Children’s Day is celebrated every year to mark his birth anniversary as he was very close to children.
Milton remarks in ‘Paradise Regained’:
The childhood shows the man,
As morning shows the day.
(Book IV, lines 220-21)

It is indeed in childhood that the qualities are manifested and are exhibited in the child personality. The characteristics of personality can noticed right from the early childhood. Rightly has Wordsworth has expressed the same views when he says, “Child is the father of man”. Childhood is the formative period of a person’s life. The habits developed at this time cast a shadow throughout the life. This makes it all the more important that the negative traits exhibited by a child should not at all be ignored, otherwise they may become a habit and incorrigible later on.
The period of childhood has been glorified in English poetry – this also hints at the important place occupied by this period in our life. Childhood is just like the base of a building; the stronger the base, the stronger the construction. A child has been said to be close to God as Wordsworth says in his Ode to ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. He says:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Carl Sandburg has said, “A child is God’s opinion that world should go on”. Every child is special in his own way. So let’s pledge on this day that we would stop child abuse and all forms of exploitation.

Chaucer as a Poet

Chaucer has many great works to his credit, including the twin masterpieces – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’. There is a sense of order in the poetry of Chaucer. This order is apparent not only in his reflections on nature and workings of cosmos but also in his belief of divine involvement in human affairs. For instance, the concluding address to the Holy Trinity, in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ according to Sanders, has been turned into a divine comedy from being a tragedy with the alchemy of Chaucer’s poetic genius.Another great work of Chaucer ‘The Parlement of Foulys’ is said to have been written to compliment the marriage of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382. In it he has presented a vision of birds gathered to choose their proper mates. The nobler the bird the more formal are the rituals of courtship accorded to it.
Similarly, the social conditions of division of society according to ranks, is presented by Chaucer in his ‘The Canterbury Tales’. There are twenty-nine persons (and the narrator) who are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. It is the Knight who is the first one to be described by Chaucer in ‘The Prologue’. Even in the complete work, in which all the pilgrims have to tell tales by turn – it is the Knight who is again the first one to start the process of tale-telling. Not only about the contemporary society but Chaucer’s works throw ample light on his own character too. Chaucer has portrayed himself as a modest person, by placing himself at the end of all the pilgrims in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. In it he has played the role of an incompetent story-teller, among such accomplished story tellers as his fellow pilgrims. Chaucer’s trait of diminishing himself is an effective device, which implies that he is posing as the servant to the servants of Christ.

Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted With the Night’

Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted With the Night’ is a poem that moves about in a twilight world as far as choices available in life are concerned or when it concerns taking a firm stand on an issue. It is a poem about the darker side of things and portrays the poet’s isolation.
The poet in this poem describes the comings and goings of a person walking about on the city roads. The poet has even braved the rain and wandered around on the city roads. He even walked upto the outskirts of the city. The poet even refers to the ‘saddest city lane’. He has seen the watchman while on his beat in these lanes. The poet saw some immoral activities being performed but he does not specifically mention them. Instead his eyes were dropped down with shame.
The poet then stands still and the sounds of a cry fall upon his ears. The cry comes from a distant place and is also not continuous. The interrupted nature of the cry symbolizes suppression. The cries were neither to welcome nor to bid farewell to the poet. And then talking about the ‘luminary clock’ of the sky, the moon, the poet doesn’t clearly pass a judgement whether the time was right or wrong. The poet was simply familiarized with the immoral nature of night in the city slum areas.

Hamlet's Madness

Hamlet’s madness has been one of the most discussed topics among critics. The groundlings of Elizabethan stage were demanding. They wanted to see something new being performed on the stage. During the Elizabethan age the society at such a stage that they were experiencing the after-effects of Renaissance. They were still in the process of realizing the immense potentialities of a human being. The abnormal conditions portrayed on stage were like the inner processes being unfolded in the front of their eyes. Another reason was the desire of the human beings to see something dramatic in front of them.
Hamlet’s feigned madness was like an outlet for his pent up emotions. I feel it is the crux of the play. He uses an abnormal condition to verify what a supernatural thing (ghost of his father) told him. He uses it as a tool and his aid. Hamlet’s ‘crafty madness’ provides him with a chance of observing other normal human beings.
Hamlet at one place comments:

“The time is out of joint . O cursed spite,
That I was ever born to set it right.”

This hints at the probability that Hamlet will be using his madness to set things right. But he doesn’t make an effort. According to Samuel Johnson, ‘Hamlet’ is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent.” He doesn’t make an effort to kill his Uncle even after making sure of his guilt. Hamlet’s Uncle dies in circumstances which are not created by Hamlet himself.

Keats as a Poet

In Keats’ ‘Endymion’ the poet is still immature but shows great advancement. ‘Endymion’ is sensuous, imaginative and fanciful. The poet has attempted to unite the real and the ideal. To quote him from ‘Endymion’:
“A thing of beauty is joy forever.”
Keats’ third volume of poems included the famous ‘Isabella’, ‘Lamia’, ‘Hyperion’, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ and among others were his odes and sonnets. His most famous odes are: ‘To Nightingale’, ‘To Autumn’, ‘On Indolence’, ‘On a Grecian Urn’, ‘To Psyche’ and ‘To Melancholy’. He has written 61 sonnets including ‘When I Have Fears that I may Cease to be’, ‘On Reading Chapman’s Homer’, ‘Bright Star’.
A marked characteristic of Keats is his appropriateness of wording. For illustrating the magical use of compound expressions one may cite “soft-conched”, “sapphire-regioned” and “high-sorrowful”; for beautiful single epithets, “wailful choir”, “vendurous grooms”, “sunburnt mirth”; for memorable phrases and immortal lines, “fast fading violets covered up in leaves” OR “Magic casements opening on the foam/Of perilious seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
Another quality of his works is that of sheer music. He was one of the most musical poets. When we come to the great odes like ‘To Nightingale’, ‘On a Grecian Urn’, ‘To Psyche’ and ‘To Autumn’, they have a musical effect which is unsurpassed in English lyric verse.
There was a Hellenic spirit in the works of Keats. In Shelley’s words, “Keats was a Greek.” The symmetry, simplicity, economy of ornament and subordination of parts to the whole of Greek art is most plain in the odes, ‘On Indolence’ and ‘On a Grecian Urn’.
Keats was also a nature poet. To Wordsworth Nature is a living being with the power to influence man for good or ill. Shelley, on the other hand, is not a moralist but an idealist. He portrays a beauty, which is not of the Earth. Keats neither gives a moral life to Nature, nor attempts to pass beyond her familiar manifestations. His aim, perhaps the highest of all, is to see and to render Nature as she is.
Known as a poet of love, sensuousness and beauty, Keats remains one of the immortals of literature.