1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > The French Revolution (1789-1832): Scott, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth

English Literature
(Part 10)


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, brooding over the perishing relics of departed greatness, but unable to utter any formula potent for its recreation other than vague cries for the bursting of all fetters which repress th spirit or the limbs of men. The increasing moral disorder of Byron’s mind is marked by the appearance of Don Juan, a long rambling poem, written after his wife had left him, and he had gone to the Continent in 1816, never to return. In 1823 he jouned the Greek insurgents who had take arms to throw off the Turkish yoke. He landed at Missolonghi, spent large sums of money, but effected nothing of importance; and in April 1824 he was cut off by a fever.

Shelley is a striking illustration of the influence which the revolutionary literature of that age possessed in moulding or modifying human character. His own earliest recollections dated to a time when all ranks of English society were animated by feelings of horror and detestation at the French "Terror," and in no mood to embrace any revolutionary sentiment, or even give a hearing to any novel opinion. Yet the mind of Shelley- nursed upon the skeptical suggestions of Hume, the utopian speculations of Godwin, and the antinomian dreams of rousseau, and pushing to extremes, from the fervour of a nature in which prudence and diffidence found no place, all that he read-was in a state of high revolt, even in his college days, against all that was held sacred by other men. Sent away from Oxford, he fell in with the bright high-spirited Harriet Westbrook, and induced her to marry him. But all bonds, including those of matrimony, which fettered the free inclinations of the mind, Shelley had taught himself to regard as a tyrrany to be withstood. He grew tired of Harriet, formed a connexion of free love with Mary God win, and deserted his hapless wife, who, two years afterwards, committed suicide. Whether Shelley would ever have brought his wild actions and wilder thoughts under any discipline it is impossible to tell, for he was cut off by a sudden and early death. His poems display the most perfect and wonderful mastery of the resources of the English language for the purposes of imaginative expression that has ever been attained to among our poets. As Pope and Dryden gave us logic in metre, so Byron and Shelley gave us rhetoric in metre. Splendid pieces of declamation may be found in the Childe Harold and "Isles of Greece", of the one poet, and in the Hellas and Revolt of Islam of the other. The "Sky-lark," and some other poems, considered as creations of the pure imagination, have surely never been surpassed.

An accidental circumstances,- the finding of an old unfinished MS. In a forgotten nook of a cabinet,- turned Sir Walter Scott into the path of prose fiction, in which his strong memory and inexhaustible imagination, joined with a gift for picturesque description, and the faculty,, within certain limits of creating and presenting living types of character, eminently qualified him to excel. Then was given to the world the long and splendid series of novels, commencing with Waverly and ending (when his mind had partially given way) with Castle Dangerous. We do not forget that a living French critic, whose admirable style makes even his paradoxes attractive, treats the Waverley Novels with little ceremony; they were taken, he says, for faithful copies of the antique world in Europe at a time when people knew no better; now we go to the original sources of information, and find that he distorts everything. But, in the first place, so far as the Waverley Novels consist of the skilful evolution of plots invented by the author, and of the contrasted play of characters created by him,- and not of historical pictures,- this criticism does not touch them at all. In Peveril of the Peak, for instance, where a peculiar zest attaches itself to the love of Julian Peveril for Alice Brigenorth on account of the political and religious differences which divide their fathers, thought Scott might be proved to have omitted some important features in his historic sketch of the Restoration, still the deep attraction of the story would not lose its charm. So again in Ivanhoe, although the repulsion between Saxon and Norman- the concrete picture of which, presented in this novel, so deeply impressed the historian Thierry- be to som e extent an exaggeration of the feelings which actually prevailed between the two races under Richard I., yet neither does this inaccuracy affect the substantial truthfulness and instructiveness of the historic tableau, nor, if it did, would thetragic passages which describe the siege of the castle of Front-de-Boeuf exercise an inferior fascination. But, secondly, the real meaning of M.Taine’s charge is, not that Scott has mis-read history, but that he has not read it from the special philosophical standpoint of M. taine. He did not read it in the conviction of the relativity of all events, nor regard it simply as the evolution of the Welt-Geist, nor believe that human society, through the stages of theology and metaphysics, advances inevitably to the bourn of positive science. But it remains to be proved whether these views of history will not prove more ephemeral than the simpler conceptions which possessed the mind of sir Walter Scott.

Reference was made above to the commencement of the Edinburgh Review in 1802. The tendencies of thought which distinguished its founders were of so remarkable a character,- exercised so marked an effect on the philosophy, the legislation, and even the literature of their times,- and are still so influential, that some attempt to analyse and described them must be made. There were varieties of opinion among the writers for this celebrated review from the first ; amongst them were mere Whigs and mere literary critics, but that which give it a backbone was its being partially the organ of a party, known some years later by the name of " Philosophical Radicals." This school its philosophy from Locke, Bentham, and Adam Smith. It held that the old systems which admitted the principle of authority were for ever ruined and discredited, that, as government was an affair of contract, so religion was an affair of evidence, and that, since the same evidence was estimated differently by different minds, the right course was, to confine religion within the domain of the individual conscience, tolerating all forms of it not anti social, but giving political prominence to none. Coleridge ,in an eloquent work published in 1829, supported the theory of a national church, not as the channel of teaching religious truth, but as providing a machinery for diffusing culture and enlightenment, as well as teaching morality by example, through the length and breadth of the land. This view was too Platonic for the school we are now considering—which, it however did not attack the already existing established church, but contented itself with insisting that its clergy should be vigilantly controlled by the state, lest they should teach principles or practices inconsistent with the general good. Churches they regarded as decrepit and perishing institutions ; it was the state which in their eyes, flourished in immortal youth ; and their hopes of future good were involved in the development of civilization under its auspices. They believed in the gradual advance and perfectibility of the race through the operation of wise institutions, furthering the free play of all the human faculties, while guaranteeing the order and stability of society. The happiness that would thence arise, consisting in the realization of " the greatest good of the greatest number," they regarded as the satisfaction of enthusiasm and the goal effort. To political economy, that eminently lay study, and to the development of physical science, they looked for the measures and the means of requisite for the attainment of this happiness. Moreover, since, from their point of view, there was nothing absolute in moral sanctions, it was ridiculous for a nation to hamper itself by adherence to engagements contracted by a former generation, on the plea of national honour, if such adherence was prejudicial to the interests of the living. Views of this kind, beginning even then to be propounded, drew from Burket the exclamation that the "age of chilvary was past," and that "that of sophists, economist, and calculators had succeeded." The study of social grievances and of the means of removing them, assumed a prominent place among their objects, and gave rise to much laudable and beneficial activity. On humanitarian grounds they supported the agitation against slavery which Christian philanthropists like Clarkson and Wilboreforce had commenced from a religious motive. Senior occupied himself with the evils of the old poor-law; Francis Horner became a great authority on finance; Sir Samuel Romilly took up reform of our criminal jurisprudence; Ricardo J. S. Mill, and M’Culloch studied the laws of the creation and distribution of wealth, and demonstrated the impolicy of restrictions on trade. The benefits of national education began to be seen and enforced; and Lancaster and Bell entered upon useful labours connected with the organization of schools and the supply of teachers. Harriet Martineau wrote popular tales, and Elliott " Corn-law Rhymes," in order to indoctrinate the multitude with sound views on economical questions. In short, all the good was done or attempted which men starting from the basis of empirical philosophy could do or attempt, whatever was outside the range of that philosophy was neglected.

There is something rather saddening in the contemplation of the careers of most of the eminent literary men of this epoch. Byron and Shelley were cut off in the flower of their days; Southey’s overtasked brain gave way some years before his death, and the same fate befell Ireland’s gifted singer, Thomas Moore. Scott, ruined through too much haste to be rich, literally worked himself to death to clear off the mountain of liability which his implication in Ballantyne’s failure had thrown upon him. Coleridge, though he lived to old age, had weakened a will originally irresolute, and shattered nerves originally irresolute, and shattered nerves originally over-sensitive by the fatal practice of opium-eating; in the time of grey hairs he subsided into a dreamy talker about "sum-inject" and "om-in-ject." Wordsworth alone preserved to the last an unimpaired sanity of mind and body, for which he might thank the simplicity and serenity of his life in Westmoreland, where he settled on his return from france. Rapt in profound meditation, he communed among the mountains with the spirit of the universe; and the beauty of the crag, the tarn, the flower, transmitted itself, through the lips of nature’s poet-priest, into verse of wondrous melody. When the period of inspiration was part, he quietly conformed to the religion and politics of his neighbours, and wrote much in support of them; but these later works are pitched in a lower key.

Since the death of Scott, the power of literature combined with the journalism, has been continually on the rise. The novelists, the essayists have been instrumental in bringing about political reforms ; the poets have stirred,---generally to thoughts and desire of change,---the impressible hearts of the young. The power of hearts over the human mind, and its influence in determining the aspects of life, have been, in all English-speaking countries, declining, while that of literature has been advancing. Whether this particular distribution of master-influences that affect mankind will continue to prevail, or whether arts is destined to regain among as a portion of its early power, and the sway of literature to be corresponding restricted, is a question which the future must decide.

[Further Reading]

See Hallam's Introduction to the Literature of Europe; Warton's History of English Poetry; Morley's English Writers; Grein's Bibliothek der Angelslichsischen Poésie; the Benedictine Histoire Littéraire de la France, with its continuations ; Prof. Ward's History of Dramatic Literature ; Collier's History of English Dramatic Poetry; Knight's Shakspere: a Biography; Spence's Anecdotes; Coleridge's Literary Remains. (T. A.)

The above article was written by Thomas Arnold, M.A. Oxford; Inspector of Schools in Tasmania, 1850; Professor in the Univ. of Dublin; author of A Short History of English Literature; has edited many Anglo-Saxon texts.

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