The French Revolutions Impact on Romantics
The French Revolution is undoubtedly one of the most influential events in Europe during the late 18th century, with lasting concepts in politics, culture, and literature. During this period, Romantic poetry arose and introduced a generation of authors that each uniquely portrayed their own perspectives on the revolution through their works. Some poets referenced a more concrete political standpoint, while others went towards a more intangible concept of freedom and equality. The works written by authors: William Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft, reflect the social uproar of not only their own feelings and worries, but also the general consensus of concerns throughout Europe during the revolution. Wordsworth’s Lines/ Tintern Abbey and Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of The Rights of Woman present how the French Revolution played a key role in producing the overall idea of universal equality.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman expresses her view on how the revolution must include reformation to the social and political expectations of women in both society and their at home/ personal lives. The French revolution majorly influenced how Wollstonecraft felt about the education women were given, or rather more so the lack of education received. In the time period Wollstonecraft lived in, education was meant to better befit women for their roles as wives and companions for men. In the introduction of A Vindication of Rights of Women she critiques women’s education: “I attribute [these problems] to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”. (Wollstonecraft, 213) This translates to how and what is taught to females, they are taught beauty over brains, and levels of grace that are almost impossible to attain in any time period. Mary Wollstonecraft was a very educated women, her education background can be compared to that of what men received since she was taught book smarts over how to be physically appealing to others. She thought if other women were fortunate enough to have opportunities in education such as herself, women would become great members of society becoming equal to men.
To Mary Wollstonecraft, men’s motive is to always keep women feeling weak and submissive; so beauty and seduction were given as qualities that “real” women should consist of. But in doing so this gave men like Edmund Burke an example of the “perfect” chivalric society. Instead of showing that being brilliant and taking all matters into ones hands can be qualities that a woman should feel proud to have, the opposite was what a woman should strive for. Wollstonecraft stood for all qualities of women whether it be beauty, seduction, brilliance, or any qualities outside of Burke’s appealing categories. In Vindicating Mary Wollstonecraft it is written “she had distinguished two categories: the sublime of the strong-willed, educated, struggling woman and the beautiful of the faint-hearted passive [woman]. The underlying insight of Wollstonecraft’s writings on the French Revolution is that the beautiful woman is no longer a viable aesthetic category”. (Moers, 445) Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women argues that once the idea of women just being beautiful can be left behind, the altering of a woman’s education can lead to the idea of universal equality. In her work the significance of the revolution is shown in her own portrayal of the existential woman. Wollstonecraft argues that a women’s qualities including their minds are just as capable of smarts and reasoning as a mans if only given the chance.
William Wordsworth goes the more personal route on his position on the French Revolution in his poems written during the time period. Lines was written towards the end of the revolution, which will show the effects Wordsworth has experienced with the revolution. The poem itself was written to show the loss of innocence along with the loss of ones dreams; connecting to his actual life, he had “lost” his dreams and ideas that were born from the revolution which were lacking of his expectations. William Wordsworth prefers and even longs for the time before the uprising in France, “That time is past, And all its aching joys are now no more… for such a loss”. (Wordsworth, 83, 84, 87) He proceeds to state that when growing up, a person loses their dreams. His connection to nature is shown that in order to cope with these feelings he needs a sense of comfort from an outside source, a source that would not disappoint him as others have. Although he may not always be present at “Tintern Abbey” he always has his “safe place” in his mind. With the notion of losing one’s dreams comes the state of loneliness, which Wordsworth embodies in lines 21-22 as a hermit. He uses the tone of seclusion and isolation to solidate his point of losing everything, when it comes to a person’s hopes and dreams to even the people around them.
Wordsworth’s perception of humanity in “Lines/Tintern Abbey” relates to the real life events happening during the French Revolution. He refers to nature yet again in stanza four, “for I have learned to look on nature… but hearing at oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity”. (Wordsworth, 88, 90-91) He views nature as an escape of all conflicts, and believes that with the love of nature can lead to the love of mankind; both in his poem and in the events unfolding before him in his own life. Lines demonstrates how the revolution influenced Wordsworth’s works and personal life, he shifted tones during the time in his writings. Just as the political and social upheaval that was rapidly developing and bringing disarray to the minds of many, in the poem “everything else has been erased- the abbey, the beggars and displaced vagrants, all that civilized culture creates and destroys, gets and spends. We are not permitted to remember 1793 hopes nor- what is more to the point for Wordsworth- the subsequent ruin of those hopes”. (Richey,197) This displays the effects figuratively and literally of what the end result of a revolt can really do, “erase and fall apart”. Although the time period of the revolution influenced William Wordsworth negatively and positively showing his loss of hope for humanity, it also shows his gaining of hope in nature and essentially himself; which like the revolution was an emergence of ethicality.
With the essence of the French Revolution came an influence on Romanticism itself. Romanticism originated during the same time as the French Revolution, and continued to develop in response to the effects of the social transformation; the transformation became inspiring to the writes of the romantic genre, especially since they valued and composed based off of the idea of individuality. The concept of freedom was something that writers along with “normal” citizens were not used to; a new found glory. Writers of the time had a creative take on the freshly gained independence and finally had the opportunity to share what they had to say with the world. With still following the laws, authors were given more leeway to truly express themselves. Which in turn changed the way people had thought about and the standard for literature.
In the eighteenth century, writers of the romantic genre were heavily influenced by events happening socially around them such as the French revolution. The revolution was unique in the sense that it was not only national but fully intended to benefit all humanity. Yet the revolutions outcome was not equivalent to the expectations of the people; including writers. It seemed that the resulting dictatorship of the revolution exchanged the owning class aristocracy for military dictatorship (another owning class). Universal equality was the overall idea for the French Revolution and while the result didn’t live up to expectations, a republic was established, a radical social change was introduced, and romanticism continued to rise.