Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wordsworth and Revolution

A couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of reading some of Wordsworth's poetry, I read bits of William Ulmer's The Christian Wordsworth, 1798-1805. According to Ulmer, Wordsworth left the Anglican Church sometime in the 1790s, having lost faith in at least some orthodox tenets of Christianity, fairly quickly came back to some kind of faith and worshiped in the Unitarian church, and then late in life went back to the Anglican Church. This trajectory has much in common with Dickens's spiritual journey, and I learned that Wordsworth also shares with the novelist trouble with critics who don't want to believe that his works have Christian content; Ulmer defends the face-value interpretation of Wordsworth's references to Christ and to Christian faith against the critics who take them all as symbolic of something else. He quotes several letters of Coleridge in support of his view, including one that calls Wordsworth "half an atheist" (or some such words), explaining that the word "atheist" at the time could refer to a wide range of unorthodox positions, many of which are in fact theistic.

I didn't read the whole book by any means, so I may well have missed something, but now that I've read a good bit of the poetry, I'm a bit puzzled that Ulmer spent so much time on Coleridge's letters and not on Wordsworth's own The Prelude: An Autobiographical Poem. In the eleventh book of this long work, Wordsworth explains his spiritual and intellectual crisis as a response to the French Revolution. In earlier passages, Wordsworth tells of his years living in France, and of his compassion for the working and peasant classes who had no hope of freedom in that nation's aristocracy. When the Revolution started, Wordsworth rejoiced, secretly scorning his home country for opposing the revolution with their own troops. But the situation turned more dangerous, forcing Wordsworth to leave the country to protect his life, and then from the safety of England he witnessed the devastating news as Robespierre plunged France into a senseless red bath, insatiably executing people of all classes for any reason or no reason at all. According to Wordsworth, a movement founded on principles of reason and liberty that he had embraced with piety had turned clearly, horribly wrong. Nothing he thought he knew made sense any more. He sings of his disillusionment this way:
Share with me, Friend! the wish
That some dramatic tale, endued with shapes
Livelier, and flinging out less guarded words
Than suit the work we fashion, might set forth
What then I learned, or think I learned, of truth,
And the errors into which I fell, betrayed
By present objects, and by reasonings false
From their beginnings, inasmuch as drawn
Out of a heart that had been turned aside  
From Nature's way by outward accidents,
And which was thus confounded, more and more
Misguided, and misguiding. So I fared,
Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds,
Like culprits to the bar; calling the mind,
Suspiciously, to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours; now believing,
Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of obligation, what the rule and whence     
The sanction; till, demanding formal 'proof',
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.
I've often wondered what side I would have taken during the American Revolution. From my twenty-first century perspective, it seems wrong. Although I admire many of the Patriots and thank God for the blessings of the country they founded, I can't bring myself to see taxes on paper and tea as justification for rebellion -- especially compared with the taxes we pay today. But in the fervor of the moment, with an ambiguous "liberty" being preached from most of the pulpits in every colony, would I have thought differently? Might I even have seen it my Christian duty to contribute to the cause of independence?

This week, I've been putting myself in Wordsworth's shoes and wondering what I would have made of the French Revolution. If I can at least entertain the possibility that I would have supported the American Revolution, it seems only more probable that I would have embraced the French Revolution's fight for people much more downtrodden than Sam Adams and his fellow Bostonians. Would I also have sickened as the frenzy of bloodletting proved the misplacement of my sympathies?

By the time he wrote The Prelude, Wordsworth's faith had clearly revived; at the very end of the poem, he tells us he has learned that man's earthly revolutions -- political or otherwise -- cannot achieve the beautiful repose of reason and faith that his mind was created for. Speaking to his friend, Coleridge, he says:
Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this frame of things
(Which, 'mid all revolution in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.

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