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Romanticism and the French Revolution. French Revolution begins with storming of Bastille, the great prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. This event and the French Revolution as a whole had a tremendous impact on England. Storming the Bastille. British Reaction to the French Revolution.

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Romanticism and the french revolution

Romanticism and the French Revolution

  • French Revolution begins with storming of Bastille, the great prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789.

  • This event and the French Revolution as a whole had a tremendous impact on England.

Storming the bastille

Storming the Bastille

British reaction to the french revolution

British Reaction to the French Revolution

  • The French Revolution began only six years after the British had lost their American Colonies.

  • British conservatives were, quite naturally, appalled. The French Revolution threatened the very idea of monarchy; it was a “republican” revolution, one that made common people the rulers of the French nation. Conservatives feared the disorder and violence they saw in France.

Edmund burke and his reflections on the revolution in france

Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France

  • Burke’s immensely popular book (1790), itself a response to Richard Price’s A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789), attacked the violence and disorder of the revolution.

  • His central idea was that the English followed traditions, which represent the accumulated wisdom of generations, over what he calls each man’s “private stock of reason,” which can so easily be wrong.

Burke s insistence on tradition

Burke’s Insistence on Tradition:

  • “We fear God. We look up with awe to kings, with affection to parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, with respect to nobility. Why? …instead of casting away old prejudices, we cherish them…And the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.”

Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.

Responses to burke the pamphlet wars

Responses to Burke: The Pamphlet Wars

  • Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France resulted in a firestorm of responses, including famous ones by Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Men, 1790); Tom Paine (The Rights of Man, 1791); and William Godwin (Inquiry into Political Justice, 1793).

Mary wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Wollstonecraft furiously rejects Burke’s depiction of the excesses in France compared with the long suffering of the poor:

    • “What were the outrages of a day to these continual miseries? …Did the pangs you felt for insulted nobility, that anguish that rent upon your heart when the gorgeous robes were torn off the idol human weakness had set up, deserve to be compared with the long-drawn sigh of melancholy reflection, when misery and vice thus seem to haunt our steps, and swim on the top of every cheering prospect? …Such misery deserves more than tears. I pause to recollect myself, and smother the contempt I feel rising for your rhetorical flourishes and infantine sensibility.”

Tom paine

Tom Paine

  • Paine was well known for Common Sense (1776), which provided powerful arguments in favor of the American Revolution and for The American Crisis (four pamphlets published 1776 – 83), which includes the famous passage:

    “These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Tom paine and the rights of man

Tom Paine and The Rights of Man

  • Paine utterly rejected Burke’s idea of tradition:

    • “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies…Every generation is and must be competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.”

    • Paine attacks “the barbarous distinction of men into kings and subjects” – for him “Every citizen is a member of the sovereignty, and as such can acknowledge no personal subjection, and his obedience can be only to the laws.”

The french revolution as birth of a new age

The French Revolution as Birth of a New Age

  • While Paine’s response focuses entirely on rational arguments, many British radicals and liberals responded to the French revolution with a kind of religious hope and fervor that is difficult to explain. Many saw the event as quite literally apocalyptic: for them the revolution was the birth of a new age, an era of human freedom and a renewal of the human spirit.

  • Some literally believed the revolution would usher in a new Utopian world.

Allegory of truth an image from the french revolution

Allegory of Truth: An Image from the French Revolution

Richard price from a discourse on the love of our country

Richard Price, from A Discourse on the Love of our Country

  • “What an eventful period this is! I am thankful that I have lived to see it, and I could almost say, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen the salvation.’”

  • Price quotes Luke, 2:29 – 30, and his religious language typifies the responses of pro-revolution Englishmen and women.

The french revolution and joyous expectation

The French Revolution and Joyous Expectation

  • Writers like Robert Burns, William Blake, William Wordsworth (who was 19 in 1789) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (he was only 17 in 1789) all got caught up in the initial sense of joy over the French Revolution.

Robert southey

Robert Southey

  • Poet laureate Robert Southey recalled the excitement of the early years of the French Revolution:

    • “few persons but those who have lived in it can conceive or comprehend what the memory of the French Revolution was, nor what a visionary world seemed to open upon those who were just entering it. Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race.”

William blake

William Blake

  • In “Song of Liberty,” added to the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), Blake wrote “Empire is no more! And now the lion and the wolf shall cease.”

  • Note Blake’s powerful sense of the destruction of empire in religious terms; he alludes to Isaiah 65:25:”…the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.”

Blake s image glad day revolution as awakening

Blake’s Image “Glad Day” – Revolution as Awakening



  • Wordsworth actually was in residence in France for a while during the early, heady years of the revolution. In The Prelude he writes:

    • “And when we chanced/One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl,/ Who crept along fitting her languid gait / Unto a heifer's motion, by a cord/Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane/Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands/Was busy knitting in a heartless mood/Of solitude, and at the sight my friend In agitation said,/ "'Tis against 'that' That we are fighting."

William wordsworth circa 1806

William Wordsworth, circa 1806

Wordsworth a benignant spirit was abroad

Wordsworth: “A benignant spirit was abroad”

  • Wordsworth goes on to express his belief, at the time, in his French friend’s vision:

    • “I with him believed/That a benignant spirit was abroad/Which might not be withstood, that poverty/Abject as this would in a little time/Be found no more…” Prelude, BK 9

      The revolution fed hopes that along with tyranny, poverty and all human misery would be abolished.

Wordsworth bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”

  • In Book 11, Wordsworth writes of what it felt like to be in the midst of such movement:

    • “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very Heaven! O times,/ In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute, took at once/The attraction of a country in romance!/When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights/When most intent on making of herself/A prime enchantress--to assist the work,/ Which then was going forward in her name!/Not favoured spots alone, but the whole Earth,/The beauty wore of promise--that which sets/(As at some moments might not be unfelt/Among the bowers of Paradise itself)/ The budding rose above the rose full blown.”

Millennial rhetoric

Millennial Rhetoric

  • Like Price and Blake, Wordsworth resorts to the rhetoric of millennial or apocalyptic transformation. The ordinary comes to seem wondrous, “colored” like romance. The very earth itself, all of it, seems to throb with the promise of becoming a paradise.

  • Wordsworth stresses that his feeling was not metaphoric, but literal.

Reaction and disillusion

Reaction and Disillusion

  • Of course, such incredibly high expectations could not be met. The violence soon became institutionalized in the Reign of Terror.

  • The monarchy was overthrown in August, 1792 and thousands of aristocrats were massacred in September.

  • King Louis XVI was guillotined in January 1793 and his queen, Marie Antoinette, in October.

The reign of terror

The Reign of Terror

Helen maria williams

Helen Maria Williams

Williams, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, settled permanently in France in 1792 and witnessed many of the events associated with the revolution, including the execution of the King, Louis XVI.

Helen maria willaims on the king s execution

Helen Maria Willaims on the King’s Execution

  • “The executioner held up the bleeding head, and the guards cried ‘Vive la Republique!’ Some dipt their handkerchiefs in the blood – but the greater number, chilled with horror at what had passed, desired the commandant would lead them instantly from the spot. The hair was sold in separate tresses at the foot of the scaffold.”

    Letters from France

Romanticism and the french revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

Helen maria williams1

Helen Maria Williams

A radical like Williams could justify the violence of the revolution, at least until Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. She wrote:

  • “Where do the records of history point out a revolution unstained by some actions of barbarity?…If the French Revolution should cost no further bloodshed, it must be allowed, notwithstanding a few shocking instances of public vengeance, that the liberty of twenty-four million people will have been purchased at a far cheaper rate than could have ever been expected from the former experience of the world.” (1790)

Napoleon bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Romanticism and the french revolution

  • By 1793, only four years after the storming of the Bastille, the French began invading other European countries. England and France went to war in 1793 and war continued (with a brief respite in 1802 – 3) until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815.

  • In 1804 Napoleon was crowned emperor (in fact he seized the crown from the Archbishop and crowned himself). The revolution ended in the triumph of empire and monarchy.

Romanticism and the french revolution

Napoleon Crowns Himself Emperor of France, 1804

Reaction and repression

Reaction and Repression

  • During the 1790’s the British government, under Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, enacted a series of repressive measures including suspension of habeas corpus, the right of assembly, and the right to publish any materials deemed anti-government.

  • War with France led to a rise in patriotism and erosion of support for the French Revolution.

War and hardship

War and Hardship

  • The war, which lasted more than two decades (1793 – 1802; 1803 – 1815), led to harsh economic conditions and dislocations.

  • Inflation, unemployment, food shortages and loss of small holdings and increased homelessness.

  • Wounded soldiers and their families were often left with no resources or means of earning a living.

Sean bean as richard sharpe

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe

Image from a BBC production based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels about Richard Sharp, a common soldier who rises to become an officer during the Napoleonic wars. The show’s theme song was taken from an actual song of the period, “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

Wordsworth and disillusionment

Wordsworth and Disillusionment

  • The young Wordsworth was horrified to see France failing its revolutionary promise:

    • “But now, become oppressors in their turn,/ Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence/For one of conquest, losing sight of all Which they had struggled for…”

      • Prelude Book 11

Wordsworth and spiritual crisis

Wordsworth and Spiritual Crisis

  • Ultimately, the failure of the French Revolution builds to a personal spiritual crisis, which in turn leads to Wordsworth’s return to England and his decision to dedicate his life to poetry:

    • I lost All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,/ Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,/Yielded up moral questions in despair.”

The revolution internalized

The Revolution Internalized

  • Wordsworth’s spiritual crisis describes a basic pattern for Romantic writers. Disillusionment with the French Revolution leads to a loss of faith in politics and a shift from external, public, political solutions to interior, private, spiritual ones.

  • Blake, in his later poems, sees revolution as cyclical and pointless. Real change has to occur within each person.

  • Wordsworth’s Prelude has the same goal. It traces “the growth of the poet’s mind,” his inner journey, his own spiritual revolution.

Disillusionment and conservatism

Disillusionment and Conservatism

  • A price for such a shift from politics to personal change is growing conservatism. While Burns, Blake and others (like the essayist William Hazlitt) remained radical, Wordsworth and Coleridge (along with their one-time friend Robert Southey, another “Lake” poet) became conservatives.

  • Many critics believe Wordsworth’s best work was done by 1807, and that the work he did on the Prelude from 1805 to 1850 made the poem more conventional and less interesting.

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