Loading
Notes
Study Reminders
Support
Text Version

Politics: Wordsworth and Shelly

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday

    -

    7am

    +

    Tuesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Wednesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Thursday

    -

    7am

    +

    Friday

    -

    7am

    +

    Saturday

    -

    7am

    +

    Sunday

    -

    7am

    +

We continue our exploration of Romantic poetry and its politics. Our cases in this lesson are Wordsworth and Shelley. We spoke about abolitionist poetry in the last session where we examined the various tropes through which politics about slavery, race, tyranny and English restitution for slavery have been encoded in the writings of Ann Yearsley, Hannah More, Charlotte Dacre and Robert Southey. Our texts today are Wordsworth and Shelley. We have already discussed and noted Wordsworth’s early endorsement and enthusiastic reception of the French Revolution and some of his concerns with land, enclosures and technology. We have also studied his environmentalist thought, which was integral to his politics. He referenced liberty as an ideal in texts like “Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty” (1807 and 1815) We now examine some of these themes again, and some new ones. First, we look at Wordsworth on liberty, then on war and the suffering of families ruined by war. Then we move on to a few points on how Wordsworth sees England as a refuge from tyranny. (Refer Slide Time: 1:15) In the more radical Wordsworth, he grants the peasant a sense and understanding of liberty: he possesses a spiritual basis for his rights. Critics have noted that Wordsworth’s “Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty” traced the spirit of British freedom back to the constitutional upheavals of the mid-17th century (Philip Connell). Wordsworth at this point in his career implies that political empowerment is as important to our souls as it is to our material welfare. We see this political stance in Descriptive Sketches: And as on glorious ground he draws his breath, With Freedom oft, with Victory and Death, Hath seen in grim array amid their Storms Mix’d with auxiliar Rocks, three hundred Forms; While twice ten thousand corselets at the view Dropp’d loud at once, Oppression shriek’d, and flew. Oft as those sainted Rocks before him spread, An unknown power connects him with the dead. For images of other worlds are there, Awful the light, and holy is the air. Uncertain thro’ his fierce uncultur’d soul Like lighted tempests troubled transports roll; To viewless realms his Spirit towers amain, Beyond the senses and their little reign. This is an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Descriptive Sketches. There is a reference to freedom and victory and death, questions of power. Of course it is cast in the usual sublime description of say, “lighted tempests”. Wordsworth sets liberty as an individual condition and examines it as a national, political condition as well. Nature, of course, is the place of individual liberty. Such a freedom to wander is contrasted with the limited space for nuns, hermits and students, although they do not see it as lack of liberty. That is, Wordsworth sees people as getting used to loss/lack of liberty: (Refer Slide Time: 2:37) Nuns fret not at their Convent's narrow room; And Hermits are contented with their Cells; And Students with their pensive Citadels; “Prefatory Sonnet” Surely all of us even in this day and age understand the sentiment and the thought behind this, that as our freedoms are taken away, as our freedoms are consistently eroded, you need to worry that you will get used to the loss of freedom rather than fight for it. (Refer Slide Time: 3:24) Wordsworth also wrote some anti-war lines into his poetry. Themes of men, women and families ruined by war, many fleeing from oppression, occur in many of his poems, most famously in Margaret’s story in “The Ruined Cottage”. In “Adventures on Salisbury Plain”, Wordsworth depicts a Sailor who becomes a murderer largely as a result of the injustices perpetrated on him. For critics like Duncan Wu, this shows the influence of William Godwin. In an early poem, he notes the history of Stonehenge as a history of its barbaric human sacrifices: And oft a night-fire mounting to the clouds Reveals the desert and with dismal red Clothes the black bodies of encircling crowds. It is the sacrificial altar fed With living men. How deep it groans – the dead Thrilled in their yawning tombs their helms uprear; The sword that slept beneath the warriour’s head Thunders in fiery air: red arms appear Uplifted thro’ the gloom and shake the rattling spear. He asks, what kind of culture is this, what is the history of our architectural, historical or antiquarian memorial? But, says Wordsworth, the barbarism of war was not in the past: it continues into the present. Thus, the effects of contemporary war is embodied in the story of the Female Vagrant in “Salisbury Plain” : I lived upon the mercy of the fields, And oft of cruelty the sky accused; On hazard, or what general bounty yields, Now coldly given, now utterly refused. The fields I for my bed have often used: But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth Is, that I have my inner self abused, Foregone the home delight of constant truth, And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth. What Wordsworth does is to show that whatever produced a Stonehenge is happening even now, that whatever was Stonehenge’s historical, social context in which violence appeared is also the context for today. In effect Wordsworth is mapping a continuum of war. (Refer Slide Time: 5:40) In “The Ruined Cottage”, Margaret is a war-widow. She neglects her children in her distress, and they eventually die. She lapses into madness and then dies. The cottage becomes the symbol of socially-induced distress. Wordsworth, even as he seeks to explore the inner world of the characters examines the social milieu of suffering, the absence of social security and the neglect of war-families (those whose men had gone to war). He writes in two passages in The Ruined Cottage: (Refer Slide Time: 6:28) You may remember, now some ten years gone, Two blighting seasons when the fields were left With half a harvest. It pleased heaven to add A worse affliction in the plague of war … As I have said, ’twas now A time of trouble; shoals of artisans Were from their daily labour turned away To hang for bread on parish charity Wordsworth also presents England as a space of refuge from oppression in other lands and that is most explicitly stated in “Emigrant French Clergy” where Wordsworth will say, More welcome to no land The fugitives than to the British strand, . . . while the moral tempest roars Throughout the Country they have left, our shores Give to their Faith a fearless resting-place. In other words, he is creating what is traditionally called a locus amoenus, a place of amenity, and he is saying the oppressed of the world from France or other parts of Europe can all come here. This is their fearless resting place, he argues. (Refer Slide Time: 7:16) In “September 1, 1802”, Wordsworth’s headnote would denounce the “capricious acts of tyranny” by which France “chas[ed]” the blacks out of the country. We had a female Passenger who came From Calais with us, spotless in array, A white-robed Negro, like a lady gay, Yet downcast as a woman fearing blame; Meek, destitute, as seemed, of hope or aim She sate, from notice turning not away, But on all proffered intercourse did lay A weight of languid speech, or to the same No sign of answer made by word or face: Yet still her eyes retained their tropic fire, That, burning independent of the mind, Joined with the lustre of her rich attire To mock the Outcast – O ye Heavens, be kind! And feel, thou Earth, for this afflicted Race. Wordsworth is concerned about racial discrimination, but he uses it to talk about England as a place of refuge. (Refer Slide Time: 8:03) We now turn to Shelley. In his “Ode to Liberty”, Shelley argues that a fulfilling human life is impossible without liberty. He then traces a history of liberty: Greece, its collapse after the Roman Republic, its rebirth in Saxon England, its growth through the Reformation and English Renaissance and its glorious manifestation in the French Revolution. But he sees this hope in France also collapse due to Napoleon’s rise, and looks to Spain, Italy and England to revive the spirit of Liberty. England’s prophets hailed thee as their queen, In songs whose music cannot pass away, Though it must flow forever: … England yet sleeps: was she not called of old? Spain calls her now … Liberty, Shelley argues, can only be achieved when the people overthrow kings and priests. (Refer Slide Time: 8:37) Oh, that the free would stamp the impious name Of KING into the dust! … Oh, that the wise from their bright minds would kindle Such lamps within the dome of this dim world, That the pale name of PRIEST might shrink and dwindle Into the hell from which it first was hurled, This will finally produce true Liberty: Till human thoughts might kneel alone, Each before the judgement-throne Of its own aweless soul, or of the Power unknown! So true liberty requires that we throw out, extinguish institutions like monarchy and the church. Clearly these are radical views. We have already discussed environmentalism as a political concept and as a political perspective, but we have also discussed in previoussessions questions of gender and politics. We have discussed the attitudes of the English Romantic writers to the French Revolution. But as we saw today, questions of liberty, questions of socially induced distress are part of the political makeup of the English Romantics as well.