The poetry and prose of the Romantics (Richard Holmes writes in Shelley: The Pursuit) was born of a ‘disturbed and excited political period . . . which flashes up through the years towards our own’. Certainly, we have come a long way since 1789. And yet there are uncanny resemblances between our situation and that of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Shelley circle. A great revolution which went wrong, men thrown out of work by machinery, foreign wars distracting a people from its real problems, a government doing its best to whittle away civil liberties, small groups of intellectuals who felt deeply alienated from society and spent much time discussing communes, free love and a revolution in personal relationships. One could go on.
That is one reason why we still find the Romantics fascinating. Another is the colour and dramatic appeal of their personal lives. Poets dying young, leaving a long trail of dead or damaged women and children, the shadow of the guillotine, incest, horror, madness (Gothic novels had a huge influence on the younger Romantics; Shelley was both a serious revolutionary and a connoisseur of the horrific.) It is this kind of debased Romanticism which inspires all those bad books and films about the Scarlet Pimpernel, Lady Caroline Lamb, and so on. It is summed up in the charismatic figure of Byron, who was a good poet and (up to a point) a radical but is remembered chiefly for his life-style. ‘Byron is often loosely compared to rock or movie stars as a figure of international glamour,’ writes Rupert Christiansen, ‘ . . . but he perhaps most resembles them in his personality disorders—paranoiac irritability, an insistence on his status, an addiction to compliment, unthinking self-centredness.’footnote1
This is one of many thought-provoking remarks scattered through Christiansen’s book. It grew out of the experience of marking a-level papers and finding that the students had simply failed to grasp the passion and anger of the period. ‘So I have tried here to portray the temper of an age. . . . to show the electric interaction of, and affinity between, people, language, ideas and events; and to suggest some of the excitement and urgency that was felt at the time.’ And indeed his work, unlike the teenagers’, is never boring. It treats Romanticism as a European movement, beginning with Chénier writing poetry on the eve of his execution and ending with Pushkin dying in a duel. It hops, there is no other word, from England to France to Italy to Russia and from one big name or
Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years is a careful reconstruction of the political lives of the two young poets between 1789 and 1798, and of their context.footnote2 The author argues that Coleridge, especially, was much more involved in the reform movement than he would later admit, and that his collapse as a writer and a human being was caused by its failure. The last is difficult to prove, perhaps, but there is ample evidence that Coleridge in the 1790s had very close links with the London and Cambridge radicals, and that he wrote and preached in favour of electoral reform and against the French war. If he did go to pieces out of political disillusionment, it is not surprising. Roe shows just how hard a time English radicals had in these years, and gives helpful information on halfforgotten figures like William Frend and John Thelwall, reformers who were made to suffer for their (very reasonable) beliefs.
The book also traces Wordsworth’s movements in France in the early 1790s. He was ‘pretty hot in it’, and seems to have been an honorary member of a revolutionary club in Blois. While there he became aware that the Revolution was not simply about constitutional reforms but had to do with improving the lives of ordinary people. ‘I find almost all the people of any opulence are aristocrates and all the others democrates’, he wrote. One of his most memorable experiences, which eventually got into The Prelude, was seeing a ‘hunger-bitten girl’ leading a heifer when he was with his friend Beaupuy:
At the sight my friend
In agitation said, ‘ ’Tis against that
Which we are fighting’, I with him believed
Devoutly that a spirit was abroad
Which would not be withstood, that poverty,
At least like this, would in a little time
Be found no more.
His concern for the poor and inarticulate stayed with him long after he had ceased to be a revolutionary. But in 1792 he arrived in Paris in the wake of the September Massacres, which had made an indelible impression on public opinion in his own country. Alone in his room, he brooded about them and felt partly responsible because he had been on the same side as the Paris mob whose ‘vengeance’ had ‘been savage and inhuman’.