Monday, 30 June 2008

Breaking the chains or recreating the prison?

The decades between 1790 and 1830 saw an outpouring of creative energies in British culture that was and probably remains unique. In literature, art and political theory the values of the eighteenth century grounded in principles of rationalism and realism were challenged by the emotions and naturalism of the Romantics. This ‘breaking of the chains’ with tradition and accepted values was initially seen as radical even revolutionary. Poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and later Shelley and Byron questioned the nature of existing social structures and literary values. Their project, in many senses a joint one, was to break free from what they perceived as the constraints of Augustan writing and move the boundaries of literature away from the sterile and limiting agenda of ‘polite’ literature towards a freeing of the spirit through symbiosis with the natural world and its undefiled and pure features. Through this process they believed that man could ‘find himself’[1].

If this was their objective, then it was a short-lived one. Those bright, young things of the 1790s had become figures of the Establishment by the late 1830s or, in the case of Shelley, Byron and Keats had succumbed early to water, fire and disease. There is much in the lives of the Romantic poets that is reminiscent of the response of many to the challenge of the 1960s when the Establishment was assailed from all sides, seemed likely to crumble and yet survived buoyed up precisely by those who had been amongst its most ardent critics: the Hippies of the 1960s became the merchant bankers and venture capitalists of the 1980s and 1990s. The aim of this paper is to try and explain the context in which Wordsworth and his fellow poets wrote and why their original project was ultimately to fail. It was not so much a case of breaking free as a reconstruction of the prison of traditionalism. The ‘angry young men’ irrevocably became conservatives in old age.

‘Breaking free’

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, in his most infamous work The Social Contract in the early 1760s that, “Man is born free and yet everywhere he is in chains.” The meaning of this seemingly simple sentence is at the heart of the Romantic dilemma and has been a cause of much misunderstanding about the precise nature of the Romantic agenda. Rousseau was writing in a Europe in which the Enlightenment was at its height; in fact he was one of its prominent luminaries. In Europe the Enlightenment project was a self-conscious assault on the principles of Absolutism in which the rights of the individual were subsumed within the authority of the State. Its aim was to raise the level of political awareness by pointing to the inadequacies of existing political systems and suggesting that more democratic alternatives were necessary. In this, the Enlightenment marked an important ‘breaking free’ from the constraints of existing social and political structures. For those who espoused this perspective the American Revolution between 1775 and 1783 and the French Revolution after 1789 were beacons marking the end of the old order, the Ancien Regime: what William Blake called “the witness against the Beast”.

Yet there was much in English life and thought that was simply a continuation of the earlier eighteenth century. Continuity was as much a part of life between 1790 and 1830 as was change. Beau Brummel, the favourite of the Prince Regent in the early nineteenth century, would have found little difficulty in adapting himself to the age of Beau Nash who dominated the life and manners of Bath a century earlier; the patrons of Henry Holland to the architecture of William Kent and the classicist Palladians, or Francis Jeffrey to the world of Addison, Swift and Pope. But there were changes of thought and attitude after 1790 that were both crucial and fundamental and it is clear that they were intimately connected to the political and social changes of the period.

The loss of the American colonies in 1783 was a shock to national pride and within a decade Britain was embarked on a war with France that was to last for the next twenty-two years. Both the American and French wars began as wars of ideas -- the case of the former according to the recently published and contentious work of Jonathan Clark as a war of religion between the Dissenting Americans and the Anglican British; for the latter as a war between constitutional monarchy and republican dictatorship[2]. Both led to political values being questioned and defended with new determination and clarity. Political discourse became fundamental, as they had not done since the 1730s, with the assertion of radicalism on the one hand and the defence of conservatism on the other. England came under the influence not only of foreign revolutionary ideas but the rapid growth of population, urbanisation, trade dislocations and widespread ‘distress’ led to increased social misery. This bred discontent and potentially revolt creating among the governing classes a mixture of fear, misgivings and social conscience, what I will refer to as a sense of ‘revolutionary paranoia’. This was a problem of such magnitude that no contemporaries fully understood it or had an adequate solution for it. There were few writers of the period who were not touched by it for the seriousness of the problem burnt itself into the minds of all who thought about it.

Demands for parliamentary reform emerged in the 1770s and 1780s and thought they were influenced by events in America and France, they were primarily a ‘home-grown’ product. These demands meant different things to different people. It might mean the end of royal patronage, or the increase in the number of country gentlemen in Parliament; or the abolition of rotten boroughs where very small numbers of electors had the right to vote and bribery was rife; or it might mean votes for all adult men. But there was always the underlying idea that it would end the corruption and inefficiencies of government revealed during the American war. The reformers were themselves divided and many were cured of their desire for change by the onset of the French Revolution. ‘Breaking free’ had its limits. Radicalism, though its origins were in the seventeenth century, received a fillip from the revolutionary activities in France. Thomas Paine attacked all established institutions and his Rights of Man became essential reading for any self-respecting radical and the Jacobinism it spawned became a considerable force in the 1790s. Radicalism also included those Dissenters and Roman Catholics (the latter chiefly in Ireland) who demanded the end of religious discrimination; and socialists like Thomas Spence and Robert Owen who called for the end of either land-ownership or capitalism or both. William Cobbett sought by means of parliamentary democracy to save the individuality of workers and farmer labourers threatened by the three-fold Leviathan of government, enclosures and capitalism. Despite pressure, sometimes almost intolerable, the governing classes held and specific radical achievements in this period were few though it did produce a growing working-class consciousness and an atmosphere favourable to the broadly middle-class reforms of the 1820s and the Reform Act of 1832.

Equally in reaction to the social problems of the time, a great ‘seriousness’ swept over an important part of the nation, a deep concern for morality, an acute sense of guilt and sin, on both a personal and national level. This resulted in a re-examination of personal and social morality and was accompanied by an urgent sense of the need for a return to religion. The Evangelicals made a deep imprint on the thought of this period and much of what we today call ‘Victorian values’ have their origin before 1830. Evangelicals for the most part rejected the principles of individualism that underlay radical thought and were thus opposed to parliamentary reform. They feared any attack on the social order but wished to replace the selfish instincts that underlay ‘laissez-faire’ principles by a new code of social morality based on a more personal Christianity.

Demands for social cohesion and a new view of the nature of society were closely linked to a new sense of the importance of history and of organic growth. Eighteenth century rationalists had found it easy to dismiss the whole historical process as falling into a simplistic three-fold pattern: the classical age of Greece and Rome followed by medieval darkness and superstition culminating in the triumph of Enlightenment. David Hume pointed the way to the study of the past for its own sake and to see it as an organic process[3]. This was a route followed in monumental style by Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in 1776. Edmund Burke provided the philosophical accompaniment in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and Sir Walter Scott supplied the romantic nostalgia through his many historical novels. History was, however, used as a mode of political argument to buttress the radical and conservative cases and it is not surprising that England did not produce a first-class historian between Hume and Gibbon in the 1760s and 1770s and Macaulay, Carlyle and Stubbs in the 1840s and 1850s. The study of History perhaps flourishes best in more settled times than those between 1790 and 1830.


[1] This paper was written in the summer of 1999 and revisited in 2007.

[2] See J.C.D. Clark The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[3] David Hume The History of England, first published in 1753.

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