Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romanticism, Terror and "The Terror": "Sleep No More!"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romanticism, Terror and "The Terror": "Sleep No More!"

Article excerpt

There is much that William Wordsworth does not have in common with the George W. Bush, American President (2001-2009). Here is just one: Wordsworth, in the political context, is remarkably chaste in his use of the word "terror." Recalling his visit to the "fierce metropolis" of Paris in 1793, just after the September Massacres, Wordsworth resorts (in the climactic tenth book of The Prelude) to a relatively sober vocabulary of "fear" and "dread." (1) Terror is invoked, but only as the emotion felt by the foreigners invading France who had "shrunk from sight of their own task, and fled/ In terror" (10: 1920). The young republic here inspires terror in its enemies, which is more or less in line with the self-descriptions of the French themselves, and indeed of the Robespierre faction, for whom terror was the outward companion of virtue. The 1850 text mentions that after Robespierre's downfall "Terror had ceased" (11: 2), but that is the total of Wordsworth's use of the word in his most densely attentive account of events leading up to and including the Terror occupying the months between August, 1793, and July, 1794. Robespierre's violence is attributed not to innate evil but to "clumsy desperation" (1805, 10: 546). Unlike Francois Furet and his followers, Wordsworth does not suggest that the Terror is a culmination of the necessary logic of the Revolution, and thus the sinister truth behind its claim to democratic ideals, but rather a deviation from a trajectory established in 1789 and restored to its direction after the fall of the Montagne. He thus delivers a strong endorsement of the philosophical Enlightenment as the core of the revolution, a view recently endorsed once again by Jonathan Israel. (2) In this view the Terror is not only not the product of the inner logic of 1789 but also an absolute deviation from it; its populist (and hypocritical) claim to enact the will of the people involved an anti-intellectualism entirely at odds with the Wordsworthian (and rationalist) faith in "the virtue of one paramount mind" (10: 179) as able in principle to provide a "solid birthright to the state" along the lines devised by "ancient lawgivers" (10: 186, 188).

It is important to notice these carefully modulated judgments because Wordsworth is, of course, on the popular record as something of a turncoat on these matters. But his core position here is that the Terror did not turn him against the Revolution; that would come later, with the invasion of Switzerland the rise of Napoleon. Wordsworth is here distancing himself, retrospectively, of course, from the patriotic hysteria of the mid-1790s. If he were committed to a faith in a single "paramount mind" to come, whoever that might be, as the best hope for setting French politics in positive directions, he is not in the business--yet--of demonizing Robespierre. He is rather more in the business, in fact, of demonizing William Pitt, thereby adding his voice to those who found Britain significantly responsible for bringing on the Terror in France. (3) And it is entirely characteristic of this most self-conscious of writers that he would understand and confess to the mediated nature of his responses to events that he did not, after all, witness himself. Recall that, at the sight of the drowned man of Esthwaite, the poet invokes the power of books, the "shining streams/ Of fairyland, the forests of romance" (5: 476-77), as what protected him from trauma, whether immediate or recollected. Reading about something prepared him for the sight of death and softened its effects--one of Rousseau's arguments against literature. (4) So too in Paris, in 1792, the poet avers that whatever he felt of immediate "dread," something more and perhaps something other "was conjured up from tragic fictions/ And mournful calendars of true history" (10: 66-68). He had, in other words, been reading about it, and that reading influenced his feelings to the point that he could not say what portion of them (if any) might have derived from his own punctual experience. …

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