The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution

Lisa Plummer Crafton

William Blake and revolution have long been linked--Blake's depiction of the fiery rebel Orc in America, his revolutionary style in both narrative and visual art, and his radical redefinitions of religion and denuniations of religious, social, sexual, and political tyranny are enough to warrant him consideration in any discussion of revolution, but most especially the French Revolution, the event greeted by radicals in England as a new dawn, a time for potential regeneration of the world, and with which Blake is linked by associations with the publisher Joseph Johnson's circle of radical thinkers and artists. 1 Yet he was not a paying or even a listed member of any of the radical societies of the 1790s, and his emphasis consistently stays on the universal questions of humanity, even while directly critiquing the society he lived in. In the Revolution debate of the 1790s, Blake participates most directly through his poetic rendering of events in The French Revolution, 1791. After being virtually neglected for years or disparaged for inconsistency or obscurity of mythic vision, the poem has received much deserved attention in the past few years. At least three scholars have recently argued for its inclusion as a significant text in the debate, a text offering a poetic, visionary interpretation endorsing the radical events of the Revolution. 2 However, the poem does more than contribute to the historical debate by countering Burke or engaging the terms of the debate over "nature," as has been argued; its strength lies in its synthesis of historical and mythological realms, for in that synthesis, we see the poem not as an anomaly (as Bloom and others contend) but as an important early text in the formation of Blake's mythology, the central tenet of which is that it is through individual imaginative vision and one's own recognition of it that the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity can be gained. The poem, thus, should be viewed in both its historical and cultural context and within the framework of Blake's own mythmaking, a nexus of meaning that offers full appreciation of the poem.

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The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of World Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Notes xv
  • Chronology xvii
  • Burke's Perception of Richard Price 1
  • Notes 21
  • Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine 27
  • Notes 38
  • The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution 41
  • Notes 53
  • Arguing Benevolence: Wordsworth, Godwin, and the 1790s 59
  • Notes 76
  • "Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution 83
  • Notes 103
  • Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution 107
  • Notes 118
  • Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature 123
  • Notes 131
  • Postscript: The French Revolution and Romanticism 137
  • Select Bibliography 145
  • Index 149
  • About the Contributors 155
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