William Wordsworth, the great romantic poet of the late 18th and early 19th century and also the founding figure of English Romanticism, was greatly influenced by the French Revolution of 1789 in his youth. The French Revolution was a protest against exploitation, slavery, and oppression. Like the Renaissance and Reformation, it was a new dawn in human history. The motto of the French Revolution was “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, meaning “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”. It was influenced by philosophers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. It stood for social justice, individual’s freedoms, and the idea that there were absolute human rights, which defied class, wealth or gender. The ideals of the French Revolution influenced all the great Romantic writers, especially the poets. in this post, I’ll examine William Wordsworth and his poetry from a Marxist perspective.
William Wordsworth and the French Revolution
Wordsworth, particularly, hailed the French Revolution which opened before him a new vision of life. He supported many ideals of the Revolution. He learned from it that every human being is intrinsically great and capable of infinite development. While wandering in the countryside, he came in contact with the humblest human beings. He was extremely surprised by their strength and energy. Thus, the French Revolution humanized Wordsworth’s soul and shaped him into a poet of man. It took him away from contemplation of his own soul to live in hope for mankind and to proclaim his faith in mankind. Wordsworth in his poem entitled ‘French Revolution’ says:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!
But as the Revolution proceeded to unexpected advancements, there came in turn disappointment and despair. Wordsworth also became profoundly disillusioned with the sentiment of the French Revolution. And this resulted in his rejection of youthful ideals and soured adoption of the older reactionary faith. He lost his faith in the Revolution as a political creed and, from then forward, aimed his poetry at supporting the forces of status quo consciously or unconsciously. In his lifetime, poets like Byron, Shelley, and Keats were critical of him and when he became Poet Laureate he was written-off as a turncoat who had played false to the ideals of his youth.
Marxist Study of Wordsworth and His Poetry
A close Marxist study of Wordsworth’s life and his poetry would tell us that the blame by the younger romantics was not altogether wrong. He shockingly came against the Representation of the People Act 1832 which demanded freedom of press, equal rights to Catholics of the country that the Protestants of the country had, and also the change of the electoral system. Wordsworth also came against the further education of female population in universities, the abolition of slavery and reduction of crimes that needed to be punished by and he also wrote sonnets about it.
What had happened to Wordsworth, the poet of nature, the poet of man? How could a devout supporter of the French Revolution had turned to be a total conservative by years and started writing sonnets about death penalty and history of Christianity in England. How would this gentle, idealistic, open-minded young man turn into a conservative and narrow-minded reactionary?
Some say that the end of Wordsworth’s friendship with S.T. Coleridge finished him off. Others say that the end of his relationship with Annette Vallon in France, from whom he also had a child, depressed him so much that he could not be the same again. Some say that England’s war with the revolutionary France disheveled him and he could not decide which side his loyalties lie. But all these are mere conjectures. The answer of the enigma lies in the Marxist study of William Wordsworth and his poetry.
What is Marxism?
Marxism is a theory of a social, political, and an economic program developed by Karl Marx. It mainly focuses on human history and social change and examines the struggle between the capitalists and the working class. According to Marxism, the power relationships between capitalists and workers are inherently exploitative and inevitably create class conflict. This conflict eventually leads to a revolution in which the working class would overthrow the capitalists and seize control of the economy.
How did Marxism Influence William Wordsworth and His Poetry?
William Wordsworth belonged to the upper middle class of his society. His father, John Wordsworth, was an Attorney-at-law and a law agent to Sir James Lowther, the Earl of Lonsdale. Wordsworth enjoyed luxury and comfort in his childhood. He got education at Cambridge. After Cambridge he did not choose a profession for next four years and enjoyed a free idle life receiving allowances from his family.
During this period, Wordsworth visited France and was enchanted with the fervor and spirit of the revolutionaries. It would not be wrong to say that Wordsworth himself became a fervent revolutionary. But his attachment to this political creed was merely emotional as he did not have any actual correlative for it. Young Wordsworth did try to stand against the values of his class, but it was too great a task for him. As his emotionalism subsided, he became a true representative of his class. His work as the superstructure of his society also reflected the base of society.
Wordsworth has no doubt written poetry about the common man and that too in the language of the common man. His poetry depicts a solitary reaper working laboriously in the field, a man too old to ply a hatchet, a leech gatherer bent double by age, a ruined shepherd, a little girl who has lost her cloak, a beggar, a tinker etc. Wordsworth has celebrated all these persons in his poetry. He reveals the innate beauty and dignity in the life of the common man. His characters who are from the outskirts of his society appear to reveal the spirit of calm fortitude, dignity and sublimity in the midst of poverty and suffering. He depicts the plight of the common man and does not see any indignity in his situation.
What was William Wordsworth’s Aim in Writing Poetry?
In Wordsworth’s poetry, heroism seems to lie in bearing hardships with fortitude rather than revolting against them. As he said in one of his letters to Lady Beamont that his aim in writing poetry was “to console the afflicted , to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous.”
Therefore, we observe that Wordsworth in his poetry gives the message of a moral and virtuous life. According to him, the secret of happiness in life is to perform one’s duty under all circumstances. In Ode to Duty, he says:
“Serene will be our days and bright and happy will our nature be.”
And we can achieve this serenity and happiness through the blind perusal of duty which is carved out by the few capitalists for the larger majority of the have-nots. Wordsworth has depicted the dignity of duty so that a laborer would be alienated from labor and from his own self without feeling the pain of alienation. His most significant message to humanity is the message of simple living and lofty thinking. In one of his sonnets, he warns his countrymen of the evils of World:
“The world is too much with us. Late & soon
Getting & Spending we lay waste our powers.
Little we see in nature that is ours.”
William Wordsworth: A Representative of the Bourgeoisie
William Wordsworth believes that even a superstitious zeal in the forces of nature is better than material things. He tries to get the attention of the common man away from the material reality of the world in London towards the world of nature in the Lake District. As we already know that from the Marxist perspective the only reality in the world is the material reality. And from this very perspective, Wordsworth appears to be a literary figure who as a representative of the Bourgeoisie was trying to maintain the status quo. Also, he was luring the Proletariat towards wise passiveness rather than rash activity of revolt and revolution.
A revolution is not merely an act of bloodshed and violence, it is an act through which class struggle transforms the structure of society. It is an act through which the majority of the have-nots topple down the few at the top . As Wordsworth himself did not belong to the proletariat class, his sympathies could not belong there. Therefore, consciously or unconsciously, he trod this path laid down by the Bourgeois class. But let me also remind you that we can’t undermine the poetic achievements of Wordsworth due to his loyalty with his class. Let us not forget that Wordsworth propagated a whole new religion by his deep love for nature. He profoundly cherished nature and lifted it to the status of a deity. His pantheistic philosophy provided solace to the tortured souls. It is true that Wordsworth along with Coleridge freed English poetry from the rigid conventions of neo-classicism.
If you enjoyed reading William Wordsworth and His Poetry From A Marxist Perspective, you might also enjoy our Analysis of Langston Hughes’s Short Poems.