"Tintern Abbey": Politics: The French Revolution and its aftermath

Chronology 1790-94:

1790 July 13, Wordsworth reaches Calais, eve of Day of Federation (celebrates storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789); walks across France, by boat down the Saône; parties with the delegates (then into Switzerland, Germany; back in England by late October 1790)

1791 Nov 26: leaves Brighton for France

Nov 30-Dec 5: in Paris, visits National Assembly, probably the Jacobin Club

Dec 6: probably arrives in Orléans; Williams hopes to meet Helen Maria Williams, but she has already left; he is introduced to the Vallons

1792 Feb: leaves for Blois to be near Annette Vallon; becomes acquainted with Michael Beaupuy, a democrat officer

-- Oct: follows Annette back to Orléans (the story of Vaudracour and Julia in Prelude IX seems to draw in part on Wordsworth's experience with Annette and her family, as well as Helen Maria Williams story of du Fosse in Letters, 1790)

Oct 29: returns to Paris, the month following the massacres of September 2-6

Dec (or Nov; but by Dec 22): returns to England, forced back by lack of funds

Dec 15: Anne-Caroline, daughter of William and Annette born at Orléans

1793 Jan-June: living in London, publishes An Evening Walk, Descriptive Sketches; writes Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, advocating republicanism

Feb 1 France declares war against Britain and Holland

June-July: stays on Isle of Wight with William Calvert, observes naval preparations for war

July (late) or Aug: travels with Calvert across Salisbury Plain; left alone to walk when carriage breaks; then proceeds to walk via Bath, Bristol, Tintern, Builth, Hay, to North Wales, Jones's house

1794 Sep-Apr: may have made a brief visit to France; also in North of England

Helen Maria Williams

-- Letters written in France (1790): the Fete of Federation, July 14 1790.

In the streets, at the windows, and on the roofs of the houses, the people, transported with joy, shouted and wept as the procession passed. Old men were seen kneeling in the streets, blessing God that they had lived to witness that happy moment. (9)

It was the triumph of human kind; it was man asserting the noblest privileges of his nature; and it required but the common feelings of humanity to become in that moment a citizen of the world. (14)

-- Letters from France (1793): The September Massacres, 1792.

Ah! what is become of the delightful visions, which elevated the enthusiastic heart? -- What is become of the transport which beat high in every bosom, when an assembled million of the human race vowed on the altar of their country, in the name of the represented nation, inviolable fraternity and union -- an eternal federation! (6)

The surrounding nations of Europe, after contemplating the savage spectacle which the second of September presented, will perhaps feel that despotism, armed with its arbitrary impositions, its gloomy towers, and its solitary dungeons, is not more hideous than anarchy. (20)

Wordsworth, "Guilt and Sorrow" (1842)

later version of "Salisbury Plain" (1793-4): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww118.html

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food. (XLI)

looks where common kindness had no part (XLIV)

      what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth,
Is that I have my inner self abused,
Foregone the home delight of constant truth,
And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth. (XLIX)

Wordsworth, from The Prelude 1805, excerpts on Godwinism, confusion and recovery.
See also extract from Book 11.

      the errors into which I was betrayed
By present objects, and by reasonings false
From the beginning, inasmuch as drawn
Out of a heart which had been turned aside
From nature by external accidents,
And which was thus confounded more and more,
Misguiding and misguided. (X.882-8)

                        I remember well
That in life's everyday appearances
I seemed about this period to have sight
Of a new world -- a world, too, that was fit
To be transmitted, and made visible
To other eyes, as having for its base
That whence our dignity originates,
That which both gives it being, and maintains
A balance, an ennobling interchange
Of action from within and from without:
The excellence, pure spirit, and best power,
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees. (XII.368-79)

[A motion and a spirit. TA, 101]

She, in the midst of all, preserved me still
A poet, made me seek beneath that name
My office upon earth, and nowhere else. (X.918-20)

Critical readings

Bromwich, David. "The French Revolution and 'Tintern Abbey'." Raritan 10:3 (1991 Winter): 1-23.

It is a poem about the peace and rest that one can know only by a sublimation of remembered terror. (6)

"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her," he says, because he is thinking of betrayal, and he himself had turned about twice, with a completeness others might deem treacherous: once in going to France and once in coming back. (19)

Richey, William. "The Politicized Landscape of 'Tintern Abbey'." Studies in Philology 95:2 (1998 Spring): 197-219.

Wordsworth -- writing during a time of strict government censorship -- constructs what appears to be a private meditation, but which is in fact a very public poem replete with political implications. (198)

Physical homelessness was something with which both he and Dorothy had some personal experience; "intellectual" vagrancy, though, was something that was the common experience of all those who were now alienated from the mood and policies of their own country and who had become uncertain about how they could usefully employ themselves. (214)

return to Tintern course

Document prepared September 16th 2001