Between 1770 and 1850, the intellectual life of Europe came to be dominated by what historians have referred to since as the romantic mood. The doctrines it represented and the literary and artistic works it produced came to be known as romanticism. The men who partook of this temper came to be known as romantics. Wordsworth was one of these; indeed, he was one of the very first. He wrote some of the first romantic poetry. In order to appreciate his poetry fully, it is helpful to place it in the historical setting in which it was composed.
Basically, the romantic mood was a reaction to the neoclassical Age of Reason — the age of Newton and Locke in England, Leibniz and the Encyclopaedists on the Continent. The world was ripe for a great rebirth of human spirit. Romanticism came to be a new way of viewing man and his relationship to his environment. The writers of the Enlightenment had preached human perfectibility ad nauseam; they described man as flourishing in a world which was completely rational and utterly predictable.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) is usually called the father of romanticism. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, his ideas were upon the lips of every educated person. A contemporary of the French Philosophs, he was one of the first to cry out at the stultification of the Age of Reason. To this end, he was quick to point out that invention and artifact — the proliferation of culture — had done more to hurt humanity than to benefit it. As an antidote, he saw a neo-primitive return to more natural ways for restoring the soul to humanity. He stressed naturalness in education and religion and simplicity in government, and thus attacked the very ramparts of the entrenched institutions which fostered traditionalism — the literati, the Church, and absolutism. Though Rousseau was only the first to express what many were beginning to feel, his legacy was indeed a rich one: The leaders of the French Revolution were his acknowledged disciples, and his nonpolitical ideas flowered in the romantic movement.
The great guiding principle of the romantic revolt was a reinvigorated humanism, which was greater than any since the Renaissance. It taught individualism and freedom of action; in the political sphere, it brought the end of privilege and substituted constitutionalism and extension of the franchise; in the religious realm, its earmarks were pietism and renewed fundamentalism (in England, manifested by such phenomena as Methodism). In the world of the arts, it brought freedom from the restraint of long-established rules and the unabashed expression of temperament.
As an aesthetic, it spread to all the arts and ultimately to the whole Western world. Since the beginning of early modern times, the fine arts had sought their inspiration in Greek and Roman models. At the height of the Enlightenment, classical rules, forms, and themes necessarily excluded much that was immediate and vital in human experience from creative expression. The romantic reform threw open the floodgates. Its greatest effect was perhaps felt in literature. Indeed, the revolt ushered in an age rich in both poetry and prose. The intellectuals were young, and enthusiasm was boundless. Everyone felt the change — the great minds and the lesser. Wordsworth's was one of the great minds, and one that led where others followed.
The most important event of the latter part of the eighteenth century was the French Revolution. It affected the lives of almost everyone, whether in France or elsewhere. Before it had run its course, it had effected changes throughout Europe and even in America. Because Wordsworth had a youthful enthusiasm for democratic movements and because he had an opportunity to witness some of the revolutionary activities in person, the Revolution had a great effect on his philosophy and on his works.
As Wordsworth was just beginning his literary career, prospects for a popularly desired outcome to the conflict were still promising, but the somewhat poorly formulated aims of the revolutionists were far from realized. The Jacobins had not yet come to power, and the more mature and moderate disciples of Montesquieu still directed the course of revolutionary activities. Their goal was a limited, or constitutional, monarchy, much like the English, with guarantees of all personal freedoms. The vociferous egalitarians, following Rousseau, sought to bring about in a quick and painless transition what the British had taken hundreds of years to create. The patriots sparked the Assembly in such a way as to cause admiration at home and among the liberals abroad.
The Assembly had done away with or curbed many of the royal and feudal abuses that had set off the revolt, reorganized the political and representative structure of the state, and, by erasing many older restrictions, created an equality of opportunity for many numbers of those who had never known it before. Importantly, it stabilized national finances and created a uniform and integral judicial system (where formerly there had been a multiplicity of unique local systems), and it curbed the irresponsible Catholic hierarchy in France.
The magic word was liberté. It excused everything. The legislature unfortunately was susceptible to any whim of the sanguine Paris mobs which pressured it. Violence loomed always as a very real possibility. A fanatical element was beginning to gain control. The Congressional Assembly deliberately voted itself out of existence as part of the deadwood of the old regime, and many of the wisest legislators retired. Control then passed to the radical Legislative Assembly. As Wordsworth arrived in Paris, the Assembly was busy sentencing émigré royalists and recalcitrant priests with the death penalty; intrigue and suspicion gripped the capital. To compound the difficulties, the great powers of Europe were menacing the borders of France with their armies in an undisguised effort to keep King Louis XVI the instrument of government. To safeguard the gains already won, Robespierre instituted the celebrated Reign of Terror.
The young Wordsworth continued to condone the acts of the radicals. On August 10, Louis XVI was dethroned amid bloodshed; the first step toward securing the new republic had been established. From then on, the Jacobin Club devoted itself to the extermination of all Bourbon supporters. Upon report of actual invasion, 900 royalist men, women, and children were wiped out in the September Massacres. Finally, the king was beheaded early in 1793. The excesses of the Revolution, its inevitable miscarriages of justice, continued to be excused because of the fanatical dedication of its leaders to exalting humanity. Not until the coming of the Directory (1795) and Bonaparte's drawing attention from the national to the international hostilities did control pass to the moderate middle class and the revolutionary activities abate somewhat.
And there was a revolution going on in England, though it was one fought without arms. Its origin was two-pronged: the emphatic rise of the merchant class, with its demands for less personal restraint from government, and the penetration of the romantic attitude into the mores of the nation. The political situation in 1793-94 was the result of two credos which grew out of two basic and conflicting aspects of human nature itself — tendencies toward conservatism and toward liberalism, both intricately commingled in the human breast, but one managing to predominate over the other from time to time. The Revolution in France whipped to nonviolent frenzy the sympathies of liberals and the reaction of conservatives. The resulting crisis was the most serious in England since the Puritan Revolution (1649). There was a curtailment of rights and liberties by the Tory government, which feared an actual armed uprising. The social injustices resulting from the Industrial Revolution were manifesting themselves at a time when reform was blocked by the conservative social philosophy, while liberal sentiment outspokenly supported the French insurgents. Finally, the press smoldered with much pamphleteering for and against the Revolution, innate rights, and the theory of equality. There were strident pleas for the immediate reform of the British constitution, and several societies were founded for the propagation of radical views. In the midst of this turmoil, Wordsworth composed his early poetry.
The romantic revolt had gotten well underway by 1800; it reached its climax in the first third of the nineteenth century. Revolutionary ideals from France created an intense political response in Britain. Moreover, the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) and war with the United States (1812) strained the economy and burdened the poor. In English statecraft, a pattern had been slowly emerging in which evolutionary progress and reform were obtained by solving political and social conflicts through compromise; after the Whig Party came to power (1830), this way of proceeding became predominant. Thereafter, the suffering which had been the direct result of the Industrial Revolution and laissez faire was ameliorated through a series of legislative acts curbing the abuse of labor and through revisions of the poor and criminal laws. The stage was set for a new leisure, prosperity, and enjoyment of more of the arts and material refinements of life. And a great technological and literary effort responded to the challenge.