Summary and Analysis
Residence in France (Continued)
On a captivating day, the poet pauses and surveys the Loire countryside in anticipation of returning to Paris. During his absence from the capital, King Louis XVI has been dethroned and the republic pro-claimed; the first coalition of foreign powers against France, at first aggressors, have been routed and pushed from the country. The republic has been bought at a price, of course, but the carnage was only a means to liberty. As he returns to Paris, Wordsworth is cheered with the thought that the revolutionary crimes were only temporary and now past. He roams over the city again and passes the Temple where Louis and his family are imprisoned. Such sites of martyrdom as the square of the Carrousel are beginning to infect him with a patriotic enthusiasm. By candlelight in his room high under the eaves, he alternately read about and looked out upon the revolutionary activities. He begins to envision some of the bloodshed to come and then sleep overtakes him.
Next morning, in the arcades of the Palais Royale, he witnesses verbal and written denunciations of Robespierre. The poet voices his secret fears that the direction of the revolution will stay in the hands of the heedless extremists, and he has sudden misgivings about the end of the struggle. He prays that truth will instill honor among men. He says he feels he would risk his life for the revolutionary cause; he goes on to express his belief that a supreme consciousness acts through the instincts of ordinary people and leads them toward wisdom and well-being. He reflects that the minds of people work certainly and always, though perhaps unconsciously, against tyrants.
He returns to England. Two winters have passed since he has been gone, he tells us. His return is timely, for he was about to join some of the patriots actively and probably would have died with them. He is glad to be in London where there has been recent antislavery agitation and a spirit of general humanitarianism prevails. He identifies these conditions as sympathetic responses to the revolutionary agitation for egalitarianism in France. He is therefore desolate when England joins France's enemies and declares war. From that moment, he and other idealistic young Englishmen began to have thoughts of political subversion. He confesses that not too much later he felt elation when an English army would be routed or vanquished. He indicts the pro-war conservatives for robbing the English youth of their spontaneous love of country, a particularly dangerous course in such turbulent times.
He has had a short stay on the Isle of Wight and has seen the British navy assembled at Portsmouth prior to entering the war against France. He has heard the boom of the sunset cannon, and it has filled his heart with foreboding.
The French patriots welcomed the invasion as an excuse for rallying the people to their cause and for committing all kinds of crimes and excesses in the name of expediency. The fever of invasion caused the mobs to go mad. The senate was powerless; the commune and the Jacobin Club directed affairs, official and unofficial. Wordsworth proceeds to give a rather vivid description of the Reign of Terror, though it cannot be firsthand because he was in England in 1793. His love for the dignity of the human being causes him to react with revulsion at the lust of the Terror for blood. He says:
— all perished, all — Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall.
The idea of liberty has been lost sight of. He cites Mme. Roland's famous utterance — "O Liberty, whatcrimes are committed in thy name!" — as epigrammatic of the turn the Revolution has taken. The French rallied and held their own in the wars, and the Terror consequently went on. For years after, the poet confesses, his dreams were uneasy:
— my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts,
Such ghastly visions had I of despair
And tyranny, and implements of death;
And innocent victims sinking under fear,
And momentary hope, and worn-out prayer,
Each in his separate cell, or penned in crowds
For sacrifice, and struggling with fond mirth
And levity in dungeons, where the dust
Was laid with tears.
He dreamed of himself pleading before the Revolutionary Tribunal at great length on behalf of the condemned.
In a devout tone, he once more calls upon the Supreme Being as the bulwark of humanity's quasi-divine nature. He contrasts the sweet willingness with which he obeyed God's plan as revealed in nature with the great reluctance he has in accepting it as evidenced by the actions of the revolutionary mob. He feels that the role of prophet is necessarily thrust upon him as he envisions the terrible retribution awaiting man. He says that man should wring from the affliction of the times a restored faith in himself. Equality and popular government are not to be blamed for the excesses of the Revolution; rather, man, in his depravity, is not ready for them. He recalls his first trip through France in 1790 and the happy anticipation on the part of the people. He remembers the celebration at Arras, the birthplace of Robespierre. Now, the poet feels, the townspeople should be denouncing their native son. He says that the memory of the festivities in Arras now rises up to chide him for his own misguided optimism at the time.
In a change of mood, Wordsworth also recalls the day the Terror ended. It holds a special place in his memory. He had been tramping through his old haunts and turned aside to visit the grave of the head-master of his grammar school. He recalls that teacher's love of the great poets and wonders if the headmaster might not have thought Wordsworth's own early efforts showed promise. Wordsworth proceeds along the plain to an estuary where a band of travelers have been waiting for the ebb of the tide so that they may ford the river. One of the men calls to the poet with the news that Robespierre is dead.
Wordsworth is elated. Those who lived by spilling blood have died by it. His erstwhile mood of disappointment gives way once more to hope that a new righteousness will still emerge from the revolutionary struggle.