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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Early Nineteenth Century
by Long, William J.

  Two voices are there; one is of the sea,
  One of the mountains; each a mighty voice:
  In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
  They were thy chosen music, Liberty!

             Wordsworth, "Sonnet to Switzerland"

The many changes recorded in the political and literary history of nineteenth-century England may be grouped under two heads: the progress of democracy in government, and the triumph of romanticism in literature. By democracy we mean the assumption by common men of the responsibilities of government, with a consequent enlargement of human liberty. Romanticism, as we use the term here, means simply that literature, like politics, has become liberalized; that it is concerned with the common life of men, and that the delights of literature, like the powers of government, are no longer the possession of the few but of the many.

Historical Outline

To study either democracy or romanticism, the Whig party or the poetry of Wordsworth, is to discover how greatly England was influenced by matters that appeared beyond her borders. The famous Reform Bill (1832) which established manhood suffrage, the emancipation of the slaves in all British colonies, the hard-won freedom of the press, the plan of popular education,--these and numberless other reforms of the age may be regarded as part of a general movement, as the attempt to fulfill in England a promise made to the world by two events which occurred earlier and on foreign soil. These two events, which profoundly influenced English politics and literature, were the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.

Two Revolutions

In the Declaration we read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Glorious words! But they were not new; they were old and familiar when Jefferson wrote them. The American Revolution, which led up to the Declaration, is especially significant in this: that it began as a struggle not for new privileges but for old rights. So the constructive character of that Revolution, which ended with a democracy and a noble constitution, was due largely to the fact that brave men stood ready to defend the old freedom, the old manhood, the old charters, "the good old cause" for which other brave men had lived or died through a thousand years.

A little later, and influenced by the American triumph, came another uprising of a different kind. In France the unalienable rights of man had been forgotten during ages of tyranny and class privilege; so the French Revolution, shouting its watchwords of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, had no conception of that liberty and equality which were as ancient as the hills. Leaders and followers of the Revolution were clamoring for new privileges, new rights, new morals, new creeds. They acclaimed an "Age of Reason" as a modern and marvelous discovery; they dreamed not simply of a new society, but of a new man. A multitude of clubs or parties, some political, some literary or educational, some with a pretense of philosophy, sprang up as if by magic, all believing that they must soon enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but nearly all forgetful of the fact that to enter the Kingdom one must accept the old conditions, and pay the same old price. Partly because of this strange conception of liberty, as a new thing to be established by fiat, the terrible struggle in France ended in the ignoble military despotism of Napoleon.

Effect of the Revolutions

These two revolutions, one establishing and the other clamoring for the dignity of manhood, created a mighty stir throughout the civilized world. Following the French Revolution, most European nations were thrown into political ferment, and the object of all their agitation, rebellion, upheaval, was to obtain a greater measure of democracy by overturning every form of class or caste government. Thrones seemed to be tottering, and in terror of their houses Continental sovereigns entered into their Holy Alliance (1815) with the unholy object of joining forces to crush democracy wherever it appeared.

The Revolution and Literature

The young writers of liberty-loving England felt the stir, the sursum of the age. Wordsworth, most sedate of men, saw in the French Revolution a glorious prophecy, and wrote with unwonted enthusiasm:

  Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
  But to be young was very Heaven.

Coleridge and Southey formed their grand scheme of a Pantisocracy, a government of perfect equality, on the banks of the Susquehanna. Scott (always a Tory, and therefore distrustful of change) reflected the democratic enthusiasm in a score of romances, the chief point of which was this: that almost every character was at heart a king, and spake right kingly fashion. Byron won his popularity largely because he was an uncompromising rebel, and appealed to young rebels who were proclaiming the necessity of a new human society. And Shelley, after himself rebelling at almost every social law of his day, wrote his Prometheus Unbound, which is a vague but beautiful vision of humanity redeemed in some magical way from all oppression and sorrow.

All these and other writers of the age give the impression, as we read them now, that they were gloriously expectant of a new day of liberty that was about to dawn on the world. Their romantic enthusiasm, so different from the cold formality of the age preceding, is a reflection, like a rosy sunset glow, of the stirring scenes of revolution through which the world had just passed.


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