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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.
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.
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
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.