Monday, April 17, 2006

Poetry wars

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 it was greeted with enthusiasm by the young intellectuals of Europe.

The English poet William Wordsworth was no exception. He wrote verses in support of the Revolution, including these significant lines,

Once Man entirely free, alone and wild,
Was bless’d as free, for he was Nature’s child.
He, all superior but his God disdained,
Walk’d none restraining, and by none restrained,
Confessed no law but what his reason taught,
Did all he wish’d, and wish’d but what he ought.

In these lines Wordsworth is claiming that man is naturally free in the liberal sense of having no impediments to his individual will and reason. The individual man is superior to everyone else but God; he needs no restraints and recognises no laws except those accepted by his own reason; he follows his own will in all things (but always chooses to do the right thing).

A few decades later another famous young English poet, Shelley, was still holding firm to the same political ideal. In his work Prometheus Unbound (1820), Shelley advanced his ideal of a “new man” who would “make the earth one brotherhood”. This new man would be,

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself

Shelley is following the same ideal as the young Wordsworth, but has taken things a step further. Unlike the nature’s child described by Wordsworth, Shelley’s new man does not recognise a higher authority in God, nor is it assumed that he will always choose what is right.

Shelley has also drawn out the logic of this liberal concept of freedom by rejecting nationalism. What matters for Shelley is that we are all equally sovereign individuals – the kings over ourselves. We are not to be circumscribed, contained, or ranked according to collective identities, whether they be based on class, tribe or nation.

In the long run, Shelley got his way. The liberal concept of freedom came to dominate Western politics; it became such an orthodoxy that traditional nationalism came to be seen negatively as a limitation or restriction on the individual, and as a “discriminatory” offence against equality.

There was resistance along the way, though, to this unfolding of the liberal view. The French Revolution did not meet the expectations of its supporters. It did not return man to a natural, untrammelled freedom, but unleashed the Reign of Terror, followed by the dictatorship of Bonaparte.

Wordsworth reconsidered his position. He shed his liberalism and adopted a more conservative outlook. This change in his views is very clear in his homage to Edmund Burke, the political philosopher who had stood against the stream and had warned, prophetically, of the likely consequences of the Revolution:

I see him – old, but vigorous in age, -
Stand like an oak whose stag-horn branches start
Out of its leafy brow, the more to awe
The younger brethren of the grove. But some -
While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems based on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by Custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born
(The Prelude 519 – 529)

There is no quibbling about liberalism in these lines. Wordsworth, following Burke, no longer believes that our own individual will and reason, acting alone, are sufficient to order society. Time hallowed institutes and laws are to be respected, even though they cannot by definition be self-authored. Customary social ties do not circumscribe individual freedom but are remarkable for their vital power.

Most strikingly, we are born to our allegiances. Wordsworth, in asserting this, has made a root and branch rejection of liberalism, and has, politically, set himself free. He is no longer limited, in what he identifies with, to purely “voluntary” associations chosen as a deliberate act of will or reason.

Instead, the whole gamut of allegiance is open to him. He may follow his deeper loyalties to an inherited ethnic nationalism; he may identify completely with an inborn masculinity; he may accept traditional and stable forms of family life; and he may assent to external, objective codes of morality.

Wordsworth, having once shared Shelley’s enthusiasms, knew how to break most cleanly with the ideal of the sceptreless, tribeless new man. But Wordsworth’s defence of nationalism was not the most famous of its time.

In 1804 Sir Walter Scott wrote a stinging attack on those who felt no allegiance to their own homelands. He relied less on theory and more on force of expression:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung.
(Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto Sixth)

There is only a hint of theory in this poem. The “wretch” is described as being “concentrated all in self” and this perhaps is aimed at the radical individualism of the “new man” who was, despite the best efforts of poets like Wordsworth and Scott, to so greatly affect the fortunes of twentieth century Europe.

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