AG: [Wordsworth] – I want to move away from his great poetry and get into what is sometimes considered to be his bad poetry. As a transition piece – a poem he wrote on the French Revolution. It was composed in 1804. He was already a little bit disillusioned. In a way, I was thinking of these poems in relation to our own national supposed disillusionment with the ‘Sixties [Allen is speaking in America in 1976 here] and I’m giving Wordsworth now as a little sample of what kind of mind we might develop (maybe for good or ill) – or – it’s parallel to the same tradition of all the ex-Communists in the (19)30’s, who got to be anti-Stalinist, and were totally disillusioned with revolutionary Russian Communism, and joined the CIA, and became war-mongers and monsters, in a mirror image of Stalin. What I’ll be dealing with here is the village-songman-bard, national-prophet,’s view of revolution, as he got disillusioned with it. Here’s a poem called “The French Revolution”, sub-titled “As it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement”. Reprinted from the French. Composed 1804. The French Revolution was 1789. Napoleon came in.. when?, does anybody…?
Student: 1812, right?
AG: When was Napoleon..?
Student: Napoleon was 1801 or 1802..
AG: Yeah.. so this is after Napoleon getting the crown from the Pope was it?…
AG: Okay. This is published 1809, by the way – [Allen proceeds to read Wordsworth’s “French Revolution”] – “Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!…”..”…the place where in the end/We find our happiness, or not at all!” – So that’s like, the promise of the “Sixties, in a way, saying those (years) were where the wild crazies found the plastic stuff at hand to create their universe, and (that) the milder schemes also had a chance. So what? Yes?
Student: You know, Wordsworth, when he wrote “Tintern Abbey’ said that “Nature never did betray/ the heart..”, and later he lost a relative at sea. I think (Wordsworth) wrote a poem of that nature – and then, with the French Revolution, he initially said “It was a joy to be alive..but to be young was a very heaven”[“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven”] and then later he was disillusioned. And you know (Robert) Browning was very upset when he…
AG: And Shelley! (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Student: Right. How do you feel about him. his tendency to sort of…
AG: Well that’s what I’m presenting here.
AG: I want to read these poems so that everyone gets familiar with the actual texts..that you’re talking about. So, his disillusion.
But then, for an absolute statement of it, is a series of poems dedicated to national independence and liberty, a series of sonnets – and one, “Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 7, 1802” (so, a few years earlier, actually), and then the one on the French Revolution (but this, it’s a little bit more direct on it) – “Jones!, as from Calais..” – he’d gone to France during Revolutionary times. I think he had himself a mistress, fathered a child (I don’t know whether he took responsibility for it, or not).. Pardon me?
Student: He left.
AG: He went there, and had a good time during the Revolution, but then.. [Allen recites, in its entirety, Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed near Calais…”] – “Jones!, as from Calais, southward you and I/Went pacing side by side this public Way/Streamed with the pomp of a too-credulous day”…”..despair/Touches me not, though pensive as a bird/Whose vernal covets winter hath laid bare” – sort of like, “What’s happening, man?” – “Two solitary greetings have I heard,/”Good morrow, Citizen!”, a hollow word” (well, the word in those days was “citizen”, instead of “man”, but the equivalent). It’s actually pretty Readers Digest disillusion.
1801 – number 4 of that series [ Allen reads next this Wordsworth sonnet, in its entirety] – “I grieved for Buonaparte with a vain/ and unthinking grief! The tenderest mood/of that man’s mind…”…”Of the mind’s business; these are the degrees/By which true Sway doth mount, this is the stalk/True Power doth grow on, and her rights are these” –
Well, that’s pretty fair. You were asking me what I thought of his switch. That’s a pretty fair proposition – middle-way. I have mixed feelings about it, because I’m just beginning to explore his turn-about (which is a similar turn-about as you might have seen with (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky). Shelley got upset. There’s a funny sonnet by Shelley to Wordsworth in 1815 (so this is already fourteen years later – [Allen recites Shelley’s sonnet “To Wordsworth”, beginning “Poet of Nature thou has wept to know..”] – “Poet of Nature thou has wept to know/That things depart which never may return…”…”Above the blind and battling multitude:/ In honored poverty thy voice did weave/ Songs consecrate to truth and liberty -/Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve/ Thus having been, that thou should cease to be” – Shelley, impetuous youth as he was, took a very generous view, actually. He said, “I grieve”.
[Audio for the above may be found here, beginning at approximately sixty-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-nine-and-a-quarter minutes in]