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.
The first poem on the French Revolution is actually written from the point of view of a sight disillusionment. It’s a little wise-acre there, a little bit wise.. I don’t know if you got the subtlety of that.
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]