The French Revolution

    In France, too, there was also increasing social unrest and instability caused by differences of wealth but somehow, unlike in Britain, no compromise was found. In Britain, the House of Commons represented the interests of both the small landowners (gentry) and the new “middle class" of industrialists and merchants. In France there was no such representative assembly; all power was kept by aristocratic and royal elites to which even the wealthy had little access. As a result, the French Revolution erupted , fuelled by discontent among both lower and middle classes.

The symbolic date of July 14, 1789, marks the day on which the citizens of Paris broke the gates of the Bastille prison. It was a small tower in eastern Paris in which members of the nobility could imprison anyone they wished for an indefinite period. There was no appeal, no right to a trial, no system of habeas corpus, a right which had been guaranteed in England since Magna Carta in 1215. The early months of the French Revolution were full of hope and enthusiasm, as the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” echoed with memories of the democratic vision of the American Revolution, which had itself looked back to the English Civil War. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the next year. Popular sentiments radicalized the Revolution significantly, culminating in the brutal Terror from 1793 until 1794. After the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795 and held power until 1799, when it was replaced by the Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 –1821).

The French Revolution was seen as a grave threat by many in England, conscious of how fragile the social balances were. Some welcomed it enthusiastically as a prophetic event heralding a radically new world. Among them was William Blake
(1757 - 1827), one of the greatest of English poets and a visionary, as well as a painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts.

William Blake


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The Sick Rose  (Songs of Experience)

O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The Lamb (Songs of Innocence)

Little lamb, who made thee?
Does thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Does thou know who made thee?

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little lamb, God bless thee!
Little lamb, God bless thee!

The Tiger (Songs of Experience)

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Wordsworth  (1770 - 1850)

    Born in 1770, Wordsworth lost both parents in childhood. He grew up in the Lake District, attended Cambridge Univeristy, and in 1790-2 spent much of his time in revolutionary France. At this time he was filled with revolutionary enthusiasm but soon the early idealism of the revolutionaries was abolished and the Terror, in which thousands of innocent people were guillotined, put an end to Wordsworth’s political radicalism. In 1795, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy went to live near Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Somerset. The two poets developed a close relationship and in 1789 they published Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems mostly by Wordsworth but in which the works of the two were not distinguished. The first poem below is from this volume, which marks the beginning of “Romanticism” in England. In 1799, the three moved back to the Lake District where they lived in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. Wordsworth wrote much that was included in a new edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) which also included a Preface written by Wordsworth using many ideas of Coleridge, the more philosophical of the two. Later, Coleridge and Wordsworth disagreed strongly and Coleridge criticized Wordsworth in his Biographia Literaria (1817). Wordsworth’s major work was almost all published in the Poems in Two Volumes (1807) although the final version of his great autobiographical poem The Prelude was only published after he died in 1850.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

John Keats

The English Romantic poet John Keats was born on October 31, 1795, in London. The oldest of four children, he lost both his parents at a young age.  When Keats was fifteen, his guardian withdrew him from school, to be apprentice with an apothecary-surgeon and study medicine in a London hospital. In 1816 Keats became a licensed apothecary, but he never practiced his profession, deciding instead to write poetry.

Around this time, Keats met Leigh Hunt, an influential editor of the Examiner, who published his sonnets "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and "O Solitude." Hunt also introduced Keats to a circle of literary men, including the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. The group's influence enabled Keats to see his first volume, Poems by John Keats, published in 1817. Shelley, who was fond of Keats, had advised him to develop a more substantial body of work before publishing it. Keats, who was not as fond of Shelley, did not follow his advice. Endymion, a four-thousand-line erotic/allegorical romance based on the Greek myth of the same name, appeared the following year.
Keats spent the summer of 1818 on a walking tour in Northern England and Scotland, returning home to care for his brother, Tom, who suffered from tuberculosis.

While nursing his brother, Keats met and fell in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne. Writing some of his finest poetry  between 1818 and 1819, Keats mainly worked on "Hyperion," a Miltonic blank-verse epic of the Greek creation myth. He stopped writing  "Hyperion" upon the death of his brother, after  completing only a small portion, but in late 1819 he returned to the piece and rewrote it as "The Fall of Hyperion" (unpublished until 1856). That same autumn Keats contracted tuberculosis, and by the following February he felt that death was already upon him, referring to the present as his "posthumous existence."

In July 1820, he published his third and best volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. The three title poems, dealing with mythical and legendary themes of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, are rich in imagery and phrasing. The volume also contains the unfinished "Hyperion," and three poems considered among the finest in the English language, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale." The book received enthusiastic praise from Hunt, Shelley, Charles Lamb, and others, but by that time he had reached an advanced stage of his disease and was too ill to be encouraged. Under his doctor's orders to seek a warm climate for the winter, Keats went to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn. He died there on February 23, 1821, at the age of twenty-five, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery.

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

 Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
 And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
 Round many western islands have I been
 Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
 Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
 That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
 Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
 Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
 Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Romantic novels

Walter Scott  (1771-1832): 1814 Waverley; 1815 Guy Mannering; 1816 The Antiquary; 1816 The Black Dwarf, Old Mortality; 1818 Heart of Midlothian; 1818 Rob Roy; 1819 The Bride of Lammermore, The Legend of Montrose; 1820 Ivanhoe; 1820 The Monastery; 1820 The Abbot; 1821 Kennilworth; 1822 The Pirate; 1822 The Fortunes of Nigel; 1822 Peverill of the Peak; 1823 Quentin Durward; 1824 St Ronan's Well; 1824 Redgauntlet; 1825 The Betrothed, The Talisman; 1826 Woodstock; 1827 Chronicles of the Canongate; 1828 The Fair Maid of Perth; 1829 Anne of Geierstein; 1832 Count Robert of Paris, Castle Dangerous.

Mary Shelley  (1797-1851): 1818 Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus;


    The French Revolution had created fear all over Europe. The British government was so afraid that revolution would spread to Britain that it imprisoned radical leaders. As an island, Britain was in less danger, and as a result was slower than other European states to make war on the French Republic. But in 1793 Britain went to war after France had invaded the Low Countries (today, Belgium and Holland). One by one the European countries were defeated by Napoleon, and forced to ally themselves with him. Most of Europe fell under Napoleon's control.
    Britain decided to fight France at sea because it had a stronger navy, and because its own survival depended on control of its trade routes. British policy was to damage French trade by preventing French ships, including their navy, from moving freely in and out of French seaports. The commander of the British fleet, Admiral Horatio Nelson, won brilliant victories over the French navy, near the coast of Egypt, at Copenhagen, and finally near Spain, at Trafalgar in 1805, where he destroyed the French—Spanish fleet. Nelson was himself killed at Trafalgar, but became one of Britain's greatest national heroes. His words to the fleet before the battle of Trafalgar, "England expects that every man will do his duty," have remained a reminder of patriotic duty in time of national danger.
    In the same year as Trafalgar, in 1805, a British army landed in Portugal to fight the French. This army, with its Portuguese and Spanish allies, was eventually commanded by Wellington, a man who had fought in India. Like Nelson he quickly proved to be a great commander. After several victories against the French in Spain he invaded France. Napoleon, weakened by his disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, during which nearly 500,000 soldiers died in the Retreat from Moscow, surrendered in 1814 and was exiled to the Italian island of Elba. But the following year he escaped and quickly (in 100 days) assembled an army in France. Wellington, with the timely help of the Prussian army, finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in Belgium in June 1815. He was exiled to the remote south-Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died. He is buried in the church of Les Invalides, in Paris.

The early 19th century

The population of Britain in 1815 was 13 million; by 1871 it had doubled. By 1914 it was over 40 million. In 1815, with Napoleon exiled for ever in St. Helena and France impoverished in every way, Britian too was in crisis, with 300,000 soldiers and sailors discharged and looking for work. Imported corn was cheap but the landowners imposed a protectionist policy, the Corn Law, so the price of bread rose, Everything else followed while wages remained low. Thise with no work, no money and no homes were forced into dreadful workhouses where families were divided; everywhere crime rates soared, there were occasional large riots. Masses moved into the industrial cities -- Birmingham, Sheffield, Anchester, Glasgow and Leeds soon doubled in size. In 1820, London counted 1.25 million people. The governing classes feared revolutionary uprisings. The Tories wanted simply to use force to control the poor. The Whigs advocated social transformation, "Reform." The first focus for reform was the House of Commons and the electoral system. The Tories thought Parliament should represent the owners of property; the radicals, inspired by the American and French revolutions, said it should represent the people as a whole. The Whigs were sympathetic to the radical approach and in 1832 a Reform Bill was passed. This changed the electoral system, increasing the number of urban constituencies electing MPs as well as widening the qualification for being a voter. It was a symbolic beginning of an ongoing development that took over 100 years.

In 1824 it became legal for worker to organize unions, designed both to negociate better wages and to prevent unfair competition. In 1834, 6 farm workers in Tolpuddle (Dorset) were imprisoned for forming such a union. They became known as the "Tolpuddle Martyrs" and widespread demonstrations forced the government to free them and accept the right of workers to form labor unions.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel established a police force in London to deal with crime; London's police are still known as "Bobbies" after his name. In 1838, workers joined with radicals to demand far more radical reform through a People's Charter. Many of these Chartists' idealistic demands were ultimately met, but only much later: the universal right to vote (for women, too), secret voting in elections, payment for MPs . . . The workers' movement was helped by the introduction in 1840 of a national postal system, allowing anyone to mail a letter anywhere for one penny. Payment was indicated by a stamp stuck to the letter. The Penny Black was the world's first postage stamp. The same Sir Robert Peel then abolished the old Corn Law, which had made food so expensive. The farming gentry were angry, the rich industrialists were happy since workers had less reason to demand higher wages once food was cheaper.

A symbolic event happened in 1834, when the Palace of Westminster caught fire. The entire complex, home to the two houses of Parliament since the middle ages, was destroyed. Only Westminster Hall survived. The old House of Commons had originally been St. Stephen's Chapel and the seating in today's House of Commons still follows the way the medieval seats in a chapel face one another. New, modern Houses of Parliament had to be built and they were designed by Pugin in the style of the Gothic Revival. In painting, John Constable and William Turner made landscapes immensely popular. Later in the century, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood transformed British art.