Discuss the impact of the French Revolution on Romantics.

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The Romantics were attracted to the French Revolution's promises of freedom and equality and its overthrow of the aristocracy. This partly inspired the Romantics' embrace of "common language" and emphasis on pastoral and everyday life subject matter. The first generation Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey), inspired by William Godwin's embrace of Revolutionary ideals (in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice), developed a poetics that sought to break down "high" and "low" distinctions and privileged "feeling" (or imagination/"fancy") over the rigid hierarchies of aristocratic government.

The Revolution's descent into military dictatorship caused Wordsworth and Coleridge to embrace political conservatism in their latter years. For the second generation Romantics (Shelley, Byron, Keats), disillusionment with the historical outcome of the Revolution did not dampen their enthusiasm for Revolutionary ideals, but instead caused them to submerge these themes into broader mythological allegories (like, for instance, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound). While Shelley believed in promoting liberty and equality through non-violent revolution, Byron saw the outcome of the Revolution in more cynical terms and viewed the rise of Bonaparte as a kind of inevitability.

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For the most part, the Romantics were initially quite supportive of the French Revolution and its ideals. Wordsworth, for example, was in France at the time and became a devoted adherent of the revolutionary cause. As the French Revolution took a more violent turn, however, Wordsworth became radically disillusioned, eventually becoming quite reactionary in his social and political views. Coleridge followed a similar trajectory; the violent Jacobin phase of the Revolution had a profound impact upon him, its de-Christianization offending against his religious beliefs.

In general terms, the Romantics were inspired by what they saw as a new birth of liberty. However, in due course many came to feel that the notion of liberty at the heart of the French Revolution was somewhat narrow and one-dimensional. For the Romantics, liberty wasn't just related to politics; it was the expression of an individual's true essence. The institutions of politics and society needed to be reformed so that they could allow for the maximum amount of individual self-expression, especially through the medium of art.

The Romantics' understanding of liberty was spiritual, and though the French Revolution initially seemed a manifestation of such liberty, it soon became apparent that it was no such thing, based as it was on abstract reason. As such, a profound disillusionment set in, and many Romantics turned to reactionary politics or religion to remedy the spiritual deficiencies of the age of revolution.

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Although the Romantics, in particular - the British poets (Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley) did not believe themselves to be a 'Romantic movement,' they were united in support for the French Revolution. The Romantics did hold a lot of the same motivations (imagination and freedom of the individual) and because they so believed in the freedom of the individual, they considered themselves as different artists within a general ideology which was based on freedom, emotion, and imagination of the individual. Since the French Revolution was an international statement of displacing monarchy in favor of a more democratic (and in some cases, socialist) system, they of course praised this move because the individual has more power in those systems; particularly the democratic. Unfortunately the French Revolution resulted in a dictatorship by 1799 which just replaced one owning class (aristocracy) with another (military dictatorship). Eventually, Marxists would see this is as well (Karl Marx writing around 1850). The Romantics did not like the way the revolution turned out, but they did praise the general statement it made; a ‘beginning of the end’ of the inescapable hierarchies/oppression of the lower classes by monarchist rule. So, despite the revolution’s problems, the end result was a progression in favor of democracy and individualism; ideologically and in terms of socio-economics.

 

 

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