Tennyson

English Literature and French Revolutions

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which nineteenth-century writers defined British national identity, and about how Englishness fitted into (and often dominated) those definitions. Elisabeth Jay’s recent book British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 has helped me to realise how often Englishness and Britishness were imagined in opposition to representations of Europe, and especially of the city that was viewed, throughout the nineteenth century, as the epitome of European culture.

For British writers, the changing appearance of nineteenth-century Paris embodied the troubling fluctuations of French and European politics. Even after they had been swept away, though, the city’s streets and buildings, and the events that had taken place in and on them, continued to exert an obstinate pull on the memory and the imagination. British writers frequently tried to construct a historical narrative that might make sense of the city’s successive revolutions, but they also acknowledged the ways in which Paris resisted any comfortingly straightforward interpretation. In his autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth recalled his brief stay in Paris in October 1792, just after the September massacres:

I crossed (a black and empty area then)

The Square of the Carrousel, few weeks back

Heaped up with dead and dying – upon these

And other sights looking as doth a man

Upon a volume whose contents he knows

Are memorable but from him locked up,

Being written in a tongue he cannot read.

These lines, written in 1805 but not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, encapsulate the difficulties that British writers struggled with when they tried to explain recent Parisian history. Wordsworth presents himself both as a sightseer and as an interpreter or translator, but he is at a loss to make sense of Paris’s uncanny transformation, in the space of a few weeks, from a slaughterhouse to a mundane urban scene. Despite Wordsworth’s best efforts, the city remains intractably foreign and alien, and his sense of alienation intensified as the years and decades passed. Visiting again in 1837, he wrote to a friend:

‘What shall I say of Paris? Many splendid edifices and some fine streets have been added since I first saw it at the close of the year ­-91. But I have had little feeling to spare for novelties, my heart and mind having been awakened everywhere to sad and strange recollections of what was then passing and of subsequent events, which have either occurred in this vast City, or which have flowed from it as their source.’

Although struck by the changes imposed on Paris by successive regimes – the imperial government of Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy, the July monarchy of Louis Philippe – Wordsworth professes himself to be unmoved by these ‘novelties’. Juxtaposing the city’s physical transformation with his dormant but ineradicable memories of its history, his letter summarises the prevailing British view of Paris as a place that simultaneously enforced the obliteration and the recollection of the past.

Elisabeth Jay points out that the city was a perfect setting for the nostalgic Romanticism of much Victorian writing. British authors took its transformations personally, responding with ‘bouts of reflection on earlier selves from which they now seemed irretrievably estranged by the wholesale destruction of the buildings, streets, and enclaves where they had formerly wandered.’ But there was also an important political dimension to these reflections. When Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude that, after the violence of September 1792, ‘The fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come’, he was using his recollection of personal dread to allude to the political Terror that commenced soon after he left Paris. The ‘fear to come’ haunted British writers throughout the nineteenth century, because the city’s political disturbances were at the same time dangerously chaotic and worryingly predictable. There was never too long to wait until the next revolution.

Some Victorians saw the funny side of what Jay describes as the ‘cyclical inevitability’ of Parisian revolution. After the insurrection of June 1848 (the second of that year), the satirical magazine Punch accused a popular newspaper, the Illustrated London News, of fabricating its pictures of the barricades. They had been published so promptly, Punch suggested, that they must have been prepared in advance of the uprising:

‘Any one might have foreseen for weeks previous that there would shortly be another Revolution in Paris. It required no great prophet to guess such a very common event as that. We should not at all wonder if our spirited contemporary has not already on hand half-a-dozen more Revolutions, so as to meet the pressure of the times.’

Horace Vernet Barricade Rue Soufflot

Horace Vernet, On the Barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848

Other writers were deadly serious about the threat posed by Paris’s habitual volatility. In his 1850 elegy for his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam, Tennyson connected the personal to the political by imagining his coming to terms with grief as one part of a global, teleological progress towards peace and security:

And all is well, though faith and form

Be sundered in the night of fear;

Well roars the storm to those that hear

A deeper voice across the storm,

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,

And justice, ev’n though thrice again

The red fool-fury of the Seine

Should pile her barricades with dead.

In Memoriam is a famously cyclical poem, its abba rhyme scheme embodying the difficulty Tennyson finds in moving on from his grief. The recurring ‘fool-fury of the Seine’ is presented here as emblematic of the kind of pathological stagnation from which Tennyson (and, the poem implies, the whole world) must struggle to break free. When they were drafted prior to the 1848 revolution, these lines warned of the danger of the Parisian people ‘once again’ taking to the barricades; the revision to ‘thrice again’ indicates just how anxious some British writers were about the repetitive pattern of revolutionary activity in 1789, 1830, and 1848. And these stanzas also highlight a problem with the word ‘British’ in relation to Victorian opinions about Paris. In this poem Tennyson contrasts a specifically English ‘love of freedom’ (liberal, measured, reformist) not just with the fury of the Parisian mob but also with ‘The blind hysterics of the Celt’. For some Victorians, the alien political culture represented by Paris was defined in opposition not to an inclusive British national identity, but to an exclusive model of Englishness that linked Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland to the chaotic irrationality of European politics.

I wanted to resist making any kind of facile comparison between these nineteenth-century examples and the current debate about Brexit. But I don’t think I can. British writers’ interpretations of Paris in the nineteenth century show that, however much they tried to define British national identity in opposition to European culture, the two were inescapably connected through the physical travels of people and through a reciprocal exchange of cultural traditions and political beliefs. And the example of Tennyson’s poem also suggests that a rejection of Europe tends to highlight the internal tensions within (an inherently composite) British national identity, and threatens to undermine the cultural multiplicity that arguably defines Britishness.