Edward Dowden.

The French revolution and English literature; lectures delivered in connection with the sesquicentennial celebration of Princeton university online

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LL.D., LiTT. D. (Dublin), Hon. LL.D. (Edinbubgh), Hon. D.c/l. (Oxford).
Hon. LL.D. (Princeton), Propessok of English Literature
IN THE University of Dublin




Copyright, 1897,
By Charles Scribner's Sons

John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A.


The substance of this volume was embodied
in lectures given in Trinity College, Cambridge,
when I had the honor to hold the Clark Lecture-
ship in English Literature. On receiving the
honor of an invitation from the authorities of
Princeton University to deliver a series of lec-
tures in connection with the Sesqui-centennial
Celebration, I revised my material and made
some additions. It is the wish of those who
organized and carried out that brilliant Celebra-
tion that these lectures should be published ; and
I am further encouraged to publication by the
great kindness of many of my American fellow-
students, and by the generous welcome which I
received from an American audience. I think
of my days spent in the autumn of last year
at that old and distinguished seat of learning,
which has contributed so much to the best life
of the United States, with a feeling of happy


In these lectures I go over some ground which
I have previously traversed ; the point of view,
perhaps, gives unity to the results of various
studies. I do not attempt to prove a thesis. I
have tried to enter in a disinterested way into
the spirit of each writer who comes within the
scope of my subject, and to let the meanings
of the French Eevolution, as they entered into
EngKsh literature, expound themselves. To pre-
sent some important figures on a background of
history — history of ideas rather than of events
— has been my aim.

I have acknowledged a debt to M. Angellier in
what I say of Burns, and to M. Legouis in some
things which I say of Wordsworth. A passage
of the last lecture is reclaimed from an article
of my own contributed to a magazine.

E. D.

Trinity College, Duklin,

January 7, 1897.



I. Precursors of Revolution .... 3

II. Theorists of Revolution 47

III. Anti-Revolution: Edmund Burke . . 93

IV. Early Revolutionary Group and

Antagonists 141

V. Recovery and Reaction 197

VI. Renewed Revolutionary Advance . . 243






Before the stream of Eevolutionary thought and
feeling gathered to flow in a channel, its diffused
substance existed in the form of what may be
described as a mist. From a fortunate distance
certain wreathings of that mist may be observed.
Taine, in the opening volume of his book on the
" Origins of Contemporary France," resolves into
two chief elements the Eevolutionary spirit: first,
the progress of niilUial iXnd o»j^eTimeQJ^_gfiie;i^^
with the application of the methods of science to
the study of human society and human history ;
secondly, the classical tendency, which reduces the
particular and individual to general ideas, or sub-
stitutes an abstraction for a group of things con-
crete with all their manifold details. The second



of these influences was active in England, — we
feel its presence in such a book as Godwin's " Politi-
cal Justice," — but it had not in our country, as it
had in France, the weight of a predominant tradi-
tion, and the character of the English mind held it
in check. The acquisitions and the_inethods of
science deeply affected the temper and habits of
thought in both countries. In astronomy, in
optics, in chemistry, in geology and mineralogy,
in botany, in zoology, in physiology, great names
make the eighteenth century illustrious ; great dis-
coveries were co-ordinated under ruling ideas. But
is not man a portion of nature ? And if so,
why should not the ideas and methods of science
be applied to tlie study of man as an individual,
,to the study of society and of its development ?
It was not authority, it was not conceptions in-
herited from the past, which had given this
powerful impetus to scientific discovery ; these
had been reversed or set aside. Reason had
taken the place of authority. Why should not
reason also become supreme in the study of
humanity, and in all arrangements for the social
and political life of man ? Why should there
not be a mathematics dealing with the units,
and groups of units, which make up society ?
Why should not society be established, though


now for the first time, on the basis of reason ?
Might this not be, if only authority and prescrip- /^
tion, customs and conventions, inherited beliefs
and the prejudices of ignorance, were once for all
displaced or overthrown ? ^ The new faith in ^
reason became an enthusiasm with something ^
of the force of a new religion.

An idea of unlimited hu man -progress had I
been generated by the vast scientific movement \
of the ceatury. Man is not a perfect creature,
but surely he is perfectible; and the motive-
power in his endless advance can be no other
than the human reason.Jj But in order that
reason may have full scope and play, absolute
freedom is essential, a complete emancipation
from prejudice must be attahied/ The chain of
inference appeared to be unbroken and strong ;
^y Is it possible for us," asked Godwin, " to con-
template what man has already done, without
being impressed with a strong presentiment of
the improvements he has yet to accomplish ?
There is no science that is not capable of addi-
tions ; there is no art that may not be carried
to a still higher perfection. If this be true of
all other sciences, why not of morals ? If this ^
be true of all other arts, why not of social insti-
tution ? The very conception of this as possible


is in the highest degree encouraging. If we can
still further demonstrate it to be a part of the
natural and regular progress of mind, our confi-
dence and our hopes will then be complete.
This is the temper with which we ought to
engage in the study of political truth." The
same doctrine has been taught to our own gen-
eration, and has been pushed even farther in the
direction of homage to the reason. In Draper's
ambitious work the author stated, in lanfma<?e
which is strange as coming from a professedly
scientific writer, that Nature, the abstraction
Nature, has an aim, and that this aim is not a
moral but an intellectual development. Buckle,
in his " History of Civilization," maintained that
the intellectual element is the dynamic force in
society, having an activity and a capacity for
adaptation which make it the chief mover in an
indefinite progress of humanity. It is perhaps
worth noting, as a symptom of one tendency
of thought in our own day, that a recent con-
tribution to the study of Social Evolution, that
by Mr. Benjamin Kidd, argues on grounds, which
claim to be scientific, in favor of a theory pre-
cisely the opposite to that of Buckle. The con-
clusion which Darwinian science must eventually
establish is, in Mr. Kidd's view, that the evolu-


tion slowly proceeding in human society has
primarily a religious rather than an intellectual

However this may be, th e eighteenth century,
the scecuhtm rutio/ialisticum^ helieved. as a car-
dinal article of faith, in the supremacy of reason
as an agent in the prpgress of society. This belief
was nourished and sustained by the great scien-
tific discoveries of the age ; and it tended to
produce that assurance or that dream of the
possibility of boundless advance for the race,
which formed part of the Eevolutionary cr^e d,
and which was summed up in the expression

iman perfecti biliti/r^ lie new evangel had its q
apostles and prophets and martyrs.] There is
something sublime and something pathetic in
their unalterable optimism. The most glowing
words, perhaps, celebrating the promised golden
age, seen in vision from the undelectable
mountains of Revolution, were written by the
proscribed Condorcet in the closing pages of his
unfinished "Progr^s de I'Esprit humain." The
contemplation of the happier future of humanity
he describes as a refuge for the philosopher, into
which the recollection of his persecutors can
never follow him, — " in which liting in thought
with man reinstated in the rights and the dig-


nity of his nature, lie forgets man tormented and
corrupted by greed, by base fear, by envy." " It
is here," cries Condorcet, " that he truly abides
with his fellows, in an elysium which his reason
has known how to create for itself, and which
his love for humanity adorns with all purest
delights." Condorcet's sympathetic critic, Mr.
Morley, admits that the " Progr^s de I'Esprit
humain " fails to consider the history of moral
improvement, and is seriously marred by the
philosopher's angry and vehement hostility to
the religions of the world.

But the eighteenth century was not merely
a scBculum rationalisticum. There had been in
England, as well as in France and Germany, a
great enfranchisement of the passions. There
had been a great outbreak of religious emotions in
the movement which was represented by White-
field and Wesley. In literature the sentimental
movement, of which the spirit is present in such
representative works as Kousseau's " La nouvelle
H^loise," Goethe's " Werther," and Sterne's "Tris-
tram Shandy," ran its course, and probably would
\^ have perished through its own excesses, had it
not turned somewhat away from literature and
coalesced with the new philanthropy of the
time. The worship of passion, the abandonment


to sentiment, had been dissolvents of moral and
social order '^, tlie first of duties was no longer to
act aright, but to be touched by a delicate dis-
tress. Yet under the affectations of the senti-
mentalists lay a real refining of human sympathy. <;
In its more robust form the tender emotion of
the time passed into the new philanthropy ; and
among the sources which went to form the Eevo-
lutionary stream this is not the least important.
The cause of Eevolution seemed to many thinkers,}
and especially to the-yetragyr ixrt^ more ardent\
spirits, to be l^tecause of humanity. The laws |
were harsh, an3*""w6r6 Sldhiinisfered with little
pity ; the criminal, generous or amiable, becam.e
a favorite with imaginative writers. Human
nature — so it had been eloquently preached — is \
essentially good ; the unreasonable and unfeeling '
arrangements of society are the chief causes of
crime. All that philanthropy had been striving '
for in this direction and in that was to be at-
tained in its unity and completeness by the
Eevolution. When the Bastille fell, what was
this but the fulfilment of the unaccomplished
work of Jolm Howard? Fox only gave expres-
sion to the sentiment of many of his contempo-
raries when he exclaimed, " How much the
greatest event it is that ever happened in the

OF THi- ^'rP



world ! and (how much the hest !" Not that as
a fact the fail of the Bastille quite enfranchised
the whole of humanity ; it had held in confine-
ment seven prisoners/f our' of whom were accused
of forgery ; one was an idiot ; one was detained
jit the request of his family ; while, on the other

y\ j^ hand, the bodies of upwards of fourscore dead

./ " compatriots lay in the governor's court, and

certain heads were borne in triumph on the

j pikes of fraternity. But the Bastille served well

enough as a symbol for the imagination ; its ruins
typified the ashes of the old regime; and from
tlpse ashes the phoenix of human happiness and
freedom seemed to rise. Philanthropy was enter-
ing on its revolutionary apotheosis, when the
evangel of humanity was most clearly to be read
if it were written in blood.
"^ But in the days before this apotheosis im-
agination had also played its part, and it was
set upon defining certain actual evils, and ascer-
taining the way to practical reforms. The Penal
Code of England was still one of savage severity,
and little had been done to amend its provisions.
It was something when in 1783 the cruel pro-
cession to Tyburn was abolished. And at least
one great statesman, — but he proved himself to
be no admirer of the French Eevolution, — Ed-


mund Burke, pleaded for a revisal of that code,
which he described as abominable. The great
work of Howard's life on behalf of prison reform
began with his appointment, in 1773, as High
Sheriff of Bedfordshire. His personal inspection
of prisons was carried out under circumstances
which involved on his own part heroic fortitude,
in which he was supported not only by his pas-
sion of humanity, but by a deep sense of religious
duty. Indeed, the example of Howard and that
of Wilberforce are instances of the debt which
the philanthropic movement of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries owed to the Evangelical
revival. Howard did his work patiently and
well, thoroughly informing the public as to the
condition of the prisoner and his wretched abode,
— the scanty food, the lack of warmth, the over-
crowding, the poisonous atmosphere, the conse-
quent diseases, the untended condition of the
sick, the ponderous chains and iron collars, the
fees extorted by unpaid jailers, the languishing
for years of those incarcerated for petty debts.

Among the philanthropic efforts of the time
that on behalf of the abolition of the slave-trade
was the most considerable. Into it entered some
thing of the Kevolutionary feeling for liberty,
and yet more of the sentiment of fraternity. As



early as 1668 William Penn had denounced the
cruelty of the trade, and his successors in the
Society of Friends had never been quite insen-
sible to its evils. The exertions of the Quakers,
in days preceding the great upheaval in France,
were ably seconded by Granville Sharp, Clarkson,
and Wilberforce, members of the Church of Eng-
land. Evidence was collected by Clarkson; the
system of kidnapping, the native wars that fed
: the trade, the horrors of the Middle Passage, were
! exposed ; and on this subject at least there was
; no serious difference of opinion between Pitt and
I Fox and Burke. In 1780 Burke prepared a code
^ for the mitigation and ultimate abolishment of the
traffic in human lives, but he lost hope in the
possibility of bringing it to a successful issue.
In 1788 he "spoke strongly to the effect that
the trade was one which ought to be totally
abolished, but if this was not now possible, it
ought to be regulated at once. All delay in such
a matter was criminal." ^ It is melancholy to
recall the fact that the direct cause why this
reform was not attained before the close of the
eighteenth century was that violent outbreak
on behalf of freedom, in which its admirers saw
the immediate emancipation of the world. In

1 Lecky, England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. vi. p. 291.


the panic created by the French Eevolution the
interests of the oppressed Africans receded. Dan-
ton declared that slavery had been abolished in
the French colonies in order that the negroes in
the colonies of England and Spain might be ex-
cited to revolt. The century, in the words of
Mr. Lecky, " terminated with the temporary
defeat of a cause which twelve years before
seemed on the eve of triumph." Neverthe-
less, the younger spirits of the Eevolution ary
movement in our literature, and in particular
Southey, remained ardent champions of negro
emancipation. -

i The idea of progress and human perfectibility, i
the humanitarian passion, — we have seen how \
these entered into the Eevolutionary spirit before
the Eevolution. A third element which entered
into that spirit produced remarkable effects in
literature as well as in life. Mr. Morley has
said that the keynote of the Eevolutionary time
is expressed by the word " simplification." [The
Eevolution was, or aimed at being, as we are often
told, " a return to nature." j Eeturn to nature, —
it is an elastic word which is capable of many
meanings. When Pope and Addison pleaded for
a return to nature, they meant a return to good
sense, the common intelligence, and the observa-


tion of actual life in place of the fantastic ingenui-
ties of false wit and the eccentricities of private
conceit. Now the meaning was different. The
"return to nature " signified a simplification in
**- social life in contrast with the artificialities and
^^ conventions which had accumulated in a highly
complex age, and especially in cities and in courts ;
a sigh, genuine or affected, for the simplicities of
rural existence, or it might be for " a lodge in
some vast wilderness ; " a fresh delight in beauty
of the mountain and the woods ; a discovery of
the dignity of human passions in the shepherd
and the tiller of the soil ; a recognition in politics
of the ric^hts of man as man, resjardless of the
claims of aristocratic caste or class ; an assertion
of unbounded freedom for the individual, or a
freedom limited only by such duties as were im-
posed by universal fraternity. In these and in
other respects, the Eevolution professed to sim-
plify life. As a young man, Fox had worn
elegant costumes, red-heeled shoes, and blue hair-
powder; during the American war he and his
friends distinguished themselves by a studious
indifference to the refinements of dress. " From
the House of Commons," says Wraxall, " and the
clubs of St. James's Street it spread through the
private assemblies of London. But though grad-


ually undermined and insensibly perishing of an
atrophy, dress never totally fell till the era of
Jacobinism and of Equality in 1793 and 1794."
" This period," writes Mr. Lecky, " marks a com-
plete revolution in English dress. It was then
that the picturesque cocked hat went out of fash-
ion. . . . Then, too, the silver buckle was ex-
changed for the ordinary shoe-tie. Muslin cravats,
pantaloons, and Hessian boots came into fashion,
and the mode of dressing the hair was wholly
changed. Like the Roundheads of the seven-
teenth century, the democrats of the eighteenth
century adopted the fashion of cutting the hair
short, and they also discarded as inconsistent
with republican simplicity that hair-powder
which, since the abolition of wigs, had been in-
variably worn by the upper classes. It is inter-
esting to notice that among the young students
of Oxford who were foremost in taking this step, ;
were Southey and Savage Landor." ^ Then, too,
the powder and paint of poetic diction were .
discarded by the younger poets ; it was declared ^
that the actual language of common discourse O
sufficed for the highest needs of literature, and
that the best part of our vocabulary is that which /
can be gathered from the lips of peasants who

1 England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. vi. pp. 147, 148.



are accustomed to express their feelings witb
simplicity, and who live in communion with
the majestic and ennobling presence of external

[^ An indication of the turn which feeling was
taking in the direction of simplification as regards
social life is found long before the Revolution,
as early g-s 1757, in a book which in its own day
made a considerable stir, — Brown's " Estimate
of the Manners and Principles of the Times, j It
speedily passed through several editions. "The
inestimable Estimate of Brown," says one of the
speakers in Cowper's " Table-Talk," " rose like a
paper kite and charmed the town ; " and indeed
the town from time to time enjoys hearing its
own vices or foibles criticised or satirized. LThe
book is a protest against the luxury and effemi-
nacy of the age.j Two merits Brown allows to
Englishmen, — they value liberty and they pos-
sess humanity; for the rest they deserve little
but censure. Some sentences from Mr. Leslie
Stephen's summary of the indictment brought
against his countrymen by Brown will sufficiently
indicate the drift of the writer : " At our schools
the pupils learn words, not things ; on the grand
tour young men contract foreign vices without
widening their minds; money is lavished on


foreign cookery instead of being spent on plain
English fare ; conversation is trivial or vicious ;
silly plays, novels, and pamphlets have replaced
works of solid literature ; the fine arts are de-
praved; opera and pantomime are preferred to
Shakespeare's plays ; men's principles are as bad
as their manners ; religion is universally ridi-
culed, yet the fashionable irreligion is shallow ;
vices are laughed at on the stage, and are re-
peated at home without a blush ; the professions
are corrupt, except law which ministers to the
selfish, and physic which assists the effeminate ;
politicians are mere jobbers ; officers are gamblers
ana bullies! tne ciergy are contemned and are
contemptible ; low spirits and nervous disorders
have notoriously increased, until the people of
England are no longer capable of self-defence." ^
And so the indictment, with many counts, pro-
ceeds. Brown was no revolutionist ; but he gave
an early expression to tlie feeling in favor of
simplification which was part of the Eevolu-
tionary mode of feeling. The sentiment was far
more powerfully expressed, if also with certain
extravagances of theory from which Brown is
free, by Eousseau; and Eousseau, who was a

1 L. Stephen, Eni^lish Thought in the Eighteenth Century,
vol. ii. pp. 195, 196 (abbreviated).


chief inspirer of the doctrine and the passions of
Revolution, gained a not inconsiderable following
in England.

Johnson, who stood on the old ways, who sus-
pected novelties of thought and scorned whatever
seemed to be sentimental nonsense, maintained
>( that the ^dreadgf luxury was visionary. "Lux-
ury," he declared, " so far as it reaches the poor,
will do good to the race of people; it will
strengthen and multiply them.^ Sir, no nation
was ever hurt by luxury, for it can reach but to
a very few." And he went on to challenge Gold-
smith to take a walk from Charing Cross to
Whitechapel, examining the shops with a view
to investigating which of them sold anything,
except it were gin, that could harm any human
being. " Well, sir," answered Goldsmith, " I '11
accept your challenge. The very next shop to
Northumberland House is a pickle shop." John-
son, as usual, when brought to bay, rose to the
height of the great argument: "Well, sir, do we
not know that a maid can in one afternoon make
pickles sufficient to serve a whole family for a
year ; nay, that five pickle-shops can serve all the
kingdom ? Besides, sir, there is no harm done to
anybody by the making of pickles, or the eating
of pickles." In 1767 John Wesley wrote in his


Journal : " T had a conversation with an ingeni-
ous man who proved to a demonstration that it
was the duty of every man that could to be
* clothed in purple and fine linen ' and to ' fare
sumptuously every day ; ' and that he would do
abundantly more good hereby than he could do
by ' feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.'
Oh the depth of human understanding! What
may not a man believe if he will?" The in-
genious acquaintance of Wesley, who held that
private extravagances are public benefits, was
adopting the same line of argument as that
which Johnson, thirty-three years previously, had
introduced in one of his " Debates," and some ten
years afterwards repeated in conversation when
he maintained that it did more good to eat a dish
of green peas at half a guinea than to give the
same sum to the poor, who might not be, like the
market-gardener, industrious.^ Wesley's protest
against luxury is repeated on the eve of the
Revolution, by Hannah More, in her " Thoughts
on the Importance of the Manners of the Great
to General Society " (1788). Hannah More
was a reformer, but she did not desire the over-
throw of thrones and of churches ; her pamphlet,
" Village Politics," in which the conservative
1 Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill. vol. iii. p. 56 and note.


working-man, Jack Anvil, a blacksmith, convicts

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Online LibraryEdward DowdenThe French revolution and English literature; lectures delivered in connection with the sesquicentennial celebration of Princeton university → online text (page 1 of 15)