Swift, Wordsworth, and the French Revolution

Chris Drummond '93 (English 32, 1989)

Swift and Wordsworth were born over one hundred years apart, but they share a similar disillusionment. Though many different factors certainly contributed to the disenchantment of each, both find a common ground in the French Revolution. Wordsworth, who emphatically supported the Revolution, suffered a drastic loss of idealism following the Reign of Terror. As he writes in Book Ten of The Prelude:

Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
Were my day-thoughts, my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts,
Such ghastly Visions had I of despair,
And tyranny, and implements of death.
(Norton 2. 287)

Obviously, the French Revolution does not represent such an immediately severe awakening for Swift. However, Swift still feels a similar loss of idealism, viewing the Revolution as one more disenchanting event in the cyclical chain of history:

And consider the dangers of this naivety. How this yearning after purity and innocence is only a step from Robespierre's famous, and infamous, incorruptibility; how liberation turns to Grand Purge; how this revolution, which they thought was over so quickly, is forced, in order to satisfy its insistence on first principles, to renew itself again and again, with ever more ruthless zeal, till exhaustion allows compromise--if not reaction. (Waterland, p. 104)

For each, the French Revolution parallels the loss of innocent youth to the world of adult reality.

United Kingdom