All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill; Neer saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! [Westminster Bridge; Wordsworth; Sept 3,1802] The allegation that Wordsworth moved from the harsh realities of the cities brought about by the industrial revolution initiated in 1765. This allegation was made relatively stronger by placing Wordsworth vis-a-vis Victorian realism.
In my view such an allegation is a product of superficial readings of his poems. The poem composed upon Westminster Bridge illustrates keen sense of socio-economy of the then London. It describes the urban landscape departing from his stock theme based on rural landscape. It talks about the landscape of the city which has been divested to its negative qualities. Like the smoke of the industries, the busy crowd, insensitive to its fellow man and the incessant desire in man to control nature.
The term smokeless air is for him a matter to rejoice a state of the city distilled of the harmful effects of industrialization. The line, the river glideth at his own sweet will encapsulates the entire project of Wordsworth vis-a-vis the new call given by the middle class to conquer and exploit nature. In this sense his realism is much more pronounced and subtle than it is taken into account of. Citing from historical context, one can notice the involvement of the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Lamb during French revolution.
In 1798, the year Lyrical Ballads, a joint effort by Wordsworth and Coleridge, came out, was a turbulent period in Englands history. Hostilities had broken out between Her and France in 1793 (and was to last with unremarkable intermission for over twenty years), and by 1798, she was faring badly in the war. Wordsworth had, of course, visited France in 1791-92, and had been in Paris at perhaps the most critical of all the great moments of the French Revolution that began with the destruction of the notorious prison of the Bastille in July 1789.
(Coleridges poem, An Ode on the Destruction of the Bastille). The political tussle between the Girondins and the Jacobins were at a height, and Wordsworth saw clearly the slow rise of the Jacobins under Robespierre. He felt a deep concern for the Girondin leaders whom he felt were the genuine revolutionaries. He believed in the reasonableness of human nature and also believed passionately that men were worthy of liberty.
Wordsworths early republicanism, his concern for France and the Revolution is described memorably in his long and autobiographical Prelude: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven! O times, In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways Of custom, law and statute, took at once The attraction of a country in romance! The prelude testifies to the shock that Wordsworth felt in his moral nature when he saw the Revolution that was to redeem mankind, turn to dust.
For many, Tom Paine, William Godwin, Coleridge and Wordsworth, the French Revolution was not simply as struggle of a people to be free- it was mankinds struggle to achieve something better- a new age for the entire human race- when aristocracy and class privilege would give to democracy and Reason would destroy the fetters of superstition and tyranny. Coleridge, like Wordsworth, had been swayed by the ideals of the Revolution, but the savagery and unrestrained mob frenzy under the Terror disillusioned him as did the rise of Napoleon and Frances aggressive conquests of other European nations.
In France, An Ode and Fears in Solitude, Coleridge describe his feelings with candour: O France, that mockest Heaven, adulterous, blind, And patriot only in pernicious toils! Are these thy boasts, Champion of humankind? To mix with kings in low lust of sway, Yell in the hunt, and share the murderous prey; To insult the Shrine of Liberty with spoils From freemen torn; to tempt and to betray? [France, An Ode] British sympathizers of the French Revolution like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey were lampooned in the conservative press.
Coleridge was so much influenced by William Godwins idea (Political Justice, 1793) of rejection of authority, abolition of private property, creation of a just state that along with Robert Southey, he was ready to set sail for America to establish a perfect state along the lines charted by Godwin. The political ideas of Wordsworth and Coleridge was also strengthened by pursuing the ideological goals of Unitarianism (which verged on radical deism) and drew heavily on the ideas of English Commonwealthman of the seventeenth century.
Side by side to these intellectual debates between the conservatives and the liberals, the economic and the human cost of the war proving to be enormous. In the country, rural poverty was becoming acute and the number of beggars, starving children, gypsies, wounded soldiers roaming the country lanes could be seen from early poetry. Wordsworths poetic capability to recreate the sorrows and hardships of these homeless, starving populace is one of his lasting achievement as a poet.
The Old Cumberland Beggar in poem of the same name, the traveler of Guilt and Sorrow, the blind London beggar in The Prelude are all powerful figures of forsaken humanity who become permanent symbols of the human condition. The effect of industrialization was viewed by both Wordsworth and Coleridge with a mixture of excitement and distrust. The new industrial cities- Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, by 1815, contained a large population that had come from the country to look for work, and both Wordsworth and Coleridge were increasingly worried about the rising number of poor.
Against the expanding complexities of men living in an industrial wasteland, the destruction of old livelihoods and an increasing impossibility to believe in a benign Providence, harmony with Nature offered the Romantic poets another way of life. The disruptive force of the French Revolution added the impetus to romanticism. There are individual differences among the great romantic poets concerning the conception of nature. But all of them share a common objection to the mechanistic universe of the eighteenth century- even though Wordsworth admires Newton and accepts him, at least in the orthodox interpretation.
All romantic poets conceived of nature as an organic whole, on the analogue of man rather than a concourse of atoms- a nature that is not divorced from aesthetic values, which are just as real (or rather more real) than the abstractions of science. My conclusion concerning the romantic poets may be unorthodox and even unconventional. On the whole political criteria seem grossly overrated as a basis for judging a man. References Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge [Edited by Debjan Sengupta and Shernaz Cama; Worldview Critical Editions] The Prelude by William Wordsworth An Ode on the Destruction of the Bastille by Samuel Taylor Coleridge