It’s something of a parlor game among the commentariat to compare one era with another. Every time America’s power ebbs, the pundits conjure the fall of the Roman Empire—and every time America’s power increases, they fear it’s the collapse of the Roman Republic. Each new war must be either Vietnam again or World War II. And if we had a dollar for every time a journalist compared the current economic downturn with the Great Depression, the current economic downturn would be over. That said, we can learn from history—we have to learn from it, or what’s the use of it? All these comparisons have some legitimacy, so long as you don’t stand too close or look too deep.
It is, then, with a diffident spirit that I suggest an only faintly outlandish comparison of my own. It seems to me that the last several decades in America have been a weird echo of the decades in Europe around the coming of the nineteenth century—and that no figure can serve as a better guide to both wisdom and error than William Wordsworth, one of the greatest of the British Romantic poets and, in many ways, the very model of a modern neoconservative, defending the West’s liberal tradition against radicalism.
My argument in brief is this. The French Revolution was the historical tragedy that recurred as farce in America’s 1960s. Cranky-cons like myself tend, when thinking of the Revolution, to skip right ahead to the bloody parts, like a 12-year-old watching Friday the 13th on DVD. But the French overthrow of what Wordsworth called “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law and statute” provided young Europeans with the same sort of goose of utopian hope that the Age of Aquarius gave the young here. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” Wordsworth famously recalled in later years. “But to be young was very heaven!” What aging boomer boring his grandchildren with tales of Woodstock wouldn’t say much the same?
The young and blissful Wordsworth had a good view of the action. Had he been 20 in 1970, he’d have headed for Berkeley to commemorate People’s Park. As it was 1790, he set off instead for France and arrived in Calais on the eve of the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille—a day of celebration that was supposed to mark the successful end of the Revolution. As he tells it in his towering autobiographical poem, The Prelude, Wordsworth was little interested in politics at the time: “A stripling, scarcely of the household then / Of social life, I looked upon these things / As from a distance.” He seems to have been a lot more focused on a walking tour across the Alps than on the going radicalism.
A year later, however, now a semi-dropout from Cambridge trying to avoid settling down to a life in holy orders, Wordsworth returned. It was on this trip that he met Annette Vallon, who gave him French lessons—in every sense, apparently, as she was soon pregnant with their illegitimate child. Vallon was Catholic and probably a royalist, but when Wordsworth followed her from Orléans, where they met, to her hometown of Blois, he fell in with army captain Michel Beaupuy, a revolutionary nobleman who seems to have become his political mentor. The Prelude records how he and Beaupuy would walk and talk along the banks of the Loire and through the surrounding woods. Under Beaupuy’s tutelage, Wordsworth wrote, “hatred of absolute rule, where will of one / Is law for all . . . laid stronger hold / Daily upon me.” Like a peacenik turning a blind eye to the atrocities of Communism, Wordsworth signed on to the French Republican cause even as the September Massacres were staining the streets of Paris with the blood of Catholic clergy. He seemed not to notice that the Revolution’s ideals were already giving way to the “irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy” predicted by the less Aquarian skeptic Edmund Burke.
Lack of funds forced the budding poet to return to England, but he stopped in Paris on his way. There, he later recalled, he was “pretty hot in it,” apparently taking the side of the Girondist moderate-radicals in their increasingly tense political struggles against Robespierre’s Jacobin radical-radicals. Ultimately, however, he had to go home. He left his pregnant mistress behind, and though he seems to have intended to marry her, the intent dissipated as the wars between France and England kept them apart. He always treated their illegitimate daughter decently, but I suspect he knew that history had saved him from a disastrous union. He was preserved instead for one of the sweetest and most loving marriages in literary history.
Coming back to England after the thrilling ferment of France must have been like returning from a semester of riots at Columbia University to your parents’ home in an Indianapolis suburb. Wordsworth was startled to find that the bulk of his countrymen in no way shared his radical enthusiasms. Though the English had at first welcomed the Revolution, they were now largely horrified by the increasingly destructive developments across the channel. The beheading of the French king in 1793 especially sent a shock of fear through the halls of British power. Every attempt at reform began to seem like a threat of revolution to the government of William Pitt, which cracked down on habeas corpus and free speech. Wordsworth, still full of passion for liberty, equality, and fraternity, boldly penned a defense of the revolutionaries. Less boldly, but more wisely, he left it unfinished. Had he published it, he would have certainly been arrested.
As France grew steadily more bloody at home and more warlike abroad, Wordsworth’s ardor for the Revolution cooled. In May 1794, with the Terror getting under way across the channel, he would still say drily, “I am of that odious class of men called democrats & of that class I shall for ever continue.” A month later, as things grew even worse, he affirmed: “I disapprove of monarchical & aristocratical governments, however modified. Hereditary distinctions and privileged orders of every species I think must necessarily counteract the progress of human improvement.” But now, he added nervously, “the destruction of those institutions which I condemn appears to me to be hastening on too rapidly. I recoil from the bare idea of revolution.”
Wordsworth’s instincts remained democratic, however. He was an admirer of the radical reformer William Godwin, and he befriended starry-eyed utopians like the young writer Robert Southey and, of course, the poet and polymath Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A tragically self-destructive man of almost supernatural energy, intellect, and learning, Coleridge had signed on fully to the spirit of the age. He and Southey were planning to move to America to start a commune under a system called pantisocracy—government by all. His castle-in-the-air enthusiasms complemented Wordsworth’s more realistic nature. Their intense friendship and shared radicalism—both political and poetical—led ultimately to the 1798 publication of their Lyrical Ballads, one of the most influential books of poetry ever written in English.
As the century turned, the dream of French liberty finally died. The old tyranny gave way to a new one, as Burke had predicted. To Wordsworth’s disgust, Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor and “now, become oppressors in their turn, / Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence / For one of conquest, losing sight of all / Which they had struggled for.”
It was, for Wordsworth, what the failure of Communism was for the radicals of a later day. He could no longer deny the error inherent in “speculative schemes— / That promised to abstract the hopes of Man.” He saw the Revolution as a dream that “flattered the young, pleased with extremes” and made “Reason’s naked self / The object of its fervour.” Confused by pure reason’s failure as a moral guide, he “lost / All feeling of conviction” and “yielded up moral questions in despair.” Slowly, he began to do the brave and difficult thing: to admit he had been wrong and change his mind.
Around the same time, the poet married Mary Hutchinson, a woman of such quiet serenity that a friend once joked that she never said anything but “God bless you!” The needs of their rapidly growing family necessarily turned his thoughts to more practical, and therefore more conservative, concerns. The financial help and patronage of Lord Lonsdale gave him new sympathy for the aristocracy. And the more he mulled the philosophical consequences of the French disaster, the more he came to respect the institutions and traditions that had guided Britain’s more stately procession toward greater freedom. There was, he wrote to Lonsdale in 1818, no other “arrangement by which Jacobinism can be frustrated, except by the existence of large Estates continued from generation to generation in particular families, with parliamentary power in proportion.”
In later years, as he was revising The Prelude, he added a tribute that summed up the negative lesson he had learned. Burke, Wordsworth wrote,
. . . forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by Custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born.
Wordsworth had become a neocon.
We who were young and lefty as the Reagan era began can fully identify with the development of Wordsworth’s views. We also remember our slow-motion recoil from the high radical ideals that had led to ravaged cities at home and the appeasement of tyranny abroad. We recall our long astonishment that the fuddy-duddy conservatives our social set dismissed with laughter and disdain had gotten it right. We can still summon our dismay at discovering that our hip, sophisticated, intellectual artiste pals would take no responsibility for the evil outcomes of their good intentions.
So it was with Wordsworth. With liberal pamphleteers denouncing him as a traitor to the democratic cause, he responded in a letter to a friend with sentiments that must sound familiar to all of us who grasped the nettle and made the change: “I should think that I had lived to little purpose if my notions on the subject of government had undergone no modification—my youth must in that case have been without enthusiasm & my manhood endued with small capability of profiting by reflexion.” Speaking for all of us who feel that it is we who have remained liberal while “liberals” have become intolerant of dissent from their misguided orthodoxies, he went on: “If I were addressing those who have dealt so liberally with the words Renegado, Apostate &C, I should retort the charge upon them & say, you have been deluded by Places & Persons, while I have stuck to Principles.”
Yet if modern conservatives are justified in feeling that Wordsworth was our brother at a remove, so what? What can we learn from that? For one thing, there are warnings built into the comparison. Wordsworth’s conservatism hardened as he grew into middle age, sometimes becoming small-minded. He opposed the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, for instance, which allowed Catholics to serve in Parliament. He feared that it would undermine the authority of the Anglican Church, which he had come to consider the bulwark of the English moral order. He also feared that Catholic MPs would divide their loyalties between the Vatican and the crown. Wordsworth also fiercely (and vainly) opposed the Reform Act of 1832, which greatly extended suffrage and further democratized parliamentary representation. The French Revolution had left him fearful of too much freedom. “It is a fixed judgement of my mind,” he wrote to a friend, “that an unbridled Democracy is the worst of all Tyrannies.”
But Wordsworth followed his principles—the principle of liberty, above all—and came around to a broader view in time. He voiced support for the Chartist movement, which called for universal male suffrage, in 1846, when he was 76.
He maintained that he had always remained a democrat and that he had objected only to the use of violence and to a speed of reform that outstripped the readiness of the citizenry. “The people are sure to have the franchise as knowledge increases,” he told a young Chartist poet, “but you will not get all you seek at once—and you must never seek it again by physical force.”
Still more relevant today is the key insight underlying Wordsworth’s political conversion. The Prelude, subtitled Growth of a Poet’s Mind, could just as easily, especially in its later editions, be called Growth of a Conservative’s Mind. It tells how, in a radical age, in a life of integrity, patriotism, and decency, and by the sheer power of a poetic intelligence equaled very rarely in human history, Wordsworth rediscovered—almost reinvented—the central enduring principle of the conservative ideal.
A lot of writing about the Romantics misses the mark. Nearly every book on the subject begins with a chapter entitled “What Was Romanticism?” and then gets it wrong. Bad enough the endless recycling of Goethe’s line: “Classicism is health, Romanticism is disease.” Even worse is the simplistic idea that Romanticism was a revolt against reason through the elevation of feeling. No, the best definition of the astoundingly varied Romantic movement—which included liberals and conservatives, atheists and believers, philosophers and sensualists—is Jacques Barzun’s, in his book Classic, Romantic and Modern:
The one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve. In the romantic period . . . this problem was to create a new world on the ruins of the old. The French Revolution and Napoleon had made a clean sweep. Even before the Revolution, which may be taken as the outward sign of an inward decay, it was no longer possible to think, act, write, or paint as if the old forms still had life. The critical philosophers of the eighteenth century had destroyed their own dwelling place. The next generation must build or perish.
This is the serious crux of the comparison between Wordsworth’s age and ours. In his history Modern Times, Paul Johnson argues convincingly that the modern world began with a sort of misunderstanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a mistaken extrapolation that led public thinkers to a moral relativity that continues to shape intellectual life today. It was much the same in the Romantic era. Then it was the clockwork universe of Newton that seemed to have replaced the biblical fiat lux and its moral underpinnings with a moral world wholly accessible to human reason. It was, like the reaction to relativity theory, a misapprehension, but one that reconfigured elite society nonetheless. “May God us keep,” wrote William Blake, “from single vision & Newton’s sleep.”
Now, just as American reaction to the blatant political failures of sixties radicalism led to the Reagan revolution and the long dominance of political conservatism here, so, too, British reaction to the French Revolution led to 20 years of Tory rule. But neither Reaganism nor Toryism could ultimately disguise the fact that a profound and fundamental change in human outlook and attitude had taken place—a change that the sixties and the French Revolution represented rather than caused. When the smoke cleared, those who still believed in Western history, traditions, and institutions had to reestablish their relevance and rebuild their foundations in what was essentially a new world.
For Wordsworth—as for his older contemporary Blake and his young disciple John Keats—the path forward lay not in what critics so often reduce to “feeling” or “instinct” but in a far more complex concept Wordsworth called “imagination.” No better description of the idea can be found than in The Prelude. Here, Wordsworth speculates that a nursing infant who “drinks in the feelings of his Mother’s eye” finds in her love “a virtue which irradiates and exalts / Objects through widest intercourse of sense.” Turning then from her to the natural world, the child discovers an “active universe” transformed by love into a living inward experience of beauty and pity. His imagination “doth, like an agent of the one great Mind / Create, creator and receiver both, / Working but in alliance with the works / Which it beholds.”
Wordsworth’s imagination, in plainer words, combines physical, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual awareness into an integrated human consciousness that at once takes in and invents the world. When healthy enough to see nature without delusion, it is guided to moral truth not by scientific observation and reason alone but also by the individual’s experience of love, beauty, and delight. The Prelude is ultimately the story of how the individual human heart becomes a workshop of moral reality. It reflects on the way the heart preserves, builds on, and passes down that reality through the traditions, allegiances, and religious, artistic, and political structures that allow the imagination its widest range of freedom to explore, express, and act on its perceptions. It is a coherent argument for the transcendent moral rightness of individual liberty and those institutions that preserve it.
The imagination as Wordsworth conceived it was then and remains now an antidote to the misguided translation of science into moral philosophy. Though the post-Newtonian reason-worship of the poet’s time is in some ways the polar opposite of the post-Einsteinian relativity of ours, they’re both built on a single error. Both attempt to transfer the mathematical certainties of the purely material world to moral structures, allowing pseudoscientific theory to overrule the moral wisdom of free individuals and their traditions. What Wordsworth saw was that moral reality was neither subject to absolute reason, nor random and relative, but a slow processional interplay between the facts of creation and a human mind that was at once a part of that creation and its continual cocreator. In some sense, if we must have a scientific correlation, Wordsworth, along with Blake and Keats, developed an artistic anticipation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics: an idea that reality is both independently extant and a product of the human consciousness that perceives it.
Giving a new centrality to that inner human experience conferred—as Wordsworth understood—a fresh legitimacy on the Western tradition and its elevation of the individual and his liberty. The “inward eye” is not only, as Wordsworth wrote, “the bliss of solitude”; its essential role in the moral order provides a rationale for the individual’s demand for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness because it is these that lead him, generation by generation, toward greater truth and beauty. Both sweeping utopian governance and relativistic tolerance of self-strangling cultures ultimately become equally violent and oppressive because neither can accommodate the imagination’s solitary cry of “I am—and I will be free.”
Wordsworth further understood that his imagination was essentially a reconstruction of the religious impulse, “that which is conversant [with] or turns upon infinity.” M. H. Abrams expertly details the biblical and Christian underpinnings of the concept in Natural Supernaturalism, his wonderful study of the Romantics. The title alone suggests why Wordsworth, whom Coleridge once described as a “semi-atheist,” ultimately found his way back, first to Deism, then to a personal God, and finally to Christ. “Claims from other worlds,” he wrote, in tribute to the Anglican Church, “inspirited / The star of Liberty to rise.”
As every conservative will have guessed, all this set Wordsworth like an immovable stone against the elite intellectual current of his age. All his long life, he received the most relentlessly and uniformly vicious reviews ever given to so great a writer. Yet slow by slow, the people came to him, the poets first and then the rest. Again and again, admirers would tell him that his work stood with them second only to the Bible. John Stuart Mill, suffering a breakdown after his rigorous Utilitarian upbringing, found his way back to mental health by reading Wordsworth. Well, of course. Through his understanding of the imagination and its interplay with reality, he had led even unbelievers back to their souls.
In 1839, when Wordsworth was 69, the University of Oxford, urged on by the leaders of the High Church Oxford Movement, gave the poet an honorary degree. The scene at the commencement ceremony was triumphant. As he rose to accept the honor, the long-despised and much-abused old poet was greeted by “deafening shouts of applause” not only from the “Grave looking body of Masters below” but from “the more vehement Undergraduates” in the balcony above.
Mary Arnold, the mother of the great poet and critic Matthew Arnold, witnessed the event: “Every thoughtful person there must I think have contrasted in their minds this strong demonstration of approbation with the neglect & even contempt with which his early works were received & yet here was the same man, his system & principles unchanged, his own dignified simplicity the same both in himself & in his works & yet having conquered that public opinion which he was content to wait for, sure that his principle was true.”
It was his truth—and ours—that had borne away the victory.
The older and wiser William Wordsworth (Photo by Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)