The Culture of Rebellion in the Romantic Era
Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. One of Delacroix’s best known works, the painting depicts a bare-breasted Liberty leading Parisians of mixed social and economic backgrounds into battle.The Romantic era is typically noted for its intense political, social, and cultural upheavals. The period is conventionally marked as beginning with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending with the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, occurrences which exemplify the political zeal of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries as well as the resultant changes brought about in society. Events initially external to England, such as the French Revolution, are internalized in Romantic literature as a part of the debates on more relevant, internal issues in English politics, such as the prededing American Revolution and the imminent Irish Uprising of 1798.
Initially attracted to the Enlightenment precepts of universal equality and the dissolution of absolute monarchy in favor of democratic government, many authors of the Romantic period, such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, sympathized with the French Revolution. After the Storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, however, these authors, Wordsworth most emblematically, used their poetry as a means of dealing with the trauma of the Revolution’s bloody transformation and the disappointment of democratic hopes. Other authors who are lesser known today, such as Thomas Moore, Thomas Campbell, and Samuel Rogers, used their poetry to highlight emerging issues of nationalism, particularly Moore, whose verse frequently reflects upon the conditions of Irish-Catholic oppression and the failed Irish uprising of 1798.
One key area in which the influence of the French Revolution manifests itself is in the satiric poetry of the period. Second-generation Romantics such as Byron and Shelley sympathized with the principles of equality and individuality embodied by the Revolution’s beginnings and embraced these principles to critique English government at home. However, their poetry eventually turned outward toward involvement in other European conflicts. Byron and Shelley’s interest in Spain, Italy and Greece, like many outsiders who assisted the rebellions (Philhellenes as they were known specifically when oriented towards Greece), were at least in part motivated by idealized notions of ancient Italy and Greece as democratic centers, views adopted as a result of their classical education. Shelley’s Ode to Liberty in particular represents Greece and Italy as possessing greatness which “cannot pass away” even though he "laments the ruin of thy reign." Similarly, Byron’s short Stanzas [On Freedom] rely upon an idealization of the classical world, but his opening lines, “When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,/ Let him combat for that of his neighbors,” suggest that involvement in liberation abroad offered a substitute for a lack of efficacy in British political reform.
Dyer, Gary. British Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789-1832. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Pakenham, Thomas. The Year of Liberty: The Story of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Stauffer, Andrew. Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. Cambridge University Press, 2005.