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13 - Politics and poetry

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2011

Pamela Clemit
Affiliation:
University of Durham
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Summary

Poetry and the spirit of the age

In his essay ‘Mr Wordsworth’ in The Spirit of the Age (1825), the radical essayist William Hazlitt offers a polemical, tendentious and highly influential account of the relationship between the French Revolution and the work of one of the era's most important poets. Opening with a flourish, Hazlitt makes the historicist argument that ‘Mr Wordsworth's genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age’, proceeding to present the poet as a verse terrorist (in the 1790s sense of the word):

[His poetry] is one of the innovations of the time. It partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his poetical experiments. His Muse (it cannot be denied, and without this we cannot explain its character at all) is a levelling one. It proceeds on a principle of equality, and strives to reduce all things to the same standard.

(WH Works, vol. xi, p. 87)

Wordsworth, Hazlitt suggests, marches poetry to the guillotine with a Robespierrean ruthlessness, striving to rid it of its literary heritage and its generic hierarchies:

His popular, inartificial style gets rid (at a blow) of all the trappings of verse, of all the high places of poetry . . . The purple pall, the nodding plume of tragedy are exploded as mere pantomime and trick, to return to the simplicity of truth and nature. Kings, queens, priests, nobles, the altar and the throne, the distinctions of rank, birth, wealth, power, ‘the judge’s robe, the marshal’s truncheon, the ceremony that to great ones ’longs,’ are not to be found here. The author tramples on the pride of art with greater pride. The Ode and Epode, the Strophe and the Antistrophe, he laughs to scorn. The harp of Homer, the trump of Pindar and of Alcæus are still. The decencies of costume, the decorations of vanity are stripped off without mercy as barbarous, idle, and Gothic.

(p. 87)
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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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  • Politics and poetry
  • Edited by Pamela Clemit, University of Durham
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the French Revolution in the 1790s
  • Online publication: 28 July 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521516075.013
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  • Politics and poetry
  • Edited by Pamela Clemit, University of Durham
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the French Revolution in the 1790s
  • Online publication: 28 July 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521516075.013
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Politics and poetry
  • Edited by Pamela Clemit, University of Durham
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the French Revolution in the 1790s
  • Online publication: 28 July 2011
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521516075.013
Available formats
×