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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

52 - French poetry, 1793–1863

Summary

The French Revolution brought in its wake not merely a far more fluid society than that which preceded it, but also a radically different image of the self. Under the pervasive influence of Enlightenment thinkers on the one hand, and Rousseau on the other, individuals began to define themselves not so much in terms of national or social position but with regard to smaller family units, emphasising less inherited class than acquired wealth and position. Poetry reflected that radical swing towards the appreciation of individual values, resulting in an outpouring of highly personal poetry, which explored feelings and emphasised the importance and uniqueness of each human being. But the Revolution transformed poetry in other more formal ways. The concept of what language was fitting for poetry had gradually led to a stultification of the genre, a highly limited vocabulary, and forms of speech that were now held to be inadequate, not merely to express the range of emotions that were central to individual experience, but also to convey the unprecedented changes in material life, as the Industrial Revolution began to transform what had been until then a largely rural society. The red beret that revolutionaries had sported was now to be placed on the dictionary, with poets enhancing their word hoards from a wide variety of sources, and bringing together, in clashing but liberating juxtaposition, high and low registers, the language of the universities and that of the streets.

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