First and last Romantics

The Romantics
July 17, 1998

Writing of Wordsworth and Coleridge's growing disenchantment with radical politics, E.P. Thompson remarks in this book that they were "caught in the vortex of contradictions which were both real and ideal. They were champions of the French Revolution and they were sickened by its course. They were isolated as Jacobins and they abominated Godwinian abstraction. They had broken out of the received culture and they were appalled by some features of the new". It is not hard to read these remarks autobiographically. Thompson himself hints at such a possibility a few pages later in the essay. Substitute "Bolshevik" for "French", "socialists" for "Jacobins" and "Marxist" (or, better, "Althusserian") for "Godwinian", and one has some sense of the conflicts of the ex-Communist Edward Thompson in the late 1960s. The essay, "Disenchantment or default?", was written in 1968, the year in which Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague, the year of the Parisian ev nements, of the student and civil rights movements, and thus an odd time for a leftist to feel isolated. While his fellow New Left intellectuals of the day made some kind of accommodation to the politics of a younger, more impetuous generation, Thompson remained, like the Wordsworth and Coleridge of Lyrical Ballads in his reading of them, trapped between commitment and disenchantment. Or, one might say, between Paris and Prague.

Disenchantment, however, is not the same as apostasy; and it is on the distinction between these two terms that a good many of these reviews and lectures on English Romanticism turn. The passage quoted above instantly goes on to cast the struggle between engagement and withdrawal in a suspiciously idealising language, at least as far as the Lake poets were concerned: "There is a search for synthesis at a moment of arrested dialectic; a coruscation of perceptions coming from this tension; a fiery alternating current passing backward and forwardI" The melodramatic imagery protests a little too much; but Thompson is right to distinguish between the later, out-and-out political "apostasy" of his two writers, which will lead Coleridge at least to a "medley of insights and nonsense", and that cusped, perversely creative moment in which, caught between Jacobinism and creeping conservatism, they could conjure some major art out of precisely that tension.

Thompson is perhaps a little too inclined to assume that the post-revolutionary Wordsworth's continuing poetic concern with the common life keeps him on the side of the angels. He is also too inclined to make The Prelude sound more politically radical than it actually is, claiming rather rashly that its vision of some inner, universal human equality "takes us altogether outside the paternalist framework".

This is the kind of grandly emphatic judgement that Thompson, too often in his career, had to return to and qualify. But these occasional pieces, which range in date from 1968 to 1993, display on the whole a judicious balance of sympathy and censure.

"Judicious" is not on the whole the first word one associates with Thompson's writing. If he is incapable of writing a dull sentence, it is partly because he is incapable of writing a dispassionate one. His lucid, muscular prose is infused with a personality that is alternately generous, curmudgeonly, loveable, headstrong, sardonic and polemical. He is a bit of an intellectual bruiser, with a briskly dismissive way with theoretical abstractions and a rather heavy-handed line in irony. The judiciousness, however, has its lapses. "I see little point in abusing the poets for their later apostasy," Thompson writes eirenically in 1968, only to jump in with both boots flailing in 1979. Reviewing some Coleridge essays in that year, he declares himself sickened by their "surfeit of pharisaism and cliche", by the unctuousness with which this erstwhile Jacobin smugly travesties political positions that he himself had not long abandoned. If the ingredients of his later thought were rich, the results were "always half-baked".

In the first two decades of the 19th century, Thompson considers, Coleridge pulled off the difficult feat of being wrong about almost everything. Thompson reminds us, for example, that Coleridge opposed Catholic emancipation in Ireland, viewing the Irish as a "wild and barbaric race". Hazlitt, he rightly insists, was by far the greater political essayist. Fortunately for the historical truth, Thompson forgets for the length of an essay about laying aside his abuse. He insists, even so, that in the closing years of the 18th century Wordsworth and Coleridge are still in some sense criticising the French Revolution from the "left". Had he not retired to Stowey, Thompson believes, Coleridge's political trajectory at the time would almost certainly have retired him to prison. An essay on the poet's revolutionary youth vividly recreates his seditious leanings. But as the couple shuffle increasingly to the right, it is Coleridge who becomes in Thompson's eyes the unacceptable apostate and Wordsworth the just forgivable one.

In one sense, the renegacy of both men is plainly intolerable: the England they were guiltily "rejoining" was one that was "suppressing Irish rebellion with a ferocity which outdistances the French Terror: an England of soaring bread prices and near starvation". Wordsworth gets off much more lightly. "How far is it possible," Thompson asks of him with himself well in mind, "for men to hold on to aspirations long after there appears to be no hope of inserting them into the real worldI?" He does not ask the same question about Coleridge. He perceptively links Wordsworth's inner retreat to a slackening in his detailed observation of nature, though he does not seem to notice that his observation of nature was never particularly sensuous in the first place.

Wordsworth's rejection of Godwinian utopianism, Thompson argues, need not have been launched from the right because there was more to radical politics than Godwin. Instead, Wordsworth "could perfectly well have been moving back to a more engaged sympathy with the poor and with the victims of war". Godwin indeed figures in this book as the Louis Althusser of the late 18th century, an icy theoreticist to be contrasted with warm-hearted Thompsonian humanists like the Jacobin John Thelwall. There is even an implication that it was some kind of moral failing on Godwin's part that he never got himself imprisoned or transported.

Wordsworth's apostasy is tersely described as "abject", but Thompson invites us to admire the steadfast faith in human potential that preceded it. He also claims that Wordsworth at least argued the matter honestly through with himself in the shape of The Prelude, rather than, like Coleridge, swinging instantly into vindictive lampoons of his former comrades.

The distinction between creative disenchantment and sterile apostasy that runs throughout these robust pieces is a shade too emphatic. It is as though the author needs to remind himself, or us, that his own growing distance from classical Marxism implies no abandonment of socialist principle. He may have felt the need to remind himself, but there was really no need to remind us. Thompson kept his political faith when all around him were losing it and blaming it on the likes of him. In a typically scathing aside, he observes that in our own era it has proved possible to enter the stage of utter disenchantment without having undergone "the tedium and intellectual vulgarity of a prior enchantment" in the first place. Few snappier summaries of postmodernism could be imagined, long before the term was in currency.

There is something rather too convenient, however, in regarding the Lake poets' apostasy as an "imaginative" as well as a moral failure, thus allowing Thompson to posit a suspiciously direct relationship between their political renegacy and their aesthetic falling-off. Even he is forced to admit that Coleridge was at his critical acme as a Tory Anglican. "Disenchantment", Thompson insists, is not inimical to art, and these essays certainly bear witness to the fact that it is by no means inimical to superb historical writing. Apostasy, however, involves the denial of "aspiration", and so is to be roundly condemned. There is a touch of Leavisian moralism in this high-minded judgement, which fails among other things to account for why W. B. Yeats wrote most of his finest poetry after he had relinquished his Irish nationalist hopes.

Like Yeats, E. P. Thompson was one of the last Romantics. If his first major work was on William Morris, it was because Morris represented the point at which the English Romantic heritage finally intersected with the European materialist one. Thompson's generous trust in human capacities, his emotional and imaginative recklessness, his suspicion of the disembodied intellect, his self-dramatising flamboyance and hatred of the non-dynamic, all put him squarely in the camp of the Romantic poets he loved.

But the last essay in this collection is devoted to the Jacobin John Thelwall - a man who, as Robert Southey remarked, "was once as near as possible being hanged, and there is great merit in that". Thelwall, the non-apostate par excellence, represents the practical, workaday, "materialist" radicalism that was the other face of Thompson, as a man finally so notorious that his former friends Wordsworth and Coleridge had to put some prudent daylight between him and themselves.

If E. P. Thompson never got round to the big book on Romanticism that he had been planning throughout the whole of his working life, it was partly because he was labouring away for some of that time to save Europe from nuclear catastrophe. It is a pity that instead of that major work we have only these scattered essays and a briefish 1993 study of William Blake. But to have a Europe in which to read them seems a reasonable exchange.

Terry Eagleton is professor of English literature, University of Oxford.

The Romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thelwall

Author - E. P. Thompson
ISBN - 0 85036 474 4
Publisher - Merlin
Price - £12.95
Pages - 223

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