English, Department of
Date of this Version
Wordsworth's political sonnets of summer and fall 1802 recount the sights and sounds the poet encountered during the brief respite provided by the Peace of Amiens, which enabled him to return to France and to the woman and child who were the physical reminders of the time he had spent there ten years earlier in the spirited days following the French Revolution. Published together in 1807 in Poems, in Two Volumes, they juxtapose the dispirited and pathetic state of France in 1802 with the ebullience Wordsworth recalled from that earlier time. More important, the sequence documents his "return" to England, tracing his anticipation of touching English soil again, his landing at Dover, his progress toward London, and his reactions to the capital's decay.' Interwoven with this geographical record is a series of carefully structured comparisons of France's intellectual, cultural, and spiritual desolation with the state of affairs in England, a "conservative mythmaking narrative" that turns toward reaffirmation in a vision of a newly-and differently- idealized Britain.2
The sequence traces a "crisis of patriotism" arising from the poet's recognition that, whatever his disappointment with his country's responses to the French Revolution, he could not bring himself to desire England's defeat.3 It recounts his paradoxical conclusion that the values embodied in the initial ideals of the French Revolution which he had so much admired and which had been perverted and then lost by 1802 still resided in his native country, albeit increasingly imperiled by the growth of materialist capitalism. Characterized throughout by an ambivalence that reflects contemporary public uneasiness about the Peace of Amiens and its implications,4 the sequence foreshadows the militarism of poems (like the sonnet to the men of Kent) composed during the national alarm over the prospect of a French invasion. Yet Wordsworth resists the easy jingoism that pervades the writings of many of his contemporaries and instead reverts back to the model provided by Milton some two centuries earlier in grounding his uneasy optimism about the future in a faith in an informed and appropriately self-aware British citizenry. Wordsworth's increasing militancy reflects the poet's sense both of public duty and private conviction in the years following his visit to France, and the subsequent embrace of patriotic domesticity-of heartfelt Englishness-signaled both in his manner of documenting his return to his homeland and in his immediate marriage to Mary Hutchinson.
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Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn, 1995, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 641-667