Representation Of The French Revolution In The Poems Of William Blake

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William Blake was a poet, painter, and engraver who identified himself as a non-conformist. He was a radical thinker during his time among others like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. His radical vision is often reflected in the works he has produced. Blake’s works provide critical social commentary on the issues pertaining to society. In his famous poems, “London” and “The Chimney Sweeper,” which were collectively published among other poems in the collections Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocence respectively, Blake is critical of the ramifications of the Industrial Revolution. He considered the church and the stakeholders as ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, which restricted human freedom through their corrupted power. Blake was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution which began in 1789. The political urgency motivated him with new ideas of reformation. He tried to bring a change in the social order as well as in the minds of men through his works. One such work is Blake’s poem The French Revolution which was written and set in type in 1791. Although the manuscript says that the poem was supposed to be originally of seven parts, only the first book was published for Blake’s publisher Joseph Johnson in 1791 as a proof copy. The lack of publication history and the survival of just the proof copy suggest the political oppression of the Empire. During the same time, many booksellers and publishers were persecuted for promoting the works of Thomas Paine. The revolution in France changed the way men looked at the church and the monarchy. It sent shock waves through England and the power-bearers feared a breakdown of social order. Through his poem, Blake supports the democratic government in France and hints towards the destruction of the state prison of Bastille which was the symbol of authoritarianism. He upholds the concept of liberty whilst visioning an end to the pietism and persecution of the church and the monarchy. In his poem, Blake praises the rise of a democratic government in France and predicts the ultimate downfall of the monarchy. He portrays King Louis XVI as a ‘sick’ and old man who is unable to yield the ‘sceptre’ with ‘visible hand’; he has lost the capability of handling the state affairs and is doomed to be overthrown by the representatives of the people: ‘From my window I see the old mountains of France, like agèd men, fading away. ’ Blake acts as a prophet against the monarchy and presents a biblical picture of the French Revolution where peace and harmony is restored as the enemies and the soldiers retreat from Paris leaving the people’s representatives to handle the affairs of the state — thus, turning Paris into a heavenly land of Paradise:

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‘Awful uprose the King; him the Peers follow’d; they saw the courts of the Palace Forsaken, and Paris without a soldier, silent. For the noise was gone up And follow’d the army; and the Senate in peace sat beneath morning’s beam. ’ Blake gives the dual characteristics of the two worlds which are in contrast to one another—the world above and the world below which jostle against one another in his visionary poem. He pictures the city of Paris as a complex representation of urban apocalypse, which is similar to the representations of biblical apocalypse in British Romanticism. He imagines that a cataclysmic revolution will bring an end to the oppression of the monarchy in Paris. Blake employs various metaphorical images, primarily those of nature to allude that the French Revolution was a sublime natural phenomenon. He brings the past, present, and future together in the opening lines and creates a spatio-temporal space: ‘the dead brood over Europe: the cloud and vision descends over cheerful France. ’ He begins the poem with the words ‘the dead brood’ and ends it with ‘morning’s beam’. In doing so, he evokes the aesthetic quality of the sublime which was quite common with the Romanticists. He symbolises the re-birth of France which is as natural as the coming of dawn, and which has only become possible after the country’s journey through mysterious upheavals. He believes that the re-birth of a ‘cheerful’ France will restore the original order of things before it was infected by corruption. Blake employs words which symbolise naturally occurring phenomenon, some of which are connotations of destruction (like storms, thunders, howls, fires, shadows) to portray the mysterious upheavals in France which evoke a sense of anxiety as well as aesthetic pleasure among the readers — a common feature of the Romanticists. He portrays the history as an apocalypse where divine intervention in the form of liberty of human imagination and thought brings the history of oppression to its end. This apocalyptic portrayal is further strengthened when Blake describes the Archbishop of Paris:

‘the Archbishop of Paris arose In the rushing of scales, and hissing of flames, and rolling of sulphurous smoke. ’ Blake creates a mental apocalypse in the minds of his readers which mirrors the turmoil in the landscape of Paris. He uses the artistic concept of Burkean sublime to evoke powerful emotions amongst his readers. Blake gives an apocalyptic interpretation of history, and portrays the dynamic revolution through an anapestic meter. ‘The thundering anapests of The French Revolution…shows…that Blake had…ideas about a powerful and cumulative rhythm’. The use of unstressed and stressed syllables in the anapests and iambs create a rhythmic effect which hint towards the dynamic military activities and carry revolutionary meanings where the evils of the monarchy and the church are defeated by the upheavals of the Last Judgement — in the form of the intervention of the National Assembly. Blake paints a negative image of the King’s advisors who give him violent recommendations to quell the revolution. The Archbishop urges the King:

‘to shut up this Assembly in their final home; Let thy soldiers possess this city of rebels, that threaten to bathe their feet In the blood of Nobility, trampling the heart and the head; let the Bastille devour These rebellious seditious; seal them up, O Anointed! in everlasting chains. ’ He further adds:

‘for the bars of Chaos are burst; her millions prepare their fiery way Thro’ the orbèd abode of the holy dead, to root up and pull down and remove, And Nobles and Clergy shall fail from before me, and my cloud and vision be no more; The mitre become black, the crown vanish, and the sceptre and ivory staff Of the ruler wither among bones of death. ’ The Archbishop is far more concerned about the welfare of the nobles and the clergymen instead of the people of France. The vehement promotion of warfare and bloodshed by the council members in order to safeguard their own powers and privileges is a cause of concern for Blake. Blake’s poetry is in the form of an epic, where the Louis XVI is portrayed as an ordinary man who is trapped amidst the confusion and dissension of his council members.

In contrast, the National Assembly is pictured free from such confusion. The poem begins in media res where the King gradually loses his stature as the epic advances. Contrastingly, Blake paints La Fayette as an epic hero who has no hesitation to follow the people’s mandate and thereby, is the just leader of the people of France. Unlike Louis XVI who is trapped in discussions and mediations between the Royal Council, Fayette’s resolve and urgency to turn his words into actions garners the reader’s admiration. When the National Assembly summons the ‘General of the Nation’, Fayette jumps from his seat and utters ‘Ready!’ Blake uses historical facts, metaphors, and his own imagination to invent his own mythical representation of the French Revolution. One such important incorporation of historical figures is the representation of Jacques Necker, the finance minister of France who made a bold move of publicising the state’s finances — something which was kept as a secret under the monarchy. His portrayal of the liberal Necker is crucial, on whose dismissal ‘the women and children of the city kneel’d round him and. . . wept’. His dismissal caused the storming of Bastille in 1789. Blake presents the revolution as a social apocalypse where human imagination contests against the history of power and oppression. He pictures the re-awakening of man to his true nature. Through the voice of Abbe de Sieyes, Blake insists that ‘the voice of the people’ will open the gates to an earthly heaven where ‘the happy earth will sing in its course. . . and men will walk with their fathers in bliss. ’ In doing so, he re-imagines the city of Paris which goes through an evolution, and from which stems an earthly paradise governed by peace. The Paris in Blake’s vision is a new-born city which can be achieved through a mental and spiritual fight in the minds of the people against the corrupt and lethargic monarchy.

10 December 2020

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