SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 677-694
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Wordsworth's Children of the Revolution
Ann Wierda Rowland
William Wordsworth associates France and the revolution with images of childhood and youth. However, because the relationships he suggests are often complex as well as uneasy, the vigor and specificity of such associations have been debated. 1 In book 5 of the 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth assigns to childhood, "Our simple childhood," "more power than all the elements"; but it is a power whose political figure seems uncertain. 2 Our simple childhood, he writes, "sits upon a throne" (5:532), and yet its power arises out of an unwillingness "To endure this state of meagre vassalage" which is adult existence, a refusal to "confess" or "submit" (5:542-3). Adding to the question of whether these powers of childhood are monarchal or democratic is the fact that this passage arises from Wordsworth's recollection of "Returning at the holidays" "to my father's house" (5:501-2). There, his "golden store of books" (5:503)--romances, legends, fictions, Arabian tales--awaits him, "lawless tales" (5:548) which collude with children in resisting the grown-up state of "stinted powers" (5:541). Like the "throne" of childhood which enables such resistance, the republican camaraderie that Wordsworth experiences with books as a boy ("oh, then we feel, we feel, / We know, when we have friends . . . then we feel / With what, and how great might ye are in league" [5:546-51]) has a significant, authorizing context in his return to the father's house.
Wordsworth introduces his time in France in book 6 as another recollection of a summer holiday; this holiday, however, is not a return to his father's house, but a "scheme" undertaken [End Page 677] "without concern for those / To whom my worldly interests were dear," (6:343-5) perhaps causing discomfort to his family. 3 The long hours spent with his "golden store of books" as a child are now found in France which in 1790 is "standing on the top of golden hours" (6:353), sharing the elevation as well as power of Wordsworth's "simple childhood." Indeed, France promises to extend childhood's resistance to humanity's "meagre vassalage" into a complete revolution or renovation. "Human nature seeming born again" (6:355) is how Wordsworth describes France at this time, suggesting, among other things, that humanity has been returned to a state of infancy or childhood. This sort of return for Wordsworth again carries ambivalence about diffuse and revolutionary powers. Thus Wordsworth proclaims that "Nature then was sovereign in my heart" (6:346), but adds that the "mighty forms" of Nature had "given a charter to irregular hopes" (6:347-8). At this point, perhaps the best we can say is that the irregular hopes and powers of childhood as well as revolutionary France require the house or "charter" of a legitimating authority, either that of the father, of nature, or of England, the home of the Magna Charta.
Wordsworth's strong urge to return to his father's house sets up the crisis of illegitimacy which France will become for him. Critics who have identified Wordsworth's fears of illegitimacy in the 1805 account of France have rightly pointed to his illegitimate daughter, Caroline, as an unacknowledged yet haunting figure of infancy who forges another connection between France and childhood. 4 Falling on 15 December 1792, in the wake of the September massacres and as the execution of Louis XVI was being debated, the birth of Wordsworth's first child must have seemed a troubling sign that the correspondence between himself and the world--evoked most famously as "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!"--was at an end (10:692-3).
The termination of such heavenly correspondence does not, however, mean the end of associations between France and youth. Wordsworth continues to turn to images of children and childhood in his descriptions of the violence that ensued as France turned to terror...