The Romantics (Episode 1: Liberty): how revolution influenced English Romanticism

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 1: Liberty)” (2005)

This episode introduces the political and cultural background to the explosion of English Romanticist literature in the late 1700s / early 1800s. It goes as far back as the 1750s to France when the philosopher Denis Diderot published his encyclopedia dedicated to reason and disavowing belief in God. He is imprisoned for writing heresy. Fellow thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau posited that feeling and individual will were necessary to unlock the prison of old ways of thinking and structuring society. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the original thirteen British colonies in eastern North America grumbled about perceived injustices visited on them by King George III; in 1774, Thomas Paine arrived in the colonies from England and published “Common Sense” two years later, inciting the colonists to rebel against Britain and found the United States of America.

Presenter Peter Ackroyd does a consistent job explaining how the French Revolution and the ideals and values it espoused inspired the English Romanticist literature of some of its greatest exponents: William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Actors playing the poets and the philosophers before them are remarkable mainly for their haggard and worn appearance; even actor David Tennant, playing Rousseau, has a sharp, haunted, even deranged look about his face and in his eyes as he strides through modern-day urban Britain. The cinematography is very beautiful with some computer-generated art in some scenes where red clouds roil across the skies. There is some attempt to match the events of the French Revolution as it progressed through the early 1790s to the lives of the artists to show how major world events affected the poets’ outlook and output but the attempt is fairly shallow.

Along the way, some very fine poetry and prose including excerpts of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s famous “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are quoted by the actors as they pass through modern urban scenes, demonstrating that the Romanticists’ work still has relevance for audiences today.

The film passes through the Age of Terror that followed the French Revolution in the 1790s and the effects it had on some of the English writers who followed the events in France closely – some were even living in France, close to the action and writing and commenting on it, at least until the action started threatening them! – and the work they produced: disbelief and disillusionment about the revolution and the ugly behaviour it produced are apparent. Curiously the film stops short of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power through the period of the Consulate and then to imperialism; it would have been interesting to learn what William Blake and the other Romanticists thought of the restoration of monarchy in France – most likely, they would have been aghast and disappointed, and their poetry and other works would have become more focussed on self-development especially as the British government had taken measures, including spying on the Romanticists, to ensure that the French Revolution would not repeat on British soil.

Ackroyd could have made some comment as to how the relationship between the French Revolution and the Romanticists and their work is still valid for society today: literary figures such as poets, novelists, essayists and journalists often end up at the forefront of political and cultural change and question accepted but unquestioned conventions of society; if they challenge those conventions, they find themselves the target of persecution, imprisonment and even death; but struggle they must if their challenge is a moral one. In the eyes of many, these people may fail but in a later age they can provide inspiration to others also fighting for social justice.

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