Peter Ackroyd reveals how the radical ideas of liberty that inspired the French Revolution opened up a world of possibility for British writers such as Blake and Wordsworth.
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I'm going to take you on a journey into the human imagination.
Back to a time when the values and ideas and dreams of the modern world were born.
200 years ago, monarchy was falling to the power of people's revolutions.
Industry and commerce were becoming the driving forces of existence,
and advances in science were changing
the way life itself was understood.
Artists all over the world were inspired by these times of dramatic change.
In Britain, a group of poets and novelists pioneered
an alternative way of living and of looking at the world.
Among them were William Blake,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
and William Wordsworth.
The enduring power of their writing haunts us to this day
and inspires us still with dreams of liberty.
On the morning of the 21st of January, 1793,
a large crowd filled this square in the heart of Paris.
In the centre of the square was erected a contraption
known simply as "the machine".
It was invented by Joseph Guillotine.
At around ten o'clock that morning,
a man lowered his head into "the machine".
The executioner, Charles Henri Sancon, pulled the rope.
The blade sliced down but lodged itself in the fat neck of the victim.
Sancon hoisted the blade for a second attempt.
This time, the head was severed from the victim's body.
It tumbled into the basket in front of "the machine".
A guard picked it out and showed it to the crowd.
It was the head of Louis XVI - the King of France.
This is a story of revolution,
of bloodshed and political upheaval.
It inspired a radical change in the way we perceive the world,
and the greatest outpouring of creativity
in the history of the English language.
The story begins some 40 years before the killing of the king.
In a world based upon the twin principles
of authority and hierarchy.
Only nobility and clergy had personal liberties -
all others had no rights, only duties.
At the heart of this old order was Paris.
The Paris police force was the largest in Europe,
with one member for every 545 Parisians.
Those undesirable to the state would simply disappear.
In 1742, two young men met in this city and became great friends.
They would sit at the cafes of the Left Bank to play chess.
Here they had ideas that became the seeds of the Romantic Revolution.
The names of these two men were Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
They were philosophers with very different beliefs,
but they were united against the existing order.
Diderot was convinced that the future would be built on reason.
And the finest privilege of our reason consists in not believing
in anything by the impulsion of a blind and mechanical instinct.
Man is born to think
But Rousseau championed feeling over thought.
He was freely emotional - plunging himself
into moods of the deepest dejection and the most serene happiness.
He cried openly and often.
To feel is to exist,
and our feelings come most incontestably
before our thoughts.
Both these men believed the system of control in France to be inhuman.
Both were preaching freedom, and liberty for the individual.
They were playing a dangerous game.
On the 24th of July 1749, Diderot was woken at 7:30 in the morning
by a loud knocking on the door of his apartment
in the Rue de Lestrapade.
This set off a chain of events that would lead to the greatest revolution in human history.
The visitors were the police.
Diderot's crime was that he was thinking differently -
imagining a new world, different from that of the established order.
He was being arrested for writing a book.
It was a great encyclopaedia of all useful knowledge,
dedicated to the ideas of progress and of science.
He was making a map of human understanding.
The encyclopaedia had more than 70,000 articles
and nearly 3,000 diagrams,
illustrating every conceivable subject,
from asparagus to the zodiac.
In this manifesto of pure reason, there was no place for God.
Man will never be free
until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
Diderot believed that civilisation had usurped the place of God.
With the power of science and classification,
everything in the world could be explained and understood.
His words were tantamount to heresy and high treason.
The old structure of Europe relied on the existence of a God.
Everyone's place in society was divinely ordained.
But if God did not exist, what then?
Every concept of order and of authority would be thrown into doubt.
These were incendiary ideas.
For the authorities, Diderot's books were the work of the devil
and he would pay dearly.
He was imprisoned in the notorious dungeons of the Chateau of Varsenne.
His encyclopaedia was banned.
Yet he was not the only one in chains.
One day in October 1749, as Rousseau walked to visit his friend in his cell,
he had a revelation that every human being lives their life in a prison.
ROUSSEAU: 'Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.'
All at once I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights,
a crowd of splendid ideas presented themselves to me.
Civilised man is born and dies a slave.
The infant is bound in swaddling clothes,
a corpse is nailed down in a coffin.
All his life, Man is imprisoned by our institutions.
Life is not breath but action,
The use of our senses, our minds,
every part of ourselves.
Rousseau had experienced a vision that would become the single most
important inspiration of the English romantic poets.
He had seen that emotion could unlock the prison
of civilised society.
For him, the key to freedom lay in individual will and feeling.
Rousseau believed that Man in his natural state is essentially good,
that science is wicked, that civilisation is harmful
and that all cultures are corrupt.
Nature never deceives us, it is we who deceive ourselves.
Our greatest evils flow from ourselves.
Man confuses and confounds time, place and natural conditions.
The more we are massed together, the more corrupt we become.
Rousseau was calling for the end of civilisation itself.
It would not be long before he was forced out of France.
The old regimes of Europe would never accept the revolutionary ideas of Diderot and Rousseau -
only a new generation could put them into practice in a new world.
That "new world" already existed.
Thousands of ships had carried immigrants to its shores.
It was called America.
America was an experiment in living.
Religious radicals and political refugees
had come here to create their own communities in the wilderness.
These disaffected Europeans
had embraced ideas of self-government and of liberty.
On November the 30th 1774,
a young English idealist arrived in America
after a series of misfortunes in his old country,
including bankruptcy and the death of his first wife.
Once here, he became a journalist.
His name was Thomas Paine.
This New World had been the asylum for the persecuted lovers
of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.
They fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother,
but from the cruelty of the monster.
And it is so far true of England
that the same tyranny which drove the first immigrants from home
pursues their descendants still.
Paine was one of many new Americans who reacted strongly and violently
to the imposition of taxes upon them by their English rulers.
Inspired by the ideals of Diderot and Rousseau, Paine wrote a pamphlet entitled Common Sense.
He attacked the idea of monarchy
and praised the notion of a new civil society.
His was the fuel that would fire the American Revolution.
Where, say some,
is the king of America?
I'll tell you, friend,
he reigns above and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Britain.
the law is king.
The publication of Common Sense
led to the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.
This land was on its way to becoming a nation of the free.
For the first time the people had advanced the cause of a nation
without a king,
without an aristocracy, without a national church.
All men are created equal.
All men have an equal right to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This was the beginning of modern democracy,
and it was the clarion call for revolution in Europe.
News of the American Revolution exhilarated the young radicals of Britain.
But new ideas of liberty would do more than
undermine respect for the king
and the existing political order.
They would also bring about an entirely new way
of looking at the world.
The Romantic Revolution was underway.
At the forefront of this revolution
was a Londoner named William Blake.
He saw the events in America as a great prophecy of a future world.
Red rose the clouds from the Atlantic in vast wheels of blood
The king of England looking westwards trembles at the vision
Let the slave grinding in the mill run out into the fields
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air
For empire is no more.
In 1779 at the age of 21, Blake was being instructed
by the greatest British artist of the period, Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Reynolds was what we now describe as the ultimate establishment figure -
rich, respected and eminent.
He believed in an ideal art based upon study
and the classical principles of order, unity,
harmony and rationality.
Blake believed the opposite,
that the imagination was the force that made great art.
He rebelled against his teacher.
This man was hired to depress art.
I say taste and genius
are not teachable or acquirable
and are born with us.
Reynolds says the contrary.
Such artists as Reynolds
are at all times hired by the Satans for the depression of art.
A pretence to art.
To destroy art!
Blake was an instinctive libertarian
who sought freedom from the system that enslaved him.
He eventually abandoned the teachings of Reynolds
and became an independent artist.
He poured his radical visionary ideas into poetry,
drawing and engravings.
In 1780, Blake completed a design for a print
that he entitled Albion Rose.
It is a young man with his arms outstretched
in a gesture of liberation.
There is such a look of energy and exultation upon his face
that some people believe it is must be a self-portrait.
Blake lived in Poland Street
with his wife Katherine and his younger brother, Robert.
All three united in a life of constant financial struggle.
Their home was at number 28,
now home to a hairdressing salon.
Blake had very few readers
and was obliged to publish his own work himself.
But it remains as a great document
of the revolutionary anger of a new generation in an oppressive city.
I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow
Marking every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe
In every cry of every man In every infant's cry of fear
In every voice
In every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
"The mind-forged manacles" that Blake perceived
were the prisons of custom and of habit.
No-one could escape from the dreary round of duty and obedience
demanded by the old order of society.
The will and imagination of each person were locked away.
Life itself had become a prison.
ROUSSEAU: 'Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.'
Blake, like Rousseau and Paine before him,
saw human beings as shackled and chained in their daily lives.
It was an idea that was slowly spreading through the radicals of Europe.
These radicals, derided and exiled,
often found themselves in Blake's neighbourhood of Soho in London,
a shadow area considered exotic and disreputable.
A haven for the freethinkers of Europe.
One French radical came to Soho in November 1783.
He lived off Newman Passage.
His name was Jacques-Pierre Brissot.
Here he could safely publish French anti-monarchist propaganda
for distribution in his native country.
Brissot wrote a radical journal called Universal Correspondence.
In it he attacked the inherent decadence and corruption
of the old regime in Paris.
He was calling for bloodshed, he was calling for revolution in his own country.
If blood must be shed in order to be free...
..then let it be the blood of tyrants,
those who have the arrogance to tell us
that they are our masters.
When you think that one tenth of the nation
oppresses all the others for five sous a day!
There is nothing left to say.
Brissot and other radical journalists firmly believed
that they would bring down the French state with their words.
On the 19th of May, 1784, Brissot returned to Paris
to raise more funding for his London printing press.
He arrived back in France full of hope.
But soon after his arrival in Paris, he was arrested.
He was thrown into the Bastille Prison,
charged with the publication of libels against the French queen.
Brissot remained in the Bastille for two months,
but just outside its walls,
the radical press of France
was becoming ever more daring and ever more popular.
It was these revolutionary words
that would inspire the French people to seek their liberty.
"The people is the foundation of the state.
"The people is everything.
"It is in the hands of the people that national power resides."
The main focus of attack was the corrupt and secretive old regime,
with the royal family at its head.
King Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette,
or, as the literature referred to her, "the Austrian bitch".
Salacious pornographic prints represented Marie Antoinette
in a series of sexual liaisons
with the King's brother and various court officials.
The people hated those in power.
Change had to come.
On the morning of the 14th of July 1789,
thousands of Parisians gathered on the city's streets.
They were fearful that the king's armies were marching upon the city
to impose martial law.
It was a day that would change the course of world history.
A day that would redefine the possibilities of human nature.
Every people's revolution of the last 200 years
owes its debt to this day.
It will never be forgotten.
On what is now a roundabout stood the Bastille,
a 14th-century fortress with walls 80 feet in height.
It was the mob's destination.
The Bastille was more than a fortress.
Here people were imprisoned in solitary confinement without trial.
Rumours of torture abounded.
It represented all the inhumanity of the state
which the revolutionaries were fighting to overthrow.
ROUSSEAU: 'Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.'
The governor of the prison had no choice
in the face of such overwhelming force.
He opened the gates and the crowd surged in.
The Bastille was taken.
The governor was killed and beheaded.
His head was placed upon a pike.
After the 14th of July 1789, Europe was never the same.
Human beings were never the same.
Diderot's and Rousseau's revolutionary ideas
were coming of age.
The individual would define the future.
As the sun came up in London the day after the storming of the Bastille,
everything seemed possible.
The French people had unlocked the prison of their history.
Now it was time for the British to do the same.
Revolutionary slogans began to appear all over the country.
Radicals such as the London Revolutionary Society
met in inns and coffee houses.
Out of this revolutionary fervour
would emerge a great Romantic whose writing would have a profound effect
upon literature and upon our perception of human life.
His name was William Wordsworth.
It was a time when Europe was rejoiced
And France standing on the top of golden hours
And human nature seeming born again
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.
For Wordsworth, the revolution
seemed one of the greatest events in history,
promising the future freedom of the human race.
It was this spirit
that drew him to France to be near the true forces of liberty.
His experiences of revolution would mark him for life
and would transform his art.
and listen with a stranger's ears to hawkers and haranguers
And hissing factionalists with ardent eyes
In knots or prayers or singles
And like swans and builders and subverters
Every face that hope or repression could put on
I saw the revolutionary power tossed like a ship at anchor
Rocked by storms.
Wordsworth was alive to the new possibilities of life.
He fell deeply in love with a young French woman named Annette Vallon.
Oh, happy time and youthful lovers
Thus my story began
Oh, barmy time
Love not in a lady's brow
Is fairer than the fairest star of heaven.
Annette gave birth to a baby girl - a child for a new age.
The future was Wordsworth's to fashion as he liked,
together with Annette and their daughter Carolene.
But the revolution was careering out of control.
As debates raged in Paris
about how French society should be reorganised,
there was fear of a foreign invasion and talk
of French royalists masquerading as revolutionary sympathisers.
This fear erupted into an outbreak of butchery and bloodshed
that threatened the very possibilities of liberty.
Priests and nuns were viciously slaughtered for refusing to agree to a Republican oath.
For Wordsworth, the savage violence
would destroy all hope for a new world.
The Jacobeans, the revolutionary group in control of Paris,
killed the king.
This was the beginning of the great terror.
RAIN FALLS HEAVILY
They instituted a regime in which any of the king's supporters
would be summarily executed,
And the best it seemed a place of fear
Defenseses above where tigers roam.
Slowly the Jacobeans' rule reached a state of paranoia.
Anyone who disagreed with them on any matter would die.
In ever increasing numbers,
the citizens of Paris were tried for crimes against the revolution.
From the conciergery prison, hundreds wrote their last letters.
Philippe Rigaud wrote to his wife.
RIGAUD: 'In a few moments, dear wife, I shall appear before my god.
'My pen is trembling in my hand and my tears cover the paper.
'I'm sending you the only thing that still belongs to me.
'It is a tuft of my hair.
'When you look at it,
'think sometimes of one who loved you well.
'My heart is full, I cannot say more.
'Farewell, yes, farewell.'
The next morning Rigaud was put in a cart called a tumbrel
and hauled through jeering crowds along the Rue Saint Honore
to the guillotine.
Many of those who went to the guillotine
were great supporters of liberty.
In the panic and paranoia,
the revolution was devouring its own children.
The corpses piled up and the stench became unendurable.
It represented the decay of hope.
The headless bodies were loaded back into carts, leaving bloodstained
trails across the city, to be dumped in stinking pits.
In the suburb of Pickpus, surrounded by modern flats and office blocks,
lies a small patch of the past.
In two huge mass graves under these gardens,
lie the remains of 1,306 victims of the guillotine.
Among them are a young chambermaid named Louise Cecile Covoran.
Charles Adet, a wine merchant.
Martin Ayome, an apprentice hairdresser.
Louis Bordeaux, a surgeon.
And a dressmaker called Marie Chaplin.
In the midst of the terror, France was a dangerous place for Britons,
and Britain a dangerous place for the French.
William Wordsworth found himself heading home,
forced to leave his great love Annette
and their little daughter behind.
His revolutionary faith had been shaken.
Wordsworth was learning a hard but salutary lesson.
One man's idea of liberty is another man's idea of tyranny.
Most melancholy at that time were my day thoughts
My dreams were miserable
Through months, through years
Long after the last beat of those atrocities
I speak the truth as if to thee alone in private talk
I had scarcely one night of quiet sleep
Such ghastly visions had I of despair...
..of tyranny and implements of death.
Annette wrote to Wordsworth,
but the revolutionary authorities seized her letters.
ANNETTE: 'Come, my love, my husband,
'and receive the tender embraces of your wife,
'of your daughter.
'She grows more like you every day - I seem to be holding you in my arms.
'Her little heart often beats against my own
'and I seem to feel her father's.'
These words never reached Wordsworth.
He became a wanderer,
looking for a new direction in which to pursue his vision.
To wander without destination, to seek out new territories,
was itself a revolutionary act.
For Wordsworth, the wild uncharted landscape
was a place of contemplation and of healing,
where he could be most natural and most himself.
But it was his encounters with the people in the landscape
that restored his faith in human nature.
I began to enquire
To watch and question those I met
And held familiar talk with them
The lonely roads were schools to me
In which I daily read with most delight, the passions of mankind.
Wordsworth began to write poems about his encounters with the downtrodden -
the same kind of people to whom the revolution in France had given a voice.
But it was another chance meeting with a man in Bristol
one August evening in 1795 that changed the course of his life.
Above the corn market, this man gave rousing lectures
on revolutionary politics, in rooms that are now vacant council offices.
His name was Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The example of France is indeed a warning to Britain.
A nation wading to its rights through blood,
and marking the track of freedom by devastation.
French freedom is a beacon which, while it guides to equality,
should show us the dangers that throng the road.
Together Wordsworth and Coleridge would salvage the ideals
of Romanticism from the chaos of the French Revolution.
Wordsworth was staying at number seven Great George Street
in the centre of Bristol.
He read to Coleridge one of his poems entitled The Female Vagrant.
It was the story of a woman
who on the death of her husband and children
becomes a vagrant and an outcast.
The pains and plagues that on our heads came down
Disease and famine, agony and fear
In wood or wilderness In camp or town
It would thy brain unsettle
Even to hear all perished
In one remorseless year
She ceased, and weeping turned away
As if because her tale was at an end
She wept because she had no more to say
Of that perpetual wait which of her spirit lay.
A bond between Wordsworth and Coleridge was forged
that would last a lifetime.
They wanted to change the world
by diverting their revolutionary zeal into poetry.
They moved to the Quantock Hills in Somerset.
Coleridge and his family settled in the village of Nether Stowy.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy rented a nearby house -
the now-neglected Alfoxton.
But this house is one of the most important places
in the history of English literature.
It is here that Coleridge and Wordsworth
would collaborate on a collection of poems
that would define the Romantic age.
As the two men wrote,
the whole country was gripped by fear and paranoia.
Fear that the revolution that had struck France would engulf Britain next.
A government agent named James Walsh was sent to spy on them.
He interviewed several locals
regarding the strange new people at Alfoxton.
WALSH: 'Charles Mogg says that he was at Alfoxton.
'Thomas Jones informed Mogg that some French people had got in possession of the mansion house.
'Christopher Tricky told Mogg that the French people
'had taken the plan of all the places
'around that part of the country.
'The French people inquired of Tricky
'whether the brook was navigable to the sea.
'As Mr Mogg is by no means the most intelligent man in the world,
'I thought it my duty to send you the whole of his story the way he related it.
'I shall await your further orders.'
The locals told Walsh that the Wordsworths had visitors late at night.
They were frequently on the Heights in darkness.
They kept a portfolio in which they made notes.
They were continually writing things down on pieces of paper.
They said that their work was "almost finished".
There was no evidence to arrest Wordsworth and Coleridge,
but although their actions were not political in any obvious sense,
their words began a revolution no less profound.
They had almost finished a volume that would have more lasting effects
than a thousand political manifestos.
It was the book for a new age, it was called The Lyrical Ballads.
Taking its name from the popular forms of song and verse,
The Lyrical Ballads was a collection of intimate accounts of rustic lives
told in simple language.
It is a pure expression of Romantic ideals.
When it was published in 1798,
Wordsworth and Coleridge withheld their names from it.
They were proclaiming a new poetic faith
which they believed to be beyond individual authorship.
A neighbouring farmer who had been forced to sell off his animals
to feed his family
became the subject of one poem called The Last Of The Flock.
In distant countries I have been
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown
Weep in the public roads alone
This lusty lamb of all my store is all that is alive
And now I care not if we die
And perish all of poverty.
Wordsworth and Coleridge were relocating dignity in the commonplace,
restoring grace and significance to ordinary lives
where saints and heroes walk unannounced and unknown.
Their writing had the same purpose as the French Revolution -
to create a democratic world
in which outcasts had as much right to be heard as anyone else.
In which women and children also had a voice.
Theirs was poetry of the individual conscience
and the individual consciousness.
People ceased to be subjects and became citizens,
and the poems invested them with a soul as well.
Everyone was different,
everyone was unique.
The French Revolution had proclaimed the liberty of every citizen,
even the very poorest, but it had descended into madness.
By making art out of revolutionary philosophy,
Wordsworth and Coleridge succeeded where the revolution had failed.
They gave politics a human face.
The Lyrical Ballads was a revolution in 23 poems.
At its heart was a tale of visionary captivating force.
The Rime of The Ancient Mariner
has become one of the great poems in the English language.
During a visit to the harbour town of Watchet,
Wordsworth conceived the idea of a mariner who shoots an albatross.
Coleridge began writing out Wordsworth's story
and soon took over the narrative.
In The Rime of The Ancient Mariner,
the voyager who has been touched by madness
sees into the heart of life and death.
I pass like night from land to land
I have strange power of speech
And know that his face I see
I know the man that must hear me
To him my tale I teach.
In the poem, the ancient mariner's ship is driven off its course
towards the South Pole.
The ice was here, the ice was there
The ice was all around
It cracked and growled and roared and howled
A wild and ceaseless sound
At length would cross an albatross
Through the fog it came
As though it were a Christian soul We hailed it in God's name.
But then the ancient mariner commits an arbitrary and irrational crime.
-God save the ancient mariner
From the fiends that plague thee thus
Why look thou so?
WORDSWORTH: With my crossbow
I shot the albatross.
As a result, the ship is pursued by phantoms
that destroy the rest of the crew.
Breezes is blue
The white foam flew The furrow furrowed free
We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.
The ancient mariner is allowed to survive
and is compelled to tell his cautionary tale -
a warning that Man must respect his fellow creatures.
With this poem, Coleridge had begun a journey
that would take the Romantics far beyond the domain of politics
in their search for freedom.
This new quest for liberty
would take them into the very heart of the natural world.
All, all alone
Alone on a white, white sea
And Christ would take no pity on my soul in agony
So many men, so beautiful
And they all dead did lie
And a million, million slimy things lived on
And so did I.
Find out more about some of the poets and poems
featured in this series with a free booklet
from The Open University.
To order, call 0870 900 0311.
Hear more of the Romantics poetry at bbc.co.uk/romantics
Peter Ackroyd reveals how the radical ideas of liberty that inspired the French Revolution opened up a world of possibility for great British writers such as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, inspiring some of the greatest works of literature in the English language. Their ideas are the foundations of our modern notions of freedom and their words are performed by David Tennant, Dudley Sutton and David Threlfall.