Wordsworth, Social Reform Literature, and Politics of the 1790s
The historical mix of social fictions in England and France at the end of the 1780s greatly impacted the literature of the period. Tom Paine's The Rights of Man (1791) and Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1791) were the two most widely read works that spurred a decade long debate on how the nation of England was to be governed and by whom. As a young man during this period, William Wordsworth formed part of the circle of writers who fought for the Republican cause of democracy and its ideals. Similar to the poet William Cowper, Wordsworth's early poetry contributed to a larger framework of social reform literature that the publisher Joseph Johnson promoted throughout his career from the late 1770s until his death in 1809.
Some of Wordsworth's early prose works mark what he was to later reflect upon in his poem, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, 13 July 1798". "Tintern Abbey" reminds Wordsworth's readers of the solitude and "sad perplexity" (61) that its author experiences five years after his dreams of a democratic republic and love for Annette Vallon are dashed by France's Reign of Terror and war with England. He recounts:
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! . . . .
. . . And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I bounded o'er these hills, . . .
Flying from something that he dreads than one
Who sought the thing he loved. (1-2, 66-67, 72-73)
"Tintern" suggests Wordsworth's wish to move beyond the sentiments and views he once held, as reflected in his unpublished work, A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff (1793). In the Letter Wordsworth joins voices with other pro-revolutionary writers whom he was acquainted, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine, and William Godwin, attempting to stem the rising tide of conservatism against French republicanism.
In countering the politically conservative ideals sweeping the nation in the early 1790s reaction to the French Revolution, reform publishers like Johnson, and his coterie of writers, actively confronted writers like Edmund Burke and his proponents. Burke's criticism of radicalism in his Reflections on the Revolution in France is salient to the debates, warning of the spread of French-Jacobin ideals to British soil. He criticized heavily the reform works like those Joseph Johnson and his circle of writers published. Burke's attack (in part a reaction to the reformer Dr. Price, a leading advocate of social reform) set off a storm of political controversy concerning the most fundamentally esteemed principles that many saw as the basis of English civilized life in the 1790s: Reason, Truth, Liberty, Virtue, Justice, and God. In order to persuade his readers, Burke attempts to justify the historical abuses that France's monarchy...