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Godwin and Political Romanticism

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

The Life of William Godwin. By Ford K. Brown. London and Toronto: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $6.00.

The Political Ideas of the English Romanticists. By Crane Brinton. Oxford: The Oxford University Press. $4.50.


“A definitive biography” is apt to suggest those two too solid volumes wherein modern pedantry gives to ancient obscurity a classic dullness. In fear of this suggestion, definitiveness shall be left indefinite. But Mr. Brown gives us for pedantry humane scholarship, for dullness fascination, and for obscurity—William Godwin. The source material of C. Kegan Paul’s “William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries” has at last been put together, enriched and expanded from many contemporary records, by a biographer with a narrative sense, a style, and an unwillingness to think too highly of his subject.

William Godwin: it would be interesting to see just what picture arises in the mind of the reader at the mention of the name. To the student of political thought he is of course known, and known magnificently, as the author of “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice” (1793), which sought to give a philosophical basis to the doctrines of Rousseau and Tom Paine and the opponents of Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution,” and to be besides “an advantageous vehicle of moral improvement . . . from the perusal of which no man should rise without being strengthened in habits of sincerity, fortitude, and justice.” To specialists in English literature, he is known as the author of various novels and dramas, chiefly of “Caleb Williams,” “one of the best novels of its kind in the language” and one which “in critical opinion took its place at once only slightly below ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Gil Bias’ as a masterpiece of fiction.” To enthusiasts in the cause of women’s rights, he is perhaps known as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft. And to the general reader it is Godwin’s sad fate to be known only or chiefly as a father-in-law, for the worst side of his character is shown in his relations with his son-in-law, one Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The eighty years of William Godwin’s life bridge the chasm between the England of Dr. Johnson and the England of the Reform Bill. A youth of great intellectual curiosity and vigor, he soon abandoned the Non-Conformist ministry and sought his literary and philosophic fortune in London, with such success that he eventually became “one of the most known men of the age,” on terms of intimacy with great and near-great, especially among the more radical reform element (Thomas Holcroft, James Mackintosh, Home Tooke, John Thelwall) and even among such scholars as the learned Dr. Samuel Parr and the crushing Dr. Por-son. He knew the bliss of being alive and the near-heaven of being thirty-five in the dawn of the French Revolution. But he was a philosopher, not a poet, and he lived on without losing his political faith through the night of the reaction in England, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Congress of Vienna, until all the great Romantic poets, whose youth he had nurtured and inspired, had (except Wordsworth) long been dead, and the era of democracy, postponed half a century by the spectacle in France, had come at last to England.

The peculiar charm of Godwin’s life is the fact that it touches, usually in some significant way, the lives of about all his most interesting contemporaries, from the political reformers like Holcroft and Francis Place, to such women as the beautiful Mrs. Robinson and the proud Mrs. Inch-bald; literary figures like Lamb, Hazlitt, and Crabb Robinson; and all the Romantic poets except Keats. He was a great diner-out in intellectual circles even before “Political Justice” and “Caleb Williams” brought him sudden fame. And in later years, when his financial importunities had estranged many friends, he was much sought out by young admirers, not all of whom, like Shelley, eloped with his daughter or dwarfed the father’s fame.

“Political Justice,” with its doctrines of Reason, Truth, and Perfect Sincerity, by which standards the institutions of the country were subjected to a ruthless examination, was timely in its appearance (1793). “No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country,” wrote Hazlitt. “Tom Paine was considered for a time as a Tom Fool to him; Paley an old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist . . . No one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after, and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not far off.” But in a brief five years all was changed. Jacobinism had been all but destroyed, reaction was triumphant. Moreover, Godwin by his union with the brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, herself notorious for her views on marriage and but lately come from Paris and her unhappy liaison with Gilbert Imlay, drew upon himself as well as upon her the indignation of the righteous. Both were attacked with merciless scurrility. But the turn from Godwin was due mainly to the trend of events, not to his personal life. Whereas Edmund Burke had mildly referred to Godwin as “one of the ablest architects of ruin,” he was now become, as Horace Walpole called him, “one of the greatest monsters exhibited by history.” Magazines and reviews, led by the official “Anti-Jacobin,” united in their attack on the mild-mannered philosopher, whose doctrines were so much more dangerous than he. “Most people felt of Mr. Godwin,” wrote De Quincey later, “with the same alienation and horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre. or the monster created by a Frankenstein.” Rarely has a man so lately revered been so execrated, which is merely to say that the Tory government won its battle for the suppression and persecution of liberal thought.

Godwin’s political activity must not obscure his more human side, which is deftly sketched by Mr. Brown. Long before the end of the book, the reader feels that he knows “the philosopher” personally, his amusing weaknesses as well as his great abilities; his affectations in some companies, his diffidence in others; the child who seriously asked himself “What shall I do when I have read through all the books that there are in the world?” and who at his first whipping was filled with amazement that his person “could suffer such ignominious violation”; some of the ludicrous complications brought on by the principle of Perfect Sincerity in social dealings; the romantic affair with Mary Wollstonecraft and its amusing sequel after her death—the spectacle of the now middle-aged philosopher undertaking the task of reasoning into acceptance of him certain ladies who had refused his proffers of marriage; the man who considered marriage an unjustifiable monopoly, himself twice married and refusing all intercourse (save financial) with his poet son-in-law until Shelley and Mary could be married; and the old philosopher relentlessly extracting loans from friends and bare acquaintances, bleeding the young Shelley cruelly, but ending in bankruptcy nevertheless. AJ1 these and many other such matters Mr. Brown touches with a deftly satirical pen.

But Godwin’s was a tragic life, in nothing more remarkably tragic than in the women of his household. The death of his beloved Mary Wollstonecraft just after the birth of their daughter Mary nearly distracted the husband. Fanny Imlay, her daughter brought up as Godwin’s own, one fine day took poison in a Swansea hotel. Mary Godwin’s elopement with the married Shelley was a crushing blow to Godwin, whatever his principles declared. Shelley’s wife Harriet, who had been an intimate of the Godwin household, drowned herself in the Serpentine. One of the daughters of Godwin’s second wife, Jane Clairmont, brought up with Fanny and Mary in the Godwin home, became Lord Byron’s mistress, and her illegitimate daughter Allegra met an early tragic end. Of course, these misfortunes were generally traced to the nefarious doctrines of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft and to Godwin’s upbringing of the children. Under this series of sorrows Godwin had need of all his philosophic calm.

And as if these trials were not enough even for a philosopher, a promising son-in-law who had just made an honest woman of Mary Godwin and who was eventually to clear up all Godwin’s financial difficulties, was snatched away by accidental drowning. True, Godwin did not think too highly of his poetry, but he had been genninely fond of the young man at one time and had taken interest in his intellectual development. The only brightness was that Mary came home to swell a father’s pride with her literary work and to see the old philosopher into his grave.

Perhaps the finest thing in Mr. Brown’s “Life,” next to his handling of the Shelley-Godwin correspondence, is his treatment of Godwin’s relations with Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, and the influence of Godwin on these poets. He who would know the full extent of this influence and its relation to the rest of the political thought of each poet, would do well to turn to Mr. Brinton’s book, which affords a critical exposition of the political ideas of the English Romanticists, done by a student of political thought who, though he may be tempted, does not (except perhaps in the case of Shelley) yield to the temptation to scoff at the poets’ political ideas. Their debt to Godwin is certainiy great. In spite of his eighteenth-century Rationalism, Godwin may be called the foster-father of much Romanticism and one of the makers of nineteenth-century thought.


Mr. Brinton’s “The Political Ideas of the English Romanticists” is not primarily concerned with the influence of Godwin. Beginning with the earlier bitterness of Jacobin and Anti-Jacobin poets, novelists, and dramatists, it sketches the politics of the Lake poets and their effect upon English life; presents the Toryism of Scott and its antithesis, the Radicalism of Hazlitt, and their reflections in contemporary society; reviews the “second generation of revolt” in Byron and Shelley; summarizes the Romanticism of the press; and finally casts a prophetic eye over the Victorian era, into the present, and beyond.

Mr. Brinton’s is a bold emprise. He risks the scorn of political scientists for stooping to consider the political ideas of mere poets, and he braves the damnation of the belletristic brotherhood for ignoring artistic considerations. But this dilemmatic fallacy leaves him unperturbed, and one follows him with interest as he shows how fervently and, on the whole, how intelligently the literary generation following the French Revolution devoted itself to politics. “Among the romantics Lamb and Keats alone seem to have escaped the contagion.”

In spite of this use of “contagion,” it is clear that Mr. Brinton is more interested in politics or history than in literature or poetry. He is so engrossed in explaining positions and interpreting movements that he too seldom allows the poet to speak for himself. He forgets that his real task is to show how the poet’s mind worked on political problems, and that the poet’s own words can do this far better than pages of exposition. This means also that his work is much heavier reading than it need be. More illustration, less analysis, would help much.

But the book is not dull—far from it! Its scholarliness is delightfully relieved by a charm of style and a facility with paradox. The very first sentence of Chapter One runs thus:—”It was the great concern of the mature and militant romanticists of the early nineteenth century to destroy the poetic pretensions of the school of Pope and of ‘one Boileau’; and so successful were their efforts that, in the peaceful time of Wordsworth’s laureateship, cultivated people agreed that Pope was no poet—and that Boileau, being a Frenchman, was rather less than none.” The book closes with the remark that “the civilization of Western Europe has always thrived on heresies; it need not fear democracy.” And the pages in between are well peppered with such salty remarks.

From this minute examination of their political doctrines by a political historian, the poets come off exceptionally well. One feels that Mr. Brinton is himself thoroughly convinced of the importance of their contribution to politics— a considerable admission from a political scientist. With a pen well pointed for satire, he exercises a noble restraint even as to that invitation to cleverness, Bob Southey. Only that classic “balcony scene” of Shelley and Harriet in Dublin throwing copies of Shelley’s “Address to the Irish People” to passers-by, breaks down his heroic resolve, and he writes: This man was a fanatic. That he was also a great poet is beside the point. This one action of his enrolls him among the street orators, the ranters, the dispensers of social salvation who haunt parks and street corners. He is at first sight one of those political outcasts to whom not even martyrdom can bring honour and influence. Yet the world has chosen to accept him as one of its own children. Later he mitigates what severity there is in this and no doubt allays the saeva indignatio of the Shelleyans when he declares of Shelley that

Alone among the great English romanticists he carried out rigorously the common romantic philosophy to its logical political conclusion. He is the prophet of a pure faith in nature and in reason; Rousseau and Godwin unite in him. Many of Shelley’s most desired measures have been realized—universal education, universal suffrage, complete religious toleration. He is to-day honoured as one of the founders of a great political movement. More than any of the other great romanticists Shelley is now politically alive.

Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Shelley, the outcast, the despised, the fanatic, is honoured above them all. And old Godwin!—how would “the Philosopher” feel if he knew that his doctrines are now chiefly known in the poetry of his exotic son-in-law? The poet-legislators of the world are not always unacknowledged.

An unusual spectacle, this of those ancient enemies, poetry and politics, laying aside their armed hostility and mingling on terms of friendship. Poets are proverbially as contemptuous of politics as men of affairs are of poetry. No less a statesman than Woodrow Wilson gives voice to the more enlightened view:—”There is more of a nation’s politics to be got out of its poetry than out of all its systematic writers upon public affairs and constitutions.” And of no period is this so true as of the age of the English romanticists.


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