In the summer of 1790 William Wordsworth was 20 years old, and half way through a fairly undistinguished Cambridge degree, when he and a friend, Robert Jones, set out to walk across France from Calais to the Alps. It was to be a gap year, an opportunity to postpone the serious business of growing up and settling down. Each of them had just £20 to pay their way, and most of their journey was on foot, walking 12 to 15 miles before breakfast.
The French Revolution had broken out a year before – they reached Calais on 13 July, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – but the revolution was still largely a constitutional affair, and in the countryside they weren’t seriously affected by the political changes going on around them.
More than a year later, Wordsworth went back to France, reaching Paris at the end of November 1791. By this time, the French Revolution had moved on – and so had Wordsworth. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and when she got pregnant in the spring of 1792, followed her south, first to her home in Blois, then to Orleans. While Annette prepared for the shame of an illegitimate birth, Wordsworth went back to Paris.
The events in France were chaotic for any outsider, but Wordsworth got swept up by the revolutionary fervor. He went to meetings of the Jacobin Club, souvenired a piece of the Bastille, and met members of the society ‘Les Amis de la Constitution’. Most liberal Englishmen had great hopes of the original revolution of 1789, which seemed to promise the overthrow of an autocratic ruler and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, just like in England. His excitement comes through in his famous lines from The Prelude:
Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
But by 1792, events had become much more complicated, with violent factional divisions in the cities, and the provinces descending into civil war. There were curious religious aberrations, too, with the revolution attacking the traditional church and introducing a Cult of Reason that was anything but.
Wordsworth was fascinated and appalled by the political upheavals underway there: the September massacres, the proclamation of the Republic, the rise of Robespierre, the Terror.
Eventually repelled by the violence and the threat of war, Wordsworth left for England. His daughter, Anne-Caroline, was born on 15 December 1792 about the time he arrived back in London. Louis XVI was executed 5 weeks later, on 21 January 1793, and Britain declared war on France. Wordsworth recollected the exhilaration of revolution in tranquility, in The Prelude. He settled down, became a famous poet, and gave up his radical politics. Eventually, in 1843 he became Poet Laureate.
A generation later, the poet Lord Byron wasn’t as lucky as Wordsworth. His thrilling encounter with other people’s revolution – in this case the Greek rising against the Ottoman Empire – led to his death. Brought up on the standard British schoolboy’s diet of classical Greek literature, Byron too probably saw the Greek independence movement in the black and white terms of the outsider. And he also used his travels abroad as an opportunity for sexual adventures – though in his case, his sexual adventures were more transgressive, whether at home or abroad.
In July 1823 Byron sailed to Greece with some companions, a number of servants, 4 horses and 2 dogs, and ‘several splendid uniforms including a fine Homeric helmet’. They got as far as Missolonghi, a marshy coastal area where he fell ill from fever, possibly malaria. He died there in April 1824.
At present, in Australia and around the western world, the public is concerned about radicalized young men going abroad to participate in the revolutions and wars that are convulsing the Middle East. It is a serious problem, for the individuals and their families, and for the wider society as well, but it is not new.
Wordsworth and Byron are exceptional, because they were both famous poets, but over the years, certainly since travel and communication have made it possible, many more humble and anonymous young men have been fired by idealism or ideology to go to fight – or to watch – other people’s wars and revolutions.
During the Russian Revolution, revolutionary tourists went to Russia to get involved. John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World, 1919) is perhaps the most famous; the dancer Isadora Duncan perhaps the most unlikely.
In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War attracted idealists into an International Brigade. The aristocratic Jessica Mitford and her cousin, Esmond Romilly, ran away to Spain, but so too did the village boy Laurie Lee. Like Wordsworth, Lee found revolutionary Spain both exhilarating and scary, a mixture of pretty girls and inexplicable violence. ‘I don’t know who you are”, a sailor told him, “but if you want to see blood, stick around – you’re going to see plenty.”
There are probably no general principles to be drawn from this collection of examples, except perhaps, the historian’s last cop-out: ‘Plus ça change; plus c’est la même chose.’
I’m struck, though, by a few points of similarity. For most of these young men (and a very few women, like Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris), other people’s revolutions turned out to be much nastier and more chaotic when viewed up close. Simplistic ideologies tend to dissolve into a seething mass of local tensions and resentments, and payback takes place under cover of ideology. For those who survived to return home, the experience was transformative, but often they were transformed into more wary witnesses to the tragedies they had seen.
The boys and young men currently rushing to the Middle East are sad as well as dangerous. Some will die; some will find their ‘very heaven’ becomes a living hell. Many will find their youthful idealism has been unforgivably co-opted by ideologues, usually older men much further removed from the front line.
Above all, revolution is exciting, a time for throwing off the traces, overthrowing your parents’ world, setting the world to rights and remaking it in your own image. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s rage; sometimes just raging hormones.