A Light in the Gloom: chapter 5


Romance

“Reality seen through a prism”

A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.

AN OLD MAN’S TALE

Chapter V

When first the living blood through all these veins
Kindled a thought in sense, great France sprang forth
And seized, as if to break, the ponderous chains
Which bind in woe the nations of the earth.
I saw, and started from my cottage-hearth;
And to the clouds and waves in tameless gladness
Shrieked, till they caught immeasurable mirth—
And laughed in light and music: soon, sweet madness
Was poured upon my heart, a soft and thrilling sadness.
Deep slumber fell on me—my dreams were fire:
Soft and delightful thoughts did rest and hover
Like shadows o’er my brain; and strange desire,
The tempest of a passion, raging over
My tranquil soul, its depths with light did cover,
Which passed; and calm, and darkness, sweeter far,
Came—then I loved; but not a human lover!

Shelley

Upon reading this manuscript I perceive it will be more of a History of the Radical Movement in my time than a history of my life, but I cannot avoid it. Disappointed in love, I lived only in politics, I attended every meeting of the Constitutional and Corresponding Societies, and speedily became popular among them; this I owed chiefly to my knowledge of the French language, which enabled me at our weekly meeting to read the events of the day from the democratic French papers, instead of depending as heretofore, upon the London Journal, or the translations of the Argus—an English newspaper published in Paris. But though freedom was now my sole mistress, I could not but look with tender recollections to my calm life at Preston, and the memory of Alice softened and chastened my otherwise too ardent temperament. In the stormy meetings which even then we occasionally had—in the strong excitement which pervaded all ranks of society—in the fierce riot and wild excess in which I too early learned to indulge, the calm sweet remembrance of Alice was unfelt, but in the quiet of my chamber I indulged in glorious aspirations for the future. Whenever my imagination became enkindled with the lofty ends to which our agitation was to become subservient—then, Alice, thy image came clear and distinct upon my mind, and I struggled with success against the unworthy seductions which had too often led me astray—then I sought in deep study to invigorate my mind and to gaze into the deep well-springs of the human heart; then I saw, alas! too clearly, the mercenary schemes and selfish speculations that influenced some who professed in loudest tones a love for freedom and a desire for equality; then I debated within myself whether, under such guidance, liberty might not degenerate in licentiousness, and the destruction of old landmarks be succeeded by a weightier though newer oppression; then I shrunk into the darkness of my own heart, and had no voice within to console me, no hidden spell to disarm the phantom of doubt. Oh, my children, dread not the wisdom that is gleaned from experience, dark and mournful though it be; the heart may bleed beneath its piercing throes, but you will learn to distinguish between the false and the true, and you will be enabled to guard against following too implicitly those generous impulses which too often lead the best natures astray. Ignorance will ever recoil from knowledge, and it is only by avoiding the errors of the past, that we can fit and direct ourselves to govern the future. In this, as in other stages of English History, all agitation in this country was dependent upon the events taking place in France, where they succeeded each other with astonishing rapidity. The audacious manifests of the Duke of Brunswick lashed into fury the natural enthusiasm of the French people, whilst the machinations of the treacherous court party, charmed by the beauty and artifice of Marie Antoinette, left the king a mere cipher, and hurried on the grand and inevitable crisis. The advance of the Prussians left no time for reflection—assailed by enemies from without, menaced by traitors from within, the populace advanced boldly to the attack. The Tuileries might be said to be the head-quarters of the Prussian army. To end this treachery, the populace, led on by Santerre and Westerman, and well supported by a new-levied troop from Marseilles, who happened to be in Paris, attacked and carried the kingly rampart—the enthusiasm of the people was too great to be checked by the courage of the troops—the storming of the Bastille first taught the their own power, the fall of the Tuilleries confirmed them in this belief, and henceforth the names of Citizen and Soldier were in France for ever allied; henceforth they marched forward with all the heroism of martyrs and the coolness of veterans, to meet the combined forces of Europe in arms. The Battle of the Tuileries was the martial plain where the victors of Europe were not only created, but drilled and disciplined—sublime but horrible combat, Mercy and Ferocity—Honesty and Rage, Generosity and Desperation in strange and tremendous conjunction—its results were as grand as its occurrence was startling; Royalty was abolished; the Girondist Ministers were recalled; Danton, the mighty Tribune, was made Minister of Justice, and the National Convention was convoked. The ocean had burst its rocky bounds, and floods and devastations naturally ensued; the tyrants had sown the storm, could they expect not to reap the whirlwind! The blossoming hopes nourished in good hearts, which would have produced such golden results, had been devoured by the cankerworm of Royalty and Priestcraft, can we wonder that it produced gore and desolation for its fruit! The Prussians advanced with rapid strides: Longwy was taken; Verdun was reported to be sacked; rage and resentment knew no bounds—the prisons were burst open, and the suspected aristocrats were tried by a semblance of laws, and in most instances paid the penalty of death. This act of vengeance, shadowing forth the fate of the King, called down upon its perpetrators the denunciation of all Europe; so strong was this feeling in London, that none dare justify it, few dared palliate it. Villains, steeped in blood and crimes of the deepest dye, talked with all the maudlin sentimentality of maidens on the horrid butcheries in France. Men who approved of the manifesto of the Duke of Brunswick, and who would have hailed with delight the sacking and destruction of France, involving horrors, compared to which the destruction of these prisoners was mercy itself, were all at once so seized with a horror of bloodshed, and they affected to weep at the death of a few hundred know traitors, the majority of whom the established legal tribunals would speedily and deservedly have sentenced to a similar fate. In the midst of this excitement the elections for the Convention proceeded—yet were the British Reformers not entirely inactive; in London meetings were more numerously attended and the speakers more enthusiastic than at any former period; but we were surrounded on all sides by spies, and had lost the support of most of our aristocratic and middle-class supporters. In some parts of northern and midland counties we had numerous and active branch societies, but in most other parts of the country to acknowledge yourself a Jacobin, the name by which the Radicals were then known, was to be looked upon and almost treated as a wild beast. Church and King mobs had driven the learned Dr. Priestley from Birmingham to take refuge in France, his property, together with that of Hutton the historian of that town, and numerous other noted dissenters, was burnt and destroyed, and redress for this outrage was tardily and niggardly obtained, whilst the effigies of Paine were daily blazing in all the small towns and villages of the empire. In fact, the bulk of my fellow working-men throughout the kingdom, though too ignorant to be politicians, were base and misguided enough to be mere tools in the hands of the Tories. In Manchester the democratic party were numerous and well organized; they desired, at this juncture, to send to the National Assembly at Paris, prior to its dissolving, two of their members, Thomas Cooper and David Watt, afterwards so celebrated as an engineer, where they were enthusiastically received. In Ireland the organization of the Society of United Irishmen was secretly but rapidly proceeding, whilst preparations were making for a convention to be held in Dublin. The Government, alarmed at the prospect of affairs both at home and abroad, had quailed before the Irish opposition, and repealed some of the most stringent of the penal statutes, and allowed members of that faith to practise at the bar. The question of a union between the two countries had also been broached in the Irish House of Commons, but at that period it met with little support. Such was the state of affairs when news reached London that Thomas Paine had been elected a member of the National Convention for Calais, and also for the department of the Oise. A special meeting of the metropolitan members of the Corresponding Society was convened, and Joel Barlow and John Frost were appointed a deputation to convey the aspirations of the English and Scotch Democrats (the address was sent to Edinburgh for approval) to the members of the National Convention. The deputation, and likewise Mr. Paine, being but slightly acquainted with the French language, I was on the following evening appointed to accompany them. Never shall I forget the feelings of my soul on this occasion—the utmost wish of my heart was gratified. I should see that France, whose gigantic struggles were destined to emancipate the world—I should listen to those men whose genius an philosophy equalled their courage—I should meet on terms of friendship with those giants of the mind the noble Roland, the eloquent Vergniand, the philosophical Condorcet, the gay and witty Camille Desmoulins, Danton, that moral and physical giant, and Robespierre, the great and pure-hearted. Spirits of the never-dying past! how soon did your course set in blood! how has your millennium faded away! and your very names become a bye-word and a scorn! The evils of centuries cannot be eradicated in a day—the world ye wished to better proved too powerful even for your mighty intellect. That mighty living ocean, black with the filth and wrecks of ages, roared and chafed, and swelled until your heads became dizzy, and ye leapt into the wild waters ye could no longer control. I have known ye all—ye were all honest, all devoted to your country, though one by one ye fell by each other’s hands—the last, the mightiest and purest of ye all, ye were awful sacrifices to your own misguided judgments, and to the fatal ignorance of those whom ye attempted to control. With virtue ever on thy tongue, of France! and its desires ever in thy heart, thou didst plunge deeper and deeper into vice, until thy hands became so imbrued in blood that thou wast fain to wash them even in the gulf of a military despotism. One man alone could have saved thee—he, the man of unconquered will, whose stern determination created even Napoleon’s wonder and respect. He, Maximilian Robespierre, alone possessed the clue that would have guided you through the wild labyrinth of bloodshed and mystery in which thou wast entangled. He, the incorruptible, fell before the avarice of thy base sons—fell because of his horror of bloodshed and his desire to maintain the sanctity of the laws, and with him, the last and greatest of thy sons, fell the republic. But I am led away by my reflections, and, as you are aware, am anticipating events which were at that period only dimly foreshadowed.

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[Transcribed from a microfilmed copy of The People’s Paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/]

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