“Reality seen through a prism”
A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.
AN OLD MAN’S TALE
Lifting the thunder of their acclamation,
Towards the City then the multitude,
And I among them, went in joy—a nation
Made free by love;—a mighty brotherhood
Linked by a jealous interchange of good;
A glorious pageant, more magnificent
Than kingly slaves arrayed in gold and blood,
When they return from carnage, and are sent
In triumph bright beneath the populous battlement.
Afar, the city-walls were thronged on high,
And myriads on each giddy turret clung,
And to each spire far lessening in the sky
Bright pennons on the idle winds were hung;
As we approached, a shout of joyance sprung
At once from all the crowd, as if the vast
And peopled Earth its boundless skies among
The sudden clamour of delight had cast,
When from before its face some general wreck had passed.
On the 13th of September, 1792, I left London in company with Thomas Paine, Mr J. Frost, and M. Audibert, the municipal officer of Calais, who had brought Mr. Paine the certificate of his election. Joel Barlow, having some preparations to make, was to follow us. We proceeded from London to Dover, and had not arrived more than five minutes at the York Hotel, when, as I was going out of the room, I met a man in the passage who ordered me to return: after a slight conversation I did so. He then said that he was a Collector of Customs and must examine our baggage for prohibited articles. We demanded his information: he declined producing it; but called in several other officers, who immediately commenced searching us, taking everything out of our pockets. M. Audibert, who had been out to ascertain the time of the packet’s sailing, returned as we were undergoing the search, and was subjected to a similar operation. They then searched our trunks and took from that of Mr. Paine a letter from the American minister in London to the American minister in Paris, also a letter from Washington to Paine, a letter from the President of the National Assembly to Paine informing him of his election for the department of the Oise, and various other documents, the seals of which they unscrupulously broke. The officer was about taking these out of the room when we insisted it should not be done, so he contented himself with making out a list of them, and gave them in charge of one of the officers whilst he left the room to acquaint some party under whose orders he appeared to be acting; he, however, speedily returned, and after apologising for the seizure of the documents, surrendered them and stated that we were at liberty to depart. Paine, before leaving Dover, wrote to the Secretary of State, as likewise did M. Audibert, complaining of the treatment they had received. This adventure thus quietly ended, and we embarked on board the packet and speedily reached Calais. How my heart bounded when I found myself in La belle France, the region of pleasure and delight, now rendered more glorious and renowned than ever—liberty allied to pleasure, enthusiasm and song coupled with heroism and romance. At Calais all was bustle and preparation, recruits were marching from all quarters towards Lille. Depots were forming in all the towns—all was animation and gaiety. The manifesto of Frederick, and the horrors of invasion, seemed to have no effect save to exhilarate their spirits. As we advanced towards Paris the scene became more exciting; multitudes were to be seen hastening from all directions towards the seat of war—hastening with colours, arms, enthusiasm, and song. Yes! the glorious Marseillaise hymned and rolled its fiery burden through the animated and enthusiastic concourse. Oh! it was a glorious sound to hear that soul-inspiring strain rising simultaneously from a thousand throats—all feeling its every word thrilling through their hearts—all ready to devote their very lives to the fulfilment of its inspiration. You, my children, have heard it in England with feelings of delight, but you can form no idea of its power over the imagination when bursting upon your ears from thousands of Frenchmen in martial array—inspired almost to frenzy by their past wrongs and their present success. Though we travelled night and day we did not reach Paris until the morning of the 20th, having been detained at Abbeville, Amiens, and Clermont for want of horses, all being engaged either for the army or for the emigrants who were posting in haste to Calais. Everywhere on the road we were received with demonstrations of fraternity, everywhere the same energy abounded. Nearly overcome with fatigue, I was not sorry when we reached Paris. We were speedily domiciled at White’s Hotel, in a small street near the Palais Royal, where Mr. Watts, of Manchester, had taken lodgings for us. Notwithstanding the general scarcity of provisions in Paris, we had comfortable apartments, with a receiving room for company, and our meals served in our own room at far less expence than for which we should have received poor accommodation in a London tavern. Paris appeared to be perfectly quiet, the excitement created by the breaking open of the prisons had partly subsided; but some fears being entertained of a night attack upon the Temple, where the King was confined, the houses in that part of the city were to be illuminated: certainly, strong feelings were expressed by a portion of the populace against the “man Louis Capet,” but from the evidence I do not believe that any such an attack was meditated. Along with John Frost and Mr. Barlow, who had now arrived, I accompanied Thomas Paine to the National Assembly; it was the last day of their sitting; upon our entrance Thomas Paine’s name was announced, and every eye was turned towards him, the tribunes were crowded with men and women, and the applause he received was so hearty that the business was quite suspended. Cambon, the great financier, who had possession of the tribune, was the first to embrace him, as did many others of the members to whom he appeared to be known; our reception was very enthusiastic. Cambon then resumed his discourse, and made a most excellent speech upon the propriety of melting the plate and disposing of the jewels found in the churches for the service of the State instead of allowing it to be plundered and pawned to the Jews and emigrants as had in many instances been the case. At a late hour, after some routine business had been transacted, the National Assembly closed its momentous and stormy existence (though it did not finally dissolve until the Convention had officially constituted itself on the ensuing day). Its actors, how mighty in their day! the results of its doings, how pregnant with instruction to all mankind! yet how few of its actors are known even by name to the Democrats of the present day! Such is fame! We see the dim outline of the mighty edifice they commenced erecting, but the architects are lost in the shadow of its fallen ruins. The materials are still there, awaiting the hand of a skilful artist, but blackened and defaced by the fire in which their perishable were consumed, they need to be recut and polished before the structure shall be reared in whose mighty fane an assembled world shall worship. I then comprehended nought of this: I revelled only in the present—wherever I cast my eye all was enthusiasm, and the smile and the kiss greeted the young Englishman who had abjured the tyranny of his own government, and came to welcome the “Day-spring of liberty” in France. And as we left the Assembly the shouts of a whole population rent the air, and the hymn of the Marseillaise rolled forth in solemn majesty. It was the signal of popular triumph! it spoke of arms and victory; but, alas! also of proscription and death! Grand and solemn but peaceful and harmonious, had hitherto been the stately march of the Revolution. Its opponents had fallen—its traitors had perished—but they perished deservedly. Now, like Saturn, the fabled parent of Jupiter, it commenced devouring its own offspring, and the glory of its sunlight became darkened by the blood of its children.
Is evil ever inseparable from good? Shall the day never arise when the gold shall be refined from the dross, the true from the false, without the fierce agency of terror and destruction? Would that my bitter experience could solve this fatal enigma! Scenes of blood and destruction crowd before my aching eyes—I see again the ever-reddened guillotine—I hear the gurgling waters of the dismal Loire—Lyons, Nantes, and the Boccage rise like fabled monsters before me—would that they were not stern realities! Solemn and dread doubts fling their sad wings around my soul, and all is dark and chaotic. I must take refuge from the past in the dim obscurity of the future—I must forget the historian in the vision of the poet—I will seek in prophecy what I find not in reality. Oh! my children, these conflicts of the soul between fear and hope are indeed painful. But my gaze is again unclouded, and looking from the valley of the shadow of death over the storm-racked clouds of the past into the calm and starry future, I see only the great, the generous, the ennobling deeds of the age of Revolutions—deeds which have more than redeemed its errors and cruelties; and I have again faith that all which is pure and good will survive, whilst the base and the treacherous will die and be forgotten. With this hope, strengthened by our past progress into belief, I will doubt no more, but rest my wearied spirit on the great principle of certain and universal progression, clouded and darkened though it may be by phases of tyranny, error and retrogression. Doubt, my children, is the great enemy to progress; the dimness of uncertainty is more paralyzing than the actual endurance of evil. Battle, then, strongly against its influence—yield not to its seductions, or the charm that alone makes life endurable will wane and wane further and further from your soul, until you fall into the gulf of inanity, and hope and progress be for ever arrested.
[Transcribed from a microfilmed copy of The People’s Paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/]