In 1789, the tensions in France were extremely high for a complex myriad of reasons, such as high taxation, the rising prices of food, and, perhaps most importantly, the increasing costs of wine. Eventually, tensions boiled over and crowds of Parisians stormed the Bastille, a fortress and state prison that stood as a bastion of royal tyranny, and this triggered a series of gruesome, incredible events that sent shockwaves throughout the Western world. This was the beginning of the French Revolution, which would eventually result in the public execution of King Louis XVI; if you can imagine somebody smacking the Queen in the face on the BBC, you can get a pretty good idea of just how much of a massive deal this was.
The Revolution divided Britain’s brainy celebs, writers and rock stars of the age, which led to some very heated debates in the literature of the late eighteenth century. These were what I like to call:
Lit Arguments: The Twitter Battles of the Eighteenth Century
The most famous response to the French Revolution was from Edmund Burke, a renowned political theorist, philosopher and member of parliament. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke accused revolutionaries of being advocates for anarchy, rather than reform. In a particularly damning passage, Burke (1999, p. 79) blames the events of the Revolution on the education of the people:
Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood; and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas and by furnishing their minds. Happy if they had all continued to know their indissoluble union, and their proper place! Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor, and not inspired to be the master! Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.
In short, Burke was of the opinion that working class people become dangerous when they’re educated, and should not be allowed anything more than the rights of barnyard animals. Nice guy.
Understandably, Burke received a staggering influx of furious literary responses, which essentially ended up being a huge twitter roasting in the late eighteenth century. An exemplar retort to Burke’s response to the Revolution can be found in a section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men, titled ‘A Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke’. She states that Burke’s reflection “inflames [his] imagination, instead of enlightening [his] understanding” (2008, p. 7).
This was, and continues to be, a popular criticism of Burke’s response, that he gets so caught up in the imagined melodrama and hyperbole that what he ultimately ends up saying is baseless nonsense. In the Introduction to the Oxford edition of Burke’s text, Leslie Mitchell identifies that “Burke’s description of what happened in France in 1789 and 1790 was so at odds with the facts of the situation that he suffered humiliation and rejection. Never has a book been so widely read and so widely spurned” (Mitchell, 1999, p. viii). He states that this was because “Good points were lost in hyperbole. What wisdom there was in the book was only that which is sometimes spoken by the fool.” (p. x).
Evidently, Burke’s popularity took a massive blow following his reflections on the French Revolution, particularly as he referred to the general population as “swinish multitude”, implying that the disempowered ought to be treated like animals. When considering the uncanny similarities between the boom in print culture during the eighteenth century and the global explosion of the internet in the twenty-first century, an interesting parallel can be drawn between Edmund Burke’s comments on the Revolution and Kanye West’s recent controversial comments on slavery.
After his interview with TMZ, in which West suggested that 400 years of slavery was a “choice” for colonised black people, he saw a very similar influx of backlash, losing millions of twitter followers overnight. Looking back with a twenty-first-century perspective, the “swinish multitude” comment was Burke’s Kanye moment.
The above tweet from Kanye West is a lot less controversial, and is actually a belief shared by many people in our technology-dominated age. However, the view that addiction to our phones, or more specifically, addiction to social media, is something new, something that has happened suddenly in the past few decades, is a notion that should be challenged.
Society has always been fascinated, even obsessed, by the opinions of celebrities for hundreds of years, and this is evident in the poetry addressed to and published in the Sheffield Register, a newspaper produced by Joseph Gales and James Montgomery as a platform of public opinion. In 1793, a poem (published anonymously) titled ‘Patriotism’ (2016, p. 73) was printed in the Register, echoing Burke’s idea of the “swinish multitude”:
Who dare to tell the Swinish rabble,
That all in Politics should dabble;
That every tattered greasy rogue
Who quash a pot, or wears a brogue,
Should vote for Senators, and be,
Like men of birth and fortune free.
A month or so later, ‘The Observations of a Swine, on the Condition of his Fellow Creatures’ (2016, p. 17) was printed directly responding to ‘Patriotism’:
Then hold not Swine in such disdain,
Since ‘tis by them you have your gain;
But learn to treat them with respect,
Lest they should grunt at your neglect:
For, should they be provok’d – What then?
The Swine would rise – and rise to MEN!
Although ‘Observations of a Swine’ is a direct response to ‘Patriotism’, both are also responding to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and all three texts are in conversation with each other. The parallels between print culture and internet culture can best be observed in this idea of texts in conversation with each other, and how they mirror twitter threads; like replies to a post on twitter, all texts are responding to each other, while simultaneously responding to the OP (original post).
By transcribing James Montgomery’s Prison Amusements and providing his poems on publicly accessible platforms, such as our website and twitter page, the Words with Wagtails project aims to encourage responses and, by extension, create opportunities for literary discourse. In a similar manner that Montgomery and Gales provided platforms for the general population with the Sheffield Register, the project strives to provide areas where public opinion may combat the problematic statements made by those with celebrity status.
Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford World Classics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Mathison, H. and Smith, A. J. (2016) Poetry, Conspiracy and Radicalism in Sheffield. Sheffield, Spirit Duplicator.
Mitchell, L. G. (1999) Introduction. In: Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford World Classics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Wollstonecraft, M. (2008) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Oxford World Classics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.