While contemplating the violence inflicted upon the polis in the name of securing “safety for the people”, we turn to a passage (Book Tenth) from William Wordsworth’s lengthy narrative poem The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. The poem was originally intended to serve as an auto-biographical prologue to an epic triptych titled The Recluse. Outlined while Wordsworth was still in his twenties, the epic had still not been committed to paper at the time of his death, at the age of 80.
The notion of “thought crime”, put into play whenever fanatics seize political power, was very much in the air during those heady revolutionary days of Robespierre’s Terror; the Committee of Public Safety required that virtue be present in every glance and every utterance. Such times are fast upon us once again, when in the name of “public safety” and patriotic virtue, all hell will break loose.
What sort of refuge is the soul, at last reckoning? Epicurus tells us that if we are to think and thus grow the mind, we must live in hiding; so where exactly might we hide? Is withdrawal, for all its poetic elegance, inevitably solipsistic? In September 1799, Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth:
“I am anxiously eager to have you steadily employed on `The Recluse’ . . . . I wish you would write a poem, in blank verse, addressed to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes. It would do great good, and might form a Part of `The Recluse'”