The French Revolution

A Poem, in Seven Books

The French Revolution

Book the first

The dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France;
O cloud well appointed! Sick, sick: the Prince on his couch, wreath'd in dim
And appalling mist; his strong hand outstretch'd, from his shoulder down the bone
Runs aching cold into the scepter too heavy for mortal grasp. No more
To be swayed by visible hand, nor in cruelty bruise the mild flourishing mountains.

Sick the mountains, and all their vineyards weep, in the eyes of the kingly mourner;
Pale is the morning cloud in his visage. Rise, Necker: the ancient dawn calls us
To awake from slumbers of five thousand years. I awake, but my soul is in dreams;
From my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away.
Troubled, leaning on Necker, descends the King, to his chamber of council; shady mountains
In fear, utter voices of thunder; the woods of France embosom the sound;
Clouds of wisdom prophetic reply, and roll over the palace roof heavy.
Forty men: each conversing with woes in the infinite shadows of his soul,
Like our ancient fathers in regions of twilight, walk, gathering round the King;
Again the loud voice of France cries to the morning, the morning prophecies to its clouds.

For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation. France shakes! And the heavens of France
Perplex'd vibrate round each careful countenance! Darkness of old times around them
Utters loud despair, shadowing Paris; her grey towers groan, and the Bastile trembles.
In its terrible towers the Governor stood, in dark fogs list'ning the horror;
A thousand his soldiers, old veterans of France, breathing red clouds of power and dominion,
Sudden seiz'd with howlings, despair, and black night, he stalk'd like a lion from tower
To tower, his howlings were heard in the Louvre; from court to court restless he dragg'd
His strong limbs; from court to court curs'd the fierce torment unquell'd,
Howling and giving the dark command; in his soul stood the purple plague,
Tugging his iron manacles, and piercing through the seven towers dark and sickly,
Panting over the prisoners like a wolf gorg'd; and the den nam'd Horror held a man
Chain'd hand and foot, round his neck an iron band, bound to the impregnable wall.
In his soul was the serpent coil'd round in his heart, hid from the light, as in a cleft rock;
And the man was confin'd for a writing prophetic: in the tower nam'd Darkness, was a man
Pinion'd down to the stone floor, his strong bones scarce cover'd with sinews; the iron rings
Were forg'd smaller as the flesh decay'd, a mask of iron on his face hid the lineaments
Of ancient Kings, and the frown of the eternal lion was hid from the oppressed earth.
In the tower named Bloody, a skeleton yellow remained in its chains on its couch
Of stone, once a man who refus'd to sign papers of abhorrence; the eternal worm
Crept in the skeleton. In the den nam'd Religion, a loathsome sick woman, bound down
To a bed of straw; the seven diseases of earth, like birds of prey, stood on the couch,
And fed on the body. She refus'd to be whore to the Minister, and with a knife smote him.
In the tower nam'd Order, an old man, whose white beard cover'd the stone floor like weeds
On margin of the sea, shrivel'd up by heat of day and cold of night; his den was short
And narrow as a grave dug for a child, with spiders webs wove, and with slime
Of ancient horrors cover'd, for snakes and scorpions are his companions; harmless they breathe
His sorrowful breath: he, by conscience urg'd, in the city of Paris rais'd a pulpit,
And taught wonders to darken'd souls. In the den nam'd Destiny a strong man sat,
His feet and hands cut off, and his eyes blinded; round his middle a chain and a band
Fasten'd into the wall; fancy gave him to see an image of despair in his den,
Eternally rushing round, like a man on his hands and knees, day and night without rest:
He was friend to the favourite. In the seventh tower, nam'd the tower of God, was a man
Mad, with chains loose, which he dragg'd up and down; fed with hopes year by year, he pined
For liberty; vain hopes: his reason decay'd, and the world of attraction in his bosom
Center'd, and the rushing of chaos overwhelm'd his dark soul. He was confin'd
For a letter of advice to a King, and his ravings in winds are heard over Versailles.

But the dens shook and trembled, the prisoners look up and assay to shout; they listen,
Then laugh in the dismal den, then are silent, and a light walks round the dark towers.
For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation; like spirits of fire in the beautiful
Porches of the Sun, to plant beauty in the desart craving abyss, they gleam
On the anxious city; all children new-born first behold them; tears are fled,
And they nestle in earth-breathing bosoms. So the city of Paris, their wives and children,
Look up to the morning Senate, and visions of sorrow leave pensive streets.

But heavy brow'd jealousies lower o'er the Louvre, and terrors of ancient Kings
Descend from the gloom and wander thro' the palace and weep round the King and his Nobles.
While loud thunders roll, troubling the dead, Kings are sick throughout all the earth,
The voice ceas'd: the Nation sat: And the triple forg'd fetters of times were unloos'd.
The voice ceas'd: the Nation sat: but ancient darkness and trembling wander thro' the palace.
As in day of havock and routed battle, among thick shades of discontent,
On the soul-skirting mountains of sorrow cold waving: the Nobles fold round the King,
Each stern visage lock'd up as with strong bands of iron, each strong limb bound down as with marble,
In flames of red wrath burning, bound in astonishment a quarter of an hour.

Then the King glow'd: his Nobles fold round, like the sun of old time quench'd in clouds;
In their darkness the King stood, his heart flam'd, and utter'd a with'ring heat, and these words burst forth:

‘The nerves of five thousand years ancestry tremble, shaking the heavens of France;
‘Throbs of anguish beat on brazen war foreheads, they descend and look into their graves.
‘I see thro' darkness, thro' clouds rolling round me, the spirits of ancient Kings
‘Shivering over their bleached bones; round them their counsellors look up from the dust,
‘Crying: “Hide from the living! Our b[a]nds and our prisoners shout in the open field,
‘“Hide in the nether earth! Hide in the bones! Sit obscured in the hollow scull.
‘“Our flesh is corrupted, and we [wear] away. We are not numbered among the living. Let us hide
‘“In stones, among roots of trees. The prisoners have burst their dens,
‘“Let us hide; let us hide in the dust; and plague and wrath and tempest shall cease.”’

He ceas'd, silent pond'ring, his brows folded heavy, his forehead was in affliction,
Like the central fire: from the window he saw his vast armies spread over the hills,
Breathing red fires from man to man, and from horse to horse; then his bosom
Expanded like starry heaven, he sat down: his Nobles took their ancient seats.

Then the ancientest Peer, Duke of Burgundy, rose from the Monarch's right hand, red as wines
From his mountains, an odor of war, like a ripe vineyard, rose from his garments,
And the chamber became as a clouded sky; o'er the council he stretch'd his red limbs,
Cloth'd in flames of crimson, as a ripe vineyard stretches over sheaves of corn,
The fierce Duke hung over the council; around him croud, weeping in his burning robe,
A bright cloud of infant souls; his words fall like purple autumn on the sheaves.

‘Shall this marble built heaven become a clay cottage, this earth an oak stool, and these mowers
‘From the Atlantic mountains, mow down all this great starry harvest of six thousand years?
‘And shall Necker, the hind of Geneva, stretch out his crook'd sickle o'er fertile France,
‘Till our purple and crimson is faded to russet, and the kingdoms of earth bound in sheaves,
‘And the ancient forests of chivalry hewn, and the joys of the combat burnt for fuel;
‘Till the power and dominion is rent from the pole, sword and scepter from sun and moon,
‘The law and gospel from fire and air, and eternal reason and science
‘From the deep and the solid, and man lay his faded head down on the rock
‘Of eternity, where the eternal lion and eagle remain to devour?
‘This to prevent, urg'd by cries in day, and prophetic dreams hovering in night,
‘To enrich the lean earth that craves, furrow'd with plows; whose seed is departing from her;
‘Thy Nobles have gather'd thy starry hosts round this rebellious city
‘To rouze up the ancient forests of Europe, with clarions of [loud] breathing war;
‘To hear the horse neigh to the drum and trumpet, and the trumpet and war shout reply;
‘Stretch the hand that beckons the eagles of heaven; they cry over Paris, and wait
‘Till Fayette point his finger to Versailles; the eagles of heaven must have their prey.’

The King lean'd on his mountains, then lifted his head and look'd on his armies, that shone
Through heaven, tinging morning with beams of blood, then turning to Burgundy troubled:
‘Burgundy, thou wast born a lion! My soul is o'ergrown with distress
‘For the Nobles of France, and dark mists roll round me and blot the writing of God
‘Written in my bosom. Necker rise, leave the kingdom, thy life is surrounded with snares;
‘We have call'd an Assembly, but not to destroy; we have given gifts, not to the weak;
‘I hear rushing of muskets, and bright'ning of swords, and visages redd'ning with war,
‘Frowning and looking up from brooding villages and every dark'ning city;
‘Ancient wonders frown over the kingdom, and cries of women and babes are heard,
‘And tempests of doubt roll around me, and fierce sorrows, because of the Nobles of France;
‘Depart, answer not, for the tempest must fall, as in years that are passed away.’
He ceas'd, and burn'd silent, red clouds roll round Necker, a weeping is heard o'er the palace;
Like a dark cloud Necker paus'd, and like thunder on the just man's burial day he paus'd;
Silent sit the winds, silent the meadows, while the husbandman and woman of weakness
And bright children look after him into the grave, and water his clay with love,
Then turn towards pensive fields; so Necker paus'd, and his visage was cover'd with clouds.

Dropping a tear the old man his place left, and when he was gone out
He set his face toward Geneva to flee, and the women and children of the city
Kneel'd round him and kissed his garments and wept; he stood a short space in the street,
Then fled; and the whole city knew he was fled to Geneva, and the Senate heard it.

But the Nobles burn'd wrathful at Necker's departure, and wreath'd their clouds and waters
In dismal volumes; as risen from beneath the Archbishop of Paris arose,
In the rushing of scales and hissing of flames and rolling of sulphurous smoke.

‘Hearken, Monarch of France, to the terrors of heaven, and let thy soul drink of my counsel;
‘Sleeping at midnight in my golden tower, the repose of the labours of men
‘Wav'd its solemn cloud over my head. I awoke; a cold hand passed over my limbs, and behold
‘An aged form, white as snow, hov'ring in mist, weeping in the uncertain light,
‘Dim the form almost faded, tears fell down the shady cheeks; at his feet many cloth'd
‘In white robes, strewn in air censers and harps, silent they lay prostrated;
‘Beneath, in the awful void, myriads descending and weeping thro' dismal winds,
‘Endless the shady train shiv'ring descended, from the gloom where the aged form wept.
‘At length, trembling, the vision sighing, in a low voice, like the voice of the grasshopper whisper'd:
‘“My groaning is heard in the abbeys, and God, so long worshipp'd, departs as a lamp
‘“Without oil; for a curse is heard hoarse thro' the land, from a godless race
‘“Descending to beasts; they look downward and labour and forget my holy law;
‘“The sound of prayer fails from lips of flesh, and the holy hymn from thicken'd tongues:
‘“For the bars of Chaos are burst; her millions prepare their fiery way
‘“Thro' the orbed abode of the holy dead, to root up and pull down and remove,
‘“And Nobles and Clergy shall fail from before me, and my cloud and vision be no more;
‘“The mitre become black, the crown vanish, and the scepter and ivory staff
‘“Of the ruler wither among bones of death; they shall consume from the thistly field,
‘“And the sound of the bell, and voice of the sabbath, and singing of the holy choir,
‘“Is turn'd into songs of the harlot in day, and cries of the virgin in night.
‘“They shall drop at the plow and faint at the harrow, unredeem'd, unconfess'd, unpardon'd;
‘“The priest rot in his surplice by the lawless lover, the holy beside the accursed,
‘“The King, frowning in purple, beside the grey plowman, and their worms embrace together.”
‘The voice ceas'd, a groan shook my chamber; I slept, for the cloud of repose returned,
‘But morning dawn'd heavy upon me. I rose to bring my Prince heaven utter'd counsel.
‘Hear my counsel, O King, and send forth thy Generals, the command of Heaven is upon thee;
‘Then do thou command, O King, to shut up this Assembly in their final home;
‘Let thy soldiers possess this city of rebels, that threaten to bathe their feet
‘In the blood of Nobility; trampling the heart and the head; let the Bastile devour
‘These rebellious seditious; seal them up, O Anointed, in everlasting chains.’
He sat down, a damp cold pervaded the Nobles, and monsters of worlds unknown
Swam round them, watching to be delivered; When Aumont, whose chaos-born soul
Eternally wand'ring a Comet and swift-falling fire, pale enter'd the chamber;
Before the red Council he stood, like a man that returns from hollow graves.
‘Awe surrounded, alone thro' the army a fear and a with'ring blight blown by the north;
‘The Abbe de S[i]eyes from the Nation's Assembly. O Princes and Generals of France,
‘Unquestioned, unhindered, awe-struck are the soldiers; a dark shadowy man in the form
‘Of King Henry the Fourth walks before him in fires, the captains like men bound in chains
‘Stood still as he pass'd, he is come to the Louvre, O King, with a message to thee;
‘The strong soldiers tremble, the horses their manes bow, and the guards of thy palace are fled.’

Up rose awful in his majestic beams Bourbon's strong Duke; his proud sword from his thigh
Drawn, he threw on the Earth! the Duke of Bretagne and the Earl of Borgogne
Rose inflam'd, to and fro in the chamber, like thunder-clouds ready to burst.
‘What, damp all our fires, O spectre of Henry,’ said Bourbon; ‘and rend the flames
‘From the head of our King! Rise, Monarch of France; command me, and I will lead
‘This army of superstition at large, that the ardor of noble souls quenchless,
‘May yet burn in France, nor our shoulders be plow'd with the furrows of poverty.’
Then Orleans generous as mountains arose, and unfolded his robe, and put forth
His benevolent hand, looking on the Archbishop, who changed as pale as lead;
Would have risen but could not, his voice issued harsh grating; instead of words harsh hissings
Shook the chamber; he ceas'd abash'd. Then Orleans spoke, all was silent,
He breath'd on them, and said, ‘O princes of fire, whose flames are for growth not consuming,
‘Fear not dreams, fear not visions, nor be you dismay'd with sorrows which flee at the morning;
‘Can the fires of Nobility ever be quench'd, or the stars by a stormy night?
‘Is the body diseas'd when the members are healthful? can the man be bound in sorrow
‘Whose ev'ry function is fill'd with its fiery desire? can the soul whose brain and heart
‘Cast their rivers in equal tides thro' the great Paradise, languish because the feet
‘Hands, head, bosom, and parts of love, follow their high breathing joy?
‘And can Nobles be bound when the people are free, or God weep when his children are happy?
‘Have you never seen Fayette's forehead, or Mirabeau's eyes, or the shoulders of Target,
‘Or Bailly the strong foot of France, or Clermont the terrible voice, and your robes
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Volsebnik's picture

The work is an anapestic iambic septenary poem, a poetic meter unique in Blake's poetry to this poem, that describes the events surrounding the French Revolution. Blake was an early supporter of the American Revolution and believed that it would bring about liberty to the rest of mankind.

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