1793 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Helen Maria Williams

Anna Seward to Helen Maria Williams, 17 January 1793; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 3:202-09.



January 17, 1793.

Ah! my dear Miss Williams, I am truly sorry for the sad state of your health, and for the inevitable affliction of your gentle spirit. Often do I regret that you left our yet, and, I trust, long to continue, happy country, for the regions of anarchy, tumult, and murder.

See what it is to destroy the chain of subordination, which binds the various orders of national society in one common form of polity; that gradatory junction, which can alone give vigour and effect to the laws, extent and circulation to commerce, and create mutual love, and mutual dependence, amid the various ranks of men. It lays those wholesome and necessary restraints upon the headstrong and undiscerning passions of the vulgar, which form their best and truest liberty; and without which, as the rash experiment in France evinces, all is ferocious contest, that appals the spirit, and withers the nerves of legislation.

O! that France had possessed the wisdom of knowing where to stop, and the virtue to scorn a tyrannous revenge! — that, emerging from the gloom of oppression, and the baseness of servility, she had not rushed into the yet worse extreme of wild levelling! — that she had not been misled by that specious, that mischievous sophist, whose absurd and impossible system of equality seeks to kindle the fatal flame of selfish ambition in every heart. Beneath the prostituted name of freedom, it abandons all mankind to the dominion of their own fierce desires; tyrants, under whose scourge and injustice, the sum of public misery is greater far than it was even in that fallen monarchy, which, by hereditary claims, not by the vices of the king, was corrupt and despotic, to an excess which demanded a brave resistance.

But the different talents and dispositions of men, inherent and acquired; the comfort, protection, and prosperity of civilized society; the dispensations of providence in the vegetable, animal, and rational universe; the silent lessons of natural religion, and the precepts of revelation, are all the reverse of Paine's equalizing creed, which has transformed an amiable and sweet-tempered people, whose first liberation was not only justifiable but noble; has transformed them into a dire banditti, spurning every legal restraint. Behold them Bastilling the mildest and most indulgent monarch that ever sat upon their throne; forging, in their demoniac wish of his destruction, those incredible treasons, which he had neither the courage to plan, nor, watched as he was, the power to negotiate; confiscating the property, and dooming to destitute banishment, those who had fled from the scenes of sanguinary tumult, and unpunished murder; where none could be sure that be, or she, might not prove the next victim; bullying and stigmatizing, with the most insolent contempt, every state, where the happier principles of subordinate government unite a people as one family! — destroying the freedom of their own press! — avenging, by proscription, all conversation which presumes to censure their fierce democratic system! — menacing, with brutal indecency, in their conventional assembly, the few, few pleaders for mercy, who, conscious that their lives must probably expiate the generous attempt, deserve statues to their memories.

This is the nation to which the amiable, the benevolent Helen Williams has rashly committed herself: — where her golden lyre must not be strung, at least to gentle themes: — where the sweet creations of her fancy must not arise, or, arising, must be neglected: — whose very life, if she is suspected of pitying the greatly unfortunate, may even be marked out for the dagger of the assassin.

Warned by the ingratitude of the bloody democracy to their primal deliverer, the brave Fayette, O! return, while yet you may, to your native country, which has fostered your talents, and enrolled your, fame. In spite of the desperate incendiaries, who infest her cities, and seek to plunge her into the calamities of France, I trust she has sanity enough to profit by saving warning, instead of following ruinous example; to maintain stedfastly her wise subordinations; to shun the exchange of real freedom, the offspring of salutary restraint, for that nominal liberty which renders every man the slave of his own depraved desires; that, in the body-politic, enables the feet to usurp the place of the head, transforming manual artificers and rude peasants into statesmen; feeding their ambition at the price of their peace, to the ruin of commerce, and the fatal neglect of agriculture. How little can military victories avail to recompence such evils?

The fire which led the French to the brink of that chaos into which they are fallen, you yet, my dear friend, call the rising sun of liberty. So I deemed it once, nay long, and, as such, publickly and voluntarily hailed its dawn with the best powers of my imagination, and of my heart; but, to my great regret, it proves

A meteor, flaming lawless through the void,

Ominous of spreading strife and misery.

You tell me that the court treasons rendered the massacres of the 10th of August necessary. None of those imputed treasons are proved. They never wore the semblance of probability — The accusers are the judges. Suborned witnesses and forged papers are easily procured, where no one dares, perhaps even wishes, to detect their fallacy.

All Europe knows, that, instead of the free choice which France ought to have given her king, that of accepting the new constitution, or of living as a private citizen, or of quitting the French territories, he has, from the first hour of the revolution, been, a prisoner, with a sword at his throat. I always condemned that tyrannous coercion as a deep stain upon the glories of the revolution, before they became finally tarnished by the worst of crimes. That coercion ought early to have convinced us, that nothing genuinely great and good was to be expected from synods, capable of sacrificing, to narrow-hearted and cruel policy, the very spirit and vital principles of that freedom, whose disciples they professed themselves.

Unhappy, injured Louis! all the crimes thou hast practised against the new state were, first, the exercise of that dissentient power with which it had itself invested thee; and next, the calling upon thy devoted guards to repel the tumult levelled at thy life. For doing their duty, they were butchered in thy sight; and, for the natural desire of self-preservation, thou art arraigned before the vengeful and infamous tribunal of mock- justice.

These are the treasons which induce thy cruel country to seek thy life. Perhaps even now, the murderous stroke has descended, and the measure of democratic oppression is full. But thy mild and mercy-loving temper, and the patient dignity with which thou hast borne thy injuries,

Will plead, like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of thy taking off;

Or of that barbarous, lonely, and life-long imprisonment, which some of thy persecutors have advised, as a more politic revenge on thy unreal guilt, than the bow-string, the dagger, or the axe.

My dear friend, you confess the turpitude of the September massacres, but allege that they were perpetrated by three wretches, more dire and infamous than the Roman Triumvirate, with about fifty more, acting as their instruments in that work of death; that a general consternation had gone forth, no one knowing how far the plan of murder extended; but that those villains have not yet been brought to justice, proves that Roland spoke truth, when he asserted to the national convention, that their laws were in the sleep of death. Wretched, wretched constitution, against which that dreadful charge is truly urged!

Then shall insatiate tyranny range on,
Till each man drop by lottery.

Fly, my dear Helen, that land of carnage! — from the influence of that equalizing system, which, instead of diffusing universal love, content, and happiness, lifts every man's hand against his brother!

Politics are almost as much the general theme here as with you. The restless ambition of our sectaries; the desperation of our spendthrifts and gamesters; the arrogant theories of empiric philosophers, who love speculative system much better than experienced policy; these dangerous propensities were beginning to diffuse, with alarming success, the venom of ungrateful and rebellions sedition amongst the easily-dazzled vulgar. But I trust the spirited and timely exertion of our legislators, and the public reasons of true wisdom, have thoroughly awakened our populace to their real interest. Never do I remember such an universal glow of loyalty, such a grateful and fervent sense of the blessings of our balanced government, as seem now to pervade all the orders of British society.

The frailty of human nature considered, we have no more right to expect perfection in governments than from individuals. In every person, in all institutions, much of error will be found intermingled with the purest virtue. The preponderance of good, which is declared to be enough for Heaven is surely enough for us; but in democracies, the preponderance of evil is inevitable. Incessant struggle, never-ending tumult, fantastic giddy change, edicts written on sand, and hopes built on morasses — these are the effects of their radical instability. May England be preserved from the dire experiment!

Adieu, my dear friend! — Love and respect your country half as well as I love and respect you; and I trust we shall soon cease to view you in a state of cold alienation, and of impending danger.