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Thursday, 13 June 2019

William Wordsworth and the French Revolution

EPISODE 67

William Wordsworth and the French Revolution


Dr. Mounir Khélifa studied English at the Sorbonne and Yale University where he received his MA and PhD, respectively. A professor of English language and literature for more than three decades, he taught poetics, comparative literature, and literary theory at the University of Tunis. Former director of the graduate program in English, Dr. Khélifa was also a senior advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, where he was responsible for international cooperation and curriculum reform. Currently, Dr. Khélifa runs the School for International Training study-abroad program in Tunisia. He is a lifetime member of the Tunisian Academy for the Arts, Letters, and Sciences, Beit al-Hikma.

William Wordsworth was the only English poet of his generation to have been an eyewitness to the French Revolution. To the momentous event he devoted no less than three books in his autobiographical epic poem, The Prelude.

It is conventionally accepted that his relation to the revolution altered radically during the course of the events, and that this relation went from passionate enthusiasm at the storming of the Bastille to doubt and fear during the Reign of Terror to utter rejection and denial at the rise of Napoleon and during the ensuing Napoleonic Wars.    

Yet even as this doxa accounts for the poet’s changing attitude towards the revolution, it fails to explain the complex emotional and intellectual processes that activated the change.  It fails mainly to consider that the change occurs in a poem designed to ratify “the growth of the poetic mind.”  Wordsworth has no pretense to be a historian. His recounting of the revolutionary events, he warns the reader, is justified only insofar as the events have been “storm or sunshine to [his] mind.” 

Dr Mounir Khélifa argues that if the expression “storm and sunshine” refers to the aesthetic emotion known as the sublime (beauty that has terror in it, Edmund Burke), then this emotion never abated in him and that throughout his entire life he kept “daring sympathies with power” whenever he recalled the French Revolution.  

This lecture was co-organised by the Centre d'Études Maghrébines en Algérie (CEMA) and the École Normale Superieure d’Oran (ENS).

This episode is part of the Arts & Literature in the Maghrib lecture series and was recorded on April 24th,  2019, at the École Normale Supérieure d’Oran (ENS).

Pr. Sidi Mohamed Lakhdar Barka, Professor of Comparative Literature from the Department of English at University of Oran 2 moderated the lecture.


Download the Podcast:  Feed iTunes / Podbean

We thank Dr. Jonathan Glasser, Cultural Anthropologist at the College of William & Mary for his istikhbar in sika on viola for the introduction and conclusion of this podcast.

Realization and editing:  Hayet Lansari, Librarian, Outreach Coordinator, Content Curator (CEMA).

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Suggested Readings


Blake, William. 1965. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. David Erdman (Ed.) New York: Anchor Books.

Blake, William. 1977. Notebooks of William Blake: A Photographic and Typographic Facsimile.  David Erdman and Donald K. Moore (Eds.) New York: Readex Books. 

Bromwich, David. 1998. Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth’s Poetry of the 1990s. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Byron, Lord. 1978. The Complete Poetical Works. Frederick Page and J. Jump (Eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Darwish, Mahmoud. 2013. Unfortunately, It was Paradise: Selected Poems. Berkley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

Hartman, Geoffrey. 1987. The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Hartman, Geoffrey. 2014. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Qabbani, Nizar. 1998. On Entering the Sea: The Erotic and Other Poetry by Nizar Qabbani. Lena Jayyusi (Ed.) New York: Interlink.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. 1994. The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  New York:  The Modern Library.

Wordsworth, William. 1985. William Wordsworth 1770-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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