Contextualizing Anna Barbould’s “On the Expected General Rising of the French Nation in 1792” Using Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”
Rise mighty nation! in thy strength,
And deal thy dreadful vengeance round; (Barbould 1-2)
Begins Anna Lætitia Barbauld’s 1793 poem, “On the Expected General Rising of the French Nation in 1792.” Barbould’s poem is clearly, even from these first lines, a defense of the French Revolution. Barbould’s poem begins with this call to arms, and proceeds to argue that the people of France take control of their government and their nation for themselves, and away from the ruling monarchs. Barbould’s arguments can be defended and contextualized by Thomas Paine’s 1791 pamphlet “The Rights of Man,” specifically “Chapter V. Ways And Means Of Improving The Condition Of Europe Interspersed With Miscellaneous Observations” which sets out a logical argument in defense of revolutions in general, and the French Revolution specifically. Paine’s “The Rights of Man” makes similar, though more thoroughly explained, arguments for the necessity of radicalization and violence in revolutions, as well as the consideration that the nation is made of its people, not only its government.
Barbould’s poem begins with a call to action, as previously stated, and continues into vivid descriptions of the physical act of uprising against the crown, “That every hand may crush a foe,” (18) and ends with the image of the French people as victorious in their revolution, having shaped the nation into the vision of the people rather than that of the crown, “And rise–the model of the world!” (36). Part of the reason Barbould’s poem lends itself to easy acceptance of her expected outcome is that Barbould writes her poem in iambic-tetrameter; which is commonly considered to follow the beat of the human heart and thus lends itself to easy agreement, letting the reader be swept up, as if her emotions are their own. In a similar vein, the trochaic opening, “Rise, mighty nation” (Barbould 1), alters the rhythm, as the side-by-side stressed syllables can give the sensation of a heart skipping a beat, inviting closer attention by the reader.
The use of a poem in and of itself aids remembrance, and thus internalization of the arguments made. Opinions are easier to remember from a poem than from a lengthy defense such as Paine’s pamphlet. The alternating rhyme scheme, which does not repeat between stanzas, gives the poem a measured, logical, progressive feeling. Clear logical progression, conveyed through the aforementioned regular meter and rhyme without deviation, is similarly expressed in Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” as Paine structures his argument in pieces; first discussing revolutions in general, before moving onto the specifics of the French Revolution, and the lessons England could take from it (78-92).
Beyond the general poetic form, Barbould also uses vivid imagery to argue her support of the French Revolution. Her imagery tends towards the violent, using phrases such as “end a warfare by a blow,” (20) and “Eager the royal vultures tear.” (6). This paints a picture of the vicious crown, and how the people can succeed against their government through violence, as they “Strike hordes of Despots to the ground.” (4). The crown is perceived as violent, and thus fighting, with both metaphorical and literal violence, are seen as a just cause. Barbould implies a sure success, as the people have strength in numbers.
Similar to Barbould’s violent imagery, Paine sees revolution as “reforming…that the whole can be improved” though “only partial advantages can flow from partial reform” (89). Paine calls for revolution and radicalization, that once begun revolution must be seen through to the end to reap the benefits. Paine writes “revolutions, then, have…a change in the moral conditions of governments” (81). In his view, revolutions allow their “advantages increase by their becoming general” (89), or, in other words, revolutions are a necessary part of positive change, which increases as the revolution is seen to its conclusion, justifying violence when necessary, which comes from “a small spark, kindled in America” (78), a natural successor to the American Revolution.
Barbould and Paine both view the French uprising as a necessary and positive thing for France. Paine even, upon speaking on the deficits of most European governments in following “the principle of universal civilization” (79) exempts France from his deprecation because of the changes the French people are encouraging in their nation through the revolution, which is would Barbould depicts in her poem: an improved nation.
Along with the violent imagery in Barbould’s poem is religious imagery. Part of christainity in France at the time was the idea of divine sovereignty: the idea that God granted monarchs their right to rule over the people. An overt religious image in the poem is the tomb:
Then build the tomb–O not alone,
Of him who bled in freedom’s cause; (29-30)
The tomb invokes the image of the tomb of christ, especially when paired with the imagery of a martyr dying for the people’s freedom, as Christ died for their sins; that this revolution, and any death they face, is a sacrifice in the eyes of God for their freedom. While Barbould’s poem rebels against the monarchs in charge of France, calling for the people to take control, her poem does not attack religion itself. In fact, the poem uses religious imagery to support the position of the uprising of the general population, giving the impression that the French Revolution is supported in the eyes of God, a mimic of the rapture he ultimately plans for the earth. Which is the other religious image in the poem:
Till rapture crown the flowing bowl,
And Freedom boast of full success. (15-16)
The rapture is when the righteous and the sinners are separated for eternity, the end of the world, and a new beginning. The rapture includes the trials the righteous and sinners must suffer as God ends the earth, and creates eternal paradise, casting out the sinners (Book of Revelation). The mention of the rapture in conjugation to the crown implies that the monarchs themselves would be considered sinners, left to face the rapture. This reconciles the idea of divine right to rule, and religious beliefs at the time, implicating that the revolution is a trial from God.
Paine does not discuss religion in this section of “The Rights of Man,” but does discuss freedom. He compares the freedom, “to be free, it is sufficient that he wills it.” (78) to happiness, “Whatever the form…of government…have no other object than the general happiness” (79). The entire goal of the rapture is eternal happiness, which in Paine’s view is brought by freedom from “the barbarism of government” (80). So, Barbould’s allusion to the rapture can be seen as an analogy for the goal of the revolution: freedom, and by extension, happiness, a veritable heaven on earth, for the price of a violent uprising, much like the violence of the rapture that would have to be endured.
On the topic of freedom, is an assumption mentioned previously that Barbould’s poem makes: that the nation is made of, and refers to, the French people, rather than exclusively the crown or the government. When Barbould mentions “the hind who tills thy soil,” (13), she is specifying that she is speaking to the common man to take control of their nation, because they are the nation, and deserve some control, as they should “Obey the laws thyself hast made,” (35). This shows the purpose of the revolution, the means by which they will be free: they are changing the nation and the government to represent a new bottom-up (people-to-monarch) power structure, rather than the previous top-down (God-to-monarch-to-people) structure.
Paine supports the revolution precisely for this shift in power structure, as he writes, “the resources of a country are lavished upon kings…the poor…are compelled to support the fraud that oppresses them” (90). The top-down structure allows for abuses for the nation, of the people, and of power, while the revolution leads to changes in “the moral condition…[and] the burden of public taxes…civilization will be left to the enjoyment of that abundance” (81). In other words, the current government takes advantages of its people, but a change in the structure of this government through revolution will redistribute both wealth and burdens, creating a better and more balanced society, and an overall positive outcome to the French Revolution, which is precisely what Barbould makes clear in her poem.
A close reading of Anna Barbauld’s 1793 poem, “On the Expected General Rising of the French Nation in 1792″ shows a passionate defense of the French Revolution, given in a way which is easily remembered and digested, as poems are often easier to internalize than a lengthy argument, particularly with impassioned language choice and vivid imagery. The arguments made in Barbould’s poem can be understood more specifically by understanding Thomas Paine’s arguments in “The Rights of Man,” which can give context and nuance to those positions which Barbould takes at face value as her truth.
Barbauld, Anna L. “On the Expected General Rising of the French Nation in 1792.” 1793.
“Book of Revelations.” The Bible. Nueva Versión Internacional, Biblica, 1978.
Paine, Thomas. “The Rights of Man.” 1791, pp. 78-92.