In 1793 Britain was at war with France. The Bastille had fallen in 1789 prompting revolutionary war out across France. In September 1792 France had been proclaimed a republic. Shortly afterwards, the French king Louis XVI was executed. In 1793 Britain’s government collaborated with other European powers in order to fight the new French republic and to restore the French monarchy.
The briefest survey of the Sheffield Register during this period reveals that opinions on the French Revolution were divided. Gales and most of his contributors supported the abolition of absolute monarchy, reading the overthrowing of Louis XVI as a much overdue equivalent to England’s Glorious Revolution or the more recent American Revolution. The Republic, after all, stood for liberty: the Register’s most passionate cause. However, as events escalated there emerged a discernible anxiety in the Register about the Republic’s methods (most notably the imprisonment and subsequent execution of Marie Antoinette).
Unsurprisingly, Britain’s war with France became one of the most common topics for the poems printed in the Register in 1793-94. Again, the tone and position of these poems is wildly inconsistent. Some are deeply patriotic, focusing on the bravery of British soldiers abroad. Others are pessimistic, criticising the prime minister’s decision to involve Britain in the conflict.
A poem printed in the 19th issue of the Register, ironically titled ‘Patriotism’, provoked a high number of complaints and retaliatory poems. The poem proved controversial for its depiction of these young men, cheering a false cause as they marched off to an unnecessary death. It concludes that:
But soon I trust these noisy knaves
Will be what Nature meant them – Slaves.
The poem was roundly criticised for its pejorative portrayal of working-class men (prompting a lengthy series of poems on the topic of Britain’s ‘swinish multitudes’), but specifically for its unsympathetic portrayal of British soldiers. Although readers (and contributing poets) were prepared for the rationale behind this war to be troubled, the soldiers themselves were beyond reproach. A month after ‘Patriotism’ was printed these ‘Lines’ appear, compensating for the offense caused by that earlier contribution by lamenting the loss of life incurred by war.
These ‘Lines’ are tentatively attributed to a young woman living in Sheffield who has read in the previous issue of the Register about the death of a group of British soldiers during a violent skirmish with the French. Upon reading of the bravery of these soldiers our narrator recalls the bravery of her lover, Willy, who is currently fighting in France. If it were ‘the bravest soldiers’ who fell she deduces that one of them must have been Willy, prompting her to imagine his unburied body, left to rot and mould in some forgotten corner of a foreign field. The lover’s name recalls that of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, highlighting the distance between soldier and statesman.
The poem not only mourns Willy’s loss of life but that the narrator is robbed of the opportunity to be involved in his burial. Repeatedly she imagines herself beside the body, able to close his eyes with her own fingers and clasp him to her breast. This dream fades away as she laments that she is actually ‘so far away’, begetting the ghoulish image of Willy’s lifeless and unburied form. She prays for the opportunity (using the now antiquated term ‘boon’) to put him to rest, but knows this plea is made ‘in vain.’
The final stanza sees our narrative voice describing the scene she wishes she could enact, but knows she never will:
To see that youth, who once was brave!
O’er his lov’d form to sit and weep;
And bid in peace his spirit sleep.