The poem ‘The Lost Leader’ has been in the news this week because Paddy Ashdown quoted from it when talking about the future of the coalition and the failure of the Liberal Democrats in the local elections. Many commentators in the media were slightly surprised by this and questioned whether Ashdown was fully aware of the poems meaning when he referenced it.
The poem is a direct attack on those who abandon their radical past in order to align themselves with the forces of conservatism. When he wrote it, Robert Browning was specifically referring to fellow poet William Wordsworth. Wordsworth in his youth had been a supporter of many great liberal causes including the French revolution. However, as the revolution had sunk into anarchy and then dictatorship he had shifted his position to the right. As he grew older he increasingly became a figure of the establishment, a position cemented when he accepted the post of Poet Laureate.
I’m not sure Browning is being entirely fair in his attack on Wordsworth (at one point he seems to compare him to Judas). He certainly became more conservative as he got older, but then so do most people. Also many figures had been disillusioned by the failure of the French Revolution, and had forsworn radical politics for fear that similar madness could be unleashed elsewhere. For instance George Washington, probably the greatest revolutionary character of his age, had severe doubts about the French uprising. This is in contrast to his colleague Thomas Jefferson who was an enthusiastic supporter.
I also think Browning is being unfair when he lists other writers who he claims were part of the radical cause, including Shakespeare and Shelley. Shakespeare was never really a radical as he spent most of his life writing propaganda for the Tudor monarchy (Richard III being a prime example). Shelley died tragically young at thirty so it’s impossible to say whether he would have remained radical if he’d lived longer.
Paddy Ashdown may, or may not, have been referring to Nick Clegg when he quoted the line ‘Never glad confident morning again!’. Even before the coalition Clegg was never a radical figure so I’d question whether the comparison is a fair one. Regardless of its use though, the poem is still an interesting one and a brilliant lament to lost idealism.
Here is the full text of The Lost Leader by Robert Browning:
Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!
We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation, and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!