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In a Passion: Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France"

Updated on June 9, 2012

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once noted that “[Edmund] Burke never shows his powers, except he is in a passion” (Wolfson, Manning 103). This may be most apparent in a well-known passage from the Irish MP’s Reflections on the Revolution in France depicting the arrest of Louis XVI and his family by French revolutionaries. In this selection, Burke writes in a beautiful, dramatic, and sensationalistic style perhaps better suited to Gothic fiction than political writing, calling not upon logical reasoning, but upon sheer pathos to support his argument. Bypassing intellectual appeals entirely in this selection, Burke instead defers to his audience’s sense of decency, chivalry, and shock.

Burke begins the passage by stating that “History will record that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789, the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to indulge in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose” (107, italics added). With the opening words, “History will record,” Burke states outright that it is his interpretation and judgment of events, rather than that of revolutionary sympathizers, which will be upheld by posterity. The king and queen are painted in a very sympathetic light, having just endured “a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter” and wanting only “a few hours of respite.” Also, the phrase, “the pledged security of public faith” (italics added), suggests that the people have somehow promised their monarchs safety through some spoken or unspoken social contract.
Continuing his story, Burke chronicles a horrifying assault on the defenseless French queen:

the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out to her to save herself by flight… this was the last proof of fidelity he could give… Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment” (107).

This language is obviously sensationalistic. Burke jerks us away from the weary image of the king and queen’s “troubled, melancholy repose,” and we are “startled,” like the queen, by the sentinel’s cry, after which, Burke employs time-related language to convey a sense of urgency, stating that the queen “had but just time to fly” and that the king was not safe “for a moment” (107). He also jolts us by breaking his pattern of long, fluid sentences with the abrupt statement, “Instantly he was cut down,” and continues to describe a scene in which “cruel ruffians… pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked” (107, italics added). The statement is obviously hyperbolic, or at the very least an estimation, as it is doubtful that Burke, or anyone else had opportunity to count the aforementioned strokes. Beyond that, however, the scene has connotations of sexual violence, with the “band of cruel ruffians” descending in a frenzy upon the bed of the queen and peppering it with thrusts of their “bayonets and poniards,” causing her to flee from her chamber “almost naked” (107). The frantic stabbing of the bed has all the imagery of a gang rape, and the indecency of the situation is heightened by calling attention to the queen’s state of undress.

By the time of her “almost naked” flight, the queen is no longer a “queen,” but a “persecuted woman” instead. Additionally, Louis XVI is referred to not merely as “king,” but as“king and husband,” and is unable to help her, “not secure of his own life for a moment” (107). This language paints the royal couple as pathetic, helpless figures and evokes our sympathy by humanizing them. The queen is not merely a queen, but a frightened woman stripped of the decorations of nobility and fleeing in humiliation to her husband the king, who is himself not only a king but also a husband, in equal danger and incapable of protecting his wife from her aggressors. This helpless portrayal of the royal family is continued throughout the passage as Burke details the “unprovoked, unresisted, promiscuous slaughter” of the residents of Versailles, passive innocent victims of the rebellious “ruffians,” “murderers” and “assassins” sacking the palace (107). The use of the sexually charged term “promiscuous” also hearkens back to the violent sexual imagery of the queen’s assault. The king, the queen, and their children, who, according to Burke “once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people” are reduced to pitiful figures, and the French people, obviously no longer “great” or “generous,” are shamed for it.
This pitiable royal family is next “forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases [sic]” (107). Again, Burke uses hyperbolic language to paint a gruesome image of a Versailles not only spattered in blood or covered with blood, but “swimming” in it and “strewed” with dismembered body parts, as if the revolutionaries, like a Hutu mob in the Rwandan genocide, had charged through the palace, hacking off limbs with machetes, rather than the “bayonets and poniards” that Burke describes (107). Burke also claims that the palace, a “sanctuary,” has been “polluted by massacre,” drawing upon religious imagery (Sombret) to sanctify the palace of Versailles and to add to the rebels’ catalogue of crimes the desecration of a holy “sanctuary” (107). This, in addition to Burke’s earlier use of the term “pledged security of the public faith,” paints the obligations of the French people to their king and queen as something beyond political allegiance, something sacred (107, italics added). In addition to atrocity, the French people are committing sacrilege against the royal family and against the “gentlemen of birth and family who composed the king’s bodyguard” (107). It may also be noted that this description of “birth and family” is elitist. Presumably, all people are of some kind of “birth and family,” but we are to assume that this is noble birth and noble family, the only birth and family that such a phrase would hold to be significant.
Two of the “gentlemen of birth and family” described by Burke are next “with all the parade of an execution of justice… cruelly and publicly dragged to the block, and beheaded in the great court of the palace” (107). Burke’s language in this statement drips with disdain and indignation at the thought that the murder, without trial, of two of the king’s loyal protectors, men “of birth and family,” could possibly be deemed “justice.” Adding to the indecent savagery is the fact that this is “publicly” done. The savage crowd, completely devoid of shame, is above no act of indecency, be it assaulting an “almost naked” lady of gentle birth in her bedchamber or “publicly” murdering two guardians of the king in his own great hall. As if to further illustrate this savagery, the revolutionaries next place the guards’ heads on spears, which lead the procession of rebels and captives from Versailles, accompanied by “horrid yells, shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell.” Again, religious imagery is called upon, this time to portray the mob as demons and the scene as infernal.

Finally, in this procession, led by the impaled heads of their palace guard, the royal family is, according to Burke, “made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours” before being “lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a bastile [sic] for kings” (107). Burke’s choice of words is again dramatic. Presumably, there is a superlative degree of suffering involved in an experience possessing “more than the bitterness of death,” this suffering apparently deliberately brought about by the “slow torture” of the six-hour procession to the palace, cleverly described by Burke as a “bastile for kings” (107). In employing this metaphor, Burke exposes an apparent hypocrisy in the revolutionaries, who, combating cruelty and injustice, now subject their king and queen, to whom they owe their allegiance, to the same cruelty and injustice faced by the prisoners of the recently stormed Bastille. Cleverly, Burke illustrates a pendulum swing from one oppression to the other.

Burke concludes his description of the event with a rhetorical question: “Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars? to be commemorated with grateful thanksgiving? to be offered to the divine humanity with fervent prayer and enthusiastic ejaculation?” (107) Again, Burke drips with disdain and indignation at the rejoicing over what he sees as an atrocity, and again, he continues his thread of religious imagery, this time in to portray the revolutionaries and their sympathizers as fanatics and perhaps even idolaters. Of course, if one is to fully believe Burke’s illustration of the “massacre” and his portrayal of all its characters, the answer to his question, for any but the cruelest and most Machiavellian of political reformers is necessarily “No” (107).

Burke’s poignant, beautifully written, and emotionally charged attack on the French Revolution appealed to the decency and chivalry of his readers, and it provoked strong responses, both of agreement and disagreement, from many. Perhaps even more famous than Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, is Thomas Paine’s rebuttal, The Rights of Man, in which Paine lampoons Burke for his overemotional argument (103). While it is true that Burke writes with more pathos than pure reason, it should be remembered that in the end, Burke was correct in predicting that the revolution would end in bloodshed.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. "Reflections on the Revolution in France." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 2A. 3rd ed. Eds. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006. 103-112.

“Edmund Burke.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 2A. 3rd ed. Eds. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006. 103-112.


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