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The Politics of RomanticismThe Social Contract and Literature$
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Zoe Beenstock

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781474401036

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474401036.001.0001

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Individual Sovereignty and Community: Wordsworth’s Prelude

Individual Sovereignty and Community: Wordsworth’s Prelude

(p.100) Chapter 4 Individual Sovereignty and Community: Wordsworth’s Prelude
The Politics of Romanticism

Zoe Beenstock

Edinburgh University Press

Wordsworth understood poetry as a development of political economy. The 1805 Prelude describes his personal growth as a transition from a state of nature to society. Echoing Rousseau’s Second Discourse and Social Contract, Wordsworth presents nature as a socializing force and initially assumes that the French Revolution realizes the general will. When the revolution degenerates into violence, Wordsworth also blames its failure on Rousseau’s theory for its weak account of community. In the final books of the 1805 Prelude Wordsworth qualifies his withdrawal to the private will and to poetic vocation by comparing himself to Adam Smith, David Hume, and Godwin, all of whom he regards as excessively individualistic. In his revisions to the 1850 Prelude and in The Excursion Wordsworth eclipses individual sovereignty and turns to utopian communitarianism. This resolution of the tension between private and general wills explains the lesser popularity of these poems for modern readers. Nonetheless, the 1805 and 1850 Preludes and The Excursion map out an epic concern with the struggle between individual and community as central to Wordsworth’s poetry.

Keywords:   The Prelude, 1805, The Prelude, 1850, The Excursion, Rousseau, General Will, French Revolution, State of nature

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