Romantic individuals and the social contract: The Prelude and Rousseau

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This article contributes to the recently-offered view that the influence of German idealism on British Romanticism was mainly anachronistic, and that empiricism provides a more ethically-situated historical context for reading Romantic literature. The understanding of humans as sociable creatures had been so dominant that Rousseau was expressing a startlingly different view of human nature in writings like The Social Contract, which had a direct and understudied impact on British Romantic authors. I explore Wordsworth's shifting attitudes to Rousseauvian individualism as they emerge in his archetypal Romantic magnum opus - The Prelude. While in France in the early 1790s, Wordsworth was drawn to the new idea of a social contract. His Prelude echoes Rousseau's pastoral pattern whereby social retreat motivates the idealization of nature. But when power actually reverts to nature in revolutionary France, Wordsworth rejects the social contract and turns to his private vocation as a poet. This shift has been extensively criticized by new historicist scholarship. Yet for the rest of his career, Wordsworth continued to wrestle with social contract theory's inner contradictions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-175
Number of pages19
JournalEuropean Romantic Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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