Date of Award
Honors Thesis (Open Access)
Colby College. English Dept.
Tilar J. Mazzeo
William Wordsworth was twenty-three when the French National Convention condemned the deposed Louis XVI to death, and France, under Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, dissolved into abject violence. The disappointing results of the Revolution and the subsequent events in European politics began to work a change in Wordsworth’s personal political and ethical views that would greatly affect not only his own poetry but the entire Romantic Movement. Even still, his eventual apostasy from the radical republicanism of his youth affects the way in which people read Wordsworth’s work, igniting both sympathy and resentment. The Ode to Duty is generally considered to mark a main transition in Wordsworth’s philosophy from individualism to the sort of stoicism he would hold in old age. The Ode, as Newton Stallknecht describes it, “contains elements of both romantic individualism and stoicism” (230). Stallknecht suggests that the poem ultimately tends more toward the stoical, confirming Wordsworth’s move to a new philosophy which would be fully realized by the time of The Excursion’s publication in 1820. This move seems drastic and sudden when the Ode to Duty is compared with works with which Wordsworth was composing at the same time such as The Prelude and Ode: Intimations of Immortality. However, the belief system that develops in his major poems from the period of 1797 to 1807 is actually the foundation of the Christian stoicism that characterizes his later work. Though often reaching a diametrical opposition to its early form, Wordsworth’s philosophy forms a coherent, if dynamic, progression from beginning its beginning to its final expression in Ode to Duty. Only after that poem was composed would any severance occur, and then it would be by the poet’s deliberate act. Through his investigation of a unique form of natural religion, the poet gradually reconciled his withdrawal from those causes whose pursuit had occupied his early adulthood, which allowed him to ease into a removed and disinterested philosophical position in good conscience. Wordsworth’s devotion to causes like the establishment of republican governance is rooted in his own need for freedom of body, mind, and expression. Unable to accept a compromise to his own freedom, he fights such conditions where he perceived others afflicted by them. The philosophical stance that informs his early work and that has been perceived as irreconcilable with his stoicism is best characterized as passionate individualism. The essential point of this position is the unqualified prioritization of individual freedom of will and body. It is strongly opposed to any sort of subjugation of human beings by one another, whether directly or through societal constructions. Attempting to embody the ideals of this system, Wordsworth establishes himself as a Promethean figure, combating oppression from which he is largely free on others’ behalf. This position is built upon the radical republican ideology shared by many Europeans after the fall of the Bastille. It begins as a mostly secular philosophy, and the spiritual elements introduced later would facilitate its transition to Wordsworth’s final Christian stoicism. This final stage of Wordsworth’s philosophical and religious development is characterized by an extreme devaluation of mortal life and by a corresponding exaltation of heavenly existence for the soul outside the material world. It adopts the idea of pervasive moral law from the Roman Stoics such as Seneca to a Christian context. Operating under this belief system, Wordsworth casts himself as a member of the masses, all equally burdened with their mortality. Fortitude in the face of suffering and a dispassionate contemplation of mortal things are virtuous dispositions to the later Wordsworth. Though this is a great change from his initial beliefs, it is not, even in the original Ode to Duty, a rejection of them but an evolution. Only when the poet decided that his earlier beliefs had been entirely misguided did he deliberately create a rift in Ode to Duty that marked it for posterity as his divorce from all he had previously been.
Wordsworth William, Religion, Religion and literature, England, History, Stoics Individualism, Religious aspects
Recommended CitationMeldahl, Geoffrey L., "Religion and Renunciation in Wordsworth: the Progression of Natural Individualism to Christian Stoicism" (2007). Honors Theses. Paper 279.
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