Wordsworth's Godwinism

Wordsworth's Godwinism 

This paper analyses Wordsworth’s two different texts, Book 10 of The Prelude(1805) and his letters to Matthews written in 1794 to explain the role of Godwin’s radical philosophy in Wordsworth’s “conversion" from a potentially dangerous reformer into the author of Lyrical Ballads. In the analysis of The Prelude, first of all, Wordsworth’s own recollection of his political past is critically reviewed with reference to its Godwinian content. Wordsworth describes his past Godwinian from a distinctively Burkean point of view that condemns ’Reason’s naked self' in the name of nature and experience. Wordsworth’s possible commitment to the contemporary British reform movement, as a result, is devaluated as nothing more than a youthful error rectified by “a living help" from his poet friend Coleridge. Secondly, Wordsworth’s contemporary political stance articulated in his letters to Mathews is examined in connection with his Godwinian project of a monthly political journal called The Philanthropist. Wordsworth’s political “conversion" which is said to be revealed for the first time in these letters is not as drastic as commonly believed. What Wordsworth recanted in 1794, in fact, was not his democratic political ideal itself but just his support to France as the model of British political reform. Godwin’s philosophy was particularly attractive to Wordsworth in this context because it was offered as an apt replacement of France as the guiding light of British democracy. The conclusion is that Wordsworth’s Godwinism was much more serious ideological commitment to the contemporary British politics than the Wordsworth of The Prelude wanted to suggest; it was the ideological vehicle through which Wordsworth attempted to reshape his France-oriented republicanism into a new political ideology that was not only closer to the original idea of the French Revolution but also more workable in the political reality of the 1790s’s Britain.


Journal of ELLAK 43-2(1997): 237-254


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