Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Open Access
Bachelors of Arts (BA)
William Wordsworth provided the world with poetic expressions of a generation influenced by political upheaval, social disorder, and war. As the future of the British identity grew ambiguous amidst the rapid changes associated with industrialization, Wordsworth interwove nostalgia for a bucolic past with anxiety towards a modern future. Certain national debates on labor and the French Revolution nudged Wordsworth in the conservative direction much earlier than some of his contemporaries, and by later life his fervors for nationalism and for the protection of strict English values announced his emergence as a true Tory. Property stands at the center of Wordsworth’s traditionalism, and his later transformation into a conservative was encouraged by his belief that rural English labor reinforced virtues such as self-reliance and humility that gave meaning to life. Wordsworth’s love of land inevitably brings into question his perspective on the abolition of human property; a letter written to Benjamin Dockray in 1833 most accurately conveys the poet’s conservative political opinions, as he insisted that “slavery is not in itself at all times and under all circumstances to be deplored.” While Wordsworth’s growing conservatism was not simply some anomalous phenomenon (indeed many Romantics grew less liberal over time), his personal maturation into a traditionalist deserves research because the nature of his traditionalism is so difficult to trace to one influence. By bringing together letters, political and historical backgrounds, and Wordsworth’s poetry, I hope to show that Wordsworth’s opinion on the emancipation of British colonial slaves was inextricably linked to his fear of immediate change within the empire itself, and how he specifically sought to preserve the rights of landowners. My research investigates the development of Wordsworth’s definition of property over time, addressing specifically how this definition related to slavery in Wordsworth’s published works. The main goal of my thesis is to prove that Wordsworth’s culminating view on slavery was an extension of his belief that protecting English property equated to protecting the traditions and virtues of the nation. The first section on property explains how Wordsworth connected agricultural labor to personal development, and more closely investigates how his poems utilize images of rural land as symbols for a traditional, virtuous English nation. The second section discusses Wordsworth’s transformation from a self-proclaimed republican into a conservative, and how limited the definitions of freedom in his poetry are. The third section on transatlantic slavery and British colonialism will more closely connect readers to the abolitionist influences around Wordsworth; I will then examine his racialized poems that address the theme of slavery implicitly or explicitly, with the hope of revealing a narrative of his platform on the continuation of the British tradition as a farming nation. Wordsworth’s response to colonial slavery in 1833 was not manufactured out of one vein of belief; philosophies on land ownership, personal freedom, and national identity all shaped his culminating conservative stance.
Wingfield, Anna, "Wordsworth's British Empire: Property, Liberty, and the Slave Question" (2019). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 1401.