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When Jean-Jacques Rousseau began (1762) with the assertion that “Man was born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains,” he concisely expressed the primitivist point of view.The American and French revolutions were both predicated on Romantic primitivism, the idea that humanity was once naturally free, but that corrupt kings, churches, and social customs held it enslaved.
Wordsworth’s preface is heavily influenced by Shaftesbury’s argument.
He turns to simple characters for his poems because they exhibit the natural, primary, unspoiled states of feeling that are the ultimate basis of morality.
Many writers feel that they must live in the centers of civilization, London or Paris, for example, to be conversant with new ideas and the latest fashions.
Wordsworth turns away from the cities to the rural scene.
Many writers feel that serious literature can be written only about great and powerful men, such as kings and generals.
Some writers apparently believe that wounding a king is tragic, while beating a slave is merely funny. He turns to simple, common, poor people as the topic of his poetry because they are nearer a “state of nature” than the powerful, educated, and sophisticated men who have been corrupted by false customs of society.The Romantic typically sees rebellion and breaking free from false restraint to regain a state of nature as highly desirable; Wordsworth’s preface shows him deeply committed to this revolutionary ideology.He says that he is going to take the subjects of his poems from “humble and rustic life” because in that condition humankind is “less under restraint” and the “elementary feelings” of life exist in a state of simplicity.Social primitivism leads to the celebration of the “noble savage,” perhaps an American Indian or a Black African tribesman, who is supposed to be morally superior to the sophisticated European who has been corrupted by the false restraints of his own society.Social primitivism was, of course, one of the driving forces behind the French Revolution.He himself lived in the remote Lake District most of his life, and he wrote about simple shepherds, farmers, and villagers. because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately contemplated.He explains that he chooses for his topicshumble and rustic life . He sees a correspondence between the unspoiled nature of humankind and the naturalness of the environment.Instead, the French Revolution produced the Reign of Terror, the rise of Napoleon to military dictatorship, and the French wars of aggression against relatively democratic states such as the Swiss Republic.With unspeakable shock, Wordsworth and the other Romantics saw the theory of social primitivism fail in France.English neoclassical writers such as Alexander Pope tended to be suspicious of human passions, arguing that anger and lust lead people into error unless such passions are restrained by right reason. Humans’ natural primitive feelings are the source of goodness and morality; the false restraints of custom and education are what lead people astray from their natural goodness.For Pope, it is necessary to exercise the restraint of reason over passion for people to be morally good. In his preface, Wordsworth seems to be following the line of thought developed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in his (1709).