Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Leon Waldoff. Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation. Columbia, MO: U. of Missouri Press, 2001. ISBN 0826213294. Price: US$29.95.

  • Richard Matlak

…plus d’informations

  • Richard Matlak
    College of the Holy Cross

After a lucid review of most of the prevailing approaches to Wordsworth of the past 30 years or so--deconstructive, New Historicist, dialogic, intertextual, feminist, cultural--Leon Waldoff informs the reader that there is a basic formal and psychological project yet to do on "Tintern Abbey," "Resolution and Independence," the "Immortality Ode," and "Elegiac Stanzas." On the face of it, this seems an amazing claim, for how can anything of importance on these rigorously scrutinized lyrics have been left undone? Waldoff says:

it remains a fact that the dramatic nature of Wordsworth's major lyrics has still not received the kind of sustained critical analysis it deserves. A great deal of his poetic art has been devoted to dramatizing each speaker's utterance, but the dramatic strategies that are employed have yet to be identified, their psychological functions analyzed, and their aesthetic effects recognized. More important, the self-dramatizing character of the 'I' of the major lyrics has been left unaccounted for. It has never been theorized and assimilated into an understanding of the subjectivity that it represents.


Following a first chapter of foundational reflection on how the idealized "I" of the poems can also be a biographical reality of a poet speaking in his own person, each chapter on the poems proceeds to carry out a significant formal and psychological analysis of Wordsworth's rhetoric of dramatic self-representation.

In "The Lyrical 'I' as a Self-Dramatization," Waldoff argues against considering the poet as a persona in his autobiographical poems, because that is "an artificial boundary between life and art that is particularly inappropriate for Wordsworth" (20). Instead, Waldoff argues to support Wordsworth's claim--and Keats's affirmation of the egotistical impulse of Wordsworth's poetry--that when he is not speaking through the mouths of his characters, he is speaking "to us in his own person" as the subject of his poems "in two senses of the word, as speaker and as theme" (17). To deal with the paradox of an idealized "I" employing a range of rhetorical strategies and yet still being, not "Wordsworth," but Wordsworth, Waldoff hypothesizes a transitional self that moves, as Freud said, in "an intermediate region between illness and real life" (29). Building on the theorizing of Winnicut on "potential space" for transitional experience, of Murray Schwartz on the psychological space between subjective and objective worlds the reader of literature enters in the act of reading, and of Peter Brooks's refinement of an "artificial space" shared by the reader and text or the speaker and listener where "real investments of desire" can occur (31), Waldoff describes the experience of the "I" in the poem thusly: "the experience of the 'I' of a poem is not purely fictional or illusory, but rather a piece of the poet's real life. It is a transitional experience in a potential space and the 'I' acts out certain potentialities of the poet's self in a theater of the poet's mind" (33). The lesser goal of the transitional experience is self-transformation; the higher is self-realization, of becoming, at least for a moment, the self one wishes to be. Epiphanic moments of self-realization constitute "both a structural principle and a principle of being . . . for the 'I' of the major lyrics" (36). This is the theoretical highlight of the study and I think a significant contribution to the always difficult issue on the relationship of even autobiographical literature to biography, or to life. But why does Wordsworth repeatedly put his "I" through successive poetic structures to reach "new awareness" again and again?

Waldoff begins the practical criticism of the poems with the self-dramatizing strategies of "Tintern Abbey," the poem most assuredly spoken by the "poet in his own person," or so it would seem. Waldoff walks a fine line here in achieving a balance between the autobiographical/historical Wordsworth and the Wordsworth designing a rhetorical structure of a transitional self, dramatizing his way to self-transformation. The dramatics begin with the poet stationing himself on-site and apparently alone, and speaking in the present tense ("Once again do I behold"), when by his own report the poem was composed on a four-day walking tour with Dorothy after leaving Tintern. As Waldoff remarks, he is intent at the outset on dramatizing rather than recollecting and meditating. To this end, the speaker uses "the revisit formula, the stationing of the speaker, the present tense, the various verbal, phrasal, and syntactical forms of repetition, apostrophe, the presence of [a nominal auditor in] Dorothy, and the evocation of a subliminal [maternal] presence in Nature" (59). Within the three-part movement of the poem, the poet establishes two moments of self-transformation in which the speaker first "sees into the life of things" earned rhetorically through the use of prepositions suggesting inwardness ("In hours of weariness," "Felt in the blood," "passing into my purer mind," "into the life of things"); comparative intensifiers ("more sublime," "more deep seclusion," "more deeply interfused"); and two elongated.sentences with complex modulations of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, that wend their way to the self-transformed poet, now the representative "I" being capable of seeing "into the life of things" (60-64). In the process of reaching this moment and the second (ll. 93-111), beginning with "And I have felt", the poet also uses the strategy of "splitting" the self between a past consciousness of "anxieties, limitations, and immature notions" and a present, idealized self of "control, hope, and a potential for growth" (65) that has overcome his anxiety over absence in his new awareness of and even participation in the force of the "Presence" in nature (72). The late appearance of Dorothy as the nominal auditor functions to confirm and to dramatize the achievement of self-transformation (73). If there are still uncertainties left in the poem--in other words, the hesitancies and doubts and tremblings barely below the surface of the text--maybe they are more ours than the poet's because "we remain aware of a certain confidence in the tone of the speaker's address, as well as the artful representation of it" (76) by the time the poem closes.

The lyrical "I" of "Resolution and Independence," however, is no longer the self-transformed poet of "Tintern Abbey," who may have had his bad nights in "lonely rooms," but who underwent a transformation into an idealized seer unified with nature and his auditor by the poem's conclusion. The present speaker on the lonely moor betrays no remnants of past philosophical or religious confidence and seems to have lost faith in the usefulness or hopefulness that an auditor can provide, even though the biographical facts of the poet's meeting with the leech gatherer are comparable to the walking tour of "Tintern Abbey." His sister was with him and her journal entry two years prior to the compositional period of the poem provides his recollection. "Splitting" here takes on greater prominence because the self wavers dramatically between innocence, deep despondency, and a new self of resolve. The problematic paradox that Waldoff identifies as central to the poem is that the "I" remains passively victimized and then passively graced, in other words, dependent throughout on "something happening to him." An independence given seems but another name for continued dependence. The only independence the poet shows that he has is his "capacity to create an enabling fiction about himself and the Leech-gatherer" (87), the heart of which is his dramatized meeting with the old man at the pond. In preparation for analyzing the poet's coming upon the leech-gatherer as providential and uncanny, Waldoff surveys Wordsworth's poetry for its anxieties over loss, especially loss of the father and father figures. The leech gatherer is like the father "from some far region sent / To give [him] human strength, by apt admonishment," but even more importantly, sent to confirm that the poet is a chosen son (96) to whom "peculiar grace" has been given. Through the self-dramatizing strategies of splitting, a staged encounter, dialogue, a recognition scene, self-quotation, and the like, Wordsworth creates a new transitional self and an image of stoic fortitude to which he can return. Whenever he wavers in the future, he says confidently that he'll "think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor" (96-102).

In the "I" of the Intimations Ode, Waldoff provides interesting insights and a few original ways of thinking about textual cruxes. More than in the previous two lyrics, Wordsworth's many comments about the Ode and its origins in his own psychological, spiritual, and emotional experience from boyhood to manhood indicates that the poet almost insists on his being the speaker in his own person. Yet his self-dramatizing gestures make for a very fluid transitional self split, as Waldoff says, more completely and diversely than in the other lyrics: a despondent self of the opening stanzas; the bardic voice that introduces the myth of stanza 5; the more public "we" that declines into ironic despair by the conclusion of stanza 8; the consolatory voice that follows the reversal in understanding the spiritual pattern of mortal life ("O joy! That in our embers / Is something that doth live"); and the poignant submission to human limitation ("we will grieve not . . ."); and the final return to the "I" of new understanding and ultimate human maturity. Along the way, Waldoff deals adroitly with the embarrassment of the apostrophes to the child that annoyed Coleridge, who seems to have thought too literally about the child being his child, "thou best philosopher," "Thou eye among the blind," "Mighty prophet! Seer blest." Waldoff's take on this hyperbole is that "the exaggerated praise of the Child . . . is part of the dramatic contents designed to heighten or intensify the emotional effects of the question ("Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke / The years to bring the inevitable yoke, / Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?") In other words, just as the poet seems to believe in his myth of pre-existence within the poem, but denies its credibility in comments made about the poem, so here, the "I" says things appropriate to dramatizing the poignancy of children being at cross-purposes with the sole spiritual bliss of their lives. In other words, Coleridge forgot to suspend his disbelief.

The fifth chapter, "Elegiac Stanzas: The Poet in His Letters and the 'I' of the Poem," is the highlight of this study for this reader for its considering the distinctions, as its title indicates, of the two voices of the poet on the death of his mariner brother John at sea, the epistolary "I"of anguished letters to loved ones and friends and the "I" of the poem. It's a great opportunity to compare voices and responses to the tragedy that Waldoff develops fully. He begins with the interesting observation that of the ten themes of grieving that he culls out of a series of letters to various recipients, only two--the irreparable nature of the loss and the need for fortitude to overcome the pain of the loss--appear in "Elegiac Stanzas" (132-34). The most significant omission of the epistolary themes in the poem is the failure to reflect philosophically on the death of the loved one, which the most important elegies in English do not fail to do ("Lycidas," "Adonais," In Memoriam). In a nutshell, here is the argument:

While the letters reveal Wordsworth undergoing a process beginning in profound shock and despair, extending to religious doubt, and ending inconclusively in a sense of resignation, the poem dramatizes the speaker's transformation from innocence to sudden new awareness and resolution


This is shrewdly perceived. It shows that the poet has continued with his strategy of splitting his lyric "I" into an earlier self of naivete, or innocence, or juvenile dejection and despondency, successfully again into a self of mature awareness. Like the I of "Resolution and Independence" he has established another image of fortitude in the mouldered ruins of Piel Castle battered by storm. However, again, Wordsworth displays his dependency, for he has been given the image of stoicism in the painting of Sir George Beaumont. The "I" in "Resolution and Independence" might have been dependent, but in creating his self-dramatizing poem he shows that he was chosen to receive grace from above. Whereas, in "Elegiac Stanzas," the poet has given up the enabling fiction of creating the staged experience, for the epiphanic moment of seeing "Peel Castle in a Storm" hanging at the Royal Academy in 1806 was biographically immediate and real. Waldoff argues persuasively that, as many readers have conceded, Nature is a screen for something other than the wildish wind and waves in the poem. Waldoff's suggestion is that Nature is a deflection from the metaphysical doubt Wordsworth raised in the letters about a loving God. The "I" of the poem retreats into stoicism, feigning a naivete about a benign nature that he didn't hold at the time he saw the painting, but says that the "fond illusion of his heart" was dispelled upon seeing it. Thereby, the lyric "I" is transformed into a more mature poet of nature and human life than he was prior to the epiphany inspired by Beaumont's oil. The grammatical shift from the conditional of his naïve self ("I could have fancied," "I would have planted thee") to the declarative of the experienced self ("I have submitted," "Not for a moment could I now behold," etc.) is one of the rhetorical strategies to dramatize that transformation.

Waldoff concludes with a consideration of The Prelude as a major lyric. As he says, despite the fact that the lyrical "I" has been partially constrained within the literary traditions of the loco-descriptive poem in "Tintern Abbey" or the Pindaric Ode in "Intimations Ode," still its strategies of self-transformation have been consistent. Here we learn that the speaker's lyrical and self-dramatizing voice in his epic assumes a predominance over narrative and other voices using the same strategies as the major lyrics: employing the present tense to heighten the immediacy of the moment; of frequently using apostrophes to sustain the "dramatic illusion of the continuing now of his utterance and the immediacy of his presence" (157); of structuring into episodes such as the spots of time his moments of epiphany and self-transformation (157); and of frequent recourse to the sublime in striving for moments of extreme self-realization, as when after Snowdon his mind is described as one capable of holding "fit converse with the spiritual world" (163) and reaching the "highest bliss / That flesh can know . . . the consciousness / Of Whom they are" (164). Of course, if one were executing a developmental analysis of these strategies of self-representation, the apostrophes and spots of time of the 1799 Prelude would come between "Tintern Abbey" and "Resolution and Independence" and Home at Grasmere would show another even more interesting "I" meandering towards a self-consciousness of therapeutic self-deception.

Leon Waldoff sustains a very fine analysis of Wordsworth's rhetorical devices to construct and re-construct a self in his major lyrics. There is no ideological thrust to his project. The psychology of his approach is clear and sufficient. Its pedagogical potential is enormous, if one wishes to teach a way of close reading large poetic structures that reveals patterns begging for or permitting a range of psychological speculation on the motivation of this poet's obsession with self-transformation. Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics is also a model of wide-ranging research and fine scholarly writing. It stands as a significant argument on behalf of single-author studies. The University of Missouri Press deserves our thanks for this one.