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G. Kim Blank, Wordsworth and Feeling: The Poetry of an Adult Child. Cranbury, New Jersey; London: Associated University Presses, 1995. ISBN: 0838636004 (hardback) Price: £30

  • Ruth Mead

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  • Ruth Mead
    University College London

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G. Kim Blank's psychoanalytical approach reinstates Wordsworth's personal life as the centre and source of his poetry. In answer to the lure of the deconstructive abyss, Blank offers Wordsworth's own theory of poetry: 'that it is expressive' (p. 18). What it expresses is not a 'socially-constructed sense of self' (p. 34) that communicates above all else the cultural forces that shaped it, but a far more deeply internalized subjectivity, a realm in which experience in the social world has been transformed into feelings. It is these feelings that are at the heart of the poetry, up to, and including, the Immortality Ode. Where Wordsworth, and many critics, universalize, Blank repersonalizes, in a project of two related phases. Blank acts as therapist-critic, though his is not 'traditional psychoanalytic criticism, which, in its emphasis on the oedipal structure, is beginning to appear both autocratic and bankrupt' (p. 29). On the one hand he locates in the poetry a nexus of emotions - loss, fear, anger, guilt - and reads the poems in their light. On the other, he constructs a psycho-biography to account for the presence of those emotions, the chief causes being the death of Wordsworth's parents and emotional abuse from his grandparents. But Blank does far more than this. For the events of the traumatic childhood and troubled youth that caused and then exacerbated those feelings form only the first chapter in the story. The second concerns the composing poet who begins not as a healthy man, fathered by the child he once was, but as an 'adult child', unable to integrate feeling with thought. He begins this way, but he heals his inner child, and his healing method is writing poetry.

Whilst the poems, then, perform the role of the patient, or are the patient's symptoms, which are analysed by the therapist-critic, the poet too is a therapist, if unknowingly so, performing 'writing therapy' (p. 147) upon himself. This takes the form of re-enactment, as feelings are released, events recreated, first within the fictional stories of the Lyrical Ballads , and then, more directly, in the early autobiographical passages of the Prelude. Blank gives a perceptive reading of a letter to Coleridge in which Wordsworth complains of physical suffering that is clearly psychosomatic (p. 146). By writing poetry, Wordsworth brings out his symptoms in order to resolve their cause. It follows that revision, as Dorothy Wordsworth's journal attests, caused her brother particular pain.

Before considering this biographical thread in itself, I shall turn to some of the individual readings, for many of these are striking, and have the power to convince even out of context. Frequently, Blank sees Wordsworth's characters as projections or parts of himself. [1] For example, Wordsworth's subjectivity is at the root not only of the pedlar and the narrator of Margaret's story (available now in several versions, but published as the first part of The Excursion ), but of Margaret too, a person first abandoned and then herself neglectful, of herself, and of her child. This I find a fruitful idea, because it helps to explain a peculiarity in Wordsworth to which there has long been objection. Thomas De Quincey suggested that

it might be allowable to ask the philosophic wanderer who washes the case of Margaret with so many coats of varnish, but ends with finding all unavailing, 'Pray, amongst all your other experiments, did you ever try the effect of a guinea?'

At the very least, 'he might have offered a little rational advice, which costs no more than civility'. [2] He goes on to consider, with high wit, the various procedures that might have been undertaken: a letter to the War-Office to track down Margaret's husband's regiment, appeal to the neighbourhood priest, and so forth. [3] Certainly, one can often find oneself asking why, in poetry that presents itself as social criticism, no practical solution is suggested. In fact, De Quincey's account may hold what Blank offers as the key. The image of Margaret helplessly standing at her gate, 'looking for answers to her questions from vagrant horsemen', reminds De Quincey of 'a little child innocently asking with tearful eyes from strangers for the mother whom it has lost in that vast wilderness'. This 'lost child' (Blank provides a psychological profile of him in an appendix) is Wordsworth. For him there is no practical solution, for the 'vast wilderness' is emotional. But what can help is the re-enactment of his story. It is through looking, or looking again, at the suffering (his own suffering), that consolation is discovered.

One of Blank's most interesting interpretations is of the Lucy poems, and it demonstrates, too, the benefits of his particular psycho-biographical approach in comparison to others. Coleridge's comment, "Most probably, in some gloomier moment he had fancied the moment in which his Sister might die" (Blank, p. 241) set the precedent for the identification of Lucy with Dorothy Wordsworth. F. W. Bateson is one who made use, here, of an older psychoanalytical method centring, if not on the oedipal, then certainly on the sexual. In his biographical argument, in Wordsworth: A Re-interpretation (London: Longman, 1954) he suggested that Wordsworth's marriage was a 'desperate remedy' for the situation of incestuous tension between himself and his sister (p. 156). Following a small flurry of indignant exchanges in the TLS (12, 19 and 26 November, 1954), Bateson toned down his comments for the second edition, but the Lucy-Dorothy connection has continued to be made. There may indeed be some truth in it, but Blank offers a fascinating alternative. Lucy, whom he equates with Lucy Gray, the little girl lost, is Wordsworth's inner child. Her death is 'his own figurative death', or emotional crippling, 'which is undifferentiated from and enmeshed with [the death] of his parents'. 'Lucy, this isolated, sensitive, unnoticed, and seldom loved young person, is the arrested part of Wordsworth... She is the child within' (p. 151).

If this convinces, then one must ask whether it may be synthesized with the Lucy-as-Dorothy theory; whether 'Lucy' might be two people. Blank is reluctant to perform this synthesis. If he must identify Lucy, he says, then she 'can be none other than a projection of Wordsworth himself' (p. 155). But is there not an element of fantasy in the imagined death, a sense in which it is desired, that does not sit happily with Lucy as the inner child? In 'A slumber did my spirit seal', Blank finds only 'the expressed feelings of hopelessness' (p. 156), but the poem can be read as ambivalent, the second stanza strangely confirming, even as it denies, the fearlessness of the first. Has Lucy (if it is Lucy) been annihilated, or transmuted? As a participant in 'earth's diurnal course', she cannot 'feel / The touch of earthly years', a deadening touch surely. There is a sense in which the dead are beyond death, and a paradoxical relief that they are out of harm's way.

Turning to the early parts of the Prelude, Blank identifies particular emotions in the spots of time. The boat-stealing scene, as we all know, is bound up with guilt, and it is this feeling that Blank discerns in the skating scene too. The child hears the church clock ('Father Time', Blank suggestively describes it), but he does not go home. Blank comments:

Thus the memory of innocence threatens to be broken by the feeling of guilt for not getting home by six o'clock, and it is perhaps this feeling that informs the rest of the passage, and particularly the end, with its haunting feelings of melancholy, solemnity, and solitude. . . even here, when Wordsworth had unhindered access to innocent experience, to that time before his parents passed away and left him with unresolved issues centering around abandonment and loss, he could not cross over to that time without feeling guilt and placing himself in solitude.

pp. 158-9

This in itself is very convincing. We know both that Wordsworth is selective in his memories and that he retrospectively colours them with the feelings of a later date. In the case of guilt, one might recall Freud's account of 'Criminals from a Sense of Guilt', [4] who commit misdeeds in order to mitigate an already oppressively felt guilt by, at least, having something to attach it to. It seems certain that Wordsworth did feel guilt in relation to his father's death, since that emotion presides over the one spot of time (1805 Prelude XI 344-388) which treats that event directly. Wordsworth recalls petty thefts - boat-borrowing, bird-stealing - and the even pettier misdemeanour of staying out late, to rationalize his guilt. Yet Blank's attention to the beginning and end of this scene alone needs to be placed alongside a consideration of its central event. The skating children give their 'bodies to the wind' but then Wordsworth suddenly stops short, and it is then that the earth, with which he had been spinning, still spins, as he now stands still. This is the moment at which the boy feels his independence, his separate self-consciousness. The stages of emergence into this self-consciousness, a philosophical topic, are surely as much the subject of the spots of time as are Wordsworth's highly personal memories. In this more universally applicable frame, the boat-stealing is not, as for Blank, an analogous, but a contrasting event. For there the boy attempts to assert independence, but is admonished, reminded of his smallness and insignificance, and sent hurrying home again, his independence as yet disallowed. It is in the juxtaposition of these two scenes that we get the complex sense of nature's parental role. Nature is not a sentimentalized fostering mother, but the more problematic source of both needed protection and uncomfortable restraint. In an oedipal struggle, the child tests the parent, whose subtle care is in now allowing him to strike out alone (as when he feels his singleness when skating), now checking his over- assertion (as when the cliff cuts short his boating expedition).

'We must be absolutely clear in privileging the importance of early family life over all other formative influences,' Blank writes (p. 35), and finds it unfortunate that 'we prefer... to characterize Wordsworth's poetry as the expression of general, universal feelings' (p. 16). But the universal element is surely there, so that, if Wordsworth does not separate the man who suffers and the mind which creates, he nonetheless allows that mind, though informed by personal suffering, to contemplate universal, philosophical topics. Blank argues that 'it can only be his past experience that predisposed [Wordsworth's] intense response to the present, otherwise his devastating response to the failure of the Revolution would be difficult to account for' (p. 89), and seems exasperated that 'almost all commentators refer to [Wordsworth's depression] as a moral or spiritual crisis, as if somehow this virtual breakdown had to do with philosophical problems of belief or some such thing' (p. 90). I do not think Blank need be so incredulous of this last possibility. It has long been argued that political ideas gained especial fervour at this time by being endowed with a naturalized, or displaced, theology, so that the Revolution held a kind of millennial hope. Its failure would then have been crushing indeed.

'History reenacted his story - or at least he made it seem to do so' (p. 89). The biographical parts of Blank's book tend, perhaps inevitably, towards the pattern-making that Wordsworth himself practised when he wrote about his own life. In some critical biography, the story-telling impetus attempts to account for the poetry as if it were any other event of the life, and as if a life were as psychologically consistent as the plot of a novel. But Blank's avoids this most perilous pitfall, for the feelings from which he sees the poetry as springing act as a medium between the life and the work. Hence, he does not see the poems as direct allegories of specific events: 'we do not have to suggest that Stephen Hill is Wordsworth abandoning Caroline' (p. 118) (in 'The Thorn'). Rather, the poetry is 'emotional allegory' (p. 170). The life engendered a stock of feelings, from which the poetry, secondarily, emerged.

Yet there is a story-telling element in Blank's book, and, as with many stories, it is the ending that is most problematic. Blank detects a breakthrough with Tintern Abbey , but it is a partial one, and the isolation in Goslar causes unresolved feelings to resurface. In the Ode , however, Wordsworth achieves a synthesis: 'feeling and thought are no longer separated or blocked' (p. 213). Consequently, the success of the Ode accounts for what is often seen as Wordsworth's subsequent decline. Wordsworth's 'inner life was no longer the same kind of problem' (p. 209), so he was no longer to write the same kind of poetry. 'Therapy terminated' (p. 148). Blank argues that 'it is no accident that Wordsworth is here most eloquent. Becoming a whole person is the most powerful statement any of us can make' (p. 213). This I find questionable. Many have found the Ode's resolution of confidence in the 'philosophic mind' unsatisfactory; but if it does convince, is this really because the role of 'poetherapist' (p. 219) integrates the two projects - of self-healing and of poetic artistry - so perfectly that each finds its apotheosis in the same work? Blank's reading of the poem would have it so, but it depends rather heavily on the external evidence: the new-found security of a home at Grasmere, and the end of his financial problems, which made Wordsworth ready for personal healing, and the famed change in his poetry. It is here that I find the alliance of biography and criticism to be an uncomfortable one.

Blank's thesis and many of his readings have the strength to convince, and it is this strength that has the equal and opposite power of provoking objection. He hints that a final patient in need of therapy might be criticism itself. His highly readable style, sensitive enthusiasm, and freedom, for the most part, from the constraints of what he calls 'overdetermined... top down theory' (pp. 28, 36), seem qualified to 'critically liberate our fixed idea of Wordsworth' (p. 29).

Appendices