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Richard Matlak's book, The Poetry of Relationship, is a difficult book for me to review. I found much to admire in this work, particularly the attention to the intertextual connections between William Wordsworth's poetry and both Dorothy Wordsworth's and Samuel Coleridge's writings. Matlak's often quite original close-textual readings and uncovering of intertextual echoes and allusions are alone worth the price of the book. However, I also cannot but address the theoretical assumptions of the work, especially its occasional dismissals of competing methodologies.
Before I do, I want to highlight the superb sections of the book and the ways that The Poetry of Relationship represents a valuable contribution to scholarship on the early life and work of both Coleridge and the Wordsworths. As I have said, Matlak is at his best when he is tracing the intertextuality of Wordsworth's poetry. His close readings of the Ruined Cottage (88-98) and "Tintern Abbey" (120-136), for example, are superb, for they clarify the ways that Wordsworth is countering the philosophical and formal ramifications of Coleridge's poetry, specifically and respectively the "Ancyent Marinere" and "Eolian Harp." These sorts of close readings, which appear regularly throughout the book make The Poetry of Relationship an important companion to Paul Magnuson's intertextual readings in Coleridge and Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue (1988). Indeed, Matlak's book offers a different spin to Magnuson's approach by arguing for less a dialogic than what he terms a "forensic"—one might even say agonistic—relationship between the two poets. As Matlak explains,
In Coleridge and Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue, Paul Magnuson argues for an opposing perspective on Wordsworth's vocational concerns; that Wordsworth would have feared his own tendency to absorb too much of Coleridge's work and style, especially in being attracted to Coleridge's meditative blank verse poems, "Eolian Harp," "This Lime-Tree Bower, [sic] and "Frost at Midnight." Wordsworth's fear of amalgamation with Coleridge's work thus caused him to misread Coleridge's meditative nature poems in the Bloomian sense so as to establish grounds for a belief in a myth of his poetic autogenesis. The reading provided here, however, finds the primary poet in Wordsworth, who would have to battle for his creative life against the remarkable gifts of originality and imitative prowess that Coleridge possessed.
In addition, Matlak makes a stronger case for Dorothy's influence on William's development of his poetic and philosophical principles, arguing for "the responsive nature of Dorothy's Journals to her brother's poetry and the resulting tension they provoke in his verse" (3). Matlak also illuminates other influences on Wordsworth's poetry, particularly the debt Wordsworth owed to classical oration in the structuring of his "Tintern Abbey" (124-135) and the importance of Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (118-19) to Wordsworth's early ideas regarding the poet's relationship to nature.
In all of these cases, Matlak rests his interpretations on the undeniable proof that is close textual reading. Where he becomes less convincing is when he speculates about the psychobiographical meanings of Wordsworth's early poetry: "Descriptive Sketches" and an "Evening Walk" as commentaries on Annette Vallon's status as an eroticized surrogate for Dorothy and on Wordsworth's desire to leave Annette Vallon for Dorothy's sake (17-24); The Tale of Vaudracour and Julia as justification to Dorothy and Mary Hutchinson Wordsworth for William's affair with Annette Vallon (24-35); the "Adventures on Salisbury Plain" and the Borderers as commentaries on oedipal and incestuous fantasies (45-71); "Tintern Abbey" as William's effort to win back Dorothy's affections from Coleridge (122-137); the Lucy poems as fantasies about (and a secret desire for) the death of Dorothy (139-170); the spots of time, "Home at Grasmere" and Michael" as commentaries on specific events and relationships in Wordsworth's life (171-208). These are just a few of the connections Matlak offers between Wordsworth's poetry and his psychobiography, and they make for some quite intriguing reading. However, I must admit that I was disappointed anytime Matlak chose to move from his rich textual analyses to these sorts of speculations.
What I find most disturbing about Matlak's analysis, however, is not its psychobiographical approach. For anyone who enjoys reading intimations of Wordsworth's immorality (on the unconscious level, of course), this book offers tantalizing and well-researched fare. What struck me, rather, were the occasional pot-shots at other theoretical approaches, particularly New Historicism and deconstruction, since these attacks seem to me to be just as easily re-directed to Matlak himself. At one point, Matlak defends his own method by stating that "Dorothy Wordsworth being the referent [for the Lucy poems] opens wide rather than closes the possibility for interpretation" (143), yet he follows this statement by closing down the very possibility of a deconstructive reading of the poems: "to read the Lucy poems most meaningfully, we cannot hypothesize that Lucy's absence means she is merely language or symbol" (143), an approach that, he explains in a footnote, characterizes Susan Eilenberg's deconstructive reading of the poetry. Matlak also adopts a dismissive view of Marjorie Levinson's New Historicist book, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems: "This now (in)famous argument has aroused spirited and even vituperous opposition, all impatient with its ploy of arguing for the importance of the text's meaningful 'silences' and even more so for its idiosyncratic selection of material that is predetermined to be relevant" (121). This seems to me a strange critique since psychobiography is by necessity similarly limited by a selection of material that is predetermined to be relevant, given the tendency of biographies to impose narrative order to the heterogeneous chaos that is a person's day-to-day life. A psychobiography can make significant claims because of the vantage of the ex post facto: the determination of meaning in the retrospection of a pre-established narrative that represents the drama of a poet's life. Besides the inherent limitations of psychobiography's narrative structure, there are the limitations that we all face as scholars—the need, at some point, to end and order one's interpretations, a limitation Matlak himself admits to: "I would wish to avoid accumulating all of the possible causes for Lucy's death that can be imagined, in other words, for 'overdetermining' the imaginative event, for that way critical anarchy lies; but within the narrative developed herein, with the support of corroborating evidence, patterns have been developing that ought to be acknowledged" (159; emphasis mine). Given this sort of acknowledgment, I do not see how Matlak escapes the charge he himself levels at Levinson. In one footnote, Matlak responds to previous attacks by Brian Caraher and Mark Jones against the psychobiographical approach, including his own: "if the psychobiographical approach is fundamentally flawed, one would hope to see its readings convincingly critiqued" (235). Strangely, Matlak does not feel the obligation to give New Historicism and deconstruction the same due.
Perhaps it is Alan Liu, Matlak's other imagined New Historicist combatant who offers up the best critique of The Poetry of Relationship. As Matlak argues in Part I of his study, "I will try to show that a clearer understanding of Wordsworth's biographical and psychological dilemmas provide a more satisfactory explanation for [the Borderers'] strange turns and improbabilities than do Liu's broader historical determinants" (53). It seems to me that the superiority of Liu's study lies not so much in his approach as in his willingness to step back and question that approach at key points, specifically in his dialogic epilogue. Indeed, he illustrates in this epilogue the similar difficulties faced by both New Historicist and psychobiographical criticism, specifically the problem of narrative retrospection:
Yet it is your very belief that we find disturbing. You have said that literature is historical in origin, and you have amassed historical context from whatever sources were available to you or that you had time to accomplish in order to make yourself credible. And on the whole, you believe that you have succeeded, that armies of context allow you to translate yourself from literature into history, from present into past, from yourself into someone other. Yet consider the events in your own life in these past eight years—even the most joyful, frightening, or purposeful among them. Choose the most significant one—shall it be your marriage? your advancement in career?—and try to determine how that event reflects itself in your writing. Can you do so with certainty even in your own mind?500
Although there is much to recommend The Poetry of Relationship, I would have liked to have seen Matlak step back every so often and ask himself the same sorts of questions.