Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation

Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation

Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation

Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics: The Art and Psychology of Self-Representation


Wordsworth in His Major Lyrics explores the identity, role, and subjectivity of the speaker in Wordsworth's finest and best-known longer lyrics -- "Tintern Abbey", "Resolution and Independence", "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", and "Elegiac Stanzas". Because Wordsworth is the most autobiographical poet of the romantic period, and perhaps in the English language, readers naturally take the speaker to be the poet himself or, as Wordsworth says in his prefaces and essays, "the poet in his own person".

Some readers allow for a fictional dimension in the characterization of the speaker and refer to him as a persona; others treat him as a biographical self, defined in literary, political, historical, or cultural terms. Leon Waldorf examines the critical issues posed by these different understandings of the speaker's identity and argues for a conception of Wordsworth's lyrical "I" that deals with the dramatic and psychological complexities of the speaker's act of self-representation.

Taking concepts from Freud and Winnicott, this book presents a psychoanalytic model for defining the speaker and conceptualizing his subjectivity. Waldorf suggests that the lyrical "I" in each poem is a transitional self of the poet. The poem offers, in the suspended moment and cultural space of lyrical form, a self-dramatization in which the speaker attempts to act out, in the sense of both performing and attempting to achieve, a reconstitution and transformation of the self.

In a series of close readings that provide formalistic and psychological analysis, the book shows that the major lyrics contain compelling evidence that Wordsworth devoted much of his poetic art to each speaker's act ofself-dramatization. The various strategies that each speaker employs and the self-dramatizing character of his utterance are theorized and assimilated into an understanding of the subjectivity he represents.

Waldorf concludes that Word


This book is concerned with a number of critical questions about the identity and role of the “I” or speaker in Wordsworth's major lyrics. If the poems are autobiographical, as Wordsworth repeatedly says or implies in his prefaces, letters, notes, and remarks to Isabella Fenwick, to what extent can the speaker be thought of as “the poet in his own person” (to use a phrase Wordsworth invokes several times in his prefaces)? If the speaker is indeed the poet in his own person, how is a reader to account for the frequently conflicting differences between the so- called empirical Wordsworth (familiar to us from his letters, his sister's journals, and other biographical sources) and his self-representations in the poetry? If, on the other hand, the speaker is not really the poet but rather a self-representation, partly autobiographical and partly fictional, to what extent is that self-representation an authentic expression of the poet's self and to what extent is it an attempt to construct a self? These and the related questions I shall raise have long persisted in Wordsworth studies, stemming from the poems themselves, but despite the voluminous critical literature that has grown up around the poetry we still have no critical book focused primarily on them and the larger question of the identity, conception, and function of the “I” in the poetry.

It should be acknowledged from the start that the larger question is not one to which there can be a definitive answer, given the fact that there are so many literary, biographical, psychological, historical, social, and other dimensions to it. For this reason more than any other, perhaps, readers, teachers, and critics have tended to prefer practical answers to the question while reading or teaching or writing about a particular poem. The most common and seemingly reasonable answer, of course, is that the speaker is Wordsworth, though it is haunted by our awareness that substituting the proper noun Wordsworth for the “I” of a poem begs the question of how the self or subjectivity of the “I” is constituted. An answer more alert to the problematic nature of the question avoids an unqualified substitution and allows for a fictional dimension in the character of the speaker. In their introduction to the Romantic period in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, the editors write that “in the Romantic lyric the `I' often is not a conventionally . . .

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