Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Hauntings from the Infirmity of Love": Wordsworth and the Illusion of Pastoral

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Hauntings from the Infirmity of Love": Wordsworth and the Illusion of Pastoral

Article excerpt

1

IN 1815 WORDSWORTH PUBLISHED A REVISED TEXT OF "ELEGIAC STANZAS Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm" in which he commemorated the "fond illusion" (29) of his youthful faith in the invulnerable calm that he had shared with the silent breathing life of the landscape. In the first version of the poem, published in 1807, he had described that faith more severely; it had been, he wrote, a "fond delusion." The distinction between illusion and delusion, invoked here by Wordsworth, is not always easy to clarify, since the two words so often overlap in meaning. It is, however, a distinction to which psychoanalysis has paid particular attention, and in The Future of an Illusion Freud offered some typically clear definitions that may serve as our starting-point. Both illusions and delusions, he wrote, are characterized by the prominence of wish-fulfilment in their motivation; it is this that distinguishes them from errors, although, he adds, an illusion is not necessarily an error. Otherwise, he concludes, the difference between a delusion and an illusion has to do with our point of view: when we call a belief a delusion we are considering it primarily in terms of its objective relation to reality, whilst when we call it an illusion we are considering it primarily in terms of its subjective elements of wish-fulfilment. (1)

A further difference between the two words lies in their different implications for mental health. If, as Freud says, a delusion is a mistaken belief motivated by wish-fulfilment and identified by reference to a shared world of knowledge and common sense, it is also a word which expresses an alienation from that world which may at times become madness. It was widely believed in the eighteenth century, for example, that delusive ideas were symptoms of insanity. Illusions, on the other hand, as Charles Rycroft reminds us, "are not pathological phenomena." (2) If sometimes they alienate us from the world, they may also connect us to it. Illusions belong to the normal history of our desires and affections as they mix themselves with the world, and we acknowledge this when we speak of the illusions rather than the delusions of childhood. If delusions are songs of experience, illusions are songs of innocence, from which we do not need to be cured, only awoken.

It was not always so. In Renaissance Britain, illusion was most commonly used to express the dangerous false seeing inspired by witches and other enemies of truth and patriarchal order. Prince Arthur in The Faerie Queene feared the power of"some magicall / Illusion, that did beguile his sense" (II: II.39.6); Hecate sought the "illusion" of "artifical sprites" to confound Macbeth (III.v.27-28). Even secular references to the "sweet illusions" of love retained something of this demonic sense of danger. But with the bourgeois pacification at the end of the seventeenth century illusion entered upon its modern meaning where anxieties are no longer theological but psychological, originating in the tensions between reason and the wish-fulfilments of fancy and imagination. In this new world, where delusion remained alien to reason and common sense, illusion enjoyed a richly ambiguous relationship with them. Mrs Radcliffe, for instance, in The Mysteries of Udolpho, condemned "the illusions of a distempered imagination" but celebrated "the magical illusions of twilight." (3) On the one hand, illusion was checked in the name of patriarchal reason; on the other, it was indulged as a source of value in its own right. In this second sense, it represented an exemption granted to fancy and desire by the taxing world of knowledge and common sense; and if that exemption was often marginalized, banished as it were to the twilight, it nevertheless indicates a bourgeois society more relaxed about its countercultural play than Renaissance Britain had been.

In the "Elegiac Stanzas" of 1807, fresh from the shock of his brother's death, Wordsworth had emphasized the error of his youthful faith: the dream in which he had been housed was a false belief, a delusion alienating him from his fellow-men, his "Kind" (54). …

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