Wordsworth and the Interpretation of Dreams

By Philmus, Robert M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Wordsworth and the Interpretation of Dreams


Philmus, Robert M., Papers on Language & Literature


The dream featured towards the outset of Book V of The Prelude is, from a Freudian perspective, an extraordinary piece of work. Its Freudian qualities may nevertheless not be at all evident from its immediate context. Wordsworth, that is, sets the dream up as if it is only meant to illustrate his waking fear concerning the perishability of the human mind's creations that has just prompted the dismay of his rhetorical question: "Oh! why hath not the Mind / Some element to stamp her image on / In nature somewhat nearer to her own?" (V.45-47).(1) It thus appears to reiterate his preceding apocalyptic vision, except that this time Earth is to be destroyed by deluge rather than by extraterrestrial "fire" or the "inward throes" of earthquake (V.30-31). On that understanding, too, the dream of the stone and the shell largely accords with the prevalent pre-Freudian theory, dating back at least as far as the Pentateuch, that dreams are prophetic, and therefore impersonal in a sense consistent with the possibility of their foreshadowing the fate of certain individuals.(2)

Yet any reader who attends to its particulars in relation to its plot must realize that the dream Wordsworth recounts does not merely reiterate the apocalyptic "thought" (V.29) which appears as--or as if it were--an introduction to it. In the course of refiguring that "thought," he also makes the anxiety attending it highly personal. The dreamer, after all, is not simply a witness to the diluvian threat to the Arab's quixotic mission of saving the stone and the shell; he wants to participate in that "enterprise" (V.117), but finds the Arab "[r]eckless" of such a "desire" (V.118, 115). To be sure, this entire aspect of the dream-narrative--which for the moment I will call its refusal-aspect--does not readily fit the preconception Wordsworth has sought to establish about the thought-content of the dream; i.e., it does not easily comport with the notion that the dream is about a threat to the embodiments of the spirit of all "the children of the earth" (V.97). It is also difficult to reconcile that notion of the dream's significance with what are perhaps its most prominent, and most overdetermined, elements: the stone and the shell. These are, of course, destructible, but not by deluge; so that the dream makes no logical sense--and any anxiety informing it dissipates--unless we replace the stone and the shell with the books that we are told they symbolize. But while those dream-elements, when taken as the stone and the shell which they first appear as being rather than as the signifieds which they displace, would dispel the threat of the deluge--and with it the waking anxiety that supposedly governs the dream--that threat is nevertheless imaged as continuing. We must therefore infer that the threat applies elsewhere: not to the stone and the shell, but to the dreamer (as well as the Arab). That is, all of the elements of the dream are explicable only if we recognize the thought-content that Wordsworth predisposes us to find in it as incidental to the real thought-content of the dream, which dramatizes an anxiety about the destructibility, the mortality, of the dreamer, not about that of all humankind or of the embodiments of its spirit.

What I am in the process of arguing is that we are confronted here not with a consciously manufactured vision but with an "authentic dream"(3)--or rather, with a verbal account of such. To indicate the grounds for that claim and at the same time provide a kind of ostensive definition of "authentic dream," I offer this proposition: the dream-narrative Wordsworth gives us is one which, if reduced to prose, would not at all seem out of place in the pages of Die Traumdeutung. This is also to say that the dream of the stone and, the shell is not merely amenable to psychoanalysis; it also calls for that kind of analysis as being consistent with its conscious meaning. Furthermore, it is my contention that Wordsworth's account, which in all extant versions remains substantially the same despite a number of verbal changes,(4) fully justifies my use of the term-concepts I have drawn from Freud in my preliminary interpretation of the dream, and does so for reasons having to do first with those elements which most obviously mark the dream as authentic: the stone and the shell. …

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