D. B. Ruderman - The Idea of Infancy in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry: Romanticism, Subjectivity, Form. Reviewed by Diana Edelman

Monday, May 8, 2017 - 10:42

D. B. Ruderman, The Idea of Infancy in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry: Romanticism, Subjectivity, Form (Routledge, 2016). 273 pp., 5 b&w illus. (Hdbk., $112.00; ISBN 9781138191853).

Diana Edelman
University of North Georgia, Gainesville

What do sleeping babies, dead babies, and lyric poetry have in common? D. B. Ruderman explains in The Idea of Infancy that contemplating sleeping and dead babies literally affects poetic form, which, in turn, creates new conceptions of identity on the part of the reader. Although childhood and the imagination have long been constitutive of Romanticism, Ruderman carves out a new understanding of infancy in the period by reading it through the lens of poststructuralist discourses and psychoanalytic theory.

Ruderman attempts to recover the “more disturbing and philosophically fraught notion of infanthood” that he pits against the “sentimental view of childhood,” which, he rightly argues, tends to be the dominant narrative in the history of Romantic criticism (2). This newer, darker view of infancy challenges linear narratives of development in which infancy is perceived as one stage in a progressive series. By contrast, he posits—through the work of Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, Wierda Rowland, Judith Plotz, and Jean-Francois Lyotard—that infancy is always already a part of subjective identity; we are always incomplete, so we must continually return to beginnings. This definition of infancy, central to the claims of the book, allows Ruderman to make his three-pronged argument for the value of this approach. The first two are that Romantic expressions of infancy affect poetic form and that these expressions anticipate many important concepts in psychoanalysis. As Ruderman puts it, “attention to infancy catalyzed a revolution in literary form and genre” and gives a “fuller and more complex picture of the prehistory of psychoanalysis” (4). This revolution in form not only reflects “our lived subjectivities” (3), but also creates additional changes in the subject’s relation to the world (or perception of that relation). The relationship between subject and form, then, leads to the book’s third and boldest claim: “this reciprocal relation not only anticipates modern and postmodern ways of being in the world, but it also bores into and suggests fresh ways of understanding our present aesthetic, critical, and psychosocial situations” (3). In other words, the infant’s resistance leads to changes in poetic form, which in turn lead to changes for how we, as subjects, engage with the world.

Ruderman’s first two claims are clearly supported in the chapters that follow, each of which follows a helpful pattern: an analysis of images of infancy in the primary texts (mediated by relevant philosophical concepts) followed by a discussion of how those ideas of infancy affect poetic form. The strengths of Ruderman’s analysis are its theoretical framework and its close readings, including detailed prosodic analysis and attention to a variety of literary materials. The first chapter reads Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode through Matthew Arnold’s and J. S. Mill’s responses to it, arguing that the poem’s lack of synthesis replicates, at the level of form, the truth about the incompleteness of the self and is akin to Lyotard’s anamnesis and Freud’s interminability (56). Chapter two turns to the figure of the breastfeeding infant in S. T. Coleridge and Erasmus Darwin, drawing on the clash between the former’s theory of the symbol and the latter’s organicism. For Darwin, neurological processes account for the ability of the subject to engage in aesthetic reverie whereas Coleridge’s reverie is more psychological and based on loss and dissociation. Ruderman links Darwin’s aesthetics to Freudian instinct, displacement, and association. Coleridge’s reverie is linked to the processes of introjection and projection. Sara Coleridge, Samuel Taylor’s daughter, is the subject of the third chapter wherein Ruderman explains that Sara Coleridge’s treatment of the infant body enables her to deal with the “problem of merged and merging identities” (24). Asceticism, he argues, was the only way that Coleridge could reconcile the conflict between one’s animal nature and one’s reason, a drama that Sara Coleridge experienced due to postpartum depression (or puerperal disease/nervousness as it was then called) and her opium addiction. Her poetry documents her recovery as she develops a “workable ethics” (109) that allows her to engage with a world in a body from which she feels estranged. Turning in chapter four to P. B. Shelley’s experience with animal magnetism and his extensive use of musical metaphors/tropes (particularly his revision of Coleridge’s lyre), Ruderman argues that a common thread in Shelley is “a sense of interconnectedness that Shelley suggests happens even at the molecular level” (25); this interdependence prefigures Freud’s transference. In the next chapter, Tennyson’s experience with a stillborn child and his anxiety over the reception of his poems become the basis for a claim that Tennyson’s work exhibits, particularly through revisions to the ballad form, a “stillborn poetics,” which Ruderman defines as that which allows Tennyson to maintain separate identities as father and a poet. Tennyson’s “stillborn poetics” is read as an early version of the “compulsion to repeat” (213) and “contemporary theories of trauma and loss” (26).

At the end of each chapter, Ruderman again alludes to the “new cognitive, affective, and ethical paths to follow” (73) implied by the third claim of the introduction. The final chapter provides something of a window into what these paths might look like in the work of Augusta Webster. Webster’s dramatic monologues demonstrate that the “idea of infancy” continues late into the century and, not coincidentally, at the very moment when Freud’s work begins. More importantly, Webster’s work offers a “viable poetics of working through” (237); she advocates patience in an effort to avoid becoming enmeshed with one’s children. This ethics is prefigured in the chapter on Sara Coleridge who finds that writing and engaging with her children are ways to remain in the world, to exercise forbearance, despite the desire for a solipsistic retreat. These approaches seem to be two sides of the same coin: in Coleridge, the mother engages with her children in order to maintain herself as separate, and in Webster, the mother avoids overengagement in order to preserve the child’s identity.

It is interesting to note that the two chapters that bring us the most significant information about the book’s third claim—that ideas of infancy lead to “new cognitive, affective, and ethical paths to follow” (73)—are by female writers who actually experienced childbirth. This leads me to the one glaring omission of the book: feminist psychoanalysis. The Idea of Infancy could be strengthened by a discussion of feminist criticism, particularly Kristeva and other French feminists who theorize a relationship between gender and language, gender and form. It seems highly problematic that a work about infancy focuses primarily on male authors. This is not to say that male poets cannot write about infancy, particularly since the author is not talking about actual infants, a fact he clearly states in the introduction, but it does seem curious not to at least address the ways in which gender contributes to the poets’ conception of infancy. While it’s not possible to discuss all of the implications of any given argument, a reader of a work like this will expect at least an explanation of why more female authors are not included and why feminist psychoanalysis is not employed more than it is.

The book is, as it claims, a fresh perspective on infancy in the period and helps readers ponder the ways in which we conceive of our own identities and the very concept of linear development. The connection between author-form-reader is the most tantalizing as Ruderman theorizes that an author’s emotions/intellect/psychology/experience are grafted onto poetic form, which in turn affects the reader. This connection, alluded to throughout the work, offers a glimpse of the very real power of art.