Richard E. Matlak, The Poetry of Relationship: The Wordsworths and Coleridge, 1797–1800

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Richard E. Matlak, The Poetry of Relationship: The Wordsworths and Coleridge, 1797–1800. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. x + 246pp. $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN 0-312-10166-X).

Reviewed by
Jill Heydt-Stevenson
University of Colorado at Boulder

In The Poetry of Relationship, Richard Matlak invites us to rethink the relationships between and among the Wordsworths—William and Dorothy—and Coleridge. This, of course, is familiar, though ever-fascinating ground to explore, and Matlak's discoveries, elicited through a psychobiographical approach that relies on Freud and what Matlak calls a "forensic" rhetoric, are often fresh and engaging. It would be impossible to recapitulate in this review the numerous absorbing interpretations he offers, based as they are on densely interwoven close analyses that should illuminate, for both scholar and student alike, many intertextual and interpersonal complexities that stimulated the creation of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's early poetry. In light of this, then, I will have to choose a very few of these arguments and abbreviate them considerably.

In Part One, Matlak mines Wordsworth's early poetry and letters to write a psychobiography which is oedipal in origin, one—as he says—that, though familiar, is both "tragic and unique." He thus analyzes the refraction of family history from Wordsworth's earliest works to The Borderers, with particular emphasis on his love for Dorothy and the psychological implications this introduced. He argues that Wordsworth harbored a vengeful wish for their father's death in retaliation for breaking up the family home after their mother's death and that this led to guilt arising from this wish which was, of course, fulfilled; thus, he is burdened both by his fantasies and by Dorothy's youthful anguish, the repercussion of their father's decisions and the consequence of his death. This leads Matlak to argue that Wordsworth felt compelled to compensate for Dorothy's sufferings, but also to feel burdened by that "debt" of compensation. Thus, "The Vale of Esthwaite" (1787–88), animated by his commiseration for Dorothy, records his lament for her especial sufferings and his "emotional and physical attraction" to her (15); "Sweet was the walk along the narrow lane" (1792) reveals his "disguised appeasement" to Dorothy for his relationship with Annette, whom Matlak sees as an erotic surrogate for Dorothy (18). Accordingly, he left Annette to avoid separation from his sister, and An Evening Walk, dedicated to Dorothy, writes the past they might have shared and affirms a poetic promise which they might realize through a "mutual vocation" (22–23). Though Matlak doesn't use this language, his conception resembles what René Girard called "triangulated desire" in which a relationship is activated by a "mediator";1 in this case that mediator linking Dorothy and Wordsworth is guilt.

Matlak finds a much more fraught connection between Dorothy and Wordsworth than has often been pictured: yes, this is a relationship remarkable for its profound love, but he does not picture it as the blissful union or blessed symbiosis that readers have often imagined. Instead, tension, intellectual/spiritual disagreement, inappropriate desires, and resentment fuel this bond. William's devotion and commitment to Dorothy, Matlak claims, awakened quasi-romantic feelings, and though Dorothy was William's immediate priority, she was also his immediate burden. Matlak envisions an encumbered Wordsworth: "With Calvert's legacy, Montagu's child, Pinney's house and Godwin's philosophy, Wordsworth left an active political life to live in relative isolation with Dorothy" (42). His profound depression of 1793–96 arises thus not from the inadequacies of Godwinism or moral actions or failure of the French Revolution, but from guilt: "Wordsworth's fulfilling his commitment to his sister thus appears to be the catalyst of his melancholia during the period from 1793 to the spring of 1796" (45).

Critics have read The Borderers as Wordsworth's successful attempt to purge depression, and the poetry of the "Great Decade" that follows seems to certify such a thesis. Matlak, however, is "uncertain of the happy endings of purgative readings" (52) and instead strives to "build" on Alan Liu's New Historical reading, arguing that a "clearer understanding of Wordsworth's biographical and psychological dilemmas provide[s] a more satisfactory explanation for the play's strange turns and improbabilities than do Liu's broader historical determinants" (53). Thus, The Borderers, begun in 1796–97, plunders early family experience to satisfy the psychological function of Wordsworth's art. Matlak identifies how many biographical details of the Wordsworth family are associated with Herbert's life and death, and asserts that the play is an attempt to deal with the Wordsworth "family psychodrama" (54): in particular Herbert's death from exposure recalls John Wordsworth's death after a night's exposure to a winter storm; Mortimer's guilt for Herbert's death hints of Wordsworth's guilt for his father's death, and the motivation for the father's return is to prevent brother-sister incest (61). And in another instance of triangulation of desire, Wordsworth's passing jealousy over Dorothy's new-found infatuation with Coleridge leads to a connection between Clifford and Coleridge. Matlak argues that the "soft floating witchery of sound" of "The Eolian Harp" most likely "inspired the creation of the voluptuary, Lord Clifford" (123). Thus Clifford "may have been Coleridge's shadow, for Rivers's sexual temptation of Mortimer seems to have been written after June 1797, the month of Coleridge's first visit to the Wordsworths and [of] Dorothy's letter" describing Coleridge (65). Finally, Matlak finds that Freud's Totem and Taboo helps illuminate the play insofar as it seems to replicate Freud's psycho-mythic history of the "unholy alliance of brothers in collusion against their father for his hegemony over the women of the primitive tribe," a phenomenon that leads brothers of the tribe to "refuse to install another as a father figure and refuse to take the father's women" (67). He concedes that The Borderers addresses the poet's "purgation of incestuous desire" and especially signals "Wordsworth's readiness for the influence of Coleridge" (71).

In Part Two, Matlak presents the "Annus Mirabilis" (July 1797 – July 1798) as a year of competition, mirroring, and differentiation, as a veritable campaign for poetic individuality. After feeling so distraught over "his ego's distress in the revolutionary world" which he allegorized in The Borderers, Wordsworth now finds "vocational direction and confidence in a dialogic and competitive interplay with Coleridge as rival poet and lover" (139). He sees Wordsworth contending with Coleridge for influence over his sister and leverage over his own life's story. Coleridge's instinctual proclivity for brilliant imitation and psychological mirroring threatened Wordsworth, who, Matlak argues, had "to battle for his creative life against the remarkable gifts of originality and imitative prowess Coleridge possessed" (82).

Matlak's interpretation of The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere relies on the context of "Coleridge's continuing desire for rebirth in the face of his life's already wearisome pattern of crises and recoveries" (83). Such an interpretation devolves on another "triangulation of desire": In the Higginbottom sonnets, Coleridge parodies Poems (1797), published by Cottle, and written by Coleridge, Lloyd, Southey and Lamb, and in those sonnets thus betrays his friends, presumably for Wordsworth and all he represents. Thus the Mariner's portrayal of the Albatross represents the weaknesses Coleridge found reflected in himself as man and poet (83). Matlak argues that Coleridge's perfidy signifies his confusion about the nature of the identity of the poet: Coleridge, like the Mariner, hurts what is innocent and beloved mainly because the Albatross, like his friends, are too kind. Thus, in this blueprint, "trusting, dependent" friends harbor personal qualities Coleridge found incompatible with the "personal strengths required of a strong poet," presumably one like Wordsworth (86).

In turn, Wordsworth's Ruined Cottage becomes a reply and corrective to Ancyent Marinere. Matlak observes the similarities between the two poems, namely that "the motive for narration in both poems seems, at first, to be pedagogical therapy" (88). Both of their tales seek to memorialize, unburden the soul, deny a horrible reality, give the deceased new life, and assuage guilt. However, "the tandem arguments of Wordsworth and Coleridge on the relationship of projection to guilt thus reach a bipolarity by March 1798: on the one hand, there is the Pedlar's claims that the wisely meditative mind can, at times, preclude self-projection and, on the other, there is the psycho-narrative of Coleridge's Mariner to illustrate the culturally determined, hardly perceptible, shaping force of projection" (98).

Matlak does, of course, locate influences on the poems from outside the immediate circle surrounding Wordsworth. Matlak contends that Erasmus Darwin's "romantic biology"—Zoonomia: or the Laws of Organic Life—is the catalyst for Wordsworth's new poetry of nature, and in particular that Darwin's discussion of animation and of the body image of inner and outer sensation influenced Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" (116). This profound impact of Zoonomia influences the corporal texture of Wordsworth's images; it served as "an empirical foundation for natural morality and an essentially new vision for poetry" (118).

"Tintern Abbey," he argues, should be read as "an evolving speech act that seeks to achieve a recollective synthesis of persuasive force" (120). He thus argues against Marjorie Levinson in asserting that the poem presents a tonal unease that arises not from Wordsworth's "problems with history per se, but history as experienced, which is biography" (123). Thus the five long winters are not just the famous five but the last 20, for virtually every excruciating event in Wordsworth's life occurred during the winter (123). As he speaks to his overt auditor—Dorothy—sensitive to the reverberation of family anguish, and to his implied auditor—Coleridge—he is aware that both are skeptical and both represent the skepticism of the wider audience.

Matlak focuses on this skepticism; he finds competition and differences of opinion not only between Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also between William and Dorothy, in particular in regard to divergent ontological convictions. Her natural descriptions, he claims, present a very different view of the universe; William may be asserting transcendental leanings, but Dorothy does not accept these metaphysical assertions (102), though he wants her to believe as he did and feels cut off from her on the subject. In Matlak's lengthy, complicated reading of "Tintern Abbey," he argues that the poem challenges Dorothy's indifference to natural supernaturalism and her concern for more practical things.

In turn, Coleridge becomes implicated intertextually because Wordsworth employs in "Tintern Abbey" the formal construction of classical oration Coleridge utilized in "Eolian Harp." That work also functions as the springboard for poetic argument, since it signified for Wordsworth a disquisition of opinions Wordsworth did not agree with as "it plays the easier tune in rejecting a troubled past as a period to be repented, rather than accepting it as the formative period of the present; [and] rejects personal religious vision as a prideful, negative way of indolence, mental vagrancy, and misplaced libido. . . ." (123–24). Apparently these three individuals were in conflict when they were too close—either through isolation, imitation or symbiosis—but also apprehensive when they were in disagreement. The question Matlak ends with in Part Two is whether or not Wordsworth achieves a "dialogue of one": can he "clarify his opposing beliefs and win back his sister's love"? (136). Matlak concludes that the poem left Wordsworth "pleased" (136), but as readers it is "difficult to say . . . whether Wordsworth's argument finally achieved the single-mindedness of Donne's 'dialogue of one' that derives from the perfect fusion of souls, or whether it remained, as it began, a 'dialogue of one' point of view" (137).

In Part Three, Matlak explores the experiences the Wordsworths and Coleridge had in Germany. While Coleridge has a whirling social life, devotes himself to his intellectual mission, develops a sense of economic responsibility and moral purpose and comes to feel adequate on his own (150–51), Wordsworth remains sequestered in Goslar with Dorothy, virtually quarantined; their foreign residence, separation from Coleridge, and peculiar social seclusion propels the poet to revisit incestuous desire—and to write an abundance of elegiac verse. Matlak asks, what feelings and emotions were likely to work their way into his poetry, especially into love poetry about the death of a beloved under these circumstances? He takes as the cue in his investigation of the Lucy poems Coleridge's statement in a letter that "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" arises from "some gloomier moment [when] he had fancied the moment in which his Sister must die" (141). In fact, Matlak suggests that his entire discussion is a "massive explanatory footnote to Coleridge's comment": "Why would Wordsworth fancy his sister's death?" (143). Thus "Strange Fits of Passion" is a poem in which Lucy must die because Wordsworth must ward off incestuous desires for Dorothy, an argument made by Bateson which Matlak freshens by arguing for Wordsworth's deep "ambivalence towards Dorothy for her serious inconvenience" (159). Matlak's interpretation thus contrasts to Richard Holmes's statements that Coleridge criticizes Wordsworth for bringing Dorothy because he was jealous of Wordsworth's "singleness of mind in pursuing his own poetic path, and sharing it so intimately with Dorothy" (Holmes, 217), the "Muse" with whom he wanted to be "completely alone" (Holmes, 209).2 Matlak envisions Wordsworth rather more desperate, trapped by both his love and hostility, imagining Dorothy's death: "the emotional outcome of the cycle of the Lucy poems . . . was to alter the poet's love for his sister and to solve once and for all its dangers and vicissitudes" (159). Matlak's position is complemented by Kenneth Johnston's new biography, The Hidden Wordsworth, which contends that "to reduce the meaning of these magical poems to a conscious or unconscious repressing of sexual feelings is an expense of theory in a work of shame. Yet equally wrongheaded is the determination to deny the power of such feelings in their creation" (646).3

In the concluding "Coda–Second Selves," Matlak offers a feminist interpretation of Michael, arguing that Isabel's experience of cottage life as entrapment urges her to encourage Luke's "escape"; but in doing so, her longings (which Luke has assimilated) conflict with Michael's more traditional values, without either of them realizing the discrepancy of opinion "secretly coexisting in the Shepherd's cottage" (204–06). Thus, the domestic drama of Michael "represents Wordsworth's final recognition that even the nearest to one and most dear cannot be expected to share, to understand, to feel a responsibility for the values that one cherishes" (8). Wordsworth transfers the hopes he had placed in his sister in "Tintern Abbey" to the Poets who will become his "second selves."

Clearly, this psychobiography is not engaged with history or politics per se, but rather with, as he defines biography, experienced history. So for those more concerned with historical/political perspective, his approach will be less satisfactory. Those who are interested in the psychoanalytic pressures that impel poetic production will find this an absorbing series of interpretations, though they may be irritated by the lack of many specific or varied psychoanalytic sources or—in contrast—by the tendency to quote Freud when the psychoanalytic reference seems self-evident (as when he cites Freud to define sleep as "a withdrawal of concern from the external world" [160] or when the term seems like common knowledge, as when he defines overdetermination). Finally, for some, his reliance on Freud and the omission of Freud's more recent interpreters might seem to narrow his perspective.

We do find here, though, a thoughtful study, one that has carefully reviewed a long critical tradition and that clearly reveals many years of contemplative analysis. Readers, too, will perhaps find that Matlak's emphasis on Wordsworth's guilt offers a counter-idea to the image of the confident poet who lived in a kind of domestic bliss, first with Dorothy and then with Dorothy and Mary. Finally, it would be of interest to know how Matlak would interpret the poems written after 1820 from the point of view of Wordsworth's guilt, especially given Dorothy's agony in those later years.

1. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Translated by Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 1–52.
2. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (New York: Penguin, 1990).
3. Kenneth R. Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998).

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: