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

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. x+246. $39.95.

Richard Matlak's dense but rewarding The Poetry of Relationship offers anintensely focused psychobiographical account of the interrelations between William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge during the final years of the eighteenth century, the years when William Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated together on the production of the Lyrical Ballads. As Matlak acknowledges at the opening of his introduction, this is fairly familiar critical terrain. A number of studies of the poetic interaction between Wordsworth and Coleridge appeared during the 1980s, and biographers have always been and continue to be interested in exploring the complex personal interaction between the formidable brother-sister pair and their intimate friend. Matlak's claim to add something new to the discussion rests in part on the special role he sees Dorothy playing in her brother's poetic development and his attention to what he calls the "forensic nature of the poetic exchange" between Wordsworth and Coleridge, its argumentative character. There is more to it than that, though. As the book's argument builds--though sometimes a bit too slowly, especially in the first chapter--readers are offered new insights into familiar texts, the poetic interchange between The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere and The Ruined Cottage, the influence of Erasmus Darwin's writing on some of the lyrical ballads, the rhetorical structure of "Tintern Abbey," the "Lucy poems," some of early drafts of the 1799 version of The Prelude, and Michael. It is in the critical insights that accumulate toward the end of the book that its greatest value (for this reviewer, anyway) lies, and the renewed sense of poignancy the reader experiences at the end when it is brought experientially home once again how brief that moment of collaboration between the Wordsworths and Coleridge actually was before the cracks in the intimacy that made it possible began to show themselves.

Since psychobiographical approaches to literary texts have fallen out of fashion over the past quarter of a century or so, except among biographers themselves (some of whom have a vested interest in the methodology), it is one of the virtues of this book to remind us both of the strengths and the limitations of this approach. It can, when handled with tact and subtlety as Matlak often does, uncover the personal, lived, and passional energies that inform certain literary works--for example, the profound ambivalence of the "Lucy poems" toward the object of their mourning. On the other hand, it can become narrowly reductive, employing literary texts as evidence for biographical speculation. Matlak's approach sometimes risks the latter pitfall, especially in its earlier stages. There are times when one is tempted to regard this book more as an experiment in biography, or an experimental biography, than a work of literary criticism. But then the focus returns to the texts (although only occasionally to their more formal properties), often with surprisingly interesting results. Summarizing the shifts in the flow of this book would be impossible, but it is hard to imagine, given the task Matlak has set for himself, how he could have accomplished it any other way. The book tends to have a life of its own that is driven by its author's desire to reconstruct imaginatively the inner as well as the outer circumstances of Wordsworth's and, to a lesser extent, Coleridge's early literary production.

The book's initial argument, simply stated, is that the traumas of the Wordsworths' early histories--the premature death of Ann Wordsworth, their father's ensuing dissolution of the household which resulted in the ten year separation between William and Dorothy, William's intense, patricidal anger at his father's actions, followed by the latter's sudden death and William's feelings of responsibility for "all the sorrow which it brought," including Dorothy's own intense suffering--all these traumas served to produce a highly ambivalent relationship between brother and sister, one that is expressed in a variety of ways in Wordsworth's behavior and in his poetry. Both constitute a kind of "working through" of his responses to familial as well as historical circumstances, not least the great Oedipal drama enacted throughout the French Revolution. (It may be that if we needed an explanatory framework for some of the family's traumas that we might want to turn to John Bowlby's "attachment theory," which stresses the formative importance of early separation and loss, to supplement more conventional psychoanalytic accounts.) Wordsworth's early career was dominated by the need to find a home for his sister to make up for the one she had been deprived of partly on account of his actions, either real or imaginary. This unspoken obligation to Dorothy is what stood in the way of William's marriage to Annette Vallon, despite the birth of their child. Wordsworth left France not for the reasons he gave, Matlak argues, but because of the obligations he felt he had incurred to his sister. But the fulfillment of those obligations--living with Dorothy as she so fervently desired and as part of him wished as well--involved him in a set of compromises, erotic and otherwise, that gave to their relationship a special tension that finds its expression in the early poetry. All this is before the appearance of Coleridge on the scene, which opened a new chapter in the lives of all three.

The Poetry of Relationship is divided into three main parts, following roughly the chronology of the Wordsworths' lives from 1787 to 1800. Part One, "Family Biography and The Borderers" initiates the story by tracing the evolution of Dorothy Wordsworth's influence on her brother's life and writing from The Vale of Esthwaite through The Borderers, "a failed play of successful repression of incestuous desires and romantic jealousy." Part Two, "`this dialogue of one'" (a phrase from Donne's "The Exstasie") focuses on the "creative antagonism Wordsworth enjoyed with Coleridge" (his new rival for his sister's affections) during the initial stage of their relationship, reading The Ruined Cottage and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in opposition to one another and then moving into an engagement with the "lyrical ballads" themselves as outgrowths of the philosophical and erotic tensions that had evolved in the triangular relationship between Wordsworth, his sister, and their friend. Part Three, "A Winter's Tale," focuses first on the poetry that emerged out of the winter William and Dorothy spent separated from Coleridge in isolation together at Goslar, the "Lucy poems" and Part One of the Two-Part Prelude, and concludes with an account of their return "home" and the failure of Coleridge to reintegrate himself into their world. Finally, a Coda, "Second Selves," looks briefly at Michael as representing, in the gap of understanding that separates the shepherd and his wife over the departure of their son, "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, nor, perhaps, even to sympathize with the values one cherishes." As this summary suggests, the trajectory of the book's narrative is not a particularly optimistic one. Creative, artistic resolutions to childhood traumas and accidents of temperament were merely provisional. Wordsworth may have been luckier than most in being able to snatch occasional, hard-earned poetic victories out of the jaws of defeat (he was certainly luckier--or more resolute--than Coleridge), but it came at a cost, a cost of which this book seems to be acutely aware.

Much of the interest generated in reading this book comes from its reader's engagement with the interpretive method its author has chosen, the psychobiographical, and that method is perhaps most convincingly employed in the book's discussion of the "Lucy poems." How to account for the strange reticence these poems display has always been a critical problem. They seem to withhold as much as they reveal, to communicate while insisting on the impossibility of communication each at the same time. (Much of Wordsworth's most memorable poetry does this, of course, but the "Lucy poems" in their simplicity and brevity are an extreme case of the "inherent dilemma" D. W. Winnicott detects "in the artist of all kinds ... the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.") By Part Three of his study Matlak has amassed enough evidence to present the poems in an exceptionally rich and subtle biographical and psychological context. Starting from Coleridge's remarks in a letter to Thomas Poole about the lover's death in "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" ("whether it had any reality, I cannot say.--Most probably, in some gloomier moment [Wordsworth] had fancied the moment in which his Sister might die"), Matlak goes on to unpack the emotional ambivalances embedded in the tone of this speculation, linking them with Coleridge's sonnet "Composed on a Journey Homeward" and "the daring risk in its manner of stating what is being hoped for and feared" at the same time (his infant son's death). This sets the stage for a detailed reading of both "Strange Fits of Passion" and "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" in the context of the Goslar experience as a whole, including the separation from Coleridge, in which for William "the presence of his dear, dear friend is once again a part of the problem rather than the cure." Far from forcing "closure" on the poems, Matlak's readings open them up to a wider and subtler range of emotional responses, revealing a depth of ambivalance in them that previous readings have only hinted at.

After the "Lucy poems" Matlak turns his attention to the autobiographical drafts Wordsworth also composed at Goslar which later came to make up the First Part of the Two-Part Prelude of 1799 and then Book One of the expanded version of the poem provisionally completed in 1805. "At Goslar," he writes, "Wordsworth is developing the narrative of his early life to understand the origin of individual and group aggression against authority" (a return to themes explored in a dramatic form in The Borderers). And Matlak is absolutely right to stress the central role aggression plays in nearly all of these recollected episodes (or maybe it is something more like motility, a kind of life-force that looks like aggression, and becomes full-fledged aggression later on). In any case, the reader is prepared--has been prepared from the beginning of the book--for an extensive reading of that most Oedipally resonant of all of the "spots of time," the wait for the horses and its aftermath, guilt for the wished-for death of the father and the ensuing self-discipline made possible through memory. Matlak's brief reading of this episode is something of a disappointment in the context of his book's overall narrative. A more intense focus on the second of the "spots of time" could have given the book a chance to pull the many strands of its argument together--father/son conflict, the uncanny role of repressed wishes, memory, poetry, and so on. This is one of the few opportunities the book misses.

"I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by doing so I shall interest him." Wordsworth was talking about "style," more specifically, "poetic diction." Matlak's Poetry of Relationship is not a stylistic masterpiece. But it does keep its readers "in the company of flesh and blood," the flesh and blood of three remarkable individuals whose struggles to negotiate a common life together for a brief period produced some of the most remarkable writing of the later eighteenth century. Read patiently--brooded over--it yields some lasting insights into the relationship between art and life during this unique moment of literary history.

BROOKE HOPKINS is Professor of English at the University of Utah. Previous contributions to Studies in Romanticism include "Wordsworth's Voices: Ideology and Self-Critique in The Prelude" (Summer, 1994) and "Wordsworth, Winnicott, and the Claims of the `Real'" (Summer, 1998).
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Author:Hopkins, Brooke
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:1961
Previous Article:Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips ed. William Blake.
Next Article:Toby R. Benis. Romanticism on the Road: the Marginal Gains of Wordsworth's Homeless.


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