Psychology and mental disorder in Wordsworth’s poetry

By Jonathan Kerr
In 1800, William Wordsworth offers a bold and, at the time, deeply controversial claim about poetry. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (a collection he co-authored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Wordsworth argues that all poets should dispense with the ornate conventions of eighteenth-century verse and focus upon what he calls the language and incidents of “humble, rustic life”: here, Wordsworth argues, “the essential passions of the heart” are in their purest form. While Lyrical Ballads does make good on Wordsworth’s promise to deliver his readers to the remote quarters of rustic England – this rather unconventional book is peopled with farmers, shepherds, seafarers, huntsmen, and wild, elfish children – not all of Wordsworth’s cast of characters meet the criterion of what he (and we) might deem “common life.” Perusing the collection’s table of contents will illustrate just how much Wordsworth was also interested in abnormal lives and lifestyles: The Mad Mother and The Idiot Boy are just two of the most obvious examples of Wordsworth’s penchant for the uncommon, for lives lived on the other side of “ordinary.”

Wordsworth was certainly not alone in his attraction to the subject of mental and behavioural abnormality. During the 1790s (the decade in which Lyrical Ballads was first published), verse narratives of the mad, melancholic, and wild were all the rage in England’s newspapers. Readers craving “extraordinary incident” (Wordsworth’s expression) relished sensational tales about people made mad by incredible circumstances, while the more refined were invited to weep over the young and broken-hearted whose love brought them to the brink. Meanwhile, writers often ascribed to “lunatics” and “idiots” (both medical terms at the time) a unique form of wisdom or grace: there was holiness in the fool, just as there was often a kind of truth available in the obscure language and behaviour of “melancholics” and “maniacs.” The mad were often depicted in literature as solitary beings, traversing high cliffs or living in the wilderness, reflecting popular beliefs about their God-like or “natural” state of existence.

In many ways, Wordsworth’s poetry is part and parcel with this cultural moment: Lyrical Ballads is peopled with the mad, hysterical, and wild, figures which both fascinated and repulsed the popular imagination at this time. But Wordsworth’s poetry also dispenses with many of the common clichés about mental disorder, in its association with lost love, the supernatural, and other sensational affairs. Some of Wordsworth’s distracted figures, like the elderly father in Old Man Travelling, and the mothers in The Mad Mother and The Thorn, carry a trauma brought about by familial loss or separation. Other poems, like The Old Cumberland Beggar and Resolution and Independence, tell stories about the relationship between mental health and labour. The Ruined Cottage, The Female Vagrant and Anecdote for Fathers further reflect Wordsworth’s ideas about the social dimensions of mental health by confronting the relationship between poverty and mind disorders.

There are political arguments informing Wordsworth’s character studies: as a young man Wordsworth sympathized with The French Revolution and its democratic vindication of common, labouring people. But Wordsworth can also be seen as an important ancestor of the twentieth-century psychiatrists who speculated about the darker recesses of the human psyche. Like many of Sigmund Freud’s case studies, the people Wordsworth confronts in his poetry bear trauma that appears to be born of some poignant experience with loss – whether of a child (The Thorn), a brother (The Brothers), or something far more simple and apparently unsentimental, like a farmer’s sheep-flock (The Last of the Flock) or an elderly man’s ability to continue working (Simon Lee). The poem rarely resolves the source of each figure’s inner turmoil. However, Wordsworth nevertheless suggests that poetry can be an important first step towards better understanding and engaging with those around us. Wordsworth believed that his poetry could raise certain kinds of awareness: both self-awareness, and awareness of the complexities of psychic experience in general, an experience that is often non-rational and deeply obscure. Through poetry we may not be able to solve the mind’s darkest secrets, but it might help us to see human thought and behaviour differently, and finally, to engage with the “mad” in more constructive ways. Many of Wordsworth’s time thought that the mentally ill differed not merely in degree but in kind. By contrast, Wordsworth’s poetry stresses the humanness of mental illness and suggests new ways of thinking about the complexities of our minds, considerations which in turn make for more productive and humane forms of interaction with those facing mental and behavioural abnormalities.

Jonathan Kerr is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. His research is on Romanticism and various forms of human “difference” – cognitive, cultural, and anthropologic. He can be reached at j.kerr@mail.utoronto.ca.