The healing power of images in Wordsworth

by Rodger Kamenetz

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, William Wordsworth, who was keenly interested in psychology, began looking into the power of images to heal psychological damage. His quest was quite personal, in fact it was a matter of life and death to him. Like many young English people in his generation he was suffering from profound despair in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He had lost his idealism and hope, and much more; his lover and their daughter. He’d been forced to return to leave them behind and return to an England that was quite depressing, for it was having a conservative reaction to the events that had inspired so many young people.

He was in despair but he found a great source of healing in natural images.  A great poet, he was also highly attuned to the beauty of natural settings: mountains, woods, lakes, in his rural Cumberland had stirred him from his childhood on.  In learning to write a whole new kind of poetry – that stood in stark contrast to the more rationalistic conservative verse he was raised on, he began writing experimentally with close companions, his sister Dorothy and the poet Coleridge. In these poems he discovered a special value in certain images. These were memories that stayed with him, and that he “recollected in tranquility”. Often the recollection took place in a crowded city, far from the natural setting of his native lake district. By contemplating these “restorative images” – as he called them, he found he could heal the “impaired imagination.”

Wordsworth was primarily interested in images that came to him from remembering certain dramatic scenes. The actual events that he recalled were not necessarily full of positive feeling. In many cases in fact they were strange, foreboding, disturbing. Yet oddly by contemplating these difficult memories later, he found great healing. He called these special moments “spots of time” and in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude gave several examples of these events that had for him a healing property. Wordsworth’s emphasis on “restorative images” offers a second testimony to the healing power of images I find in dreams. Dreams also offer “spots of time”, poetic moments I call “events”. By contemplating the “events” in dreams, we can also heal the “impaired imagination”.

Not everyone is a gifted poet, but everyone can dream.  We are all capable of making images; we all have imaginative capacity. One way we know this is through the imaginative experiences we’ve had in our dreams.  Dreams can be vastly entertaining, hilarious or amusing, and sometimes a powerful dream breaks through that just overwhelms us with feeling.  Dreams have been described by Robert Duncan in The H.D. Book as a form of “involuntary poetry”, and in fact the passive way we often experience our dreams- as if they are happening to us, makes us miss that in a sense we are also co-creating them. The imaginative process in us that produces poetry and dreams seems to be similar, and that is why there’s a rich history of poetry that contemplates the dream from the earliest poem in the English language, Caedmon’s Hymn.

At the end of his career, William Shakespeare, contemplating his powers as a dramatic poet and in some ways saying farewell to them, created a character who stood in for himself, the magician Prospero. Isolated on his island, controlling events with the help of the magical fairy Ariel – he reflects on his own nature – and ours, declaring  “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. It seems Shakespeare wants to tell us something about the soul. Our inner core – the stuff or stuffing we are made of – is actually all dream.

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The History of Last Night’s Dream. This post is an excerpt from a longer piece, Dreams and the Poetic Imagination , Kamenetz