Wordsworth’s Unremembered Pleasure: A Review

Wordsworth’s Unremembered Pleasure by Alexander Freer. Oxford University Press, 2020. Hardback. 272pp. £61.

Critics of Wordsworth’s poetic philosophy have often indicted his work as promoting an undue, sentimental answer to the problem of evil, citing as evidence lines such as that from his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”: “To me alone there came a thought of grief:/A timely utterance gave that thought relief,/And I again am strong.” But despite a persistent belief throughout Wordsworth’s corpus that can rightly be considered an optimism for finding Hope in life, there is a pointed melancholy which undergirds his poetry. After all, Wordsworth lost both of his parents at an early age, suffered depression and even suicidal ideation, and later lost his brother in a tragic boating accident; if Wordsworth is unduly optimistic, it is not for any lack of personal suffering. In one of his earliest major compositions, written at the age of eighteen, “An Evening Walk,” one can see Wordsworth seeking solace by recounting the “history of a poet’s ev’ning” walk through the landscape. The pleasure which the walk and its attendant ruminations produce do not erase his grief:

Stay! Pensive, sadly-pleasing visions, stay!   
Ah no! as fades the vale, they fade away.   
Yet still the tender, vacant gloom remains,   
Still the cold cheek in its shuddering tear retains” (11)

The cheek remains tear-stained, and the visions he had produced to comfort himself are only sadly-pleasing, and even these he could not sustain a grasp on. As he turns to walk home, he reflects that “Hope, first pouring from her blessed horn” will only “throw the while/On darling spots remote her tempting smile” (11). Hope is neither rejected nor regained–she becomes, like the “song of the mountain streams unheard by day,” a part of the atmosphere of Nature. If the poem finds solace, it is not in a naïve assertion of the pleasure of complete consolation by reflection on natural beauty, but rather a “sadly-pleasing” acknowledgement that even unremembered hope can retexture grief sufficiently to make it bearable.

The reading I have suggested for this early Wordsworth composition is, I think, the essence of the view which Alexander Freer wishes to assert in his recent work Wordsworth’s Unremembered Pleasure (Oxford University Press, 2020). It is a view of a philosophical core that unites Wordsworth’s corpus: that unremembered pleasure is a cognitive resource for situating the self in a world that is good enough, rather than a world in which the self seeks full satisfaction. Essential to Freer’s reading of Wordsworth is his confrontation with an assumed, whether explicitly or implicitly, connection between Wordsworth’s consideration of childhood, nostalgia, trauma, and pleasure, and those concepts as they emerge in Freud. Freer holds that “Wordsworth’s sustained interest in unfelt and unrecorded forms of pleasure, and the mediation of Wordsworth through Freud, which has made psychoanalysis appear romantic in certain respects and romanticism psychoanalytic” (3).

However, this intermingling has concealed ways in which Wordsworth and Freud importantly differ. What Wordsworth does, according to Freer, is to actually offer an alternative model of the place of the self in reference to one’s experience, not a self attempting to exert control over internal drives, fears, desires, and the environment, but rather to see a more exploratory model of the self that can be surprised by joy in the midst of suffering: “To see intellectual life as unanticipated event or episode is to undermine any sense that it is a kind of self-directed project” (11). One might say that Freer actually finds in Wordsworth what Keats rejected Wordsworth for not possessing: negative capability. Wordsworth’s own assertion of the poet as a “man speaking to men” may be seen, in Freer’s hands, as being overread, and the Lyrical “I” often spoken of not as a domineering controlling voice but rather an adventuring “I” willing to be subordinated by things outside of conscious control, such as unremembered pleasure: “It is to acknowledge thought’s debt to the places and moments which occasion, but do not determine, our discoveries” (11).

Unremembered pleasure is the core concept in this matrix, and is dangerously close to a Freudianism which demands extraction, and fittingly Freer enacts this surgical removal in the first chapter. Analyzing poems such as “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey,” as well as prose, Freer argues that Wordsworth’s approach to unremembered pleasure “reveals the limits of romantic claims to self-possession or self-creation” (46), distinguishing him from Locke as part of the process of disentangling him from Freud. Because Wordsworth’s method requires attention to the liminal moment where memory fades and there instead emerges an unremembered yet detected place in the psyche where experience has left an impression that can be felt but not explicitly recalled, it naturally evokes in the post-Freudian reader the “psychoanalytic vocabulary of repression and projection” (49). But these exclude “Wordsworth’s interest in unremembered positive effects.”. This psychoanalytic reading of Wordsworth’s portrayal of existence as “a kind of unexpected gift” (55) may make Wordsworth seem intolerably naïve, as it seems like a kind of self-delusion to regard deeply painful experiences as gifts.

But as demonstrated in my discussion of “An Evening Walk” above, Wordsworth does not elide the painful memories – tears really are on the cheeks. Yet Wordsworth’s category of unremembered pleasure means that such a gift of experiences which hold content memory cannot purely retain, permits notions of hidden pleasure in the matrix of sensations both sweet and sorrowful. Unremembered pleasure becomes crucial in reconstituting our experience as an unexpected gift, a process rendered impossible or at least deeply frustrated by Freudian categories which would regard this process as a kind of repression.

The second chapter, “The Infancy of Affection,” calls into question Wordsworth’s reflections on childhood as uncritical nostalgia. Freer demonstrates, in fact, that Wordsworth is acutely aware that the adult cannot perfectly recapture, even in memory, infant experiences: “Infant joy, by its sheer energy, erases itself, as when a statue or inscription is, by the repeated touch of those who pass it, worn away to shining blankness” (72). As such, Freer reads Wordsworth as saying that, because “infant joy is both unrememberable and unforgettable,” it is not the task of the poet to choose between “infant sensation or adult wisdom” but to find a “productive ambivalence between the two states” (76). Where Freud would regard “the formative power of infant experience” as “set against the repression of early pain,” in Wordsworth the pain is remembered already, but poetic reflection offers the “prospect that a self may be fashioned and built up at least in part by pleasure, rather than through the instantiating cut of trauma” (86).

In other words, where the psychoanalyst assumes repressed pain must be reconstructed to deal with psychoses, Wordsworth assumes we already know we are in pain–we need to be reminded that the infant’s joy in pleasure is a capacity we can revivify through reflection upon unremembered but still felt experiences. This process does not create absolute bliss, but refashions Nature as akin to a parent: imperfect yet still capable of teaching. As a mother seeks to satisfy the infant’s needs, Nature cares sufficiently for the one willing to encounter her as a gifter of unremembered pleasures, so that one can “imagine, and ultimately occupy, a good-enough world” (91). Unlike Freud, infancy is not merely a resource of forgotten or repressed grief from which new pathologies spring in adult life. Instead, infancy is the archetypal time of unremembered gifts of forgotten joys and sorrows, which intermingle to create a felt sense of the past in which one can find pleasure despite rational knowledge that that time was not purely blissful, Knowing this becomes a cognitive resource for find solace in adult life’s remembered joys and sorrows.

Chapter 3 (in my view the capstone achievement of the book) takes the argument from Wordsworth’s alternative psychology of unremembered pleasure, to Freud’s repressed pain, and finally to a debate concerning literary criticism and theory, centered around Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and the question of meter in poetry. Freer defends the claim Wordsworth makes for the poet’s role in producing pleasure, asserting that “some may find Wordsworth’s stress on pleasure embarrassing, since it subordinates the functions we might want to find and analyze in serious art:£representation, cognition, performance, irony, critique: choose as you prefer” (113). Rather than answering the robust challenges to poetry levied by, say, Plato, Enlightenment thinkers, or certain quarters of Christianity, Wordsworth’s stress on pleasure seems to give up too much territory to poetry’s detractors. Though not cited by Freer here, the chapter reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s comments in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” In a rare moment of playful personality on the part of Freer in the book, he notes that if we follow Wordsworth here, we must “tangle with that seemingly perverse insistence that pleasure is somehow more knowledgeable than knowledge itself….You won’t be surprised if I invite you to tangle” (117).

What cognitive value might pleasure have for making assessments about the world? Rather than an effort of self-deception regarding pain,Wordsworth makes the case that the pleasurable effects of setting pain to poetry allows one to reach a more profound contemplation of that pain: “poetry’s pleasure makes its [life’s] most difficult descriptions and passions legible” (126). Perhaps Wordsworth is less Freudian than Rogerian in Freer’s account: for him, poetry “is a way of listening to actually existing language with an ear open for its potential rearrangement; a way of looking which glimpses in painful scenes an under-sense of joy” (143).

Chapter 4 extends this discussion into the question of elegy in Wordsworth, especially as regards the loss of his brother JohnThe notion of joy found in bereavement is made possible not by a Freudian fantasy of denying a loved one’s death by giving them metrical immortality, but instead in a commemoration which asserts the impossibility of poetry to fulfill bereavement. This admission actually enlivens the lost and imperfectly remembered individual: “Psychoanalysis is inclined to present past experience as something to be shaken off, or at least endured. By tracing the possibilities of asynchronous intimacy, Wordsworth suggests that the shared pleasures, as well as the wounds of bereavement, persist beyond memory” (172).

The final chapter, “Happiness in Time,” concerns Wordsworth’s reflections on the problem that intentional reflection upon whether one is happy in a specific moment almost always precludes the capacity to sustain an affirmation. This consideration inevitably involves comparison between current and earlier states–particularly youth and old age. Here Wordsworth’s reflections on the fact that we often regard the past as a happier time should not be dismissed as mere nostalgia, but as a cognitive fact that we are actually often not adequate assessors of our mental states as they are occurring: “If there is such a thing as unremembered pleasures, then whatever our age or experience we will always be late in our apprehension of them” (182).

Rather than fetishizing infancy and childhood and thereby rendering adulthood and old age necessarily dissatisfying, Wordsworth opens up the possibility that there is not only an unremembered happiness then but a possibly unnoticed happiness now. Wordsworth’s later reflections upon the joys of his youth helps him discover happiness not as an achievement or a possession but as a “space for experience” (193). The solution is to make happiness itself teleological, rather than the telos–a challenging shift for the psychoanalyst to make, whose job often must regard happiness as, roughly speaking, that which ought to be restored by the processes of psychotherapy. Rather than something to exert dominance over, “happiness is a way to rethink the passing of time” (205)– it is itself a cognitive resource for “conceiving of a good-enough world” (204). Poetry may not be able to give us sustaining happiness, but it may give us a framework for thinking about the pursuit of it, and even more what we should do if we should get a taste – to make pain “legible by making it something other than absolute” (210).

Freer’s study of Wordsworth is a challenging and worthwhile read which often stretched my thinking about a poet whose corpus has long been a matter of my own personal and academic fascination. As it is any reviewer’s duty to note a book’s shortcomings, I offer the following: There are times where the organizing thread of the argument can become somewhat obscure amidst Freer’s impressive mastery of his subject matter and its wider context. Typically Freer is able to bring the reader back to his main point and connect the dots, but there are some rabbit trails which may unnecessarily distract from the purpose here and there.

Also, frustrating to me as a scholar of Wordsworth’s Christian and specifically Anglican leanings was Freer’s tendency to dodge friction between Freud and Wordsworth concerning the question of religion. Perhaps this decision was intentional, yet passing references to religion (especially in Chapter 5 where Freer discusses Wordsworth’s returning interest in pagan gods and the attendant considerations upon divinity in which he did, by contrast, believe to exist, but also in the discussion of elegy and other subjects) left one feeling that Freer was avoiding an elephant in the room–or avoiding at least a collection of sonnets on the Church of England’s ecclesiastical history which brings Wordsworth’s theories of pleasure directly into contact with religion (William Ulmer’s The Christian Wordsworth would be a good starting point here).

These comments aside, the two most valuable takeaways I have from this book is a robust start to interrogating the assumed entanglement between Wordsworth’s reflections upon psychological matters and Freud’s continued influence on our capacity to read Wordsworth authentically, and a reinvigoration of the theoretical value to be found in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Whatever might be said in terms of the drawbacks of Wordsworth’s Unremembered Pleasures , Freer has offered “life and food for future years” of scholarship on the question of just where the self fits in Wordsworth’s poetic scheme of nature and human nature.

Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks and serves as an Anglican priest in the United Episcopal Church in North America. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales.


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