Wordsworth’s Writing Cure — David Takamura

Only a fraction of the length of its 1805 and 1850 versions, Wordsworth’s “Two-Part Prelude” of 1799 functions more as an abstract than as a first draft for English Romanticism’s definitive trace of the development of poetic sensibility. Though shorter than The Prelude proper, the “Two-Part Prelude” condenses the key elements in each version of the work, namely, the poem’s “spots of time” (I, 288) that Jonathan Bishop has dubbed “the center of our experience” in the overall work (45). These moments are memories of Wordsworth’s which illuminate the activity of the poet’s creative mind, the dynamism of which Alan Richardson says is merely intensified in the 1805 and 1850 versions (15), having already been laid bare in Wordsworth’s first attempt to express it. In order for these spots to be the center of our experience with this autobiographical poem, they must first be the center of Wordsworth’s experience with himself. As such autobiographies, all versions of The Prelude contain the genre’s characteristic temporal split between a narrating and narrated self, but as poetry they move beyond this conventional reflection and establish themselves not just as historical documentations of scenes and deeds, but as clarifications of something psychologically generative behind such moments. The Prelude does not record the general breadth of the poet’s time and sense, rather it focuses on those spots that are significantly, yet almost unconsciously, formative. Accordingly, Wordsworth’s first version of the poem is also his first attempt to delineate this process, an act of memory concerning memory itself, a spiral within the spiral of Wordsworth’s self-reflection.

The anxiety and neuroticism of this process is linked to Wordsworth’s emphasis on childhood trauma. With its concerns (both theoretical and practical) about time, The Prelude is well suited to the application of Freudian criticism. However, little to none of the extant criticism approaches the spots of time in terms of the therapeutic process between Wordsworth’s narrating and narrated self. Even David Ellis, whose Wordsworth, Freud, and the Spots of Time focuses heavily on the psychoanalytic relationship, resolves the issue of Wordsworth’s dual identity and the suspect authenticity of his recollections merely by referring to “Wordsworth” in terms of “the figure who emerges from a reading of the 1805 Prelude” (12). But if the poetic substance behind the spots of time is to be understood, if a psychoanalytic answer can be found as to why the spots of time are crucial to the development of poetic sensibility and why this process should itself be recounted in poetry, then the issue hinges more on Freudian notions of the patient’s “working through” their own neuroses than on the standard belief that The Prelude’s analytic relationship exists only when criticism is applied. That is, the patient-analyst dynamic does not exist exclusively between Wordsworth and his modern critics, but also between the narrated and the narrating Wordsworths.

To this end, the “Two-Part Prelude” puts recollection on display:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds—
Especially the imaginative power—
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
(I, 288-294)

As with Freud’s explorations of an absolute memory, Wordsworth’s reminiscences linger on internal, preeminent moments that affect mental conditions and emotional outlooks. This results in the entire “Prelude” existing as an encompassing spot of time which rhapsodizes the emergence of a sixth sense of nature or, more specifically, as a refashioned concatenation of moments so significant for their relationship to the natural world that the narrating Wordsworth cannot help but read the seeds of his poetic growth into them. This retention of and focus on such spots of time appears as the negative of a classical Freudian repressed memory, for Wordsworth chooses to linger precisely on worrisome events that, if not reflected upon, might manifest themselves as neurotic pathology. Accordingly, it is precisely moments of disagreeability that are necessary for Wordsworth’s autobiographical investigation of the birth of poetic sensibility. It is by dwelling on the challenging and shameful that Wordsworth comes to define spots of time as restorative and reparative, with the result that a powerful ground for Freudian concepts of “working through” emerges alongside the “Prelude’s” treatment of history as confrontation. 1

The two disagreeable spots of time that most greatly challenge Wordsworth and lead him toward “working through,” toward “fructifying virtue,” are his first moment with the sublimity of nature after witnessing the moving cliffside (I, 110-129) and his wait at the crossroads that coincides with the death of his father (I, 350-360). Despite the fact that these scenes are constituted by fright and guilt respectively, they become experiences on which Wordsworth’s admiration of nature is contingent. For example, following his father’s death in the “Prelude,” Wordsworth writes of the natural scenes towards which he turns his mind: “All these were spectacles and sounds to which / I often would repair, and thence would drink / As at a fountain” (I, 367-70). This reminiscent, narrating voice characterizes the entire “Prelude” as a “writing cure”, reflecting the Freudian “talking cure,” which further defines the qualities of the two Wordsworths at play in the work. The recounted Wordsworth feels these events with all their impact and gloom, yet displaces them into neurotic repression as he turns his young and fragile mind to nature and solitude. Subsequently, the mature, narrating Wordsworth has cause to reflect on these instances within the construction of his text, as well as cause to reclaim his childhood trauma from repression via reflexive analysis.

This self-knowledge may well stand opposed to Freud, whose discussions of the author center on fantasy and escapism as in his essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming.” What Wordsworth recounts, however, are not spotless dreams, but the relative nightmares of frustrating, though sublime, childhood. Yet even then, Wordsworth’s self-knowledge does not diminish the Freudian importance of superego- effected guilt. It seems that Wordsworth possesses, by way of his Romantic genius and sensibility, a shortcut that allows him to reflect and construct his creative fantasy without obscuring the resistance, repression, and displacement of his younger self. The analyst Wordsworth faithfully captures himself as a rebellious youth whose sensitivity to his sorrows throws him into the act of imagination, even to the point that he imagines nature as an ideal, calming element. The “Prelude’s” construction by this adult Wordsworth and the narrative arrangement of those childhood experiences, which, as Freud says, include techniques for fending off suffering (The Freud Reader 731), enable an analysis of Wordsworth’s mature poetic spirit in connection with the specific events he deems preeminent. Just as Wordsworth himself exists in split form, the spots of time exist in two perspectives which together form Wordsworth’s self-analysis. These two perspectives consist of the smaller spots of time in which the narrated Wordsworth eludes his anxiety by escaping into nature, and the larger spot of time that is the entire “Two-Part Prelude” as constructed by a reflective and earnest narrating Wordsworth who works through his repression and deconstructs the mythology of nature that his younger self has created.

This mythology is nature’s comfort as a censorship of the truth that counteracts the sorrow of the spots of time. To inquire after these spots of time, these memories, is to ask how each of them contributes to Wordsworth’s adoration of nature, this turn toward nature being primarily the result of a self-distraction analogous to Freudian displacement. This censorship functions in the “Two-Part Prelude” as young Wordsworth substitutes authority, consisting of both God and father, with nature and its corresponding spirits. So to speak, Wordsworth takes the unconscious content of his grief at parental loss and resists suffering this absence by establishing nature as a surrogate presence. Nature then becomes, according to this sentimental or spiritual void in Wordsworth’s life that requires filling, a Freudian Urvater. As a consequence of the relatedness of the ego ideal and parental relations, nature also becomes the form of Wordsworth’s superego, endowed with corrective and fulfilling powers, which opposes the aggression of his frustrated youth (The Freud Reader 643).

Taking spots of time, as Bishop does, to refer to the variety of boyhood experiences Wordsworth relates, the first spot of time which helps explain this aggression is also the first spot of time, the first real event, Wordsworth describes in the “Prelude.” A “naked savage” (I, 26) and “fell destroyer” (I, 35), the young Wordsworth is adept at roving through nature and satisfying himself by hunting birds and their eggs. That this poem about the sanctity and tranquility of nature begins with Wordsworth laying traps and even stealing the fruits of other hunters’ labor merely highlights the typical destructive Freudian subject at play. Wordsworth’s carefree character moves directly to another, crucial spot of time which transforms the “Prelude” into a story about remorse for this transgression: what Bishop christens the “Stolen Boat episode” (48). In this episode, Wordsworth steals a shepherd’s pinnace, an act which by most readings awakens his perception of nature’s sublimity, the magnitude of which, as a fell destroyer, he was previously ignorant (I, 81-129).

As if guided by spirits with “severer intentions” (I, 69-81), Wordsworth takes this boat and paddles across a lake whose cliffside appears to stir at his thievery. Overturning many interpretations of this animation in favor of one that reads the strokes of the oars as masturbation, Richardson disregards any reading of this scene that views Wordsworth’s terror as remorse for his theft and fearfulness of punishment for this crime specifically. Yet he nevertheless comes to the conclusion that this scene depicts the guilt of a crime against a father (Richardson 17). This essay compounds masturbation with thievery to read Wordsworth as “stealing away” to masturbate, thereby making the crime more explicitly a trespass in order to come to the same conclusion 2.Within this framework, young Wordsworth’s tenacity is such that nature, as a father figure, sends spirits to tempt him with the opportunity of theft, just so he may subsequently cow Wordsworth into a submissive perplexity by means of displaying his paternal authority. Quiet or severe, the purpose of these directive powers is the “self-same end” of communion with nature (I, 78):

With trembling hands I turned,
(I, 114)

And through the meadows homeward went with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being. In my thoughts
There was a darkness—call it solitude,
(I, 118-123)

Huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day, and were the trouble of my dreams.
(I, 127-129)

Here nature calls back a prodigal son with the threat of violence, grounding the “Prelude’s” communion with nature on, and building the correction of aggressive desire into, guilt’s yearning for punishment (The Freud Reader 756), effectively making nature the ego ideal by the Stolen Boat episode’s end. Yet this first act as a punishing father and the ensuing revival of primordial guilt for the rebelliousness that Wordsworth feels in his “grave / And serious thoughts” is only the beginning of his submission to nature as it grows to concretely occupy a paternal role and the young boy’s ego ideal.

The next spot of time in this theme of remorse and guilt is that in which Wordsworth, occupying a crossroads with all its potential for an Oedipal metaphor, hears of his father’s death while waiting to travel home (I, 350-360). Ellis emphasizes Wordsworth’s hindrance in these lines, writing, “The wait for the horses might well have become important to Wordsworth . . . because it was the last (or most appropriate, recent) occasion on which he failed in love or duty towards his father” (Ellis 21). Reading responsibility and ambivalence into this spot of time, Ellis focuses on the following perplexing lines:

                                        The event,
With all the sorrow which it brought, appeared
A chastisement; and when I called to mind
That day so lately passed, when from the crag
I looked in such anxiety of hope,
With trite reflection of morality,
Yet with the deepest passion, I bowed low
To God who thus corrected my desires.
(I, 353-60)

As Ellis puts it, Wordsworth’s feeling of chastisement becomes linked with “the guilt felt at the time of the father’s death, because of aggressive feelings previously harbored towards him” (21), and it is the recurring notions of aggressiveness and corrective paternity that connect Wordsworth’s thanatotic desires with guilt in what Freud calls “the primordial ambivalence of feeling towards the father” (The Freud Reader 762). At these crossroads, where the huffy young Wordsworth resents his father’s tardiness to pick him up from school, this moment of anger meets and combines with the love of a son who realizes his father is gone. The co-mingling of these emotions results in the classic Freudian sense of guilt, which is defined as the “expression of the [father/son] conflict due to ambivalence, of the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or death” (763).

This moment above all is what turns Wordsworth’s mind back towards the reparative force of natural imagery, forcing him to retreat into his surroundings at the same time that he submits to God. Guilty, depressed, and reflecting on “morality,” that realm of the superego where the conflict of simultaneous “duty to” and “resentfulness of” the father might best be solved, Wordsworth finds solace in both God and nature, but a conflation of the terms seems impossible to avoid. Both appear to have the same corrective impact on the young Wordsworth. Freud’s recognition of religion as the endless need for protection through a father’s love explains the logical wish-fulfillment of the guilt-ridden youth, as it becomes clear that God and nature are not conflated so much as God is absorbed into nature’s status as Wordsworth’s guardian angel. In adopting nature as God and father, as everything protective, curative, and disciplinary,

Wordsworth frees himself from the possible burdens of submitting to a human father who would interfere in his life in regular, material ways, such as by frustrating his sexual desires. Instead, he submits to the nebulous figure of nature. What this God- nature corrects at the crossroads in addition to Wordsworth’s aggressive desire is his ambivalent “anxiety of hope,” that patricidal guilt which, as a result of the amorphous father in nature he has created, can no longer exist or torment him. Where the Stolen Boat episode represents nature as the intrusive force of the biological father, the death of the same serves as both a release and an opportunity for a new conception of natural authority. The projection of the paternal onto nature not only substitutes the father that is lost, but grants a previously unknown freedom from patricidal guilt. With nature as God and father, the young Wordsworth has become free to construct his own mythology about obedience, one which, for instance, now treats the Stolen Boat episode not so much as a paternal tyranny, but as a just tempering of the will.

Being a wish-fulfillment that releases Wordsworth from the Oedipus complex, the spirit of nature therefore takes on an enormously positive role as that which can defend, rejuvenate, and even reproduce. As Richardson says, the theme of “self- sufficing solitude” (II, 77) throughout this “Prelude” is connected to an independence and gratification that is autoerotic (Richardson 17), beginning with the fulfillment of young Wordsworth’s wish for an amorphous father. The erotic ideal of nature then comes to represent the freedom and autonomy of this self-sufficiency as Wordsworth develops an appreciation for solitude that transforms into release. However, nature does have ways of frustrating Wordsworth’s wildness. When nature admonishes him in the Stolen Boat episode and instills a sense of guilt and fear—it is a punishment for the base self-love, the wasted ejaculate, of Wordsworth’s tenacity. It seems as though nature intends to temper Wordsworth’s self-love and direct it towards a different amour-propre that is nevertheless self-sufficient and autoerotic, yet tranquil, no longer aggressive, and fertile even in its onanism: the poetic spirit. This self-sufficiency becomes that “quiet independence of the heart” (II, 72) as Wordsworth discovers that the genius mind is “creator and receiver both” (II, 21). The poem’s recurring theme of intercourse in solitude here sheds its solely masturbatory tone and gains a reproductive purpose that is nevertheless autonomous. In effect, Wordsworth’s philosophical idealism, founded on nature and poetry, becomes masturbation that is actually generative, the “Prelude” itself being one such product that, even as self-analysis, depicts this process.

That solitude which is the “Prelude’s” hallmark, the romantic mood so necessary for the growth of this poetic spirit, is nevertheless a neurosis. The notion of a gratifying, independent creative force corresponds with Freud’s conception of the artist as an introvert who “turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy” (Introductory Lectures 467). In an attempt to unburden himself of this neurosis, the poet appears to have constructed the “Prelude” for the purposes of curative self-analysis. As Freud also says, the artist has the ability to offset at least some of his neurotic character by way of his creativity and “knows, moreover, how to link so large a yield of pleasure to this representation of his unconscious phantasy that, for the time being at least, repressions are outweighed and lifted by it” (468). As a work produced by the older Wordsworth, the “Prelude” is just such an exercise. While the journey through the spots of time nourishes and repairs the reflective poet’s mind, its “yield of pleasure” is constituted by its existence as the intermingled genres of “writing cure” documentation and wish-fulfilling “phantasy,” a complicated duplicity that forces critics such as Ellis to simplify Wordsworth’s represented character.

The fructifying virtue of the spots of time does not lie in the inherent fondness for the spots themselves, since Wordsworth cleaves to such terrifying and melancholy scenes. Terrible spots of time, such as the drowned man, the gallows, and others, can be called neither fructifying nor “wishful.” The wish-fulfilment must therefore be located elsewhere, and pleasure with it. As such, the “Prelude’s” fantasy remains confined to the world of the young Wordsworth. The classic Romantic wish for a universal father, Coleridge’s “Soul” or the “Unchangeable” of Hegel’s unhappy consciousness, is here fulfilled in the form of Wordsworth’s nature concept, but the concept goes even further as it balances both the need for protection and the desire for freedom as they exist in Freudian theology. The desire for this concept is so great that the fantasy grows to incorporate everything, permitting Wordsworth to feel paternal care in his stolen boat or company at the Oedipal crossroads, without answering to any threatening, earthly father who stems desire by less sublime means. But while this nature, this surrogate superego, functions as a noble ideal, it is also a symptom of artistic neuroticism. The fantasy of a new superego is reflected by the fantasy of poetic creation, so that both acts become the same demonstration of the mind’s existence as “creator and receiver both” (II, 21). In effect, it is this artistic neurosis which is being investigated as Wordsworth, having just published Lyrical Ballads and keenly wondering about the source of his own poetic sense, constructs the “Two-Part Prelude” of 1799. Only autobiographical analysis allows the creator/receiver to uncover the origins of artistic productivity, and it is in this kind of “writing cure” that the mind is finally nourished and repaired.

The wish fulfillments also seem to extend to the specific neurosis of narcissism, as they all revolve around freeing Wordsworth from restraints in the forms of fathers, traumas, and creative pressures. The poem’s almost paradoxical ideal, that of solitude whilst communing with nature, resembles a desire for voyeurism in young Wordsworth, and Richardson notes that the “omnipotence of thought,” which Freud relates in his analysis of narcissism and in reports of primitive peoples, fits well onto Wordsworth’s comparison of himself to a “naked savage” (Richardson 17). To say that writers are wishful, onanistic, or narcissistic and deluded is to say nothing new. What is striking, however, is that Wordsworth’s analysis is one of these reflexive moments, as well as the moment in which all these other reflexive acts come to light. Self- analysis is itself egotistical and untrustworthy, but it maintains the reflexivity of the ideal. The analytical notes it yields cannot help but be colored by an inherent narcissism as wish-fulfilment threatens to spill across the border of patient and analyst, of creator and receiver—this too being a large reason why Freud’s reflexive analyses and introspections, such as the bulk of his dream analyses, were criticized even at the time of their publication. Yet this kind of analysis is not aimed toward a cure so much as toward further artistic production. The “writing cure” is predominantly a cure for writer’s block. The total resolution of neurosis is, unfortunately, the end of the connection between the creator and receiver, and therefore the end of all production.

Both poetic and analytic insights explore the depths of what remains hidden from the common senses. This analysis becomes more complicated in its refusal to treat the young Wordsworth as its sole subject, but it is worth repeating where this complication begins. Its origin comes in the treatment of the spots of time as they pertain to analysis and Freud’s notion of an absolute, unconscious memory, with the corresponding lines from Wordsworth (I, 288-294) bearing extreme significance for the overall project of Freud’s method. That is, the practical aspect of analysis that is founded on the healing power of revelation, that important self-knowledge no less highly regarded by poets. Given that he was editing the 1850 version of The Prelude up until his death, little can be said about Wordsworth’s satisfaction with his analytical “confessions,” yet in all versions the spots of time remain. The cliff and crossroads both survive relatively unedited into The Prelude’s later versions, suggesting that their relationship to the poem’s thesis, what they reveal about the development of poetic sense, was adequately told in the shorter “Prelude.” This kind of relationship between Wordsworth and his memories is worth investigating, and to that end we should be free to commit an analytical faux-pas, consider the reading of The Prelude as an observational role, and “be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient” (Introductory Lectures 20), the receiver and creator who are here selfsame.


Works Cited

Bishop, Jonathan. “Wordsworth and the ‘Spots of Time.’” ELH, vol. 26, no. 1, 1959, pp. 45–65. http://doi.org/10.2307/2872079.

De Man, Paul. “Time and History in Wordsworth.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 4, 1987, pp. 4–17. www.jstor.org/stable/465007.

Ellis, David. Wordsworth, Freud, and the Spots of Time: Interpretation in The Prelude. Cambridge UP, 1985.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Translated by James Strachey, Liveright, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay. Norton, 1989.

Richardson, Alan. “Wordsworth at the Crossroads: ‘Spots of Time’ in the ‘Two-Part Prelude.’” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 19, no. 1, 1988, pp. 15–20. www.jstor.org/stable/24042597.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850. Edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. Norton, 1979.


  1. That is, history as reflection, which for Freud is always a kind of confrontation if it is to be fruitful. See also Paul De Man’s comments on “The Winander Boy” in “Time and History in Wordsworth:” “Like the boy experiencing the foreknowledge of his death, history awakens in us a true sense of our temporality, by allowing for the interplay between achievement and dissolution, self-assertion and self-loss, on which the poem is built” (13). Such thoughts were not unfamiliar to the writer of Civilization and its Discontents.
  2. Interruption of masturbation and subsequent chastisement of the masturbator are common throughout Freud’s case histories. Masturbation is not exclusively a crime against the father or solely countered by paternal authority, but the competing sexual natures of the father and the son for the mother make such a conflict slightly more intuitive. Nevertheless, where Richardson sees fit to apply Freudian symbolism and extrapolate from the Oedipus complex, I have tried also to introduce the father as the son’s obstacle and judge in a more general way via disobedience, which is more specifically under paternal jurisdiction for Freud.