Saturday, June 17, 2017

Wordsworth, Poetry and Mental Disorder

From the Wordsworth Trust:
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. (Read more.)

No comments: