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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 675-692

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Wordsworth and Current Memory Research

Beth Lau

In the last twenty years, important developments have occurred in the study of memory among researchers from different fields of psychology, including cognitive psychology, neuroscience, clinical, personality, and social psychology, among others. Recent advances in memory research can be attributed largely to the fact that these various subdisciplines, which formerly operated in relative isolation, are now communicating and sharing discoveries, methods, and theories in what Jefferson A. Singer and Peter Salovey call "a healthy and blossoming cross-fertilization." 1 Not only do many of the new memory researchers embrace an interdisciplinary collaboration among fellow psychologists, but they also draw upon the work of writers and artists who have anticipated scientific findings about the operation of memory and who, in the words of Daniel Schacter, can illuminate more effectively than scientists "the personal, experiential aspects of memory" and its "impact . . . in our day-to-day lives." 2

One writer who is unquestionably an appropriate candidate for interdisciplinary memory study is William Wordsworth, whose poetry is preoccupied with the role of memory in individual life. As Christopher Salvesen argues, the modern sense of the self in time, which gave new priority to memory as a foundation for individual identity, was "first given clear and powerful expression, and turned to poetry, by Wordsworth." One of Wordsworth's innovations, Salvesen notes, was to turn "remembered incident" [End Page 675] into "poetic event." 3 Even the briefest survey of Wordsworth's oeuvre will document the importance of memory for this writer. Many of his best-known poems, such as "Tintern Abbey" and the "Intimations Ode," directly explore the workings of memory as the speaker in each compares his present self to an earlier self and struggles to come to terms with what has been lost and what gained with the passage of time. Wordsworth famously characterized poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquillity," making clear that he believed memory to play an essential role in the creative process. 4 In addition, in The Prelude Wordsworth redefines the epic for his era as the story of his own life, in which "spots of time" or core, emotionally charged memories form the climaxes of the work as well as its organizing principle.

Several prominent memory researchers recognize Wordsworth's relevance to their studies and quote from his poetry. 5 Literary scholars, however, have neglected the work of these psychologists. Most psychological interpretations of Wordsworth have followed a Freudian model, applying concepts such as repression and screen memories to the poet's treatment of the past. 6 Recent memory research has challenged many of Freud's notions and offers new and, I would suggest, more fitting theories for understanding the nature and function of memory in Wordsworth's poetry. Applying many of the new findings about memory's operation to a study of Wordsworth's poetry can open up fresh avenues of interpretation and clear up some misconceptions that have prevailed in Wordsworth criticism.

One of the chief points established by current research is that memory does not operate according to the models that have often been used to characterize its workings. It is not like a computer that stores and retrieves data, nor is it like a video camera that plays back tapes of recorded scenes from the past. 7 Contemporary researchers also would reject Thomas De Quincey's well-known metaphor of the brain as a palimpsest, in which memories accumulate in successive layers over time but remain permanently engraved and accessible under appropriate conditions. 8 In fact, there is no such thing as an immutable, comprehensive, or objective memory. To begin with, we do not remember everything we experience. Instead, we remember only what we encode of any given scene or event. To ensure vivid memories, we must first of all pay attention to what is going on around us and encode specific details and nuances of our daily lives. As Schacter says: "If we operate on automatic pilot much of the time . . . we may pay a...


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