International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature

Posted 1 September 2008 in StressPoints by Harold Kudler, MD

When we first proposed this column, we noted that “art often imitates life but it can also illuminate it.” This idea is illustrated (and at multiple levels) by this month’s selection. In 1805 William Wordsworth, a founder of English Romantic poetry and champion of Nature, lost his brother, Captain John Wordsworth, to a violent storm at sea. The following year, he wrote his “Elegiac Stanzas” subtitled “Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont.” The painting depicts a ship foundering in a storm like the one in which Wordsworth lost his brother. Wordsworth knew the coastal scene of Beaumont’s painting well having spent an idyllic summer there in his youth. In particular, he cherished a memory of the sea there as having been perfectly and perpetually calm.  As he states in lines 11-12: “I could have fancied that the mighty Deep/Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things.” Wordsworth goes on to say that, had he been a painter, he would have produced:
A Picture...of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature’s breathing life.   
Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made,
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.
 (lines 24-32)
But Wordsworth could never look at Nature in the same way after losing his brother to a natural disaster at sea. The following stanzas describe the fundamental change which traumatic loss wrought in his basic concept of the natural world.
So once it would have been – ‘tis no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.
 Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne’er be old...
(lines 37-39)
In summing up his response to Beaumont’s representation, Wordsworth proclaims:
O ‘tis a passionate Work!- yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labors in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

(lines 44-48)

In facing up to the contrast between his earlier view on Nature and his new one, Wordsworth attempts to come to grips with conflicting views. 
Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied: for ‘tis surely blind.
(lines 53-56)


Wordsworth’s poetic gifts were enormous yet, though he lived (and wrote) until 1850, most of his best work was composed by 1807. My English professor, William Dumbleton, once suggested that Wordsworth’s genius was stymied by the disillusionment expressed in Elegiac Stanzas such that he could never trust or glorify Nature again. Whether or not Professor Dumbleton was correct, Wordsworth’s poem anticipates by nearly two centuries an idea expressed by the cognitive psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. Janoff-Bullman noted that psychological trauma could be understood as a disruption of basic assumptions about one’s relationship with oneself, with others, and with the greater world. “Elegiac Stanzas”, a poem that was itself inspired by an artistic representation, provides poetic representation of that basic principle of trauma theory.

Passages from literature can capture truths about trauma and its survivors which might be difficult to glean from years of clinical or research work. ISTSS members are invited to share a favorite passage or quote from literature that might not be well known, but which offers insight about the psychological effects of trauma or path of healing.