Archetypal and Psychological Criticism - Poetry Analysis

A Jungian approach to poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Jung deals specifically with literature in the following essays: “The Type Problem in Poetry” “The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales,” “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry,” and “Psychology and Literature.” What ties Jung’s discussion of literature to psychology is the symbol. The inexplicable part of the symbol is, according to Jung, a manifestation of certain “inherited” structural elements of the human psyche. These elements or archetypes are revealed in dreams, visions, or fantasies and are analogous to the figures one finds in mythology, sagas, and fairytales.

In “Psychology and Literature,” Jung mentions those “visionary artists” who seem to allow us “a glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of what has not yet become.” Beyond Jung’s specific focus on symbol as revealed in literature as a basis for certain hypotheses and finally for an entire depth psychology that may be applied in turn to literature itself, Jung’s study of the nature of symbol gives him an especially perceptive understanding of the nature of literature. Jung has no concern for the specific form, the presentation of symbols in literature; it is not possible to distinguish the symbolic processes of the poet from those of anyone else. The symbolic richness of a work as illuminated by the Jungian approach, therefore, does not itself make the work successful. A Jungian methodology, however, can be said to reinforce the notion of a symbolic unity of a work in the sense that it can make explicit certain image-patterns that may be obscure.

The Freudian attacks on Jung’s view of art are strident and somewhat muddled. Frederick...

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A Jungian approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

O Rose, thou art sick!The invisible wormThat flies in the night,In the howling storm,Has found out thy bedOf crimson joy,And his dark secret loveDoes thy life destroy.

The design accompanying this poem, “The Sick Rose” (1794) by William Blake, pictures the worm in human form. Two other human figures are pictured in lamenting postures. A Jungian interpretation of this poem brings in archetypes of Anima and Animus and Shadow. In Jung’s view, the human male must assimilate his contrasexual self, his female Anima, and the human female must assimilate her contrasexual self, her male Animus. The totally individuated person is androgynous on the psychic level and is able to utilize energies from male and female contrasexual portions of the psyche. In this poem, the worm is the rose’s Animus and she is his Anima. Both are clearly divided, obdurate in their own sexual identities. Divided so, there is no mutual sexual interaction, no sexual dynamic. Instead, the rose has a “bed of crimson joy” that obviously must have been hidden, since the worm has to journey to find it. The Shadow archetype is formed in the personal unconscious by repressed desires. In this poem, the rose has clearly repressed sexual desire since she hides from her male counterpart and thus allows him but one entrance—as a ravager. His love is dark and secret from the perspective of the rose. He is indeed a shadow figure emerging from the night, a shadow of the rose’s own unconscious.

A Frye approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In “Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype” (1950), Frye comments on Blake’s powerfully integrated theory of art and of the unity of symbol and archetype in Blake’s work. Frye places Blake in the anagogic phase of symbolic meaning, in which the total ritual of humanity, the total dream of humanity, is represented. Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is interlocked with his entire canon; in itself it re-creates the “total form of verbal expression” of his work (“Levels of Meaning in Literature”). Blake’s symbols are anagogic symbols, symbols that turn outward toward the macrocosm of his entire myth and inward toward any individual work (in this case “The Sick Rose”) that expresses the unity of desire and reality, of dream and ritual.

Only religious myths have achieved this combination of personal dream or desire and reality or ritual. Romance, a phase just below the anagogic phase, reflects a conflict rather than a unity of desire and reality. It also employs archetypes that do not have a limitless range of reference, as do the “monads” of the anagogic phase. If “The Sick Rose” is placed within a mythical rather than anagogic phase of symbolic meaning, the rose and the worm would have correspondences to other roses and worms in literature but would not be true representations of the visionary apocalyptic kind of poetry that Blake’s is. The location of the poem within Frye’s anatomy depends upon a proper location of Blake’s entire work within that anatomy. All the richness of the proper fit can be brought to bear on “The Sick Rose.” Thus, finding the proper niche for the poem rather than interpreting it as a unique, unconnected entity is the task of Frye’s critical anthropologist.

Psychoanalytic approaches: Freud

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Freud’s views of the relationship between art and psychoanalysis were presented in his “Delusion and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva” (1907) and in “The Relationship of the Poet to Daydreaming” (1908). The forbidden wishes of dream, associated with the psychosexual stages (oral, anal, phallic, and genital), appear in the literary work but are disguised by distracting aspects of aesthetic form. The superegos of both reader and author are circumvented, and art serves to release unconscious forces that might otherwise overwhelm the ego. The critic’s job is to delve below the surface of a distracting literary facade and point out the lurking fantasies. Freud himself began, in his book on Leonardo da Vinci, a stage of psychoanalytic criticism that has been termed “genetic reductionism,” or the discussion of a work in terms of the author’s neurosis.

Genetic reductionism has been and remains a primary focus of psychoanalytic criticism in spite of a general recognition that the danger for psychoanalysis is the lure of a simplistic and mechanistic interpretation. The dispute here is between those who hold that literature is autonomous, existing independently of a creator’s emotional disposition, and those who hold that a psychoanalytic critic can “show how a writer’s public intention was evidently deflected by a private obsession” (Frederick Crews). A psychoanalytic examination of the author’s wishes and anxieties, in the view of...

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A Freudian approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The focus in this approach is immediately upon the poet. The question is, What “dark secret” repressed by the poet has found release in this poem? The poem is a mere symptom of the poet’s neurotic desires. The rose can be viewed as a female whose “bed of crimson joy” is “found out.” This is no healthy, natural sexual act, however, because the “worm” or phallus “flies in the night,” in a “howling storm,” and destroys his beloved with “his dark secret love.” At the root of the poem, therefore, is the incestuous desire of the poet. The secret love of the poet here is his mother.

Ego psychology

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Freud’s view of literature-as-symptom emerging from the id is modified by ego psychologists who recognize creativity as a function of the ego. For the ego psychologists, literature in the service of the ego reflects the ego’s mission of mediating between self and others, between id and superego. Symbols from the id are therefore shaped in literature so as to be communicable beyond the intrapsychic level. The movement in ego psychology is away from literature as raw wish fulfillment of the author and toward the literary text as a manifestation of id instinct and ego-monitoring. Literary critics utilizing ego psychology seek in the text not the disguised wish or wishes of the author but their transformation by the ego in the direction of something beyond the personality of the author, something of thematic import, communicable and succeeding or not succeeding depending upon the author’s gifts or skills.

The ego psychoanalyst analyzing poetry emphasizes ego functions rather than id impulses. In what ways, this critic asks, does the poem display the ego’s assertion of control by allowing repressed instincts an outlet? A discovery of what instincts are latent does not lead the critic into the entire poem, but a study of the poem as a manifestation of an ego directing the release of repressed instincts does.

An ego psychologist’s approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

For the critic applying the theories of ego psychology, incest may remain the repressed desire of the poem, but the way in which the conscious ego expresses that hidden desire in the form of the poem itself is the proper subject matter of the critic. The poet distances himself (or herself) from the poem by adopting a censorious tone. The directness and clarity of poetic style also reveal the wise perceptiveness of the poet with regard to the sexual plight of rose and worm. Thus, both tone and style point to the ego’s mastery over a repressed desire of the id, and a search for such ego mastery results in an analysis of the poem. The poet’s perceptiveness does not lie in the core fantasy of incest but in his view of love that must be invisible, which must emerge only at night. The poet’s perceptiveness lies in his understanding that a covert sexuality injures and ultimately destroys both sexual partners. His censoriousness lies in his view that such clandestine sexuality is “unethical,” that it works against humanity and the individual human life. The instinctual base remains incest but it has been controlled by the ego’s fashioning of the poem, making the poem something other than the wish that inspired it.

A reader-response critic’s approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The reader-response critic approaches the poem by focusing on those personal connections made in the poem. Such an interpretation is not necessarily the same thing as a literal interpretation, for example, that the poem is about the perils of gardening. From the reader-response view, this poem would be seen as a poem only about gardening by a gardener. It is quite possible in the first line of the poem, “O Rose, thou art sick,” for a reader to think of someone named Rose, perhaps a mother or a sister or a lover, who was or is or may be sick. The “invisible worm” becomes a disease, such as cancer, that has struck the reader-critic’s beloved suddenly, perhaps in the full bloom of life, in bed of “crimson joy.” Now, this cancer slowly destroys the beloved.

Given this personal reading, what can the poem do to assert its own existence? The reader-critic must first be willing to entertain the notion that perhaps the poem is not about Rose’s bout with cancer. The poet has used the word “love.” The poem asserts itself, if given a chance, by its words, and the word here is “love.” This love “flies in the night” “in the howling storm”—it emerges from Nature. Thus, in spite of the apparent ludicrousness of such a subjective beginning, the reader-critic is led toward an acceptance of this love as natural. It is in the nature of things to die, or to love sexually. Neither death nor sexuality can be repressed wisely. In this instance, the path of subjectivity is modified by the poem itself. As this dialectic continues, the original subjectivity of the reader-critic is modified, and the interpretation becomes more “objective” though determined by the identity theme of the reader-critic. What the poem is connects with what the reader is, and the result is a thoroughly human form of comprehension.

Object-relations theory

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Object-relations theory does not hold, as do traditional psychological and ego psychological theories, that a literary work is the product of psychic conflict. It argues, rather, that a literary work is the place where the writer’s wishes and the culture around him or her meet. Rather than emphasizing the literary work as narcissistic wish fulfillment, object-relations critics emphasize those aspects of a literary work that are not the author’s self, which lead toward a world outside the writer. This outside world of convention and tradition is transformed by the writer, he or she having accepted what is outside his or her own self. The literary work as an object is an extension of the writer, somewhat as a teddy bear, for example, is an extension of a child. Both teddy bear and literary work are invested with illusions; yet they are objects in the world. In the case of the child, the teddy bear is something like the mother’s breast, although significantly it is another object. Similarly, the literary work is wish fulfillment and yet an object that is not pure wish fulfillment but a place where wishes and world meet, an object representing a “collective love affair with the world.”

A critical approach to poetry based on an object-relations theory would not focus on the poem as an expression of intrapsychic conflict but as the ground in which the poet’s wishes and the outside world meet. In what ways does the poem signify the internal desires of the poet? In what ways does it stand as a transformation of those desires into what is outside the poet? The meeting of internal and external is the poem.

An object-relations critic’s approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The object-relations critic views the poem as a meeting ground of the poet’s fantasies and the surrounding environment—in this case, late eighteenth century England. If incest is on the unconscious mind of the poet—Blake—he has presented it as nothing more specific than “dark secret love,” a phrase that has meaning in the context of an England in which hypocrisy with regard to sexuality was increasing. If the poet were really expressing a desire to unite sexually with his mother, then the poem would serve as an illusionary connection between himself and his mother. The poem as object, however, is clearly a transitional object rather than a complete illusion of the poet. The poem is a transition between the poet’s desire for uncensored sexuality and the moral prohibitions against sexuality that were prevalent in the poet’s day.

Jacques Lacan

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Lacanian psychoanalysis once again resurrects the sole supremacy of the id in the creative process. Indeed, the unconscious itself is structured as a language, and therefore both the conscious and the unconscious are identically rooted. Literary discourse, like ordinary discourse, is symbolical and subjective. Rather than the id being a source of instinctual drives that appear disguised in literature, specifically in the language of literature, the Lacanian id is a reservoir of words that determine perceptions.

Lacanian literary interpretation depends upon tracing literary language to a constitutive language of the unconscious. It depends upon relating significant words in the literary text to words signified in the unconscious. The unconscious is structured not according to innate laws but originally according to the image of another, someone whom the child is dependent upon (usually the mother). This desire to remain secure is fulfilled when the child constructs his (or her) unconscious in accordance with the significant other. The “discourse” of the other becomes the discourse of the child’s unconscious, which is fictional insofar as it is not the child’s but another’s.

In Lacan’s view, the ego is composed of a moi, which is unconscious, overriding the other but determined by it; and the je, which is identified with spoken language and culture. The discourse of the moi permeates the discourse of the je. The symbolic, subjective moi permeates the apparent logical discourse of the je. The Lacanian literary critic seeks to go from the discourse of the je to the discourse of the moi, from a symbolical consciousness to a symbolical unconsciousness. The discourse of the moi, of the unconscious, is weakly and elusively manifest in the surface of the literary text. Both signifiers and signifieds are available in the surface of the text, and the act of literary interpretation attempts to reconstruct, wherever possible, the connection between signifiers and signifieds. It is an act that seeks to uncover what unconscious desires determine the details of the literary text.

A Lacanian approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

A Lacanian interpretation attempts to break through the language of the je and reach the symbolical unconscious of the moi. The literal language of the je in this poem has to do with gardening, with the destruction of a rose by a worm that is invisible to the naked eye. When readers probe more deeply, they discover that the poem is really “talking” about human sexuality. The poet, Blake, clearly reveals his symbolic intent in his depiction of human figures in the design accompanying the poem. A Lacanian analysis probes below the level of the language of the je in poems apparently not symbolical and not intended to be symbolical by the poet, whose surface language seems to mean no more than it...

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Phenomenological psychology

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the case of a phenomenological psychology, a delineation of a Lebenswelt, or human life-world of a character, a speaker in a poem, or an author, is in each case a delineation of consciousness. The phenomenologist’s desire is to return to lived experiences and bracket, or set aside, presuppositions. Such experiences are not understood by an examination of external behavior but by an examination of psychic reality, or consciousness. Because consciousness is always consciousness of something, intentionality with regard to external reality being always implicit, a focus on a person in literature or on the author him- or herself, on various self-revelations, reveals the Lebenswelt.

To the...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

A phenomenological psychological approach to “The Sick Rose”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In “The Sick Rose” it is possible to discern two “characters” almost immediately—worm and rose. It is also possible to discern a speaker, who may or may not be the poet, and, somewhere behind it all, the poet. Neither worm nor rose is a true character since they do not reveal their own perceptions. Focus must be placed on the speaker of the poem, who reveals himself in his revelation regarding the worm and the rose. In spite of the conventional perception that a rose is beautiful, the speaker finds, in the very first line, that this rose is sick. “She” is sick because “her” life is being destroyed by the dark secret love of an invisible worm. In the mind of the speaker of the poem, the worm is “the” and not...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

New applications

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many critics were still finding psychological and archetypal theories useful. Archetypal criticism has been found especially helpful in studies of the ritual poetry of groups such as Native Americans, the First Nations peoples, and the Maori. It has also been applied to other religious traditions, especially those that emphasize the mystical and the transformational.

Archetypal criticism is also basic to gender studies. Feminists explicitly identify women as sacred figures, earth-mothers, or divine goddesses, and point out how poets implicitly use archetypes to define or to elevate the status of women. Other writers identify traditional male archetypes, such as gods and...

(The entire section is 149 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Ackerman, Robert. The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. New York: Garland, 1991. The author points out that though Sir James George Frazer is often the only person mentioned in connection with the Cambridge ritualists, the achievements of Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, F. M. Cornford, and A. B. Cook should not be minimized. This volume is an analysis of their works. Notes, bibliography, and index.

Agha-Jaffar, Tamara. Women and Goddesses in Myth and Sacred Text. New York: Longman, 2004. A reader that focuses on eighteen incarnations of the Great Goddess in cultures throughout the world....

(The entire section is 1098 words.)