Modern Autobiography and Poetic Confession

Modern Autobiography and Poetic Confession: Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Eliot

Autobiography is an account of a man’s private life written by himself. That the narrator, the author’s present ‘writing’ self and the protagonist, his past ‘written’ self are the same person makes it problematic to define the autobiography as genre; it is neither a historical record nor a literary fiction. This paper examines the formal logic of autobiography in Rousseau’s Confessions, the first classic example of modern autobiography; the author’s identity is ‘constituted’ rather than simply ‘represented’ by the narrator’s ‘recollection’ and ‘recapitulation,’ which reveals that the author’s very act of writing means much more than what has really happened to him or her in the making of a modern autobiography. Rousseau’s ‘recapitulation’ seldom leads to a reasonable account of a past significant event but becomes more often a digressive memory of a particular pleasurable event that is found a pivotal moment both in maintaining the autobiographical narration itself and in holding together his fragmented selfhood. Rousseau’s regressive recollection of such kind, in fact, has been a formal paradigm for many later writings of autobiographical nature from Wordsworth to Eliot. Wordsworth’s The Prelude, his life-long autobiographical project, is the most faithful poetic scion of Rousseau’s Confession. The episodes of “spots of time" impressively reenact Rousseau’s pleasurable ‘recapitulation’ bringing about an equally redemptive sense of restored selfhood to Wordsworth. Eliot's poetics of ‘impersonality’ was apparently intended as an antidote to Wordsworth’s poetic theory of injudiciously personal nature. But Eliot himself is found to be another inheritor of Rousseau’s autobiography in his poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and “Little Gidding."

In/Out 11(2001): 173-198


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