The First Psychological Critic: Walter Whiter (1758-1832)
by Norman N. Holland
March 15, 2004
The first psychological critic, that is, the first literary person to apply a systematic, scientific psychology to the details of a literary text was Walter Whiter ((1758-1832). Whiter applied Locke's associationist psychology to explain some of Shakespeare's odder choices of imagery (or, in a later term, "image-clusters"). He related them to Shakespeare's psyche and to associations customary in ordinary life or theatrical practice in Elizabethan times. As such, Whiter is the forerunner (mostly unacknowledged) of several schools of Shakespearean criticism and the criticism of literature generally: image critics, the early psychoanalytic critics, literary computer programs for studying texts, and even the neuropsychological theorists of language.
That is a large claim and obviously, one open to dispute. After all, both Aristotle's argument for catharsis and Plato's banishing of the poets rest on psychological assertions. Moreover, virtually any of the major critics of past eras link their ideas about literature to some statement about the human mind and how it works.
What is unique and "first" about Walter Whiter is that he combined close analysis of text with a "scientific" psychology in his book, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare (1794). He is, so far as I know, the first literary scholar or critic to do that. Other critics might have assumed something about minds, but they did not ground their thinking in a systematic, scientific psychology. Or, if they spoke systematically of psychology, they tended (like Coleridge) to derive from it rather general statements about the poetic imagination or the power of literature over its audience.
In the twenty-first century, we no longer consider Locke's associationism "scientific." But in Whiter's day, psychology was still a branch of philosophy. In that context, Locke's was thought to be the most up-to-date and scientific of what we would today call psychologies. (It was not until the era of James, Bergson, and Croce, the beginning of the twenteth century, that psychology separated itself definitively and became a discipline apart from philosophy.) And, as Stephen Pinker's recent diatribe against "the blank slate" shows, Locke's associationism is alive and well today.
Walter Whiter was born in 1758. He attended schools in Coventry, until he entered Clare College, Cambridge, where he eventually became a Fellow. There he was a close friend of the great scholar of Greek, Richard Porson, and developed the interest in philology that focused his intellectual life. It was while he was at Cambridge that he wrote the Specimen. In 1797 he became rector of Hardingham, Norfolk, and, occasional travels aside, lived there until his death in 1832. Like Porson, he was known as a lover of wine. While friends reported an undue fondness for a good party and a good bottle, Whiter also swam every morning year-round, in a chilly stream nearby. (Possibly the one was a cure for the other.) Otherwise, we know little about him.
Whiter published, essentially, three books during his life. The first was his psychological criticism:
Whiter, Walter. A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare. Containing I. Notes on As You Like It. II. An Attempt to explain and illustrate various passages, on a new principle of criticism, derived from Mr. Locke's Doctrine of the Association of Ideas. London: printed for T. Cadell. 1794.
His true love, however, was philology, and to that discipline he devoted his years in Hardingham and his great work which he published in three different and successive forms:
Whiter Walter. Etymologicon magnum, or Universal etymological dictionary, on a new plan. With illustrations drawn from various languages: English, Gothic, Saxon, German, Danish ... Greek, Latin, - French, Italian, Spanish, - Galic, Irish, Welsh, Bretagne, &c. The dialects of the Sclavonic; and the eastern languages ... Part the first. Cambridge: printed by Francis Hodson, for the author; and sold by J. Deighton: sold also by G.G. and J. Robinson, T. Payne, W.H. Lunn, London; and J. Cooke, Oxford, 1800.
Whiter, Walter. Etymologicon universale, or, universal etymological dictionary ; on a new plan, in which it is shewn, that consonants are alone to be regarded in discovering the affinities of words, and that the vowels are to be wholly rejected. Cambridge : The University Press, 1811.
Whiter, Walter. Etymologicon universale; or, universal etymological dictionary: on a new plan. : In which it is shewn, that consonants are alone regarded in discovering the affinities of words, and that the vowels are to be wholly rejected; that languages contain the same fundamental idea; and that they are derived from the earth, and the operations, accidents, and properties, belonging to it. With illustrations drawn from various languages: the Teutonic dialects, English, Gothic, Saxon, German, Danish, &c. &c. - Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish. - The Celtic dialects, Gallic, Irish, Welsh, Bretagne, &c. &c. - The dialects of Slavonic, Russian, &c. &c. - The Eastern languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Gipsey, Coptic, .. . Cambridge : printed at the University Press: for Richard Priestley, 143, High Holborn, London, 1822.
Astonishingly, Thoreau may have been influenced by his theories that language derved from human beings' relation to earth. He could have read the Etymologicon either in Emerson's llibrary or the Harvard College Library.
Whiter's strangest book is:
A dissertation on the disorder of death; or that state of the frame under the signs of death called suspended animation; to which remedies have been sometimes successfully applied, as in other disorders, in which it is recommended, that the same remedies of the resuscitative process should be applied to cases of natural death, as they are to cases of violent death, drowning, &c. under the same hope of sometimes succeeding in the attempt, by Walter Whiter. London, Printed for the author, sold by S. Hayes, 1819.
(Surely, Poe scholars should look into connections to this one.) In 1977, Arno Press produced a reprint of this oddity as an addition to the "Literature of death and dying."
It is Whiter's Specimen, however, his sortie into psychological criticism, that appears most often in libraries and, occasionally, in writings about Shakespeare. It, too, has been reprinted in a fine scholarly text edited by Alan Over and completed by Mary Bell on Over's death. This 1967 edition includes the interleavings Whiter left in one copy, the basis for a new edition he had planned. At his death this copy passed to the library at Cambridge University, and Over and Bell based their edition upon it. Their scholarship is exemplary, and I have based my brief account of Whiter on their thorough introduction and notes and Mary Bell's subsequent essay on Whiter.
The University of Florida library has put online its copy of the 1794 book, and it is available to the public at http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/tc/psa/UF00004634.jpg (page image version - JPEG) and http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/tc/psa/UF00004634.pdf (chapter bundled version - PDF). I am grateful to Erich Kesse who is in charge of the online materials at the library and to Dale Canelas, director of the University of Florida Libraries for permission to include that text as an article in the PsyArt online journal.
Whiter based his theory about Shakespeare on Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which appeared in 1690 and was still the best psychology available a hundred years later. Writing in the late eighteenth century about Shakespeare was not easy, however. The eighteenth century editors were just beginning serious Shakespeare scholarship. There was as yet no Oxford English Dictionary with its historical information about words. (Johnson's Dictionary was the nearest equivalent.) There was neither a proper glossary nor a complete concordance. Two centuries and a civil war had intervened. Everyday life had changed. Many words and images had become unintelligible. Handwriting had changed (making editorial inferences about typesetters' misreadings problematic). The stage and the audience had so completely changed that one had to infer theatrical practice and the look of the theater from old texts.
Most important, no one had yet established reliable texts of the plays. The eighteenth century thus abounded in editors trying to do just that: Capell, Farmer, Hanmer, Johnson, Malone, Pope, Theobald, Tyrwhitt, Warburton, Warton, and there were no doubt others. They proceeded, however, on an editorial theory exactly the opposite of what we believe to be true today. They assumed (and Whiter with them) that the early texts of Shakespeare were unreliable and needed to be corrected. (We believe they are our best source and try to establish their provenance exactly.) The eighteenth-century editors often appeal, as does Whiter, to "the reader of taste" to affirm the correctness (in every sense) of their rewritings of the text. Nevertheless, many of these eighteenth-century emendations and interpretations today's editors have been accepted and appear in modern footnotes to the plays.
Emendation and interpretation were made difficult because the language had changed. The richly figurative language of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans was now a blemish. Shakespeare's puns, instead of amusing and often enhancing inventions, became "quibbles" to apologize for. Whiter's age valued a poet whose "attention will be proportionally abstracted from the fleeting topics of his own period and the minute concerns of his peculiar situation." "His pictures of nature and of life will be drawn from broad and general views of our condition; from scenes to which the eye of every age is witness, and from the passions and affections of men, which have been perpetually found to amuse or agitate our being." Shakespeare, by contrast, was subject to "the secret energy of local influence" (p. 72).
Shakespeare's imagistic and metaphorical language, instead of a glorious creation, was to Whiter's age a problem, and Whiter could speak of Shakespeare's "wild and sometimes incoherent imagery." Hence, Shakespeare's writings needed to be corrected by "conjectural criticism" and the "ingenious commentator." Andrews Wanning, by comparing translations early and late in the seventeenth century, has shown how Restoration writers systematically gave up figurative constructions in favor of language more exact, abstract, and propositional (like Locke's, for example). He argues, convincingly, that writers were being influenced by the new science.
At any rate, in Part 1 of his book, Whiter wrote in the emending and explaining mode of his time. Part 1 (60 pages) contains a straightforward commentary on selected passages in As You Like It, in which I see nothing unusual or remarkable. It is in Part II (196 pages) that Whiter innovates. "In the ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN AND ILLUSTRATE VARIOUS PASSAGES ON A NEW PRINCIPLE OF CRITICISM; I have endeavoured to unfold the secret and subtle operations of genius from the most indubitable doctrine in the theory of metaphysics. As these powers of the imagination have never, I believe, been adequately conceived, or systematically discussed ; I may perhaps be permitted on this occasion to adopt the language of science and to assume the merit of DISCOVERY" (pp. v-vi).
Whiter introduced Locke's associationist psychology into the late eighteenth-century editorial disputes about emendations and interpretations. As for associationism, wrote Whiter, "our modes of reasoning, our habits of life, and even the motions of our body, are affected by its energy; and . . . it operates on the faculties by a kind of fascinating controul, which we sometimes cannot discover, and which generally we are unable to counteract" (62). If, he continues, it can so affect "the ordinary exertions of the understanding," "its influence would prredominate with absolute authority over the vigorous workings of a wild and fertile imagination" (64). Hence Shakespeare could be expected to provide "the most frequent and singular examples of its effect," "the most curious and abundant materials for the discussion of this principle" (64).
Ultimately, Locke's principle "shall conduct us even to the very mind of the writer, and discover to us the causes and effects of its internal operation, unknown even to himself" (75). He emphasizes that Locke's associationism does not refer to the combination of ideas that occur naturally or usually together but to ideas "which have no natural alliance or relation to each other" (65). The reader "will be frequently induced to wonder or to smile at the minute and even ridiculous combinations, which have been thus imposed on the mind of the poet, and which are able to deceive and controul the most acute and powerful understanding" (79).
Obviously, Whiter is thinking here of what today we would call "unconscious" or "preconscious" mentation. "I define therefore the power of this association over the genius of the poet, to consist in supplying him with words and with ideas, which have been suggested to the mind by a principle of union unperceived by himself and independent of the subject, to which they are applied" (68).
Whiter offers four types of such associations. 1) One piece of language or idea will link the writer's mind to related language which is then used for a second, quite unrelated concept (and Whiter regards this as a particularly important means of rejecting "improved" text). 2) Words with equivocal meanings offer purely linguistic, (unconscious) punning connections (very similar to Freud's wechsel or "switch-words"). 3) A familiar phrase, metaphor or circumstance not in the text will link ideas (in, I would say, roughly, social connections). 4) Some impression on the mind of this particular writer will associate ideas (an individual connection).
The first category seems ill-defined. Over and Bell note that a good example of that category and of Whtier's method in general is in his reading of these lines from Timon. The misanthrope has exiled himself to the woods and his friend Apemantus remonstrates:
That the bleak air, thy boisterous chamberlain,
Will put thy shirt on warm? Will these moist trees,
That have outliv'd the eagle, page thy heels,
And skip when thou pointst out? (4.3.221-5)
Why "moist trees"? Hanmer had emended it to "moss'd." Not so, says Whiter. What has happened is an association of ideas from a shirt still moist from airing (drying) being offered by a servant to Timon. The word and idea "moist," Whiter says, was still present in Shakespeare's mind when he came to describe trees. "He was hmself unconscious how he came by it, and certainly never would have applied it as an epithet to trees, if it had not been fixed on his mind by a kind of fascinating power, which concealed from him not only the origin but the effect likewise of so strange an associaton" (82).
As an association of the second type Whiter offers a number of examples from Shakespeare and other writers of "suit." The word can mean either an asking or clothes. Hence this passage from As You Like It:
Jacques. I am ambitious for a motley coat.
Duke S. Thou shalt have one.
Jacques. It is my only suit;
And "weed" can mean either clothing (from "coat" and "suit") or a plant. Whiter gives a number of similar passages that link dress to plants (83-90) and argues that this is not "an intended quibble" but an association "which had escaped the ardour of the writer." Similarly "wink" which meant in Shakespeare's day both a movement of the eyes and sleep (our "forty winks") provides links between eyes, sleep, and hence death. (90-91). "Brook" can mean both tolerate and a running stream. Hence, "Either you might stay him from his intendment, or brook such disgrace well as he shall run into" (AYLI 1.2.133). In Merry Wives, Falstaff tells us Master Brook will "o'erflow such liquor" (2.2.151; Whiter 92-93). Whiter tries to distinguish such deliberate puns from what he regards as unconscious associations based on ambiguous meanings or sounds as in Shakespeare's many puns on deer-dear or heart-hart (93-97).
To me, a more interesting type of association is Whiter's third kind, associations based on what I would call "social" links. "The idea of a Lover, as described by his mistress, or as represented with respect to her, is associated either by metaphor, or comparison with book and the binding of it" (109). (Here, again, psychoanalysis would point to a fairly obvious body symbolism.) One example is the very striking set of images that Lady Capulet uses in urging Paris on Juliet:
Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face,
And find delight writ there with beauty's pen;
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscur'd in this fair volume lies,
Find written in the margin of his eyes[.]
This precious book of love this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover: . . . .
That book in many[s eyes doth share the glory,
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story (1.3.81-92).
(Whiter does not quote the Nurse's bawdy follow-up that makes the body symbolism explicit.) Thus, Whiter can explain what Iago calls Othello's "unbookish jealousy" (4.1.101). He notes Biron's long speech in Love's Labour's Lost contrasting book-learning with "love, first learned in a lady's eyes" (4.3.324; Whiter 109-115). He does not point out that the comedy as a whole builds on the contrast between learning and love, as if this particular association could permeate Shakespeare's mind entirely.
The most famous association Whiter discovered he buried in a footnote (138-146) and followed up with a farrago of references to related imagery in Greek and Roman authors. This association appears in four passages that link candy, dogs, and "fawning obsequiousness," as in:
That spaniel'd me at at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar (Ant 4.12.20-23)
Why, what a candy deal of courtesy
This fawning greyhound then did proffer me!" (1H4 1.3.251-2)
Whiter gives up: "The cause of this strange association I am unable to discover."
He explains a great many associations around darkness, black, knife, blanket, hell, heaven by things in the Elizabethan theater that would have established personal associations in Shakespeare's mind. And he likewise links sea-maids, dolphins, crowns, and heaven and hell to the elaborate pageants of the Elizabethan age [158-222]. Here, of course, he must work largely by speculation on the Elizabethan sources, and he often writes as though Shakespeare had no imagination of his own. He was simply incorporating these spectacles in his plays and poems. These seem to me the next-to-weakest part of Whiter's thesis.
The weakest part derives from his claim that these combinations of images offer a way of showing that a given text is not a forgery. If one finds Elizabethan images and groupings of images, then no eighteenth-century forger could have produced the texts. While that may be true as a probability, Whiter uses his system and supposed information about the fifteenth century to insist on the authenticity of the Rowley poems. He was, of course, quite wrong. These were put forward as fifteenth-century texts by Whiter's contemporary, the boy-poet, Thomas Chatterton.
For this and other reasons (Whiter also made the mistake of casting aspersions on Dr. Johnson), eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literati did not greet Whiter's book with enthusiasm. One nineteenth-century commentator did say that it was a golden book which "shines like a gem . . . among the quantity of rubbish shot by the commentators upon the unhappy bard." Mostly, however, they either ignored or found fault with it. Some of Whiter's emendations found their way into H. H. Furness' New Variorum edition of 1871, the standard for many decades, but the psychological part of Whiter's Specimen had to wait for recognition until the twentieth century and the emergence of image criticism.
Kenneth Muir has written the history of this movement and the gap from Whiter's time to the twentieth century. In three important publications in the 1930s, Caroline Spurgeon put imagery front and center in Shakespeare criticism. Spurgeon saw imagery as a clue to Shakespeare's tastes, feelings, and ideas, and she proceeded by counting and classifying images by subject matter. She was better at finding images, however, than relating them to themes in the plays or to any but superficial claims about the man (that he knew and liked nature, that he was insomniac). Apparently unaware of Whiter's work, she found the candy-dogs-flattery group and concluded that the poet did not like dogs.
Relating imagery to the themes of the plays became a more cogent method with critics like Cleanth Brooks, Robert B. Heilman, L. C. Knights, J. I. M. Stewart , or D. A. Traversi. Many of these critics were associated with the literary magazine Scrutiny and the close reading of the New Critics. They took as their program reading the plays as lyric poems with a tight unity as opposed to treating them as theater. They looked at themes rather than Shakespeare the man as Spurgeon did. They developed readings of the plays that still command respect and interest today.
Edward A. Armstrong knew of Whiter's work and set out to do it more and better. In doing so, he coined the proper term for what Whiter had found, namely, "image-clusters." Armstrong was an ornithologist and the clusters he found ran to birds and other animals: kite-linen-death; beetles-cliff-crow-death; goose-disease-music, and so on. Like Whiter, like most psychological critics, he was more interested in his method and in the psychology behind it than either the text or the writer. Armstrong was violently anti-Freud and insisted that the clusters he found (often based on words with ambiguous meanings, as Whiter's were) showed that Shakespeare's style did not come from repressed desires or any unconscious processes.
Yet surely it is the early psychoanalytic critics who are Whiter's heirs, although they were almost certainly unaware of his work: Freud, then Edmund Bergler, Ernest Jones, Arpad Pauncz, Otto Rank, Theodore Reik, Ella Freeman Sharpe, and many another. They too combined a close reading of the text with a "scientific" psychology, psychoanalysis. Debates about the scientific status of psychoanalysis, while important in their own right, do not pertain here. The point is that the psychoanalytic critics used the most scientific psychology available to them for discussing works of literature. So did Whiter.
Imagery lends itself to psychoanalytic criticism. It is an easy step from an image to a symbol out of the Freudian dictionary. And clusters of imagery lead to standard fantasies. For example, Macbeth is a virtual dicitonary of primarl scene fantasies: violence associated with bed and sleep; nighttime noises; mysteries of parentage; the murderous woman; things appearing and disappearing; the persons (witches) of ambigous gender. This is a different way of deriving a unity for the play from the imagery critics, a psychological unity in the man Shakespeare. In this vein, among the psychoanalytic critics, it was surely Charles Mauron who came closest to deriving the personality of the poet (the mythe personnel of Mallarmé) from the recurring images in his works. It is a pity that he never wrote about Shakespeare and that his work is so little known among critics of English literature.
Whiter worked by simply reading the plays and remembering what he had read before. Like all the eighteenth-century scholars he had an astonishing memory not only for Shakespeare's works and the other Elizabethan-Jacobean plays available to him. Nowadays, we have computer programs that do the kind of memory work Whiter did. TACT (designed by Ian Lancashire and his team) will locate exactly the kind of cluster Whiter and Armstrong sought: a key word and nearby words within a certain spectrum of meaning. Having noticed the odd association of dogs, candy, and flattery, you could search all of Shakespeare's texts for co-occurrences of synonyms of those three concepts. .
SHAXICON (devised by Don Foster) seeks out seldom-used words seldom used in a given writer's vocabulary on the assumption that an individual's vocabulary is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint. On that basis, given a large enough sample, the authorship of a text can be established by comparison with texts known to have been written by a certain person. Foster has not only demonstrated his method with respect to the works of Shakespeare and contemporaries, where results will always remain hard to verify independently, but also in two notable cases of recent memory. The Unabomber, a terrorist who wrote anonymous letters to the press defending his actions, was nailed by a comparison of the vocabulary of these letters with that in writings by the suspect as well as a control group. In a similar way, Foster revealed the authorship of an anonymous and scandalous roman à clef about the Clintons' presidential campaign, Primary Colors. And Foster has been able to show what roles Shakespeare acted in.
Finally, as the new discoveries in neuropsychology make their way into literary theory, we can recognize that what Whiter had discovered was right-hemisphere language processing. That is, as Christine Chiarello and her collaborators have shown, the right and left hemispheres of our brains process language differently. Hearing or seeing a word, the left hemisphere, which has the more sophisticated systems for processing language, generates all the possible meanings and (I would argue) associations for the word. it shares them all with the systems in the right hemisphere which lack the means to express words in speech or writing. The left hemisphere then locks onto the meaning appropriate to the language that has preceded this word. The right hemisphere retains the other possible meanings. Should the meaning the left hemispher has chosen prove inappropriate (as in a "garden path" sentence or a joke), the left hemisphere recalls those other meanings from the right. Thus, we need the right hemisphere systems to understand jokes and metaphors.
What Whiter discovered, in terms of neuropsychology, were image-clusters that included those right-hemisphere associations. Shakespeare could be writing about flattery, and meanings would come to mind (the right half of mind) related to dogs and candy. As he went on composing, those meanings would be available for other things the left hemisphere was trying to phrase. Whiter knew nothing of the brain's ways of handling language, of course, yet what he discovered turns out to be consistent with what we have learned only in the last decade.
In short, when we recognize Whiter as the first psychological critic, we can see that his work is indeed the first in a long line of Shakespearean and other literary studies. To be sure, almost none of those later critics knew of Whiter or his work. Some of the image critics did, but none of the psychoanalytic writers, the computer programmers, nor the neuropsychological scientists. Nevertheless, the Specimen stands as the first in a long line of psychological studies of literature that begins with the beginning of systematic criticism and continues to this day.
Walter Whiter, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare Containing I. Notes on As You Like It. II. An Attempt to Explain and Illustrate Various Passages on a New Principle of Criticism, Derived from Mr. Locke's Doctrine of the Association of Ideas (London: Printed for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1794). Available: http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/tc/psa/UF00004634.jpg (page image version - JPEG); http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/tc/psa/UF00004634.pdf (chapter bundled version - PDF). Accessed May 13, 2003.
Michael West, "Walden's Dirty Language: Thoreau and Walter Whiter's Geometric Etymological Theories," Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974): 117-28.
Mary Bell, "Walter Whiter's Notes on Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey 20, ed. Kennth Muir, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967) pp. 83-94.
The phrase appears only in Whiter's interleavings. Over and Bell, p. 59.
In the following quotations, I shall use Shakespeare's text as Whiter reports it (from Malone's edition) and line numbering from the Riverside edition.
Kenneth Muir, "Shakespeare's imagery--then and now," Shakespeare Survey 18, ed. Allardyce Nicoll (Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press., 1965), pp. 46-57.
Edward A. Armstrong, Shakespeare's Imagination (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1946).
Charles Mauron, Des Métaphores Obsédantes au Mythe Personnel (Paris: José Corti, 1963).
Donald Foster, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt, 2000).
Received: February 29, 2004, Published: March 15, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Norman N. Holland