Surprised by the joy of Wordsworth


The very mention of the phrase “British Romantic Poetry” is bound to elicit  a collective wince.

A bit of literary forensics will shed some perspective and hopefully some insight into why of the wince.

Here is an advertisement for Lyrical Ballads (1798) by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers…will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness they will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.”

Wordsworth and Coleridge set out to lob a literary bomb. They wanted to take poetry from the priggish, and highly-sculpted forms of eighteenth-century English poetry and make it accessible to the average person.

Like Impressionism or rock music, the emphasis was on creating a voice that did not sound like previous generations. It was a voice that spoke more from intuition than reason.  Wordsworth as Bob Dylan or Jack Kerouac.

Wordsworth defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  The caveat of this literary bomb was the influence of the enlightenment – a feeling that even this spontaneous overflow of feelings needed to be filtered through a educated mind.

The judge and literary critic Francis Jeffery thought Wordsworth was “too ambitious of originality,” which may be one of the best examples of praiseworthy damning I have encountered.


Could there be a more appropriate name for a poet?

Here is Surprised by Joy, a sonnet by Wordworth

Surprised by joy -impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

You can look at this poem as a relic crafted in the early1800’s or as a revelation of how a mind grapples with grief and living.

Anyone who has lost a loved one, especially a child understands the feeling behind this poem.  Wordsworth told a friend that the “Thee” referred to in the 3rd line was his four-year-old daughter Catherine, who died in 1812. It may also have been influenced by the death of his son Thomas who died six months later at the age of six.

Death was a catalyst for many of Wordsworth’s great poems.  In 1835, wrote a poem: “Extempore effusion upon the death of James Hogg.”

Yet I, whose lids from infant slumbers

Were earlier raised, remain to hear

A timid voice, that asks in whispers,

“Who next will drip and disappear?”

Surprised by Joy is about a man who is inspired by a moment of “joy.” To a poet and writer like Wordsworth joy isn’t merely anchored to happiness but to a profound sense of insight.

Lost in the joy of this remarkable feeling, he turns by habit to share this with his companion.

But he immediately realizes that she is long dead and buried.

He chastises himself for allowing even a brief moment of freedom from the life-long need to grieve. The deep wound of the memory of her passing is relived and experienced.

There is a bit of personal irony for me in this poem in that in my wedding vows, I used a quotation from Mark Twain.

“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”

For me, the heart of this poem is about a duality of moments – a reflection of how our emotional life is about the immediate and the remembered.

The fight for primacy in our mind continues until the practical needs of life quiet them.

Romantic poetry?

Or the heart’s best treasure.