A reading of a classic Wordsworth poem
‘A slumber did my spirit seal’, as this wonderful little poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is known (its first line providing its unofficial title), is one of Wordsworth’s best-known short poems. It’s a lyric, an elegy, and a nature poem all in one. Here is the poem, along with some words of analysis. (We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.)
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
In summary, then: the speaker of the poem records that his soul felt at peace, as though asleep and existing in a deep calm where he had nothing to fear. (The meaning of the first line might be rewritten as ‘A slumber sealed, or protected, my spirit’.) This is because of an unidentified ‘she’ who did not seem to be marked by the passing of time or the ravages of nature as other mortals are. But wait: in the second stanza, we are suddenly informed of the woman’s (girl’s?) death: she lies still and powerless, unable to see or hear, and has become a part of the day-to-day world of nature.
Is ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems? It’s often assumed that it belongs to that suite of poems about a young girl who died; but unlike the other Lucy poems, ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ doesn’t mention Lucy’s name, so at best it can be surmised (tentatively, at that) that Wordsworth had ‘Lucy’ in mind in this poem. However, Wordsworth placed ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ near the bona fide Lucy poems, ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’ and ‘Strange fits of passion had I known’ – in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, suggesting that he intended this to be a Lucy poem.
We’re often told and taught that good poetry should not be tautological. ‘Don’t use more words than is necessary’ has become an unofficial maxim since at least the time of Ezra Pound and the Imagists a hundred years ago. Indeed, it was largely because of the verbal and emotional excesses of Romanticism that Pound – and others, such as T. E. Hulme – called for a ‘dry, hard, classical verse’. But Wordsworth’s poem doesn’t simply use more words than is necessary: it makes a positive virtue out of it. Take ‘I had no human fears’. What other kind of fears might a human like Wordsworth be expected to have? (Or does he mean ‘fears of other humans’?) ‘No motion has she now, no force’: if you have no motion, it’s unlikely you can have any force: that’s more or less a principle of Newtonian physics (force, in Newton’s second law, is mass multiplied by acceleration – acceleration implying motion). And what are ‘rocks’ if not kinds of stones? It is as if the poet – or the poet’s speaker – is deliberately trying to suggest a sense of anti-climax or flatness. And that is the point of that final line: ‘With rocks, and stones, and trees’, is a deadened list, barely any life in it (‘trees’ notwithstanding), that repetition of ‘and’ infusing the line with a listless monotony.
But the central crux – the most important repetition in the poem – is the iterating of ‘earthly’ in ‘earth’: in the first stanza, ‘She seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years’; but by the second, the girl’s (‘Lucy’s’?) short life has been extinguished, and she is now ‘Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course’. No sooner have we reencountered ‘earth’ than it is followed by the unexpected polysyllable, ‘diurnal’ (the only word longer than two syllables in the poem), with its ghostly summoning of ‘Lucy’s’ fate, the ‘die’ of ‘diurnal’, along with the out-of-place flavour of the word, a scientific term referring to the daytime (the complement, and opposite, of ‘nocturnal’). Yet ‘diurnal’ is also perfectly at home among the world of nature, and the living things that dwell among the rocks and stones and trees, those creatures which hibernate or estivate, and lead either nocturnal or diurnal lives. Just as the girl’s lack of motion mirrors the speaker’s gentle ‘slumber’ in the first stanza, suggesting that death is but a peaceful sleep, so the world ‘diurnal’ implies that the girl is now back amongst the world of nature, and has become a part of something greater.
‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ is a fine lyric and an elegy that is haunting in its simplicity. The unexpected use of ‘diurnal’ in the penultimate line surprises us and is then immediately followed by the string of solid monosyllables in the final line. If you enjoyed this poem, check out our analysis of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
Image: Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, 1842; via Wikimedia Commons.
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To me, these are eight of the most perfect lines of poetry. That it breaks the rule of not using more words than is needed speaks of the shortcoming of that rule, not of this poem.
Wordsworth has a habit of using everyday words, but slipping into it a single word that *isn’t* everyday. And suddenly, that word becomes his own. No other poet can use the word “diurnal” without evoking Wordsworth. (Wordsworth did the same with the word “vicissitude” in another poem.)
There are a couple of anthologies around called “Books That Make Grown Men Cry” and “Books That Make Grown Women Cry”. This would have been my choice. Even after everything has been analysed, I cannot explain what it is about these apparently simple lines that move me so.
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