‘Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind’ is the first line of one of William Wordsworth’s most popular sonnets. However, the degree to which ‘Surprised by joy’ can be considered a truly great and successful poem is disputed by critics, so a few words of analysis may help to ascertain how far Wordsworth’s poem succeeds and how far it falls short of the greatness we expect from one of Romanticism’s most popular and enduring poetic voices.
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long 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.
‘Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind’, like many famous opening lines in English poetry, is so familiar that its unusualness is hardly registered. ‘Surprised by joy’: fair enough, but suddenly, with that striking dash, we are whisked off into less obvious territory, ‘impatient as the wind’, as if the line itself is impatient to be on with it, to dash off into a whirlwind of emotions more complex than might initially be apparent.
In summary, ‘Surprised by joy’ is an elegy for Wordsworth’s daughter Catherine, who died in 1812, aged just three. The poem sees Wordsworth reflecting on how during a moment of happiness he instinctively thought of sharing his joy with his daughter, only to realise that he could no longer do so, since Catherine is now ‘long buried in the silent tomb’ where nothing can reach her.
He tells us that it was love that recalled his daughter to his mind – but how could he forget her in the first place, even for a moment, and fail to remember the terrible grief he feels at her death? The return of that thought, that realisation, was the worst thing the poet had ever felt – with the exception of one worse feeling, which was the even bigger realisation that, now his daughter is gone, he will never see her beautiful face again.
‘I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom / But Thee’: note how Wordsworth himself is not centre-stage here, the ‘I’ landing on a light rather than heavy stress, while ‘whom’ and ‘Thee’ are accorded heavy stresses. This is less a poem about the poet than about the daughter he has lost. The first few lines are about being swept up in the excitement of happiness: ‘Surprised’, ‘wind’, ‘transport’. The poem then calms into a more subdued manner, with the early exclamations and questions giving way to a more measured and restrained explanation of Wordsworth’s state of mind.
Is ‘Surprised by joy’ a great sonnet? It’s certainly an interesting one: rhymed abbaaccadedede, it is a variation on the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, but the second half of the octave is rhymed acca rather than abba. This keeps the rhymes moving forward, as if offering hope for the return of the poet’s lost daughter. But these hopes are dashed in the sestet, where we get just two new rhymes: dedede.
That closing sestet tends to divide readers. Is it an eloquent and sincere outpouring of grief, or is it a set of platitudinous statements about grief? This is probably where objective analysis gives way to subjective, personal preference. But ‘Surprised by joy’ remains one of Wordsworth’s most accessible and popular short poems, and is one of his finest depictions of personal grief.
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the leading poets of English Romanticism, and, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, is regarded as one of the ‘Lake Poets’: poets so named because of their associations with the Lake District in Cumbria in northern England.
Curiously, although Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumbria and would live for many years at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, some of Wordsworth’s most important and influential poems were written in the late 1790s while he was living in southern England and collaborating with Coleridge on their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which would herald a return to older, traditional oral forms of poetry and a privileging of personal sensory experience and individual emotion over the cool rationalism and orderliness of earlier eighteenth-century verse.
Wordsworth’s themes are nature and the English countryside, the place of the individual within the world, and memory: especially childhood memory. One of his most famous statements is ‘the child is father of the man’, which asserts that our childhood years are so formative that they determine the adult we become. Wordsworth is often looking back to his childhood, and nowhere more so than in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805; revised 1850).
Lyrical Ballads heralded the arrival of English Romanticism in poetry, and Wordsworth added a famous preface to the collection when it was reprinted in 1800. However, he later fell out with Coleridge, and his poetic creativity dried up in his thirties; much of his best work was written before 1807. He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 when his fellow Lake Poet, Robert Southey, died, but he never composed a single line of official verse during his seven years in the post. He died in 1850.
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You pose an interesting question about the closing sestet. I’d say that its affecting power comes directly from the contrast with the language of the earlier lines.
The opening four lines are marked by interruption and changes of syntax; as you say, the poet is “impatient to be on with it”, “swept up in the excitement” at this point. The sestet provides, through its natural syntax and familiar diction, a contrast to this change and movement, to what one might call the vicissitudes of the moment, experienced by the poet at the start. Now the pain is recognised, especially in the last three lines, as being always present, continuous, unchanging. The effect depends on the contrast: what might be platitudinous in another context, is here made heartfelt and genuine.
Is this objective analysis or subjective, personal preference? It seems to me that simplicity in poetry, whether of thought or of language, often poses a problem: is it simple and profound, or simple and banal?
Surprised by emotion. First time I’ve read this poem.
Wordsworth eloquently catches the moment: longing to share a moment of joy with a beloved, knowing he’d equally enjoy it. Alas no longer alive & oh the acute moments of sadness.
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