‘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.