‘Strange fits of passion have I known’ belongs to a small suite of poems William Wordsworth wrote about ‘Lucy’, a girl or young woman (her precise age is difficult to determine); along with ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (which does not mention Lucy by name) and ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’, ‘Strange fits of passion’ appeared in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, the volume Wordsworth co-wrote with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Strange fits of passion I have known:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the Lover’s ear alone,
What once to me befel.
When she I loved was strong and gay,
And like a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath the evening Moon.
Upon the Moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea:
My Horse trudged on—and we drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.
And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
Towards the roof of Lucy’s cot
The Moon descended still.
In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!
And, all the while, my eyes I kept
On the descending Moon.
My Horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopp’d:
When down behind the cottage roof
At once the bright Moon dropp’d.
What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover’s head—
‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried,
‘If Lucy should be dead!’
‘Strange fits of passion have I known’ is in the ballad metre: quatrains of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, or eight-syllable and six-syllable lines, rhymed abab (rather than the more usual abcb for ballads). Unlike many of the poems which feature in Lyrical Ballads, ‘Strange fits of passion’ is actually a ballad, not just because it utilises the same metre and form but because it tells a story.
And what story does it tell? In summary, it’s about the poet riding on horseback to the cottage where his beloved, Lucy, lives. This is a night-time visit, implying a romantic assignation, and the light of the moon guides the poet on his way (its light perhaps suggesting the origins of Lucy’s name, in the Latin lux, ‘light’). The poet is happy as he rides through the night to see his beloved, dwelling in a ‘sweet dream’ of joy and contentment – until, suddenly, a terrible thought comes into his head: what if his beloved is dead?
This is an odd poem, in many ways. ‘Strange fits of passion’ indeed. How should we analyse it? As a poem about a romantic tryst, it ends before the lovers even meet; as a poem about death, the idea of death is introduced too late and its effect is jarring. Perhaps that is what is intended, but we are not given any particular reason why Lucy should be so sickly or likely to perish.
‘Strange fits of passion have I known’ is a short poem, and a minor one when set beside ‘Tintern Abbey’ or ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, and certainly when set beside The Prelude, Wordsworth’s colossal autobiographical poem. But it is notable for the curious way it combines romance and death, longing and fear, and the way Wordsworth chooses to employ the symbolism of the moon.
@ Gillian Cameron
A quick survey within my family reveals one more person who, like you, is familiar with the fact of the moon appearing to go down very fast when, on setting, it approaches the horizon. So maybe this is the origin of Wordsworth’s description of its quick descent. However, the poet refers to the moon going “down behind the cottage roof” rather than down below the horizon itself. Nonetheless, the effect – speedy descent on being about to set – may be the same.
Yes that’s right. We were sitting on our deck one night having coffee (it was summer) and watched the moon glide down behind the hill opposite. Felt kinda spooky! I can understand how pre-scientific peoples viewed such events as portents of something cataclysmic about to happen. We half wondered ourselves …
When it says “When down behind the cottage roof
At once the bright Moon dropp’d.” I think Wordsworth is describing a moon set. The moon sinks so quickly below the horizon that you have the feeling that something terrible is about to happen! The first time I saw this it evoked that feeling in me even though I knew it wasn’t real.
The tryst in this poem is, surely, just the occasion for the subject viz, the wild, irrational, fearful imaginings of any enthusiastic young lover. In this case, these thoughts are occasioned by the decline of the moon in the sky, as the writer approaches the cottage of the beloved. He is keeping his eyes on the moon, for it is guiding his way. And then it suddenly drops out of sight! It is that which prompts the nightmare thought that comes into his mind: what “if Lucy should be dead!”
The moon can be a symbol of changeability (Oh fortuna velut luna), and here the symbol is ominous. In this poem the fear erupts, intruding upon the lover’s anticipation – the sweet dreams – of the tryst. The fear, rather than the dream, is to be tragically realized, of course, in the next poem of the sequence, “She dwelt among the untrodden ways”.
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