By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’ is a short lyric poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), perhaps the greatest and most celebrated English Romantic poet. But, aside from its reasonably well-known opening line, ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’ is not usually listed among Wordsworth’s best-known poems. It’s worth pondering and even analysing here, though, as the poem is a brilliant evocation of nature’s tranquillity and worthy of a few words of analysis. Here’s the poem first:
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’: in summary, Wordsworth praises the beautiful evening for its calm and quiet. It’s as if the whole world is hushed with admiration for the beauty of nature, much as a nun is rendered breathless and speechless with her admiration for God. Even the sun seems to be setting more out of a glorious lethargy and relaxation than because … well, because it’s what it does every evening.
As the sun touches the sea as it sets, Wordsworth likens it to God’s gentleness. Yet at this point, Wordsworth implores us to ‘Listen!’ – God is awake, and demonstrating his power, since the sun sets because God has decreed it. The sound of the world turning is likened to thunder, but everlasting thunder, because the world keeps on turning, forever.
That’s all in the poem’s octave, or first eight lines. As the beginning of line nine (‘Dear Child! dear Girl!’) Wordsworth turns to address his companion, who walks with him on the shore. This companion or ‘Dear Child’ is almost certainly Wordsworth’s own daughter, Caroline, whose mother was the Frenchwoman Annette Vallon.
Wordsworth wrote ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’ in 1802, when Caroline would have been 9 years old. Wordsworth cannot know what Caroline is thinking (is she ‘untouched by solemn thought’, unlike her father, who is very much touched?), but that doesn’t make her ‘nature’ less ‘divine’ than his: she lies ‘in Abraham’s bosom’ all year round. Wordsworth here is alluding to the Gospel of Luke, 16:22: ‘And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom’.
Although Caroline was very much alive in 1802, Wordsworth appears to be referring to the special place in heaven children occupied, at least in his Romantic ‘philosophy’. In the final line of the poem, Wordsworth tells Caroline that God is wither even when he and she are unaware of it.
The purpose of this seaside walk with his daughter was important to the poet. This was the first time he’d spent time with her: Wordsworth had fallen in love with Annette Vallon during the French Revolution, when a young, idealistic Wordsworth has spent time in France in 1791-2. Now, in 1802, as he prepared to settle down and marry a woman named Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth made the trip across the Channel to visit his daughter and discuss his marriage with Caroline’s mother.
One wonders whether Matthew Arnold was recalling Wordsworth’s poem when he wrote his famous seaside poem, ‘Dover Beach’. In that poem, written nearly fifty years later, the view is the same (of the English Channel), although Arnold is viewing the sea from Dover, while Wordsworth is across the water, on the coast of northern France.
Nevertheless, the focus on the beautiful ‘calm’ of the evening, the appeal to ‘Listen!’, the thunder/roar we find in both, and the turn to a female companion to provide, and to an extent to seek, reassurance. Of course, Arnold turns such divine comfort on its head, seeing human companionship as a consolation for the lack of the divine, rather than viewing the human and divine as one.
And ‘turn’ is the right word: at the moment Wordsworth turns to speak to his nine-year-old daughter in line 9, we get the signature volta or ‘turn’ found in the Petrarchan sonnet at this point. And ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’ is a sonnet, and a Petrarchan sonnet – but with one important innovation. A Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an octave (eight-line unit) and a sestet (six-line unit), with the octave rhymed abbaabba, i.e. with two quatrains of enclosed rhyme.
But Wordsworth departs slightly from this, rhyming his octave abbaacca, thus introducing a new rhyme in the middle of the second quatrain. (In full, ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’ is rhymed abbaacca defdfe.)
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.