By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Perfect Woman’, sometimes known by its first line, ‘She was a phantom of delight’, is a poem William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote in 1804 about his wife, Mary Hutchinson. The poem is a classic example of uxorious poetry – poetry written about the love for a wife – and although its meaning is fairly straightforward, a few words of analysis will help to elucidate certain features of Wordsworth’s ‘Perfect Woman’. First, though, here’s the poem:
‘Perfect Woman’: summary and analysis
‘Perfect Woman’ is a romantic poem (written in praise of the poet’s wife) but also a Romantic poem, with a capital ‘R’: the poem is written by one of the leading first-generation poets of English Romanticism.
She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleam’d upon my sight;
A lovely apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;
Like twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From Maytime and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
The clue to the meaning of ‘Perfect Woman’ lies in that first line: ‘She was a phantom of delight’. Wordsworth praises his wife as semi-supernatural or ethereal.
This ghostly or quasi-ghostly language (‘apparition’, ‘haunt’) continues throughout the opening stanza of the poem. The emphasis is on images and seeing: Wordsworth goes back to when his wife ‘first … gleam’d upon my sight’.
I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
In the second stanza, Wordsworth continues to put his wife on a pedestal: ‘A Spirit, yet a Woman too!’ The poet then moves into the domestic sphere, drawing attention to his wife’s ‘household motions’. Both the past (‘Sweet records’) and future (‘promises as sweet’) are written in her face or ‘countenance’.
The line ‘A creature not too bright or good’ sounds patronisingly insulting, and hasn’t aged well; but Wordsworth, who wanted to write poetry in the language of ordinary people and capture the lives of ordinary folk, has a reverence for the daily.
In other words, then, the lines ‘A creature not too bright or good / For human nature’s daily food’ praise Mary as not being too proud or haughty to take pleasure in the ‘daily food’ of ordinary humankind.
And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly plann’d,
To warm, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.
In the final stanza of the poem, the focus remains firmly on the visual: ‘And now I see with eye serene / The very pulse of the machine’. ‘Machine’ here is not a reference to the Industrial Revolution, or at least almost certainly not: Wordsworth is using ‘machine’ in the sense of ‘body’ or ‘living organism’.
Mary is still described somewhat condescendingly as a ‘being’ (recall ‘creature’ from the previous stanza), but her ‘reason’ is ‘firm’ and her endurance, foresight, strength, and skill are all praised.
Nor is Mary simply a comforter to her famous husband, the great poet Wordsworth: yes, she is there to ‘warm’ and to ‘comfort’ him, but also to ‘command’. Before Coventry Patmore coined the phrase ‘angel in the house’ to describe the Victorian wife and mother, Wordsworth celebrates the ‘angelic light’ of his wife.
‘Perfect Woman’: form
‘Perfect Woman’ is written in fairly regular iambic tetrameter, which means there are four iambs per line, an iamb being a metrical foot comprising an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. So, in the first line: ‘She WAS a PHAN-tom OF de-LIGHT’.
This simple, straightforward metre is in keeping with the subject of the poem, which praises the ‘perfect woman’ for her plain charms. The rhyming couplets offer an uncomplicated rhyme scheme, which reflects this.