‘Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’ is a poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) which appeared in his 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, the book he co-authored with his fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although not one of the more famous poems from that collection, it deserves close analysis because it contains a number of prominent themes of Romanticism and Wordsworth’s poetry in particular.
The best way to analyse ‘Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’ is probably to go through the poem, stanza by stanza, offering a kind of summary as we go.
Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening
Indeed, before we even come to that first stanza, we hit upon a problem with the poem’s title, ‘Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’, which appears to the ‘scene’ with admirable clarity and accuracy. However, as Wordsworth later wrote, in a note to the poem:
This title is scarcely correct. It was during a solitary walk on the banks of the Cam [i.e., in Cambridgeshire] that I was first struck with this appearance, and applied it to my own feelings in the manner here expressed, changing the scene to the Thames, near Windsor.
But we’ll allow Wordsworth his poetic licence. The main thing is that, in the poem at least, he is not ‘on the banks of’ the river, but actually ‘on the Thames’, rowing in a boat, as the reference to an ‘oar’ makes clear in a later stanza.
So, to the first stanza:
How rich the wave, in front, imprest
With evening-twilight’s summer hues,
While, facing thus the crimson west,
The boat her silent path pursues!
And see how dark the backward stream!
A little moment past, so smiling!
And still, perhaps, with faithless gleam,
Some other loiterer beguiling.
As in a number of Wordsworth’s greatest poems, such as ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’, we find the poet on a summer evening, observing the ‘rich’ wave of the river’s current, and a boat sailing towards the west, where the sky is ‘crimson’ where the sun is setting on the horizon.
The imagery seems straightforward, but is subtly deceptive: the ‘stream’ we first take to belong to the river (whether the Thames or Cam: Wordsworth’s note has already revealed that he has fudged the details by swapping one river for the other), but as we read on, we wonder how water can be described as ‘smiling’. Then we realise that this ‘stream’ belongs to the rays or ‘streams’ of dying sun: we’ve all seen the way the red sunset spreads out on the distant horizon in this way.
Wordsworth personifies this sunlight, calling its gleam ‘faithless’, i.e. unfaithful: the sunset is like an unfaithful lover who is ‘beguiling’ someone other ‘loiterer’, besides Wordsworth, as the same time as it’s putting on a show for the poet himself. (There’s an irony in Wordsworth ‘beguiling’ or tricking us with his use of the ambiguous ‘stream’ just at the moment that he’s describing the sun’s deceitful behaviour!)
Such views the youthful bard allure,
But, heedless of the following gloom,
He deems their colours shall endure
’Till peace go with him to the tomb.
—And let him nurse his fond deceit,
And what if he must die in sorrow!
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though grief and pain may come to-morrow?
This stanza builds on the idea of this ‘deceit’. In other words: ‘This beautiful sunset is attractive to a young poet, who is too young to know that the passing of the day represents the darker ‘gloom’ that is the passing of time and coming of death. But let him live in his blissful ignorance; so what if he will die unhappy one day? Who would not rather entertain more hopeful dreams, even though they know they will be miserable in the future?’
This stanza essentially encapsulates Wordsworth’s ideas that youthful innocence is more ‘true’ and pure than adulthood, when we have been stripped of our naïve illusions – but, in losing these dreams and ideals, have also lost an important part of who we are. As he memorably put it in his short poem about the wonders of the rainbow, ‘The Child is father of the Man’, because our childhood is our formative time which makes us the adult we become. And as Wordsworth makes clear in his masterly longer poem, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, it is a tragedy when we lose our years of youthful wide-eyed innocence.
Glide gently, thus for ever glide,
O Thames! that other bards may see,
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair river! come to me.
Oh glide, fair stream! for ever so;
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
’Till all our minds for ever flow,
As thy deep waters now are flowing.
Wordsworth apostrophises (or rhetorically addresses, knowing it cannot talk back) the river, calling upon it to glide for ever, so that other poets after Wordsworth, poets not yet born even, will be able to see the beautiful views the riverside presents.
Vain though! yet be as now thou art,
That in thy waters may be seen
The image of a poet’s heart,
How bright, how solemn, how serene!
Such heart did once the poet bless,
Who, pouring here a later ditty,
Could find no refuge from distress,
But in the milder grief of pity.
Wordsworth moves from contemplating future poets to considering a past poet. Specifically, the ‘poet’ whose ‘heart’ he refers to in the fifth line of this stanza is James Thomson (1700-1748), a Scottish poet who is best-known for two things: writing the words to the patriotic song, ‘Rule, Britannia’, and composing a long nature poem, The Seasons. Although Thomson was writing some half a century before Wordsworth and English Romanticism, in some ways he can be regarded as a forerunner to later Romantic poetry about the natural world.
Thomson could not find any respite or ‘refuge’ from his ‘distress’, but the river with its calming and beautiful views could, at least offer him a ‘milder grief’ to take his mind off his own troubles, and that milder grief was ‘pity’: a sense of connectedness between the solitary poet and everything (and everyone) else around him.
But the river has a tragic significance for Thomson. In his later years, James Thomson did indeed live in Richmond upon Thames, where he wrote his last great work, The Castle of Indolence. But Samuel Johnson provides the poignant detail: ‘by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put end to his life.’ This explains the ‘freezing sorrows’ Wordsworth makes reference to in the poem’s final stanza.
Remembrance! as we glide along,
For him suspend the dashing oar,
And pray that never child of Song
May know his freezing sorrows more.
How calm! how still! the only sound,
The dripping of the oar suspended!
—The evening darkness gathers round
By virtue’s holiest powers attended.
Wordsworth concludes ‘Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’ by calling upon his companions in the boat to ‘suspend’ the oar being used to glide the boat through the water: to halt in the river for a moment and honour the dead Thomson, remembering him.
The water is so calm and still – the only sound the poet can hear is the dropping of water from the oar that is held suspended above the water – that Wordsworth trusts no other poet will meet his tragic end, as Thomson did, because of this lovely river.
‘Lines Written near Richmond, upon the Thames, at Evening’ is, then, a poem in praise of the beautiful river, but also a poem in remembrance of another poet. But Wordsworth only created such a poem by taking an earlier memory of a walk along the River Cam (which indicates he was thinking back to his university days, in 1788-91, at Cambridge) and joining it with another poem he had written, about James Thomson.