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William Wordsworth

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sonnet, commentary, criticism, analysis 


Oil sketch, John Constable c1828

Poems in Two Volumes (1807, 37)
composed 1802 (32)

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 tranquility;
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.

Abraham’s bosom : Luke 16:22-25

22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried.
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.


This sonnet follows the classical sonnet form of fourteen lines split between an octet and a sestet, with a significant change in subject matter between the two.

The octet, which concerns itself with a languid description of the coastal landscape, has a calm and measured rhythm until the unexpected interruption of the flow at syllable seven of line three, presumably to take a breath (since we are 'breathless with adoration'). It slows further with the long vowels of 'broad sun', 'sinking down', 'broods o'er', until almost stopped by the sudden 'listen!' There are more long vowels with 'mighty Being' and 'eternal motion', until we arrive at the punctuation of the word 'thunder'. We then go to sleep with the endless 'everlastingly'.

The initial exclamations of the sestet wake us up again, and the girl, Wordsworth's daughter by his French mistress, Annette Vallon, appears. She is nine years old, and Wordsworth has never seen her before, though he had a good reason for not visiting since the French and English were at war, and travel between the two countries was restricted, even impossible. She is described as 'untouched by solemn thought'. In the rest of the sestet, the poet launches into a reflection on the biblical story of the beggar, the unfortunate man in this life, who is received in heaven on death while the rich man, the fortunate man in this life, languishes in hell. The unfortunate beggar parallels the girl, but what is her misfortune in this life? Perhaps simply for the fact of being fatherless, but then why 'untouched by solemn thought'? Is it a euphemism? Better than 'mentally challenged' at all events.

The sonnet ends with a little paradox, the fact of 'God being with thee when we know it not'. But how can we state this as a fact if we don't know it? Absurd. Well, perhaps not simply absurd, perhaps a piece of sophistry designed by Wordsworth to obfuscate and to wash his hands of the matter, which he effectively did, failing even to attend Caroline's marriage in Paris in February 1816, despite strenuous efforts by and multiple invitations from the girl and her mother, who continued throughout her life to call herself Annette Wordsworth. Even the wonderful, sensitive Dorothy, who had become almost a substitute to the Vallons for William himself, failed to go*.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Journal, August 1802

We arrived at Calais at 4 o'clock on Sunday morning the 31st of [actually 1st August]. We stayed in the vessel till half past seven. Then William went for Letters, at about half past eight or nine. We found out Annette and Caroline chez Madame Avril dans la Rue de la Tête d'Or. We lodged opposite two Ladies in tolerably decent-sized rooms but badly furnished, and with large store of bad smells and dirt in the yard, and all about. The weather was very hot. We walked by the sea-shore almost every evening with Annette and Caroline or William and I alone. I had a bad cold and could not bathe at first, but William did. It was a pretty sight to see as we walked upon the Sands when the tide was low, perhaps a hundred people bathing about a quarter of a mile distant from us, and we had delightful walks after the heat of the day was passed away - seeing far off in the west the Coast of England like a cloud crested with Dover Castle, which was but like the summit of the cloud - the Evening star and the glory of the sky.

and then:

It was also beautiful, on the calm hot night, to see the little Boats row out of harbour with wings of fire, and the sail boats with the fiery track which they cut as they went along, and which closed up after them with a hundred thousand sparkles, balls, shooting and streams of glow-worm light. Caroline was delighted.

History complicated these relationships, firstly the personal history of William Wordsworth and his marriage to Mary Hutchinson, and secondly the European history of the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the almost constant war between England and France during most of this period. When, twelve years later, it came to Caroline's marriage, Dorothy Wordsworth, wrote to Mrs Clarkson, 9 October 1814:

She [Caroline] and her mother are extremely anxious that I should be present at the wedding and for that purpose have pressed me very much to go in October. This, unless such good fortune attended us as being taken under your and your Husband's protection, we could not think of at this season, and therefore I wish that the marriage should be deferred till next spring or summer, because I desire exceedingly to see the poor Girl before she takes another protector than her mother, under whom I believe she has been bred up in perfect purity and innocence, and to whom she is light and life and perpetual pleasure; though, from the over-generous dispositions of the mother, they have had to struggle through many difficulties.

In the event, Dorothy agreed to go over to Paris in April 1815, but was prevented by Napoleon's return to Paris from his confinement on the island of Elba that month. After his subsequent defeat at Waterloo and abdication in July 1815, and the restoration of the monarchy for the second time, Caroline's marriage was finally arranged for February 1816. But the Wordsworths were still unable to attend.

After the event, in a letter to Mrs Clarkson dated 4 April 1816, Dorothy writes:

The mother's details of the wedding festivities would have amused you. She was to give the fête, she who perhaps for half a year to come will feel the effects of it at every dinner she cooks! Thirty persons were present to dinner, ball and supper. The deputies of the department and many other respectable people were there. The bride was dressed in white sarsenet, with a white veil - 'was the admiration of all who beheld her, but her modesty was her best ornament'. She kept her veil on the whole of the day. How truly French this is!

It seems therefore that neither William nor Dorothy Wordsworth contributed anything to the marriage of William's eldest daughter, except his consent.

The most remarkable thing in all this is probably that the affair could be rendered in a sonnet. Without knowing the story behind it, we are pretty much in the dark with regard to the emotions involved. The octet can be appreciated simply as a piece of description, but the sestet is a convuluted piece of obscure reasoning designed as much to obfuscate as to clarify. It is one of the rare moments when Wordsworth introduces God into his verse, and He is introduced simply to reassure that, although fatherless, Caroline nevertheless has a protector. 'Abraham's bosom' functions in pretty much the same way, another father figure. We can rest easy. Caroline has not one, but two fathers to look after her, so I can go off, marry somebody else and spawn a numerous family.

* see Legouis, Emile, William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, Dent and Sons, 1922

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