William Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Wordsworth

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Surprised by Joy"

William Wordsworth has reported that this poem was "was in fact suggested by my daughter Catharine long after her death." The poem's mystic musing reveals the speaker's soul craving.

William Wordsworth's "Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind" is a Petrarchan sonnet with the traditional octave whose rime scheme is ABBAABBA and the traditional sestet with the rime scheme CDCDCD. The octave features two discrete quatrains and the sestet features two tercets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Surprised by Joy

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Reading of "Surprise by Joy"

Commentary

Octave First Quatrain: The Urge to Share Joy

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

The speaker is animated claiming to have been "surprised by joy." The surprise of this joy impelled him to "share the transport" with his companion. He felt "impatient as the Wind" and unthinkingly turns to comment on his euphoria but then suddenly is brought back to the reality that the person with whom he intended to share his feeling is "deep buried in the silent tomb."

Having died, his companion can no longer be accosted by the "vicissitude[s]" of the wind, the sun, or other joyful expressions of nature. The speaker is alone in his joy, and he is then compelled to capture that odd moment when the joy had been so strong that it made him briefly forget the death and think his loved one still alive and by his side.

Octave Second Quatrain: Strong Bonds Beyond the Grave

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

In the second quatrain of the octave, the speaker then reasons that his momentary lapse was caused by his deep "Love, faithful love"; this strong connection based on profound love heralded the departed loved one to the speaker's mind, making him virtually feel that she indeed stood beside him as the joy swept through his being.

Sestet First Tercet: Reliving Grief

To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

But then the speaker questions the idea implied by his brief moment of forgetfulness that he could ever forget his beloved. He asserts rhetorically through his question that no power could exert itself sufficiently to "blind" him to his "most grievous loss."

The speaker then avers that having that thought of the fact that his beloved had died brought "the worst pang that sorrow ever bore." However, he then qualifies that claim by stating that there was one—"one only"—other occasion when he had suffered such a grief.

Sestet Second Tercet: Distressing Awarenesss

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

That other occasion occurred as he "stood forlorn" just after the death of his loved one, probably by the gravesite. At that time, as he stood by the grave of the departed, he suffered deeply "knowing my heart's best treasure was no more."

The speaker recalls the distressing awareness that he would never look upon "that heavenly face" again. He remembers thinking that time "neither present time, nor years unborn" would ever resolve the grief he was experiencing.

The Efficacy of Strong Emotion

Strong emotion can bring about many different kinds of worldly experiences. The strong feeling that penetrates the heart and then runs beyond the mind is capable of attracting the soul in its infinite wisdom and storehouse of thoughts and experiences and eliciting from the soul the very objects on which the mind and heart have depended for love and affection.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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