Skip to main content

William Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy" and "Composed upon Westminster Bridge"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

Introduction and Text of "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 an innovative Petrarchan sonnet with the varied rime-scheme in the octave, ABBAACCA and the sestet, DEDEDE. 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

The speaker senses the presence of his daughter, who had died many years earlier.

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 tell his companion about his beautiful feeling. He the became "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 had left this earth and lay deep within "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.

Introduction and Text of "Composed upon Westminster Bridge"

William Wordsworth's sonnet delivers the message that the beauty of the city can equal that of pastoral beauty. Written in the traditional Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet form, the poem’s movements glide through a series of images that appeal to the senses.

Once the notion of pastoral, rustic, country life has taken over the imagination, it becomes customary to disparage city life with its crowded thoroughfares, noisy traffic, and industrial soot and smoke.

With its tall buildings blocking out the sunlight and concrete walkways pounding the feet and legs, the city offers the Romantic philosopher/poet the perfect adversary, and thus beauty comes to belong only to the country.

But what if one possesses a mind that is more inclusive, and less attracted to negativity? After all, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"—or so the old proverb goes.

William Wordsworth’s sonnet, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802," delivers a message that is not always associated with the Romantics: a detailing of the beauty of the city.

Country life surrounded in nature is thought to be the domain of the Romantics, but in this insightful sonnet, Wordsworth’s speaker describes a beauty that many folk, Romantic or otherwise, often overlook.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Reading of "Composed upon Westminster Bridge"

Commentary on "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

One of the leading voices of the Romantic Movement, William Wordsworth crafted this poem in the traditional Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet form. From the speaker’s first Romantic effusion to his appeal to his Creator, he is offering a celebration of the subject of beauty that the Romantics often overlooked.

First Movement: Romantic Effusion

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:

The opening three lines of this Wordsworth sonnet offer a typical Romantic effusion. The speaker claims what he is observing has no equal on the earth. What he sees is as "fair" as anything he has ever seen before.

He adds that only someone whose soul is dulled could fail to register the "majesty" of "a sight so touching." Without identifying the beautiful sight, the speaker mysteriously lures his audience into his narrative.

The use of hyperbole by master craftsmen enhances the force of their works; Wordsworth was one of those master craftsmen. The first line offers such an exaggerated statement that one must immediately form some doubt.

But then the consummate poet supports his hyperbolic claim with a statement which cannot be doubted.

Even though the claims are ultimately the opinion of the speaker, the reader understands the benign nature of the claims and that they remain simply in service of describing the subject clearly and completely.

Second Movement: Majestic Motivation

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

The speaker then reveals this majestic sight which has motivated his claim that there is nothing on earth more beautiful than the sight he is now experiencing. It is not some wondrous field of flowers; it is "[t]his City."

The speaker is viewing the city in the morning, and it seems to be wearing the morning’s beauty as one would wear a lovely piece of clothing, such as a beautiful gown or finely tailored suit.

The city is "silent" and simple, and the speaker observes various entities such as "ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples."

These man-made structures, however, seem not to be enclosed and finite; they seem to be offering themselves "open" unto the fields and sky, as would a field of flowers or a valley sculpted by the hand of nature’s Creator.

Third Movement: A Calming View

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

This beautiful morning is revealing these city structures without their usual specter of smoke and soot that ordinarily smear the atmospheric face of the city’s environment.

Instead, the speaker feels the urge to confess that his usual feelings of calmness and peace only brought forth by nature have been aroused by this "bright and glittering" view.

Again with an exaggerated effusion, the speaker suggests that even the sun has never shed light on a more serene and lovely sight as it has risen over "valley, rock, or hill."

The speaker is suggesting that he is surprised to be finding himself being delighted by a city scene. His ordinary preference is for a country scene with the God-sculpted rocks, hills, and valleys, or perhaps flowers and trees with birds singing all around.

Fourth Movement: Exploding in Wonder

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Finally, the speaker observes that the river is moving on as it is accustomed to do. He figuratively explodes in wonder that even the houses seem to be sleeping, while the very heart of the city is still.

As the river glides and the houses themselves seem to be sleeping, he is finding a large measure of tranquility in the beauty of the city scene.

The speaker burst forth addressing the Creator with "Dear God!" He has become so enthralled in the observation that he must cry out to reveal the marvelous tension building from his joy at experiencing such unexpected loveliness in a place wherein he never expected to find it.

Peace, quietude, calmness, and stillness of the natural world untouched by humankind inform the Romantics’ notion of a pastoral scene. But this speaker is successfully demonstrating that the city in the morning with the sun rising over it can offer equal tranquillity to the Romantic notion of that quality.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the tone of the poem "Surprised by Joy"?

Answer: The tone is prayerful cheer.

Question: What kind of sonnet is William Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy"?

Answer: William Wordsworth's "Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind" is an innovative Petrarchan sonnet with the varied rime-scheme in the octave, ABBAACCA and the sestet, DEDEDE. 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" at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... .)

Question: What is the message of the poem "Surprised by Joy" by William Wordsworth?

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

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes