Poem of the Week #2 – Surprised by Joy by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable

As a rebuttal to anyone who thought that I was devaluing Wordsworth’s standing with my last entry. Do not misunderstand me: Wordsworth is one of the greatest poets that Europe has ever produced. The problem, however, is that for the handful of sublimely great poems that he did write, there are entire volumes of lacklustre verse. While every great poet in the end is simply remembered for a handful of poems of true quality, the difference between the small amount good and the great amounts of plain bad with Wordsworth is so palpable.

But this does not tarnish his legacy a jot, so enjoy one of the greatest sonnets–and one of the saddest poems–our language has to offer.

Surprised by Joy – William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

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. 


Petrarchan sonnet written in iambic pentameter.


This poem is adressed to the poets’ daughter, Catherine, who died in childhood. The poem starts with the poet being interrupted–“surprised”–by a feeling of happiness. What the cause of this happiness is is not mentioned. However, the poet relates how his instinctive desire is to share it with the person he holds dearest. In this case, his daughter. With this reflection, the poem shifts just as quickly out of joy as it came into it.

The greater feeling of sorrow that consumes the rest of the poem is not so much due to the fact that he cannot share his joy with his daughter as it is the guilt of having forgotten about her, even if it was for the slightest fraction in time. The pain this guilt causes, the poet says, is the worst he has ever felt, except one, of course: the moment when he first found out his daughter had died, and which he ha now must recall again.

What consolation is possible then? The sorrow is not principally that of the tragedy of a child’s death but rather the idea that the poet will not be able to be happy ever again.

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