Facing Grief Through Poetry

Isaiah’s “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” could well be applied to William Wordsworth in 1812 . For that year saw the death of two of William’s children: Catherine aged three and three quarters in June and Tommy of measles in December at the tender age of six. He wrote this poem as an epitaph.

 Surprised by joy-impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport-Oh! with whom 
But Thee, deep 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. 

With Dorothy, grief perhaps was moderated by her frailty. She had never been a well child” (Bate J. Radical Wordsworth P363). Suffering convulsions when she was eighteen months, she was paralysed on the left side and at three and three-quarters she developed the brain fever that finished her.

With Tommy a great future was hoped for. “His sixth birthday came a few days after Dorothy’s death.” He was everyone’s comfort. The other children quarelled with each other but never with him. He was beginning to show a love of books and learning. His father loved him with what Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) called a “peculiar tenderness”. Wordsworth was hoping that this would be the son who would follow in his poetic footsteps. He would describe his boy of ” heavenly disposition,……… passionately fond of knowledge, ardent in the discharge of his duty but in everything else mild and peaceful.”(ibid. P. 365).

While not naming Tommy the poem seems suited to the child but its lack of specificity means that for every reader who has experienced grief a particular force of shared feeling.

Following The Poem.

Transported by delight you turn to share the emotion and the actuality of separation comes back to you with renewed force. The one with whom you are accustomed to share is no longer there. The renewal of the shock brings guilt-how could you ever forget?- and a vivid re-living of the first realisation of the death and the reconfirmed sense of the unalterability of what has happened.

The poem is a looking within at the emotions. We do not see out there. Until the final lines there is only the one central image of the tomb. We are not drawn to what looks striking about the scene that brings the joy; we are not invited to distinguish the one now dead, until with a summing-up epithet in the last line. And also we are not expected to commiserate with the poet, one William Wordsworth- he is not looking for our sympathy: he is too concentrated on attending to the grief working within him .

The poem is packed with a range of feelings which the poet has to work to understand. We as readers undistracted by images follow the confused to and fro of the poet’s emotions as they are worked into a fuller kind of understanding: and then, later, going over the poem in our minds we are given the freedom to relate these to ourselves and our own experience.

On first reading the last thing we expect on reading the first line and a half is a poem of mourning. The first phrase appears to promise a scene of wonder. When this is broken into by the next phrase “Impatient as the wind” we are probably confused. Then “I turned to share the transport” possibly more for us than Wordsworth’s contemporary readership puzzles us with “transport” until we recognise the appropriate meaning:

“the state of being affected by strong (now esp. pleasurable) emotion; exaltation, rapture, ecstasy. M17”. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

The external scene that has conjured up that “transport” ,that has roused the poet is brought down to the central reality of loss:

                                    Oh with whom 
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, 
That spot which no viccisitude can find? 
Love, faithful love recalled thee to my mind-
But how could I forget thee?


“Vicissitude” is another surprising word. Checking the S.O.E.D. the meaning that seems most fitting is “change or mutability regarded as a natural process or tendency in human affairs”. Note how the poet, changeable “impatient as the wind” with that word negated, is brought to the recognition of the unalterable, against himself ,as it were. The power of the poem-the emotion driving the series of broken phrases brings the poet to this point of self- accusation: “But how could I forget thee?”

The rhetorical question leads to an expression of guilt- common in the grieving-a feeling that one has let the mourned one down.

The reflection takes the poet back to the original feeling; here, alone, the poet pictures himself “when I stood forlorn”. The phrase “heart’s best treasure” inevitably in a Bible-steeped culture reminds the reader of the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is there will be your heart also”(St Matthew 6:21). This passage from the gospel also connects with the phrase “heavenly face” in the poem. Notably Wordsworth has also, in the letter telling of the child’s death quoted above used the epithet “heavenly” there. In the gospel passage Jesus speaks of the need to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”(Matthew 6.20).

This consolation is not however in Wordsworth’s poem

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

While the implication of “heavenly” is potentially one of reconciliation with the grief that is a stage which has not yet been reached. The fact of separation is too brutal and something which the poet has to continue to face stoically.

What the poem encourages then is not so much transcending grief but facing it with stoical courage. What is notable about the poem is the rhythmic power that carries the poem through its sequence of intense feelings to its final agonised recognition.


Jonathan Bate Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who changed the World. William Collins 2020

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