Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | "Surprised by Joy—Impatient as the Wind" | Summary



This sonnet is a later work, published in the 1815 Collected Poems, with 14 lines divided into an octet and a sestet. "Surprised by Joy" portrays a deep sadness, moving from joy in the first line to acceptance in the last lines of final loss of his "heart's best treasure." An unspecified death has taken someone to a "silent Tomb," and yet the speaker was able to feel some joy in an experience that he wished to share. But grief prevents him from doing so, since he realizes the person he wants to tell of his joy is gone. The sestet reflects that despite the immense sorrow brought to him now of the loss that spoils his enjoyment of the experience, he has also forgotten the initial, even deeper sense of pain from knowing he will never see her again. That memory overwhelms him in its immediacy and carries him backward in time.


Wordsworth's beloved youngest daughter from his marriage to Mary Hutchinson had died suddenly in June 1812. Following a long period of mourning, when he first felt connected to life again, he was brought back to grief by the sense of permanence surrounding the loss. In the poem his deep parental sorrow contrasts with the lively first line. Surprise was often important to the poet. He valued spontaneity and immediate reaction to experiences, as these feelings became stored in memory and would flow with genuine feeling at the moment of poetic creation. Romantic lyricism favored immediacy of reaction rather than a controlled or planned adherence to behavior, so there appears to be value in his enthusiastic behavior to whatever experience caused him to feel a "transport" of emotion outside of himself.

However, his interest in human psychology leads him to realize that the loss of his daughter is something that will remain with him even if he might one day move to a point where he could enjoy life again. He is still susceptive to the loss and even senses puzzlement with himself and guilt for having been "blind" to her memory. He permitted himself a rapid entry of joy that took him away from the memory of her as fast as a wind might blow the air. He feels very deep sorrow again, yet he is able to classify and distance himself from it with a comparison of the greater distress he felt when she died.

It may be a way of coping with loss to measure how dreadful the absence is on some imagined scale. The child's death seems bound to be always the deepest pain, so perhaps as time goes on he will amass other checks on joy in realizing Catherine is gone. He may then find some consolation in his remaining life by dealing with them in a similar manner of analyzing his feelings.

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