Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of the Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected).

Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Plot Summary



We Are Seven

One of the early Lyrical Ballads, "We Are Seven" narrates a meeting of the speaker with an eight-year old girl who is simple and straightforward. She lives in the country near a churchyard in a small village and, when asked about her siblings, says that there are seven children in all. Further information reveals that four of them have moved away or are at sea, presumably working, and a brother and sister have died. The narrator admires the child's beauty and assumes she is not able to understand that she is, in fact, the only sibling still living with her mother. To each prompt from him to say there are now five living, she resists and insists on the number seven. The poem ends with the little girl unmoved by his words and convinced she is one of seven.

Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

In this poem from Lyrical Ballads, the poet has returned to view the church abbey at Tintern after an absence of five years. As a younger person he formerly enjoyed the beauty of the setting and the surroundings and kept the memory with him in succeeding times living in cities with far less peace and tranquility and natural loveliness. He has retained the memory of the place and expects to keep it until the end of his days. He adores the setting of the town and the Abbey along the Wye River. He remembers as a boy being wilder in his behavior and needs, and finding peace in places like Tintern. As he matured, he learned to appreciate nature differently, and now finally has a more peaceful, even deeper understanding that gives present comfort.


"Michael" appeared as a long poem of 491 lines at the end of Lyrical Ballads. It tells the full tale of a rural family living simply in the countryside and tending sheep. Michael is an older husband and father whose younger wife and their only son Luke work long and hard hours. The wife lights their way with an old lamp that burns through the night and is known as the "Evening Star." Michael makes for his son a shepherd's staff, which the boy uses as he grows into maturity. The family is troubled when Michael's nephew, for whom he had years before guaranteed financial support, defaults on the obligation. To keep their land, the aged shepherd is forced to send Luke to work in the city to make good on the money. He had begun to build a sheepfold, or shelter, that will stay unfinished as a sign of the family devotion until Luke returns to complete it. Michael and his wife Isabel wait patiently for years after Luke departs, but he goes very wrong under bad influences in the city, and they both die at their cottage without ever seeing him again.

Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known

This poem, published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800, describes a vision of death that the speaker has for a girl identified only as "Lucy." It has seven stanzas of four lines with consistent rhyming in an ABAB CDCD pattern. The speaker has formerly loved Lucy and visited her cottage under the light of the moon, which illuminated his horseback travel. At some point under the influence of the moon, he dreams as the horse climbs the path and the moon sinks in the sky. Once the moon vanishes, he is taken with a vision of the girl's death. This "strange fit of passion" frightens him with a sense of inescapable death vanquishing love.

Ode to Duty

From the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads, the ode of seven stanzas of eight lines each in the ABABCCDD rhyme scheme expresses a tension between the need to follow duty and the freer sense of instinct. There is a call to the laws of God and the need to rely not just on a life of ease but to behave according to stricter principles. The poet lived more easily when younger (he was in his mid-30s when writing the poem) but has learned to seek stability and peace and follow a duty to higher laws.

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802

Not the usual countryside, but a full view of urban London from Westminster bridge in the early summer light fills the poet with joyous impressions in this poem first published in Poems, in Two Volumes (1807). It is a 14-line Petrarchan sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDC DCD. The poem says that anyone who would not appreciate the sight would have a dull soul. Nothing yet is moving or alive, as all seems suspended in a kind of "silent, bare" spectacle. The sight calls to his mind the calm of nature when nothing is disturbed or in motion.

The World Is Too Much With Us

A Petrarchan sonnet with rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDC DCD, "The World Is Too Much With Us" was first published in Poems, in Two Volumes. It expresses the poet's deep sense of alienation from the life of his own times. He states a rejection of the modern economic system with its emphasis on consumption and purchase, claiming that it has wasted and squandered inherent better qualities of people. They are blind to what was formerly appreciated in nature (capitalized by Wordsworth), and so are out of step and out of tune with the values of life itself. After that denunciation of human behavior in the octet, the sestet following imagines a different way of life. The speaker says he might find emotional solace in ancient truths, or in myths of gods that previously inspired passionate truths.

It Is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free

This sonnet has the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDE CED and first appeared in Poems, in Two Volumes. The poem describes the narrator walking on a beach with a beloved child. Together they share in a sense of divine beauty and majesty of sea, sky, and sun. The girl does not appear to share in the poet's sense of worship. Yet her childlike nature does partake of the same divine sense and presence, which seems heightened by her lack of learned, or adult, consciousness.

London, 1802

The sonnet from Poems, in Two Volumes follows a different rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CDD ECE. It has an initial octet and a following sestet. Using the second person, it addresses the great English poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (1667) and someone Wordsworth read deeply. The speaker laments the state of English life in his own time as desperately needing purification with the help of Milton. Wordsworth says the British clergy, state, and culture have deteriorated since Milton's time. The earlier poet's abilities from the past are like the pure heavens and sea and stars that could aid in restoring value to English life, which Wordsworth criticizes as being presently like a swamp.

The Solitary Reaper

This poem from Poems, in Two Volumes is a lyrical ballad of 32 lines. Four stanzas have eight lines apiece, and the rhyme scheme is usually ABAB CCDD, although the first and third lines of the first and last stanzas do not rhyme closely. Wordsworth is said to have been inspired by a hiking trip to the Scottish Highlands, during which his friend Thomas Wilkinson heard a solitary woman working in the field singing in the local Gaelic dialect of the region. He could not understand any words, but the effect haunted him and remained in his mind as something exotic and moving. Her song is as indecipherable to a human ear as it is to any animal's. Its beauty will remain long after the chance seeing and hearing of her by the hiker. The poet repeats his friend's experience closely, as if it were his own.

My Heart Leaps Up (also called The Rainbow)

The short single-stanza poem from Poems, in Two Volumes has irregular rhyme and unusual structure in its nine lines. It states for the poet an important truth that children are more in touch with the truths of nature and existence than adults. They "father" mankind as they are less likely to have lost a natural connection to the divine. Seeing a rainbow and having an emotional reaction to it is a reminder of the tie of God to man, as in the rainbow shown to the Biblical Noah after the flood. The poem expresses deep feelings of wonder and awe as a child might have at nature and creation.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

The poem, first published in Poems, in Two Volumes and later revised, is composed of four six-line stanzas with rhyme scheme ABABCC in each stanza. The poet derives great emotional pleasure and joy from remembering a vision he had of many daffodils seeming to dance in the wind during his walks in the countryside. He is active in the start of the poem, like the clouds, flowers, and waves of a lake, but later is still and pensive. His inner eye calls back the image of nature when he is alone, and he achieves a unity with the daffodils as they move to a natural music and gladden his heart. The inner experience of the flowers gives him a unity outside of himself, as he can remember it at will.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality

The "Ode" from Poems, in Two Volumes is more than 200 lines long and includes stanzas of different lengths and irregular rhyme schemes. It expresses Wordsworth's philosophy on the growth of children into adults and the loss of pure connections to nature and the divine. The first stanzas accept with dismay the inevitable loss of vision and understanding an individual feels as he grows from childhood into maturity. The poet then puts forth his belief that souls are not new creations at birth. They have instead some connection to another far-off existence, where they are close to God and have wisdom that becomes lost as they grow older. Life is shown in all its human activities as an alienating and blindingly destructive process for the soul of the adult. Children are described throughout as wise seers and visionary philosophers of a certain kind. The final stanzas attempt to offer consolation to adults for the remaining years of their lives if they can keep a connection with the purity and openness of their original souls. Nature is the refuge that is always open to the soul. Through nature one can recapture not youth, which is gone, but a fitting end to life that all people may share together philosophically. The death that children cannot conceive for themselves attempts to be a consoling reality for the adult world.

Surprised by Joy—Impatient as the Wind

The sonnet, published in the 1815 Collected Poems, contains 14 lines divided into the beginning octet and the sestet that follows. They are linked by the emotions the speaker feels as he moves from joy to sorrow. He begins impatient to share some joy, perhaps from nature, but realizes that the one he wishes to share it with is dead. That realization makes him wonder how he could ever feel joy without the person, so he must remind himself of the loss, since it is final. He comes to see that the great pain of remembering the death of the beloved one years after could be matched only by the original pain he thought at the time was supreme. The initial joy has vanished, and only the memory remains.

The Prelude

The long 13-part epic is known as The Prelude, but Wordsworth had never decided on any title as such at the time of his death in 1850. The poet referred to it as his "Poem to Coleridge," subtitled "Growth of a Poet's Mind." Wordsworth worked on the poem for years and initially completed it in 1805 but continually revised it for the rest of his life. It was published posthumously by his wife three months after his death.

Divided into "books" of different lengths and in hundreds of lines of blank verse, each individual book carries a title pertaining to a period of his life. In totality the poem is a record of his emotional and spiritual development. Some versions of the poem split Book 10 into two separate books, for a total of 14; this study guide considers the version with 13 books.

Books 1 and 2 focus on the poet's childhood and youth. He has left living abroad to return to his native area in northwest England and will find the most appropriate and meaningful themes for his writing. He speaks of his first years and experiences such as feeling guilty for temporarily stealing a boat. He came to understand nature more and more, an important part of his growth as a poet.

By Book 3 he is mature and attending classes at Cambridge University. His times as a student are mixed, since he does not fully concentrate on the courses or even his fellow students. He enjoys their company but also treasures his solitude.

Book 4 finds him vacationing and growing in his Imagination. He tries to understand himself and his shadowy perceptions more, and he relates the incident of a brief meeting with a poor wandering discharged soldier, one of many such solitary people he will come across.

His episodic education continues in Book 5 as he narrates the influence the visionary poet Coleridge has had on him. He relates a vision that is a strange combination of the Spanish epic Don Quixote he had been reading and a dream of a mysterious Arab on a camel.

Book 6 moves from Wordsworth's experiences in England to abroad. He describes long excursions and hikes in the European Alps at the borderlands of France, Switzerland, and Italy. He is thrilled as well to be in France, where the Revolution has already changed human life greatly.

The poet returns to London in Book 7 after his adventures in Europe. It relates the urban life there, contrasting reality with the life of the imagination.

Book 8 alternates descriptions of London life with a rural existence in the country. It shows his love of nature and its relationship to a love for humankind.

Book 9 brings the poet back to Europe and the turmoil of the French Revolution. His friendship with the officer Michel Beaupuy is very important here. Book 10 (in some editions, split into two books) continues to describe his residence in France and the struggle of the factions involved in the Revolution. Back in England he spends his time in political and philosophical readings to build his optimism in the future of mankind.

Book 11 gives personal insights into the mental and emotional struggles of the poet following his return to England. He tries to find a balance between Reason and Passion and ultimately finds meaning in "spots of time"—memories of events he witnessed long past that give him direction and inspiration for art in the present day.

In Book 12, the conclusion of Book 11, the poet gives his solitary reflections on historic Salisbury Plain in the south of England. He considers the ancient people who once lived there and the varieties of human nature.

The epic poem concludes in Book 13. Wordsworth repeats his great love for nature as supreme teacher and authority as his imagination is able to remember emotions and reflect on them to find meaning. He praises all he has explored and learned with others.

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