“A slumber did my spirit steal,” by the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), is one of the briefest of all the most famous poems in the English language. But the poem has also been the subject of some of the most intense critical debate. This text, perhaps because it is so short, has often been used as a test case in various critical arguments, especially arguments about the theoretical approach known as “deconstruction.” Much of the debate turns on how to interpret the poem’s final lines.
It seems best, however, to postpone discussion of the major debate until we have first examined some of the poem’s more straightforward features. Thus, no one can deny that the opening line strongly emphasizes alliteration: “A slumber did my spirit seal.” Likewise, assonance appears in “did” and in “spirit.” The opening line, then, seems particularly “musical” or “lyrical”: its sound effects are quite pronounced. The meaning of the line seems simple: the speaker was able to sleep soundly; he was at peace in a way that he will (according to some interpretations) still feel at peace by the end of the work. Other interpretations, however, suggest that by the end of the text his peace has been disrupted. In either case, the first line is significant in relation to the last line: the first line either foreshadows the peace of the conclusion or is contradicted by a concluding sense of pain.
The second line is especially intriguing, mostly because of the adjective “human.” Lack of fear is one thing, but why is the word “human” needed? Isn’t this word redundant? Aren’t all fears felt by humans “human fears”? Is “human” simply a synonym for “common”? If so, why doesn’t the speaker use the word “common” (which is, after all, the word commonly used to suggest “common”)? Is the speaker implying the existence some larger, less usual, more significant fears? Already, then, the poem begins to raise questions. Was the speaker merely clumsy in using the word “human,” or is something more interesting going on? Is the speaker, for instance, already beginning to emphasize some distinction—or at least some relation—between the human and the non-human? At this point in the poem, no certain answers to any of these questions seem possible.
An even more puzzling question arises in line 3 in the use of the word “She.” To whom or what does this word refer? Some readers assume that a real human being is the subject of this pronoun. Others assume that “She” refers to the mysterious...
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