Surprised by Joy Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem is not simply one that remembers the death of a loved one. It is both about death and about remembering that death. Even though Wordsworth the poet often wrote about transcendental influences and Wordsworth the mature man entertained thoughts of Christian immortality, such matters are not part of this poem. The poet thinks of his daughter in two ways: in her grave and in his memory. Her body is buried in a tomb, a physical spot where all is silent. The Wordsworths once lived across the road from the church where Catherine was buried, but Mary Wordsworth was so affected by seeing her daughter’s grave so close to her home that the family had to move. In this poem, however, memories are more potent reminders than graves. The impact of “Surprised by Joy” comes first from its vivid rendering of a moment of joy, immediately followed by the realization that the loved one with whom the poet needed to share that joy to make it complete was not present. Most readers will remember similar moments. The full meaning of the poem embraces not only that moment but also subsequent reflections on that moment as well as other memories it calls forth. The poem is about the way a human being’s emotional life is an interactive mixture of immediate and remembered (but no less vivid) emotional experiences.