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What is the main theme of Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage"?

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"The Ruined Cottage" is a poem that takes a deep look at despair and the destruction as a result of progress. Wordsworth writes a bleak, pitying poem that is set next to a crumbling, desolate cottage. Margaret, the lady of the cottage, is observed toiling away and trying to take care of it while both she and it slowly crumble and fall into ruin. Her husband departs for war and is never heard from again, and she slowly descends into ill health and weakness as the cottage falls into eventual disrepair.

This poem takes a look at the upheaval and destruction that have come to the natural and historic things as a result of industrialism and the new economies that were burgeoning in Wordsworth's day.

While these advancements were certainly revolutionary and helpful in many ways, Wordsworth challenges his audience in this poem to consider what they really cost. He asks if this progress was worth the destruction it has caused, as Margaret struggles to keep up with the simple chores to keep her cottage livable. She struggles to survive as the world creeps forward around her yet without her. It is a bleak poem, analyzing dark and sad times.

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Like a number of Wordsworth's poems of the "Lyrical Ballads" era, "The Ruined Cottage" is a sympathetic portrayal of the lives and struggles of ordinary country folk. (Though the work wasn't included among the poems published in "Lyrical Ballads.") This characteristic of Wordsworth's early work set him apart from the traditions of neoclassical poetry, which did not look upon the lives of ordinary working people as fit subjects for verse.

One of the overriding themes of the poem is the devastation caused by growing industrialization upon the English countryside. "The Ruined Cottage" was written at a time of enormous economic and social change. Rapid industrialization led to increasing numbers of rural-dwellers moving to towns and cities to seek better opportunities. In turn, the countryside was subjected to widespread depopulation and economic decline.

Indeed the slow, pitiful decline of Margaret and her cottage in the poem symbolizes the wider decay of the rural world which she inhabits. And her husband going off to war and never returning can also stand for those countless rural laborers who abandoned the soil to start a new life in the growing industrial towns. Just as Margaret's husband will never return, neither will the young men and women who left to work in the new factories. They have been lost to the town forever just as her husband (and also her late child) have been lost to her.

All the old certainties have been undermined by the changing social and economic climate: home and hearth; family; cottage industries. But the cottage itself, though ruined, still stands. Its continued existence holds out the prospect of hope and renewal, however remote. The unique rhythm of country life has been disturbed and disrupted, but not completely destroyed; its indomitable spirit lives on in the midst of rapid social change.



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"The Ruined Cottage" is one of Wordsworth's bleakest poems. The speaker encounters an old man near the ruined cottage. He narrates a tale about a woman who faces hardship her entire life. Some of her troubles include poor harvests, harsh winters, the death of a child, and losing her husband in war. The physical deterioration of the cottage, over time, parallels the deterioration of this woman's (Margaret's) life over that time. That being said, one of the themes is human suffering. Carrying that theme into other philosophical tangents, we could say that this poem is about trying to be hopeful in hopeless situations. The old man/narrator continually tries to comfort Margaret with only temporary success. Hoping against hopelessness and dealing with suffering are more specific themes in this poem. 

A lot of Wordsworth's poetry is nostalgic, longing for more natural and creative experiences which are often associated with youth. He, like Keats, also addresses the fear of death; all the more reason to fight fervently for genuine and authentic experiences, and all the more reason to wonder about, and battle, human suffering. This is one of the reasons Wordsworth wrote about common and rural life. Margaret lived a common and rural life during which she endured more than her fair share of suffering. Her reluctance to leave the deteriorating cottage reflects her genuine and simple perseverance in a hopeless situation. 

Yet still

She loved this wretched spot, nor would for worlds

Have parted hence; and still that length of road

And this rude bench one torturing hope endeared, 

Fast rooted at her heart, and here, my friend, 

In sickness she remained, and here she died,

Last human tenant of these ruined walls. (485-92) 

The phrase that best captures this idea of hoping against hopelessness is "one torturing hope endeared" because this indicates a paradoxically statement: hope can be inspiring but in the bleakest situations, hope tantalizes (teases) but never emerges. 

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