Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
“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 ...
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“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 “Lucy,” the subject of so many other poems by Wordsworth. Yet if “Lucy” is the referent of “She,” why does the speaker not simply mention her name explicitly, either in the poem itself or in a title? Why, in fact, does the poem have no title? Is it possible (as one critic has suggested) that the word “She” refers not to any person but, instead, to the speaker’s “spirit” (1)? Once again, then, the poem raises questions in ways that its apparently simple phrasing and structure might not have led us to suspect or predict. The meter of the opening stanza, for instance, is completely regular: it does not deviate at all from an “iambic” beat, in which odd syllables are unaccented but even syllables are stressed. Similarly, the line lengths are completely symmetrical: lines 1 and 3 contain eight syllables each, while lines 2 and 4 both consist of six syllables. The rhythm, shape, and generally clear phrasing of the poem, then, all suggest that its meaning will be simple. Already, however, the text has begun to raise puzzling questions that seem to conflict with is apparently straightforward structure and its (for the most part) seemingly straightforward diction.
Nevertheless, the first stanza seems far simpler than the second. The first stanza suggests that someone or something (either a mysterious female, or Lucy, or the poet’s spirit) was at rest and at peace. Yet the very fact that the speaker tells us this, and that he uses the past tense, raises the troubling possibility that such rest or peace has subsequently been disrupted. It is in stanza two that the nature(s) of such disruption(s) are addressed.
Significantly, the second stanza begins with the word “No” (5), and negations are stressed throughout the first two lines. Whomever or whatever the word “she” refers to, that “she” now has “No motion” and “no force,” and “She neither hears nor sees” (5-6). Suddenly the tone of the poem has darkened considerably; peace has been replaced by loss and disturbance. If the word “she” refers to a woman (such as Lucy), then presumably the woman is dead. If the word “she” refers to the speaker’s spirit, then presumably the speaker somehow feels dead inside (an implication that would also follow from the other possible meaning of “she”). The loss, in either case, seems complete: “she” not only no longer has movement but has also lost two of her most important senses—the two (hearing and sight) that provide our most common means of access to the rest of the world. “She” thus seems dead either literally or (if the word “she” refers to the speaker’s spirit) metaphorically.
It is the final two lines of the poem, however, that have proven most controversial and most difficult to interpret with any genuine certainty. The “she” is now
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Are these lines optimistic or pessimistic? Are they consoling or disturbing? Do they express the speaker’s pantheism (the idea that humans and nature are one)? Or do they express a grim sense that the “she” is now utterly dead forever, absorbed into the earth but not in any way that provides a feeling of comfort to those she has left behind? The darker interpretation of these lines would emphasize the fact that she now seems entirely passive: she is “Rolled round” (7) rather than having any independent spirit or consciousness or movement. The more optimistic interpretation would argue that she has now become one with the earth and, indeed, with the entire universe. The darker interpretation would stress that she now seems to have no more life than dead, inanimate “rocks” and “stones” (8). The more optimistic interpretation would emphasize the final word—“trees” (8)—and suggest that she is now part of something far greater, more alive, and more significant than any single self.
Ultimately, the way one chooses to interpret these final lines probably depends more on one’s own temperament than on anything in the poem itself. The poem can therefore seem at least as interesting for what it reveals about the reader as for what it reveals about itself.