It Is a Beauteous Evening

by William Wordsworth
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

"It Is a Beauteous Evening," written by William Wordsworth, is a poem that captures the power of a tranquil moment in nature.

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Heavy in the importance of elements of nature, the poem captures Wordsworth's Romantic focus that pervades his poetry. The poem focuses on a simple moment in walking by the ocean with a child (who is assumed to be Wordsworth's own daughter, whom he had not seen in a decade). Therefore, the poem also is thought to capture an actual moment from Wordsworth's life instead of an imaginary moment via a fictitious narrator. Wordsworth describes the calming influence of the sea and likens it to a "holy time." Because the child with him is so innocent in her thoughts, she is also part of God's wonderfully divine nature. Wordsworth's description of the sea, the child, and the evening itself as being part of a holy experience shows the Romanticism that is woven throughout much of his poetry.

Religious imagery and terminology is used throughout the poem. Evening is described as being "quiet as a Nun," a simile that reinforces the pious beauty of Wordsworth's experience on this evening. He notes that the "heaven broods o'er the Sea," choosing to focus on God's creation in the use of "heaven" instead of "sky." He gives a poetic nod to the Creator's power in being able to create eternal thunder via the tide that relentlessly beats on the shore, an "eternal motion" of wonder. And because the child is so innocent in her thoughts, she "liest in Abraham's bosom all year," noting that God is with her even when she is not aware of it.

The poem is written as a Petrarchan sonnet, dividing into 8 lines that describe the sea itself, followed by 6 lines that focus on the child who accompanies him. The rhyme pattern of the first 8 lines is ABBAACCA. In the second half of the stanza, the focus switches to the child, and the rhyme pattern changes to DEFDFE. Perhaps this interesting, almost-not-a-pattern in the end reflects a bit of a struggle that Wordsworth has had in connecting with his daughter in real life. Clearly he appreciates her innocence and beauty, but he hasn't been able to be with her for many years; his rhythm with her is a bit off.

"It Is a Beauteous Evening" uses a tranquil tone to convey the calming and awe-inspiring power of a reflective time in nature.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166

In William Wordsworth’s poem “It Is a Beauteous Evening” the poet is watching the sun set over the ocean; the evening is beautiful and calm, inspiring a mood of religious awe, like “a Nun/ Breathless with adoration.” Amid the tranquility, the poet’s attention shifts, and he suddenly takes note of the sound of the waves. The noise, “like thunder,” shows that the ocean is awake. Its unceasing motion brings to the poet’s mind thoughts of eternity.

The reader first realizes that the poet is not alone as he addresses a young girl, who is walking by his side. The scene does not seem to inspire lofty, “solemn” thoughts in her, as it has done in the poet, but her nature is not “less divine” for that reason. On the contrary, she is always close to the divine: She lies “in Abraham’s bosom all the year.” God is with her, and she is worshiping even when that is not apparent to an observer.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707

The most striking structural feature of the sonnet are the two sudden shifts, each of which adds an important complication to the situation described in the poem’s opening lines. The first five lines emphasize the quietness and tranquility of the evening. This natural scene is given a specifically religious dimension when the time is called “holy” in line 2. The epithet blossoms into the metaphor of “a Nun/ Breathless with adoration.” The metaphor suggests a tense alertness to the presence of something higher, as opposed to a passive letting go.

The same tension appears in the next lines. The sun is “sinking down in its tranquility.” (When Wordsworth calls the sun “broad,” he refers very precisely to the well-known visual phenomenon that the sun and moon appear larger as they get close to the horizon.) Yet the heaven “broods”—actively, though gently—“o’er the Sea.” The phrase echoes John Milton’s rephrasing in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) of Genesis 1:2, in which the “Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” just before God creates light. There may be a slight irony to this evocation of creation just as the day is sinking into night. However, the main effect of the metaphor and the allusion in these lines is to underscore the paradoxical fusion of tranquility and alertness while also suggesting a deeper, even religious dimension to the experience of natural beauty.

Line 6 begins with an imperative “Listen!” Shifting from vision to sound and motion, the tranquil scene is paradoxically and unexpectedly loud with “A sound like thunder.” By calling the ocean “the mighty Being,” Wordsworth evokes God. The ocean “is awake,” just as God never sleeps; its waves are in “eternal motion” and make their thunder “everlastingly,” just as God is eternal. Thus, in the very tranquility of the scene, as well as in the brooding of the heaven and the motion and sound of the waves, Wordsworth suggests the presence of a higher power.

The poem suddenly shifts again in line 9, when the poet addresses the companion of his walk: “Dear Child! dear Girl!” The imperative “Listen!” in line 6 becomes retrospectively ambiguous: Is it addressed to the reader or to the girl? In lines 1-8, the poet has described the scene in language that evokes the thought of an eternal divine presence. Yet another paradox emerges: The child does not see the scene in this way. Wordsworth puts it negatively that she seems “untouched by solemn thought,” apparently feeling she needs some defense for this unawareness. Her nature, he says, “is not therefore less divine.” Presumably he does not mean to say, tactlessly, that her nature is less divine than his, but rather to imply that her nature may well be divine, even though she does not show that fact in the way he does, by sensing a higher presence in this natural scene. The child, he suggests, bears divinity within her and does not need to draw it from observing the external world.

This may explain the shift from sensory description of the scene to a biblical language used metaphorically to characterize the girl. She lies “in Abraham’s bosom” at all times (Luke 16:22; John 1:18), and she worships “at the Temple’s inner shrine” (referring to the Jerusalem Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in an inner shrine). The meaning of these phrases is made explicit in the final line: God is with the girl constantly, even “when we know it not.” The biblical phrases seem to connect with the nun in line 2, thus rounding out the religious dimension the poet is stressing.

The sonnet’s rhyme scheme is Italianate (abbaaccadefdfe), following the example of Milton. Reading Milton inspired Wordsworth to begin writing sonnets, and eventually he composed many. The first eight lines, or octave, build a strong unit of thought and feeling, in this case with two unsymmetrical components: five mainly visual lines and three lines presenting sound and motion. With the final six lines, or sestet, the thought turns in a way that qualifies the octave. Italianate sonnets usually take care not to end in a couplet, which might give the final two lines too much autonomy. Rather, the main contrast is between the octave and the sestet.

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