The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 707 words.)