Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The opening lines of this 1807 sonnet, most often understood to be about his visit to Calais to meet his young daughter, Caroline Vallon Wordsworth, show salient characteristics of Wordworth's poetry. First, Wordsworth wanted, as he explained in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, to write poetry in simple language accessible to the common person. We see this in the beginning couplet. "Beauteous" is an archaic form to us (we would use beautiful), but otherwise all the words are plain and easy to understand. Many are of one syllable: "calm," "free," "time," "Nun." The simplicity of the language reflects the simple peace and quietude of the evening as the speaker and a little girl walk along a beach. The first lines also introduce a theme central of Wordsworth's entire body of work or oeuvre: the spiritual quality of the natural world. We learn that the evening is both beautiful and holy. It is a time when we can be touched by the divine. This hushed, religious quality is further emphasized by the simile that end this couplet: the evening is likened in its quietude to a nun, a holy, contemplative individual.It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Wordsworth then contrasts the quietude of the opening lines with a statement that "the mighty Being" (God) is awake and makes a thunderous sound "everlastingly." This may refer on a literal level to the sound of the waves, which crash everlastingly against the shore, but on a deeper level, the speaker realizes that God is powerful, like thunder. The quietude of the evening contrasted to God's thunder leads us the speaker to experience a sense of the sublime: nature fills him with awe as he contemplates both the holy silence and the power of the divine force. That his emotional level is rising is indicated by the exclamation point, which stops the poem on the word "listen." The dash before "everlastingly" also slows the verse down, so that we might take more time contemplating these lines. The poem is lyrical, expressing the emotions the poet feels as he encounters the evening.Listen! the mighty Being is awake,And doth with his eternal motion makeA sound like thunder—everlastingly.
The rising emotion the speaker feels comes to a crescendo at the two exclamation points behind the repeated "Dear child! Dear Girl!" as the speaker turns his attention from nature to girl walking beside him. Having finished the first octet of the sonnet, the speaker now focuses on his young companion. Here he expresses another idea important to Wordworth: the nature of a child is divine or holy. A child has a natural spirituality or connection with God that exists whether she is aware of it or not. She may not be able to articulate this connection in "solemn thought"—it may hover below the level of consciousness—but nevertheless it is there. The idea of the child as innocent is commonplace to us now, but in Wordsworth's time was a more radical concept, a contrast to the idea of the child is born infused with original sin. Here, the speaker is moved to affirm the innate goodness of his dear companion.Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,Thy nature is not therefore less divine