I Travelled Among Unknown Men by William Wordsworth

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Summary and Analysis

“I Travelled Among Unknown Men,” by the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), is written in the simple, clear, colloquial style that Wordsworth helped champion as one of the original Romantic poets. The poets who embraced Romanticism objected to the often ornate, “artificial” style of language used by many authors of the eighteenth century. Poems by those earlier writers were often filled with allusions to classical literature, especially to gods and goddesses in whom no one actually believed and who seemed quite remote from the lives of common people. The audience for such poetry was well educated, often from the upper strata of society. Much of Wordsworth’s poetry, in contrast, can easily be read and appreciated by anyone. As its titular opening line implies, “I Travelled Among Unknown Men” deals with personal experience in the real world.

Like many Romantic poems, this work features the thoughts and feelings of a particular person—a “man speaking to men,” as Wordsworth himself once phrased the ideal. Even people who have not traveled abroad can easily relate to the idea that we especially appreciate our homes when we return to them after having been away. In this poem, the speaker refers to “unknown” people (1) in a way that implies people who are not only unfamiliar but who have a different culture and speak a different language. These are people, in other words, who are not only geographically distant but also culturally distinct. The fact that they live in “lands” (plural) “beyond the sea” (2) suggests that they are people from a variety of different countries. Imagine how different the impact of the second line would be if it read “In a place across the stream.” The speaker wants to emphasize his contact with people of a variety of nationalities in places significantly distant from his own country.

Not until the second half of the first stanza do we realize the precise significance of the traveler’s travels: They have made him appreciate his country much more fully than he had before. Traveling abroad helped him learn not only about foreign lands but also about his own psyche; he had not realized, until his travels, how much he loved his own country. The fact that he did travel shows that he is not a narrow-minded jingoist. We can assume he realized that learning about other countries might be valuable. However, the added—and apparently unexpected—benefit of such travels is that they have brought home to him the attractions of his own nation. He doesn’t praise England simply because he is an ignorant patriot, unfamiliar with other lands; instead, he praises England precisely because he is familiar with other nations and their peoples. Nor does he simply mention his love of England; he exclaims it (3). He now realizes how much love he “bore” to England—a verb than can refer not only to how much love he felt for his homeland but also to how much love he brought back with him when he returned to his native country. The phrase “bore to” makes his love sound more weighty and substantial than would be the case if Wordsworth had written something like “felt for.”

At the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker refers to his travels abroad as merely a “melancholy dream” (5), as if those travels somehow no longer seem real. Somehow they seem insubstantial, and while the word “dream” often has positive connotations, here it is associated with “melancholy.” The speaker’s travels were not a nightmare, but they now are associated with sadness. In fact, they were sufficiently sad that he plans never again to leave his native country, a declaration that makes his love for England seem all the more emphatic. (The effect would be significantly different if Wordsworth had written that the speaker would not leave England “for a long time.”) Being home has caused him to love England “more and more” (8). Being away made him love his country, and being home has only...

(The entire section is 1,297 words.)