Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

At the heart of the poem is the question of whether the poet will become a responsible human being, independent of others for his own happiness. He realizes that his essential quality of mental or spiritual identity cannot rely upon an external environment for its continuing strength. At first, the speaker feels at one with the happy springtime setting, but when he falls suddenly into despair, he is puzzled into a crisis of confidence in himself. Then, when he has most need, the old man appears as if “by peculiar grace” to serve as an admonishment.

All that occurs in the poem is a consequence of the poet’s sense of need, apparently without cause. The powers of mind, as imagination, usurp the poet’s consciousness of everything that surrounds him, including the leech gatherer, making it difficult for the poet to keep hold of the external reality through which both he and the leech gatherer move. In this is the theme of mental experience transcending physical limitations. Yet the poet’s imagination seizes upon the details of the encounter to nourish itself, to create a self-reflecting image for the poet to study as a lesson in resolution and independence.

The poet needed to feel self-reliant just as he was nearly falling into helpless and mysterious despair. The leech gatherer supplied what the poet needed, because the poet had the imagination to make use of the encounter. The meaning of the poem is that the human mind transcends the...

(The entire section is 434 words.)