Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Like many of Wordsworth's poems, this one takes the wildness of nature as its backdrop, expressing the Romantic viewpoint that nature can offer sustenance to the mind and soul. However, its primary message is, rather, that although nature can fill us with joy, there are times when the "blissful" temperament of more innocent creatures, such as the hare, seems very far away from us, and at times such as this, it can be a struggle to remain "secure" of mind and heart.
The speaker, writing in the voice of the poet himself, even notes that, although as a boy he always took joy in nature, he worries that many a poet has begun life joyfully, but has ended his days in "madness" and despair. He alludes to Thomas Chatterton, a boy poet who famously died young, and seems to be concerned that a similar fate might greet him.
However, it is at this point that the "Traveller" on the moors meets a fellow human, a man so old that he is bent double and leaning on a staff. The language used to describe this man gives the impression that he is somehow not quite of this world. Instead, he is "like a cloud," carrying a "more than human weight," and his bent body is coming together "in life's pilgrimage." His speech is "above the reach / of ordinary men." The imagery here suggests a connection between this man and God, not least the image of him as an old man with a staff, alone on the moors. Indeed, the poet muses that it is as if the man, as in a "dream," has been sent to him "from some far region...To give me human strength."
The story the old man tells clearly makes the poet feel as if he has no reason to complain. This man, so old and bent, spends his days in the arduous task of collecting leeches, and yet remains "firm" and "secure," speaking "cheerfully" in a way which seems like "admonishment" from God. The poet muses that he can imagine the old man wandering the moors continually. Altogether, the language seems to imply that the man is not human at all, but an admonishment sent to remind the speaker to take joy in what is around him, and to dispel "sadness" which creeps upon him unexpectedly, because others deal with far worse lives and yet remain cheerful.
The message of the poem, in the end, seems to be that God sends to each man what he needs, whether that be nature's bounty, inspiration, or simply good cheer. The speaker vows to think of the leech-gatherer when he has need of sustenance.