Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known

by William Wordsworth

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

“Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” is one of six short lyrics generally classified as the “Lucy poems.” William Wordsworth wrote all six between 1799 and 1801, and each speaks about a young woman or young girl who has died. (In “Lucy Gray,” it is a young girl who has died; in others, including “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” Lucy is older and seems to be spoken of as a lover.) Whether Lucy represents a specific person in Wordsworth’s life is not known; the poet’s close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge speculated that the poet may have been inspired to write these works when “in some gloomier moment he [Wordsworth] fancied the moment his sister might die” (David Perkins, English Romantic Writers, 1967). Since Wordsworth was very close to his sister Dorothy, this explanation is plausible, but it is not necessary to offer a biographical interpretation for any of the Lucy poems; they can all be read as explorations of the impact of loss on the speaker, an emotion both universal and particularly poignant.

In “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” the speaker describes a moonlight ride through the English countryside as he travels toward the home of his beloved Lucy. The “strange” fit of passion he wishes to explain to the reader is the rather ironic premonition of death he feels as he rides through the moonlight toward Lucy’s cottage. In the opening stanza, the speaker takes the reader into his confidence (“I will dare to tell” of this experience, he notes in line 2); this story is not for everyone, he suggests, but “in the Lover’s ear alone” (line 3) can he express his feelings.

The speaker’s story is a simple one. At a time when the object of his love looked “Fresh as a rose in June” (line 6), he traverses the countryside toward her cottage. Over “paths so dear to me” (line 12) the speaker’s horse carries him toward the object of his travels. All the while, the speaker himself keeps his eyes fixed on the moon, which lights his way as it descends from its point high in the sky, where it sits as the journey begins.

In every stanza except the first and last, the moon is mentioned specifically; in the fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas, it is described as descending in the night sky, finally dropping behind the roof of Lucy’s cottage as the speaker approaches. The passage of the moon in the night sky prompts the speaker to engage in a fantasy, one which he cannot explain logically but which grips him nevertheless. As he watches the moon pass out of sight behind Lucy’s cottage, he experiences what he describes as a “fond and wayward” thought (line 25): “O mercy!. . ./ If Lucy should be dead!” (lines 27-28). On that strange, ironic note, seemingly out of context with the idyllic scene depicted throughout the first six stanzas, the poem ends. Unquestionably, this “strange fit”—the choice of words becomes clear to the sensitive reader in this final stanza—is prompted by the speaker’s passion for his lover and has no basis in logic; it captures the feelings that often overwhelm one who is passionately devoted to another.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

As he does with many of his early compositions, Wordsworth uses the ballad stanza form in “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” to achieve a note of rustic simplicity. His technique is deliberate and has a historical explanation: In the eighteenth century, most poets relied on elevated language and formal devices that reflected the influence of classical literature. Wordsworth and Coleridge made a conscious effort to transform poetry into something more simple and direct, in which human emotions could be expressed directly in language that all people would understand. Wordsworth states these principles in his famous Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800); there, he describes poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelingsrecollected in tranquillity.” A poet is not some seer invested with special divine powers; rather, Wordsworth says, he is “a man speaking to men.”

“Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” and all the Lucy poems, exemplify Wordsworth’s premises about the nature of poetry. The language is direct and virtually free of literary tropes. The only simile the poet uses is the rather clichéd “Fresh as a rose in June” (line 6), which he says describes the way Lucy looks to him every day. Even his use of adjectives and adverbs is limited. Only in characterizing the path of the moon in the night sky does Wordsworth attempt to suggest change and motion through choice of descriptors: that sphere is variously “sinking” (line 15), “descending” (line 20), and finally “bright” (line 24) as it drops out of sight behind Lucy’s cottage. The result of such sparseness of verbal decoration, coupled with the sparseness of the ballad stanza itself (quatrains of alternating lines of four and three beats), focuses the reader’s attention on the action in the poem. Much of that action is simple mental reverie, but the growing state of anxiety which the speaker feels as he approaches Lucy’s cottage is made apparent to the reader through the simple language and rustic form of this ballad.

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