The Poem

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“Surprised by Joy” is a short lyric written in the form of a sonnet about a person who continues to grieve over the death of a loved one. Late in life, William Wordsworth told a friend that the “Thee” to whom he refers in line 3 was his daughter Catherine, who died in June of 1812. He also may have been thinking of his son Thomas, who died later that year. Wordsworth meditates on this dramatic and highly emotional experience in such a way that his meditation also becomes a dramatic and significant experience in itself. (Most readers find it necessary to read this poem several times before its time scheme and its implications become clear.) The poem opens with the poet describing a vivid, past experience: He had a joyful thought. “Joy” is an important word to Wordsworth and can suggest not only a happy feeling but also a life-giving, mind-altering, deeply emotional, and profound sense of harmony and well-being. A moment of such joy “surprised” the poet, implying that it came suddenly and without warning. It surprised him (as the reader understands from the rest of the poem) because, previously, he had not been joyful.

After being surprised by joy, the poet turned with impatience to share his new and highly emotional state of mind (his “transport”). As illustrated elsewhere in his work, when Wordsworth feels a joy, he often wishes to communicate with someone else. The phrase “impatient as the Wind” implies that he turned quickly, forcefully, and thoughtlessly to someone he assumed was standing beside him, a person who had often stood beside him in the past as his daughter must have done. However, when he turned joyfully to his daughter, he realized she was not there to share his emotion because she was dead. The poem breaks into an exclamation (“Oh!”) to communicate the excruciating pang of sorrow Wordsworth felt at that time in the past and also the emotion he feels when he thinks about it later as he writes this poem. He had turned to share his joy with “Thee” in vain because, as he knew and still knows, she is buried in a tomb that is both “silent” (she cannot hear her father) and beyond “vicissitude” (she has been removed from the change or mutability of mortal life).

Lines 5-9 can be read either as a report of the poet’s original experience or as his later thoughts about that experience. Either way, Wordsworth tells the reader that his “faithful love” (not just a momentary feeling) is what made him think of his daughter. Why the poet should insist on his faithfulness becomes clear in the next three lines: He feels guilty. He asks how he could have been so unfaithful as to have forgotten the “most grievous loss” of his dear daughter even for a moment, for “the least division of an hour,” for a unit of time long enough for him to have had a joyful thought. Although his daughter is now beyond vicissitude, the poet laments his own changeable nature. He does not answer his question, but he seems to hope that his unfaithfulness will somehow be excused. Remembering his daughter proves his “faithful love.” Beginning with the middle of line 9, the later, more meditative Wordsworth reflects on his earlier experience. “That thought’s return” (that is, suddenly recalling that his daughter was dead) once caused a pang second only to the one he felt when he first learned she had died. In all cases, he is affected not only because a loved one is dead but also because he...

(This entire section contains 614 words.)

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has lost the thing he loved more than anything else (“my heart’s best treasure”).

Forms and Devices

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“Surprised by Joy” is a fourteen-line Italian sonnet, though Wordsworth somewhat modifies its traditional form. The usual break in sense between lines 8 and 9 actually occurs in the middle of line 9. Wordsworth’s rhyme scheme is not as rigid as usual: In a strict Italian sonnet, lines 3 and 4 would rhyme with lines 6 and 7, and in this poem they do not. In line 11, “return” may have been pronounced by Wordsworth to rhyme perfectly with “forlorn.” Wordsworth’s modifications are appropriate to the dramatic progress of the poem, for it is both a dramatic utterance full of the fits and starts that proceed from a disturbed yet thoughtful mind and a controlled reflection on what that utterance means to the poet.

The dramatic complexities are communicated by the poem’s jumbled syntax. Line 1 begins calmly enough with a participial phrase, but, halfway through, the poet provides a dash to show that his mind interjects a clause to describe what he did after joy came over him. This account is, in turn, interrupted partway through line 2 with a dramatic interjection (“Oh!”), followed by a string of phrases and appositions that modify “turned.” What technically may be a sentence in lines 1-4 may strike readers as less than grammatically stable because of its two dashes. Such patterns persist. The statement in line 5 contains an interruption (“faithful love”), and a dash at the end of the same line implies that the question in line 6 is an interruption, a shift in the poet’s thinking. The poet’s thought and mood shifts again in the middle of line 9. His statement about his “worst pang” is no sooner uttered than qualified by a string of dependent elements that extend to the end of the poem. In short, the poem’s somewhat chaotic grammar helps express the poet’s mental anguish and communicates the freshness of his experiences when he was surprised by joy, when he reflects on that experience, and when he first knew of his daughter’s death. Despite its informality of structure, the poem is moderately formal in diction (“transport,” “vicissitude,” “beguiled,” “grievous”). It uses tropes only to reflect simple emotional experiences. A simile (“impatient as the Wind”) describes the poet’s reaction to joy, and a metaphor (“heart’s best treasure”) suggests his first reaction to his daughter’s death.

The intensity of Wordsworth’s complex experience is communicated by the emphatic nature of the verse. Readers can hear the poet’s voice stress such words a “Wind,” “Oh!” “tomb,” “love,” “power,” “hour,” and “blind.” Some of these stresses are caused by words themselves; they often have long vowels, deep or strident, that are seldom clipped off. The rhythm of the lines themselves works up to stresses, as in the haste with which line 7 (“Even for the least division of an hour”) speeds to its conclusion. Readers sense a relaxation of tension toward the end of the poem. Its more pensive tone is caused by its verse, which is less emphatic and more regularly paced.

The tone of this poem is complex, a mixture of emotion and restraint. The poem communicates the anguish Wordsworth felt in the past and feels in the present. At the same time, the poet shows the psychic control of a mature adult. Perhaps one way he expresses this mixture of emotion and control is by filling a strict form such as the sonnet with irregularities of syntax and heavy emphasis. The poem’s juxtaposition of anguish and control suggests how much the poet’s maturity has cost him.