The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

“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.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

“Surprised by Joy” is a fourteen-line Italian sonnet, though Wordsworth somewhat modifies its traditional form. The usual break in sense...

(The entire section contains 1202 words.)

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