The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)