Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds She dwelt among the untrodden ways, beside the springs of Dove. A maid whom there were none to praise and very few to love. A violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye, fair as a star, when only one is shining in the sky. She lived unknown. And few could know when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave. And oh, the difference to me.
Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds Surprised by joy– impatient as the wind, I turned to share the transport. Oh, with whom but thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, that spot which no vicissitude can find? Love– faithful love– recalled thee to my mind. But how could I forget thee? Through what power, even for the least division of an hour, have I been so beguiled as to be blind to my most grievous loss? That thought’s return was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, save one. One only, when I stood forlorn, knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more, that neither present time nor years unborn could, to my sight, that heavenly face restore.
Skip to 1 minute and 36 seconds So Jonathan, for this week on bereavement, why did you choose these two poems by William Wordsworth? And why, indeed, Wordsworth? Yeah. Well, I do think Wordsworth– wrote in the late 18th, early 19th century, the greatest of the so-called romantic poets– is one of the most remarkable poets when it comes to dealing with the experience of grief. And that’s partly because he lived with so much grief himself. His mother died just before his eighth birthday. So he became an orphan. Became very close to his sister Dorothy as result, although they were actually kept apart, brought up by different people.
Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds Then, his father died when he was 13, a terrible formative influence just as you’re going into the teenage years, to lose your father. Then, when he was grown-up, the brother to whom he was closest– his beloved brother John– died in a shipwreck. And then, a few years after, in a period of just a few months, Wordsworth lost his beloved daughter Catherine. She wasn’t quite four. And she died in front of him of convulsions. And a few months after that, his son Thomas– who was, I think, six– died of measles. So he really dealt– Lot’s of death. A lot of death.
Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds And he wrote, I think, very, very beautifully about it, using poetry as a way of dealing with the experience of grief, of bereavement. The two particular poems I’ve chosen– rather different from each other. The first of them, ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways,’ is one of a group of poems known as his Lucy poems, a series of poems all about a beloved girl or woman called Lucy who has died. Now, fascinatingly, mysteriously, nobody quite knows who Lucy was or, indeed, whether she really existed. It’s one of the wonderful things about poets is that they can make things up. Some people think, maybe, there really was a girl called Lucy.
Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds Others think– and interestingly, Wordsworth’s great friend and fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought this– that Lucy was Wordsworth imagining the feelings he would have felt if his beloved sister Dorothy had died. Mm. And I think that’s a very powerful reading. He’s lost so many other people, Dorothy is the one he holds onto. But what would it be like if she died? It does really matter if Lucy existed or not, because– Well, it doesn’t, indeed. And indeed, I would say that’s one of the things that makes a poem particularly powerful. Because if you don’t associate it with a particular real person about whom the poet has had the experience, we as readers can take it for ourselves.
Skip to 4 minutes and 14 seconds And Lucy can stand in for the beloved one that we have lost, whether it’s a parent, a child, a lover, a friend. And the marvellous thing about this particular poem is that it talks about how Lucy is– just lives an obscure life. She’s not a special person. She’s not a famous person. Hardly anybody noticed her while she was alive. Hardly anybody notices now she’s dead. But ‘oh,’ he says in the last stanza, ‘the difference to me.’ The rhymes are absolutely wonderful in the closing stanza– ‘ceased to be,’ ‘difference to me.’ And that sense, but oh– he stops and takes in the full significance, the pain of the sense of her loss.
Skip to 5 minutes and 4 seconds The other reason why I think Wordsworth is particularly valuable for the poetry of bereavement, the poetry of grief, is that he meditated a lot about the origins of poetry. And he wrote a wonderful little known essay called ‘An Essay upon Epitaphs.’ If you think of epitaphs– those words we find on graves, often written in verse. Wordsworth reminds us that we have a natural tendency to reach for verse at times of extremity. I remember when Princess Diana died. And you remember, all those flowers were laid outside Kensington Palace. And so many people had just written verses, not necessarily very good ones. That doesn’t matter.
Skip to 5 minutes and 44 seconds But verse seems to be a natural thing that we turn to in times of grief, in facing death. And in his essay on epitaphs, Wordsworth said, maybe, that was the very origin of poetry. Perhaps, poetry began with commemorative verses for those who have died. But the thing about the Lucy poem, ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways,’ is that it’s not an epitaph on someone famous, as it were on Princess Diana or on a famous person in history. But rather, it’s a way of saying that, for me, the person who dies, I feel a sense of absolute loss.
Skip to 6 minutes and 20 seconds And the poem is a way of inscribing that, of writing it down, of making it permanent, just as an epitaph puts a permanent memory onto a grave. So I want now to turn to the second choice of Wordsworth’s poems that we have here, ‘Surprised by Joy.’ It’s a wonderful poem about the loss of Wordsworth’s daughter and a moment when he feels happy and, then, feels guilty about feeling happy. It’s a great poem about moving on and the complex emotions associated with moving on from the death of a loved one. That’s absolutely right. In a way, one of the most difficult things in grieving is the moment when we stop grieving.
Skip to 6 minutes and 59 seconds It’s the moment when we realise the sun does rise, that life goes on. So, what Wordsworth does here– he’s imagining a moment where he’s– as he puts it– surprised by joy. Maybe he’s out for a walk. Wordsworth was a great walker. And perhaps, he saw a beautiful landscape or a frisking lamb or the rising sun. And surprised by joy, he turns to share the transport, he turns to share the joy with his little daughter and, then, realises she’s not there any more, this little girl who’s died just before she was four. And then, he stops and thinks, how dare I feel joy when she is dead?
Skip to 7 minutes and 37 seconds It’s as if it’s a kind of betrayal of his own bereavement to feel joy again. And he says that is the worst feeling apart from that very moment when he saw that she was dead and he would never see that heavenly smile again. But in a way, writing the poem, ‘Surprised by Joy,’ is his way of dealing with that grief and, then, that sense of guilt and moving on through it. It’s a very powerful poem. And it’s one that many people have taken great comfort from. The great writer C.S. Lewis actually used it as the title for one of his books, a book about the woman called Joy Davidman, who he married. And then, she died of cancer.
Skip to 8 minutes and 24 seconds And he wrote a remarkable book about his process of grieving, a book called A Grief Observed. And he particularly does focus on this Wordsworth poem, precisely because of that awareness of the sense of guilt. But we’ve got to let go of the guilt. We have to let go of the person who’s died. And the wonderful thing the poem can do is it can keep her memory alive. And so, in that sense, he hasn’t betrayed her.
William Wordsworth Poems
In this video we discuss two of William Wordsworth’s poems, considering the circumstances in which they were written and the way they convey the pain of bereavement.
William Wordsworth was all too familiar with loss. By the age of fourteen, he had been bereaved of both his parents. His younger brother John perished in a shipwreck in 1805, and two of Wordsworth’s own children died before reaching their eighth year. The second poem we explore in this step describes the intense sorrow and complexity of emotion that Wordsworth experienced following the loss of his daughter Catherine, who died when she was just three years old.
The first of the poems in the video is more difficult to identify with a specific, personal loss. It is one of Wordsworth’s so-called ‘Lucy poems’, a series of poems concerning an idealised, beloved girl named Lucy. Some people have speculated that ‘Lucy’ represented a real person, while others maintain that she is Wordsworth’s invention. Whether or not ‘Lucy’ was an entirely fictional creation, we can nevertheless identify in Wordsworth’s poem a very poignant and moving expression of the personal nature of grief.
The first poem read is ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’:
She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
- Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
The second poem read is Wordsworth’s ‘Surprised By Joy’:
Surprised By Joy
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
© University of Warwick