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Wordsworth has often been described as sexless. Are his critics’ right?

Wordsworth would have went catatonic had he seen this.

Wordsworth would have went catatonic had he seen this.

William Wordsworth has been described as sexless by many critics. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and Thomas De Quincy are among the many who have deemed Wordsworth as a tree-hugging, water-worshipping, wind-wallowing androgynous automaton. And they are kind of right. Kind of.

Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems: “Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known,” “She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways,” “Three Years She Grew,” “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” and “I Travelled Among Unknown Men;” are among the poems that have often been torn apart by critics as Wordsworth’s desire for a renewed infancy or an attempt to, according to a Byron assertion, “veil the everyday magnetic pull of sex,” (Lindstrom, What Wordsworth Planted, 8). But are they more than that? Are there instances of sex in the Lucy poems that merge into bigger, more complex, ideas that his later contemporaries disregarded in an effort to domineer their own opinions in the public market?


The Lucy poems have been divided into two sections. According to James G. Taffe’s essay, Poet and Lover in Wordsworth’s “Lucy” Poems, the 1815 edition of the Lucy poems are separated into two categories: “Strange fits of Passion I have Known,” “She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways,” and “Three Years She Grew,” are placed into a section entitled “Poems Founded on the Affections;” While “Three Years She Grew,” and “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” were placed into :”Poems of the Imagination.” Why the division? What makes each poem fit into those categories of affection and imagination and how do those qualities impact the sexless assertions by so many critics?

“Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known,” is the first of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems (and, based on my research, the most dissected) and is the second longest of the collection, spanning 28 lines. What makes this poem so prolific?

The first thing to note is the comparison of the moon falling with the narrator’s frantic search to find Lucy. Wordsworth writes:

“My horse moved on; hoof after hoof/ He raised, and never stopped:/…”O mercy!” to myself I cried,/ “If Lucy should be dead!” (Wordsworth, 305)

He sees the moon falling and the narrator is coming to the realization that his time with Lucy is limited. Even though Wordsworth calls her “Fresh as a rose in June,” the narrator realizes her freshness will inevitably fade. Is the realization that Lucy will one day become wilted like the rose in September a revelation that Lucy will, one day, lose her virginity? A footnote in our textbook, about a Stanza omitted from the poem, enlightens us to what Wordsworth intended for the piece. Wordsworth writes:

“I told her this: her laughter light/ Is the ringing in my ears;/ And when I think upon that night/ My eyes are dim with tears.” (Wordsworth, 306)

Wordsworth took this out of the poem because if this stanza was in the final edition it wouldn’t have the same meaning. The affection in the aforementioned passage is blatant; Wordsworth, had he left that section in, would have been outwardly calling for the reader to find the poem as an ode to a woman who has departed this earth. Wordsworth needed us to realize the narrator’s realization. Yet still, are we to believe this is a sexual loss or an innocence loss? We still do not know for certain.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways is the second poem in the collection of the five Lucy poems and the second poem in the poems of affection subsection. The poem, written as an epitaph, moves from dream in to fact – as Taffe explains – in the second installment of the affection series, as Wordsworth’s narrator now lives without Lucy.

Untrodden ways was written during a three month separation from Coleridge while Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth were living in Germany, according to Richard E. Matlak’s article Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems in Psychobiological context. In the article Matlak describes the affect Dorothy had on Wordsworth’s life. Matlak writes:

“In short, without Dorothy, Wordsworth would have been enjoying both favored circumstances and Coleridge’s company, rather than the boredom, melancholy, and pain that now were his lot, and it seems that they were well aware of it.” (Matlak, 50).

Dorothy was cock-blocking Wordsworth. But really, it wasn’t her fault. It was societies’. Matlak writes, partially quoting a letter written by Dorothy to their brother Christopher:

“‘Here in Germany,’ she emphasizes, clearly implying a negative contrast to England, where she felt she was always an asset, ‘A man travelling alone may do very well, but, if his wife or his sister goes with him, he must give entertainments,’(E.Y. P.247).” (Matlak 50).

Taking into consideration the previous information, we are compelled to look at Untrodden ways differently. A poem that, by its’ self, reads like someone mourning a loved one’s passing, now comes off as a person who trying to come to grips with a person, they once respected, fading from society. When Wordsworth writes, “She lived unknown, and few could know/ when Lucy ceased to be;/ But she is in her grave, and; oh/ The difference to me!” (Wordsworth 306) Wordsworth is talking about the state of Lucy’s life. He, who we established in class, saw Dorothy as his pupil but now has to deal with the fact she is limited by a culture in Germany.

While the poem is devoid of direct references to earthly pursuits, if we focus on the context of how the poem was written, could we argue the poem was written in a fit of sexual frustration? And does knowing the context of the poem necessarily change the meaning of the words on the page?

“Three Years She Grew” is the last poem of the affection section and the third poem of the entire Lucy series. A poem that also was written during their time in Germany, according to Matlak; can the poem be attributed to Wordsworth’s feelings about his sister? Is it the overseeing of a woman who, in his eyes, had infinite pleasure? It can definitely be read that way.

Throughout the poem Wordsworth speaks about her, characterized as “She,” as someone who “Shall feel an overseeing power/ to kindle or restrain.” It’s clear Wordsworth imagined his sister would do great things. It is also really apparent that Wordsworth feels very strongly about how Germany is affecting their lives. Wordsworth writes:

““And vital feelings of delight/ Shall rear her form to stately height,/ Her virgin bosom swell;/ Such thoughts to Lucy I will give/ While she and I together live/ Here in this happy dell.”/ Thus nature spake – the work was done -/ How soon my Lucy’s race was run!/ She died, and left to me/ This heath, this calm, and quite scene;/ The memory of what has been,/ and never will be.” (Wordsworth 307)

Wordsworth was living with Dorothy at time of writing this, is she Lucy? Is that important? The issue at hand is what nature spake and who nature actually was. Is utilizing nature, in a Wordsworthian-esque fashion, a serene state of sexual being that places us on a higher plane of emotional connections with another person; or is mastering nature, when taking into effect their German circumstances, a utilization of manipulating people – which, in effect, would be dealing with their respective readerships. Lucy, the lovely flower with the swelling virgin bosom, is dealing with the rejection of nature. She is forced, by society, to focus on her sex rather than her intellect. Are Wordsworth’s critics (who, by research, are predominately male) saying that women can only be used to procreate or are so tied to their sex that disconnecting their genitalia or femininity in the use of intellectual situations is improbable? That question, for the time being, is to remain unanswered.

“A slumber did my spirit seal,” is the fourth poem in the Lucy collection and the first poem in the poems of imagination sub-section. The poem, which is a diminutive eight lines, deals with death in an almost introspectively recollected tone. Matlak puts in to context that the poem was written shortly prior to Wordsworth’s reunion with Coleridge. He also says the three periods of Lucy poems (divided by Poems of Affection, Poems of Imagination part one, Poems of imagination part two – or separation, reunion and threat of exclusion) mark a curve in Wordsworth’s ambivalence of his sister.

Is a slumber a deepening of Wordsworth’s sexual frustration? While there are no instances of any kind of sexual nature being discussed, or even eluded to, this, according to Matlak, takes place three months after the “Three years she grew,” so are we to believe that Wordsworth simply hated his sister? Was he so hostile, as Matlak suggests that Wordsworth uses the understatement of the situation as some pseudo-passive aggressive jab at his sister? Or is it an extension of some deeper feeling towards the female gender? Judith W. Page writes in Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women:

“It could be argued that when the women Wordsworth wrote about chose to write or to draw, they composed in a mode best described as picturesque, the aesthetic category that seemed to open up a space for women as writers, painters, and observers.” (Page, section 26).

Maybe in a slumber Wordsworth is being understated towards the likes of women because they return to the aesthetic in their passing. Or it could very much be a literal meaning. She is dead and is soon to be decomposing underground, rolled round in earth’s diurnal course. While it is interesting to ascertain, the sense of sexual frustration is much more probable and, frankly, entertaining.

The last poem of the Lucy series, the poems of imagination subsection, and the final period in the Matlak timeline is Wordsworth’s “I travelled among unknown men.” The piece is a recollection of the early experiences with Lucy in which he speaks of her with fondness. Wordsworth writes:

“’Tis past, that melancholy dream!/ Nor will I quit thy shore/ A second time; for still I seem/ to love thee more and more./” (Wordsworth 307).

The entire poem aches of romantic yearning but Sexual desire is absent as well. The poem, which is two years after slumber, feels like Lucy is second to England. Matlak asserts that Wordsworth “learned that place is the catalyst to relationship.” Taffe says “England becomes cherished and valuable because the ’mountains,’ ‘green fields’ and ‘bowers’ remain as they were when Lucy played and looked upon them.” The two seem to go hand and hand. Maybe Wordsworth doesn’t have a sexual relationship with Lucy but is it possible that he understands the aspect of nature (or sex) in the throes of a close relationship with another being?

In purely textual analysis, Wordsworth’s critics are absolutely right – the dude is crazy and has an abnormal lust for nature. But when we take into account his home life (it sounds like we are making Wordsworth into a 13-year old inner city student) don’t we see the pent up sexual energy being thrust into the nature that surrounds him? Also, in regards to Lucy, isn’t there a correlation with Shakespeare’s obsession towards his “Fair Youth?” Doesn’t Wordsworth have an admiration for Lucy and silently resent the potentialities her life has? It kind of does seem this way.

Wordsworth’s contemporaries are right and wrong. He has his sexual qualities in his text but the contextual situations that led to the text need to be considered.

Works Cited

  1.  Eric Lindstrom, “What Wordsworth Planted,” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 56, November 2009, http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1001093ar
  2. James G. Taaffe, “Poet and Lover in Wordsworth’s “Lucy” Poems,” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 175-179, Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3720743
  3. Richard E. Matlak, “Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems in Psychobiological context,” PLMA, Vol 93, no 1 (Jan. 1978) 46-65.
  4. Page, Judith W. Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women. Berkeley:  University of California Press, c1994. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft1t1nb1dd/
  5. 5.      Wordsworth, William. “The Lucy Poems,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. 9th ed. Julia Reidhead. 305-308. Print.

One Comment on “Wordsworth has often been described as sexless. Are his critics’ right?

  1. Pingback: Dream Teacher | The Bohemian Rock Star's "Untitled Project"

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