William Wordsworth's Solitary Figures

by Catherine Cooper

Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know, that pride,
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy.

[Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree]


Most of the characters who appear in the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) are solitary in some way; there are none who appear to be the sociable type which can be found in the poems of other Romantic poets, such as Byron's Don Juan, and Childe Harolde. The reason for this is perhaps that Wordsworth himself was quite a solitary person; although he appeared to enjoy the company of a select few, for example his beloved sister Dorothy, he seemed to be happiest when he had only Nature for company.

Wordsworth's preference for his own company seems to have been a characteristic which began in early childhood. In his writings about childhood experiences in The Prelude he was often alone, as in the incident of the stolen boat (1. 356-400), or if he was in company, would stand apart for a while to consider nature, as in the ice skating incident (1. 415-462). Further examples of his solitary nature as a child are provided by the poems Nutting and Expostulation and Reply.

It appears that even as a young boy he would take time to consider nature and beauty. He writes in Nutting as he stands in 'one dear nook':

A little while I stood,
Breathing with such suppression of the heart
As joy delights in

And in Expostulation and Reply when the young Wordsworth is reprimanded by his good friend Matthew for apparently sitting on a stone doing nothing, he replies:

Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.

It seems that Wordsworth thought it important to consider and appreciate nature fully, and he often liked to do this alone. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he appears to have such great respect for many of the solitary figures about whom he writes in his poetry.

Most of the lonely characters Wordsworth writes about are ordinary rustic people. He explains his reasons for this rather unusual choice of subject matter at great length in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. He writes that within rustic life:

The passions of man are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

He also writes that these rustic people are:

Belonging to nature rather than manners

As Wordsworth believed nature to be of such importance, he had great admiration, and perhaps even envy of those people who lived according to the rule of nature rather than the social constraints imposed by man. He admired their simplicity, and also seemed to believe that more sophisticated people could learn a lot from them. Their emotions appear more pure, as they seem less worried about other people's opinion of them.

Although Wordsworth's solitary characters are all rustic, they are extremely varied and Wordsworth admires them all for different reasons.

An emotion which Wordsworth appeared to be particularly interested in was that of maternal passion, and he illustrates the power and importance of this through various poems, including The Thorn, The Mad Mother, and The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman. These three poems all deal with a solitary mother and Wordsworth's wonder at the mother-child relationship and its uniqueness. The poem The Mad Mother describes a mad woman who sits underneath a hay stack (close to nature) with just her baby for company. She says:

Sweet babe! they say that I am mad,
But nay, my heart is far too glad;

Wordsworth suggests that she has been cast aside by society, abandoned by the baby's father, but remains happy because she has her child. He also suggests that the baby has a calming influence on the woman when she says:

Suck little babe, oh suck again!
It cools my blood; it cools my brain;
Thy lips I feel them, baby! they
Draw from my heart the pain away.

Throughout the poem the woman emphasises and reiterates the fact that she cares deeply for her baby, is greatly concerned that he does not come to any harm and, although she has been looking for the baby's father, it is strongly suggested at the end of the poem that she will be happy without him, as long as she has her baby. The poem ends:

Now laugh and be gay, to the woods away!
And there, my babe; we'll live for aye.

Wordsworth illustrates in this poem that it is possible for someone to be alone but entirely happy, as she has her baby and nature for company. It is necessary that the mother is alone in order for the poet to show how fulfilling maternal passion can be, and how it can even be a calming influence in the instance of madness.

This idea is continued in The Thorn. This poem's central character is Martha Ray, who Wordsworth describes thus:

A woman in a scarlet cloak,
And to herself she cries,
Oh misery! oh misery!
Oh woe is me! Oh misery!

Through her deep melancholy Wordsworth shows the trauma of losing a child. Martha Ray was also considered mad so it must be noted that Wordsworth wrote of her when it was almost time for her to give birth:

And when at last her time drew near,
Her looks were calm, her senses clear.

The significance of Martha Ray's solitude is slightly different to that of the mother in The Mad Mother. While The Mad Mother illustrates a mother's joy at possessing a child and The Thorn a mother's despair of losing one, it is possible that the latter also illustrates the cruelty of society. Martha Ray mourns alone, no one comforts her. Instead, they speculate about what might have happened to the child:

. . . but some will say
She hanged her baby on the tree,
Some say she drowned it in the pond

There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that she killed her baby; Wordsworth himself comments 'I do not think she would'. In this poem he appears to be illustrating not only a mother's sorrow at losing her child, but also the often unsympathetic nature of society.

The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman makes the point that the woman seems less concerned about the fact that she is about to die than about her child. In the final stanza of the poem she despairs that:

My poor forsaken child! If I
For once could have thee close to me,
With happy heart I then would die,
And my last thoughts would happy be.

In these three poems Wordsworth illustrates that the happiness of the three mothers rests almost entirely on their child. This message is achieved much more effectively by portraying the mothers as solitary, thereby suggesting that nothing in their life is more important than the child, and thus illustrating the intensity of maternal passion.

Wordsworth also writes about rustic characters who do not have a particular story to tell, who he appears to admire merely for their rusticity and simplicity. The best example of this is probably Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman. In this poem Wordsworth explicitly tells the reader:

It is no tale; but should you think,
Perhaps a tale you'll make it.

His admiration for the man's gratitude is the key point of the poem. Wordsworth is once again making the point that he greatly admires the fact that these solitary, rustic people are unashamed to show their emotions. This idea is furthered in The Last of the Flock, in which the poet writes:

In distant countries I have been,
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown,
Weep in the public roads alone.

Wordsworth appears to admire both the shepherd's display of emotion and his solitude, suggesting that the man does not wish to burden his family with his sorrow. Wordsworth is also impressed because the man is selling off his sheep despite the fact that, as the man says:

Sir! 'twas a precious flock to me,
As dear as my own children be;

He is selflessly selling his last sheep in order to support his family, and bearing his sorrow alone, emphasising his generous nature. Wordsworth seems to have written this poem to show the lack of selfishness of many rustic people, perhaps so that others may learn from it.

Simon Lee is one of the less content rustics. A much happier solitary figure is the little girl who Wordsworth meets in his poem We Are Seven. This girl does not feel lonely despite the fact that two of her siblings have died and the others have moved away, leaving her alone with her mother. She constantly reiterates 'We are seven!' and even goes to the graves of her dead siblings and sings to them. This girl is happy and does not feel alone, despite her solitude. Wordsworth greatly admires her happiness, contentment and complete lack of feeling of alienation. This poem seems to illustrate both the innocence of children and the fact that we can learn from it, and also that loneliness is entirely due to a person's attitude. This girl is alone, but does not feel as if she is.

A stark contrast to this is The Female Vagrant. This woman, who started out like a happy and well provided-for has been forced into the mendicant life by a series of unfortunate circumstances. She is so distressed by her situation that she breaks down in tears as she finishes relating her tale. She is an example of someone who is alone and unhappy about it. Perhaps this poem is a criticism of society in the same way as is The Thorn; no one now shows this woman any generosity or friendship. She is forced into a life of poverty, solitude, and unhappiness, through no fault of our own.

A contrast to this woman is the hermit described in Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-tree. He has chosen a life of solitude because he cannot relate to people. Wordsworth writes, after describing the hermit, and his unhappiness:

Stranger! henceforth be warned; and know, that pride,
Howe'er disguised in its own majesty,
Is littleness; that he, who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used; that thought with him
Is in its infancy.

Although Wordsworth seems to feel pity for this man, he does not feel admiration. This man's loneliness and unhappiness were self-induced, and he warns his reader against it by making an example of this hermit. However, he also makes it clear that the hermit feels more at home in nature than among people, but Wordsworth seems to suggest that a balance should be found between the two; although appreciation of nature is important, it is also desirable to relate to people. The characters about which he writes who are in a permanent state of absolute solitude, rather than a temporary one, are rarely happy, for example, Martha Ray.

The solitary characters often find a certain amount of solace in nature, as did Wordsworth himself. Examples of this are the reaper in The Solitary Reaper, and the child in We Are Seven. Wordsworth believed nature to be a great comfort. A poem which fully illustrates this is The Dungeon. In this poem he praises nature's virtues by contrasting the destructive solitude of a dungeon:

. . . uncomforted
And friendless solitude, groaning and tears,
And savage faces, at the clanking hour,
Seen through the steams and vapour of his dungeon
By the lamp's dismal twilight!

to the to the much more beneficial influence which he feels nature would be:

His angry spirit healed and harmonized
By the benignant touch of love and beauty.

In this poem he uses the solitary figure to illustrate not only the healing power of nature, but also to criticise society for its unsympathetic attitude towards convicts.

There are numerous other solitary figures in Wordsworth's poetry and there is not room to describe them all. However, there is one other character who is worth mentioning as he displays an entirely different type of solitude. This is the boy in The Idiot Boy. He is entirely content, but mentally lives in a different world, as we see from his description of the moon and an owl:

The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold

His view of the world is different to that of others, but he is happy in this solitude.

It is evident that Wordsworth placed great importance on his solitary characters, as he so often wrote about them. Wordsworth wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads:

Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply.

Wordsworth obviously saw himself as this man described above, and believed he had seen the worth and importance of these ordinary, solitary figures. They are all important for different reasons, but often Wordsworth admired their solitude because it gave them more time to think about nature and their general being. The emotions of a solitary person are generally more intense as they have no one to share them with, so this is perhaps another reason why he often wrote about people alone.

However, it seems that many of these solitary people represent aspects of himself. He seems to enjoy his own company, or rather, the sole company of nature. Undoubtedly his first concern is expressing the pure emotion of these people to the reader, but it is possible that his writing was an escapist technique, and perhaps to an extent he envied his lonely creations, living in their rustic fictional simplicity.

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001


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