William Wordsworth 

<  It Is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free >
poem, commentary, criticism, analysis
Poems in Two Volumes (1807, 37)
composed 1802 (32)

Oil sketch, John Constable c1828

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder - everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Abraham’s bosom : Luke 16:22-25

22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried.
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

Commentary

This sonnet follows the classical sonnet form of fourteen lines split between an octet and a sestet, with a significant change in subject matter between the two.

The octet, which concerns itself with a languid description of the coastal landscape, has a calm and measured rhythm until the unexpected interruption of the flow at syllable seven of line three, presumably to take a breath (since we are 'breathless with adoration'). It slows further with the long vowels of 'broad sun', 'sinking down', 'broods o'er', until almost stopped by the sudden 'listen!' There are more long vowels with 'mighty Being' and 'eternal motion', until we arrive at the punctuation of the word 'thunder'. We then go to sleep with the endless 'everlastingly'.

The initial exclamations of the sestet wake us up again, and the girl, Wordsworth's daughter by his French mistress, Annette Vallon, appears. She is nine years old, and Wordsworth has never seen her before, though he had a good reason for not visiting since the French and English were at war, and travel between the two countries was restricted. She is described as 'untouched by solemn thought'. Is this a euphemism? Does he mean that she is in fact an idiot? The suggestion certainly makes sense of the rest of the sestet, where the poet launches into a reflection on the biblical story of the beggar, the unfortunate man in this life, who is received in heaven on death while the rich man, the fortunate man in this life, languishes in hell. The girl parallels the unfortunate beggar, but what is her misfortune in this life? Being 'untouched by solemn thought'. It's certainly better than 'mentally challenged'. Were she unfortunate just for being fatherless, then why describe her as 'untouched by solemn thought'? It is possible that he just means that she is happy go lucky, of course, but then why bring in the biblical story about the unfortunate beggar?

At all events, the sonnet ends with a little paradox, the fact of 'God being with thee when we know it not'. But how can we state the fact if we don't know it? Absurd. Well, perhaps not simply absurd, perhaps a piece of sophistry designed by Wordsworth to wash his hands of the matter.

 

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