Wordsworth’s Sonnets (Forerunners)

While William Wordsworth is rightly known for his longer poems – whether on the poor and destitute, or his immortality ode, or the book-length Prelude – his sonnets are also something to be reckoned with. Here are a handful of them; if you know of others, do note them in the comments. And since Wordsworth revised his poetry throughout his life, many of you may know these poems in slightly different forms; the text is taken from the Major Works volume from Oxford World’s Classics, which reproduces the earliest version of each poem.


London, 1802

Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In chearful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.


The world is too much with us; late and soon

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


It is no Spirit who from Heaven hath flown

It is no Spirit who from Heaven hath flown,
And is descending on his embassy;
Nor Traveller gone from Earth the Heavens to espy!
’Tis Hesperus – there he stands with glittering crown,
First admonition that the sun is down!
For yet it is broad day-light: clouds pass by;
A few are near him still – and now the sky,
He hath it to himself – ’tis all his own.
O most ambitious Star! an inquest wrought
Within me when I recognised thy light;
A moment I was startled at the sight:
And, while I gazed, there came to me a thought
That I might step beyond my natural race
As thou seem’st now to do; might one day trace
Some ground not mine; and, strong her strength above,
My Soul, an Apparition in the place,
Tread there, with steps that no one shall reprove!


“Beloved Vale!” I said, “when I shall con

“Beloved Vale!” I said, “when I shall con
Those many records of my childish years,
Remembrance of myself and of my peers
Will press me down: to think of what is gone
Will be an awful thought, if life have one.”
But, when into the Vale I came, no fears
Distressed me; I looked round, I shed no tears;
Deep thought, or awful vision, I had none.
By thousand petty fancies I was crossed,
To see the Trees, which I had thought so tall,
Mere dwarfs; the Brooks so narrow, Fields so small.
A Juggler’s Balls old Time about him tossed;
I looked, I stared, I smiled, I laughed; and all
The weight of sadness was in wonder lost.


Brook, that hast been my solace days and weeks

Brook, that hast been my solace days and weeks
And months, and let me add, the long year through,
I come to thee, thou dost my heart renew;
O happy Thing! among thy flowery creeks,
And happy, dancing down thy water-breaks.
If I some type of thee did wish to view,
Thee, and not thee thyself, I would not do
Like Grecian Poets, give thee human cheeks,
Channels for tears! no Naiad shouldst thou be;
Have neither wings, feet, feathers, joints, nor hairs;
It seems, the Eternal Soul is clothed in thee
With purer robes than those of flesh and blood;
And hath bestowed on thee a better good;
The joy of fleshly life, without its cares.


Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 2, 1802

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


Written in London, September 1802

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For Comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our Life is only drest
For shew; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expence,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.


Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room

Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels:
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth, the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground:
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find short solace there, as I have found.


Composed after a Journey across the Hamilton Hills, Yorkshire

Ere we had reached the wished-for place, night fell:
We were too late at least by one dark hour,
And nothing could we see of all that power
Of prospect, whereof many thousands tell.
The western sky did recompence us well
With Grecian Temple, Minaret, and Bower;
And, in one part, a Minster with its Tower
Substantially distinct, a place for Bell
Or Clock to toll from. Many a glorious pile
Did we behold, sights that might well repay
All disappointment! and, as such, the eye
Delighted in them; but we felt, the while,
We should forget them: they are of the sky,
And from our earthly memory fade away.


October, 1803

When, looking on the present face of things,
I see one Man, of men the meanest too!
Raised up to sway the World, to do, undo,
With mighty Nations for his Underlings,
The great events with which old story rings
Seem vain and hollow; I find nothing great:
Nothing is left which I can venerate;
So that a doubt almost within me springs
Of Providence, such emptiness at length
Seems at the heart of all things. But, great God!
I measure back the steps which I have trod,
And tremble, seeing, as I do, the strength
Of such poor Instruments, with thoughts sublime
I tremble at the sorrow of the time.


Surprized by joy – impatient as the Wind

Surprized by joy – impatient as the Wind
I wished 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.


The River Duddon, Conclusion

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away. – Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish; – be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as tow’rd the silent tomb we go,
Thro’ love, thro’ hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.  


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Wordsworth
    … the great wordsmith.
    Along with Longfellow,
    Shakespeare, Paul
    the Apostle, Dylan,
    John the Beetle …
    and the many more, too
    numerous to mention.
    But I’m glad that you’re
    giving them a run. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. i never really got into his sonnets as i was always so busy with the long poems. i never really did indulge in the short poems of the Romantics, i was always more involved in the long poems, which continue to astound me (i think), although i fear i may have out grown them, perhaps until i am senile.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kvennarad says:

    Now, I really appreciate Wordsworth, but I have grave misgivings about his sonnets. When I read sonnets by Shakespeare, or poems by Marvell, I seem to be able to ‘hear’ that they writing in the way they spoke. Likewise, when I read Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ I ‘hear’ a real voice. But when I read these sonnets I ‘see’ a perpetuated diction. I want to go up to him and say, “Will, I totally get romanticism, I totally get the sublime, but just read these aloud and ask yourself if anyone really talks like that. I know you’re a damn fine poet, I know you can write the most marvelous stuff with the voice of an ordinary bloke, so why are you helping to maintain a kind of poetical Sanskrit that’s going to dog people’s received impression of what ‘poetry’ is for years to come?” Maybe it’s all to do with the radical fire of his youth giving way to the conservatism of his old age, I just don’t know.

    I guess when it comes to the Romantics, I fall for Shelley and his West Wind, and that’s that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim Miller says:

      Funny how the Romantics inspire loyalty. I remember the scene in Portrait where Joyce is getting hazed for not liking Byron. I’ve not got much love for Shelley but could sure live & die for Wordsworth’s Sonnets; they’re a great breathing ground for me between his longer & best poems, topped off with the 1805 Prelude. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure these are almost all from before his old age conservative decline. To each his own; better to still be talking about them than not at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kvennarad says:

        To your last point – indeed! I think the romantics were incredibly dynamic, and were prepared to let things work upon them until it was impossible to stop what came out – I know that is an inadequate way of putting it. It is difficult to have any love of poetry and not to engage with the romantics in some way.

        Liked by 1 person

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