A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal
Wordsworth appears to have written the group of ‘Lucy’ poems when he was in Germany in the winter of 1799. They were first printed in the Lyrical Ballads collection in 1800. This poem appeared third in a group of three. The poems have an elegiac quality in that they lament the death of someone. However, the traditional elegy usually laments the passing of a notable person, such as a great poet or military hero. Wordsworth seems to deliberately emphasise how unknown Lucy was in order to highlight the fact that her importance came from her effect on him. Similarly, there is a sense of mystery in each of these poems not usually found in the traditional elegiac form. Wordsworth avoids the standard approach of detailing facts about the deceased in order to heighten the sense of loss. Instead, he simply suggests certain qualities while placing most of the emphasis on how he was affected by the death.
Summary of the poem
The opening two lines of the poem appear to communicate a readily understandable image – that of Wordsworth falling into a sleep. He depicts the condition as a pleasant one that has ‘no human fears’. The first line reinforces this by its use of the ‘s’ sound, giving a relaxed and sleepy quality to the words. His use of the past tense clearly indicates that this incident is a recollected one. However, with lines 3 and 4, the poem begins to move away from this apparent clarity. There is an underlying uneasiness as we encounter the puzzling ‘She’. Who or what is ‘She’? Could it be Wordsworth’s ‘spirit’ of the first line, given a kind of timeless immortality by the protective ‘seal’ of sleep? Or does the ‘She’ refer to a separate person? By linking ‘She’ with the word ‘thing’, Wordsworth further confuses the matter. Can a ‘thing’ be human?
The use of ‘seemed’ further increases this uneasiness. There is the strong implication that the ability of this ‘She’ to resist the effects ‘of earthly years’ was, in truth, only an appearance. Is there a haunting sense of disappointment, perhaps even distress, underpinning these words, although they are set in the past? Wordsworth deliberately leaves these questions hanging as he leads us into the second stanza.
The second stanza opens with an unsettling change of tense. We are now in the present. However, as the past was filled with an appearance of ability, so the present is filled with real inability. ‘She’ now has ‘no motion’, ‘no force’; she is unable to hear or see. The image is clearly indicating a change in condition, but in what way and for whom? The negatives of ‘no’ and ‘neither’ suggest a ceasing of something that was present before. Furthermore, in spite of the overwhelming image of being unable to move, or hear, or see, there is a surprising lack of emotional reaction.
Finally, Wordsworth describes an image that is stunningly vivid yet profoundly enigmatic. He seems to suggest that although ‘She’ is no longer able to actively move, ‘She’ is, nevertheless, still participating in movement: ‘Rolled round’. ‘She’ has become part of the greater motion that propels our Earth through Time and Space. Whether this final image is to be understood as positively comforting, or negatively disturbing, is unclear. Reference to Wordsworth’s poetic philosophy and his other works supports the view that Nature is a force for good in his world. However, because ‘She’ is never fully defined, because ‘She’ is altered in a fundamental yet unspecified way, because Wordsworth himself appears to be suspended in a world that is both conscious and unconscious, wakeful and sleeping, this last image neither clearly answers nor finally resolves the questions that were posed in the first stanza of the poem.
It is significant that, here again, the female figure is viewed as in some way having the ability to connect with Nature in an instinctive and unconscious way, an ability that Wordsworth by implication felt that he lacked. Samuel Taylor Coleridge guessed that this poem was written as an epitaph (words composed in memory of a person who has died) after Wordsworth had a premonition of the death of his sister Dorothy.
Given that the poem was published in a group dealing with the death of Lucy, it is tempting to view it as simply another aspect of Wordsworth’s reaction to this event. Yet we have to pose the question of whether the poem itself supports this interpretation.
Indeed, should the meaning and relevance of a poem be dictated by its published context? Or should a poem be taken as a separate and distinct entity, with its own uniquely individual meaning? Does it matter when or where a poem is published, or what was happening in the poet’s life at the time of its creation? By linking a poem to all these details are we simply taking the easy option and, although we may arrive at a satisfying explanation, have we sacrificed the essential quality that made it a poem in the first place? Wordsworth expressed the following view on this topic:
‘Our business is with their books – to understand and enjoy them. And, of poets more especially, it is true – that, if their works be good, they contain within themselves all that is necessary to their being comprehended and relished…’.