To My Sister


Background

The poem To My Sister was written and published in 1798 when Wordsworth was twenty-eight years old. At this point, he was living with his sister Dorothy and was working closely with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the Lyrical Ballads.

Structure

The poem consists of ten stanzas. Each stanza contains four lines with a rhyme scheme of abab. The final stanza largely repeats the fourth one, both for emphasis and to give a sense of unity to the poem.

Summary

The first two stanzas of the poem show Wordsworth at his descriptive best. Within the restraints of four-line stanzas and a strict rhyme scheme, he manages to create a vivid and evocative description of ‘the first mild day of March’. He appeals to the sense of sight, the sense of hearing and the sense of touch in order to give the scene depth and realism. He uses ‘the very language of men’, but in such a way that it is expanded in the power of its communication.

In the third stanza, he addresses his sister, attempting to persuade her to spend the day outside. He tells her to change into her ‘woodland dress’, perhaps implying that she will be much more comfortable in this relaxed outfit rather than the more formal clothes that she wears indoors. He suggests that they will spend the day in ‘idleness’, so she should leave her book inside along with her indoor clothes. These ideas recur in the final stanza.

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At this point, the poem changes from a simple description of a time and place to a reflection on the effects of Nature on Man. In this way, the moment becomes significant. Wordsworth describes these effects in the context of his group, but the implication is that the message applies to all men. The ordering of Time by a calendar is portrayed as arbitrary and restrictive, whereas the internal time that governs Nature is natural and positive.

Wordsworth feels that by being outside, within Nature, Man opens himself to the Great Truths that Nature symbolises. Love, perhaps the greatest Truth of all, fills the natural world.

Wordsworth does not simply mean that Spring is the time of growth and procreation in the natural world. Love, for him, is the instinct to exist in a positively creative way. It is an instinct that Man can all too easily lose by locking himself into the inside world of daily tasks, books and calendars. The spaciousness of the outside world fills and extends the very essence of Man. Then Man, in his turn, surrenders up something of his creativity to Nature. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that moves ‘From earth to man, from man to earth’.

Just as Wordsworth sees a clear contrast existing between the inside and outside worlds, so he also views the way Man learns in each world as being distinctly different. In the inside world, learning is made up of ‘toiling reason’ for the intellect; but outside, learning becomes effortless and spontaneous. It is a complete experience for the mind and the body: ‘Our minds shall drink at every pore’. Nature creates a situation where Man learns holistically: that is, the learning becomes relevant to his very spiritual essence. What is absorbed outside, close to Nature, has a fundamental effect: ‘We’ll frame the measure of our souls’. It works in a positive and constructive way, not only for the individual but for society as a whole, because it generates a willingness to be ‘tuned to love’.

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In the final stanza, Wordsworth once more repeats his request that Dorothy should change her clothes and leave her book so that they can spend the day in ‘idleness’. However, now that we have read the poem we, like Dorothy, fully understand just what Wordsworth is suggesting. We know exactly what ‘idleness’ means, so we can join Wordsworth and his sister in smiling at his gentle joke.

Style

It is always important to remember that Wordsworth believed that poetry was created out of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. So although he places his poems in the present, and creates a sense of spontaneous immediacy, he is writing about an incident from the past. Wordsworth uses memory to recall this past incident and its accompanying emotions so that he can re-experience the moment in a new context, in ‘tranquillity’, and this enables him to draw out the depth of meaning that is embodied in the incident.

In this way, the moment becomes more significant. Therefore, with Wordsworth, spontaneity and immediacy are to be treated with caution!

Alternatively
‘It is possible enough, we allow, that the sight of a friend’s spade, or a sparrow’s nest… might really have suggested to such a mind a train of powerful impressions and interesting reflections, but it is certain that to most minds such associations will always appear forced, strained and unnatural.’

So wrote Francis Jeffrey, a contemporary critic of Wordsworth. Is this a justifiable criticism of this poem and Wordsworth’s other works on your course? Does he take incidents that might have a limited value and expand their relevance to such an extent that they are in continual danger of exploding; are they the poetic equivalent of an over-inflated balloon?

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