The Darker Side of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem, “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, takes the reader into the emotional turmoil of loss, regret, and death, as they shape the human experience and understanding of the world that surrounds us.  The prose begins with the startling lines, “Before I see another day, Oh let my body die away!”  A clear plea for death, enunciated through a tone of exhaustion.  The prospect of continued existence has become an unbearable burden to the speaker, forcing the exclamation of “Oh” as a preemptive sigh of gratitude for the sweet relief of death that the speaker hopes will come soon as a deliverance.  In common Wordsworthian fashion, the narrative is not complete unless it offers a reverence to the natural surroundings of the poem’s setting:

In sleep I heard the northern gleams;

The stars, they were among my dreams;

In rustling conflict through the skies,

I heard, I saw the flashes drive,

Judging by the description above, the speaker is in the icy regions of the northern latitude, where the famous Northern lights have been documented as making a seemingly “rustling” and crackling noise through the air.  The diction implies that the speaker has been stranded to look at this scenery for some time, and though overwhelmed by the majesty of it, the beauty of the imagery only works to remind the speaker of the blissful state that death would bring, “And yet they are upon my eyes, And yet I am alive.”  The beauty of the northern sky serves as a contrast to the narrators destitute state, which stands in for Wordsworth’s greater message that while we who dwell under Nature’s grace will inevitably fade away, the grace of Nature itself will always be eternally observable in the night sky, no better the fickle state of the observer.

The poem transitions from the sky, back to the individual, as the narrator draws links between natural processes and the human experience:

My fire is dead:  it knew no pain;

Yet it is dead, and I remain:

All stiff with ice the ashes lie;

And they are dead, and I will die.

The speaker understand that once death arrives, she will no longer be in any state to either contemplate the event, or complain about it–in death the fire knows no pain, and neither will any of us.  Watching the ashes that remain from the once flaming campfire focuses the narrator’s mind to recognize the temporary reality of her current pain.

Though the poem appears to have reached a point of serenity for the character involved, the prose quickly takes a turn towards reminiscences of life and regret:

Alas!  ye might have dragged me on

Another day, a single one!

Too soon I yielded to despair;

Why did ye listen to my prayer?

Wordsworth’s poem narrates the story of an American Indian woman left behind by her companion when she decided she could not continue the journey any longer.  The first two lines in the above passage would have the reader assume that this is a tale of callous abandonment, but the last two lines imply that the woman’s companions continued on without her, at her own insistence (hence, the retrospective woe, “Why did ye listen to my prayer?”).  The whole passage is one of  self-scorn for not having persisted against the obstacles faced, for not having chosen life over a defeatist end.  Although the speaker now recognizes that she could have held on further, the recognition comes too late; she now is where she saw herself at when she chose to give up trying.

The narrative then adds another layer of dimension to the emotional turmoil of the poem, with the following lines:

My Child! they gave thee to another,

A woman who was not thy mother.

When from my arms my Babe they took,

On me how strangely did he look!

Through his whole body something ran,

A most strange working did I see;

–As if he strove to be a man,

That he might pull the sledge for me:

And then he stretched his arms, how wild!

Oh mercy! like a helpless child.

The story of loss takes a new turn, as the seemingly abandoned woman now takes on the role of an abondoner.  Wordsworth draws a contrast in the behavior of the child in comparison to his mother; whereas the mother lays down to surrender to the elements, the boy’s demeanor is one of positive life affirmation–a desire to continue forwards at all cost–against whatever may arise in his path.  But the mother recognizes that this positive determination in her child’s eye is futile to help her, and gives the impression that she holds herself responsible for not meeting the boy’s drive and forcing herself to head on.  To be separated from one’s child is a reality all people will eventually face as they shuffle off this mortal coil, but to hand him away to another and then wait remorsefully for death to come is the very zenith of despair.  Perhaps this is the reason for the narrator’s initial unwillingness to muster forward after her premature surrender to the forces of nature, causing her to later muse privately to her gone child, “Then do not weep and grieve for me; I feel I must have died with thee.”

The theme of despair and sorrow is not uncommon in Wordsworth’s poetry, but usually it is told in a sense of pining for Nature’s simplicity, and a romantic plea for greater introspection of the joy’s of life and love.  But in “The Complaint of a forsaken Indian Woman”, the poet deviated from the format his reader’s are accustomed to.  Here, the tone begins in pain and ends in pain; the reality of Nature’s cruelty is not rationalized away–no apologizes on behalf of Wordsworth’s deified grace of Nature is offered.  As the poem’s ending shows, loss, regret, and death are inseparable components of life, and no retrospective pleas or complaints of one’s past actions will amend this fact:

Young as I am my course is run,

I shall not see another sun;

I cannot lift my limbs to know

If they have any life or no.

My poor forsaken Child, if I

For once could have thee close to me,

With happy heart I then would die,

And my last thought would happy be;

But thou, dear Babe, art far away,

Nor shall I see another day.

Bibliography

Wordsworth, William.  “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” 1798 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, Cambridge Edition, 1932 reprint).

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