Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

To Be a Thing: Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" and the Paradox of Corporealization

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

To Be a Thing: Wordsworth's "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" and the Paradox of Corporealization

Article excerpt

Aside from a few Shakespearean soliloquies, the eight lines of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal" have probably garnered more critical attention in proportion to their number than any other passage of verse in the history of English literature. They've probably incited more disagreement among informed readers as well. Brian G. Caraher has devoted an entire book to the poem's critical history and Mark Jones to the small group of verses from the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, the so-called "Lucy" poems, to which it putatively belongs. For more than half a century., "A Slumber" has served as an interpretive touchstone for Wordsworthians in pursuit of the poet's deepest reflections on life and death, grief and sublimity, eros and thanatos, mind and matter, pantheism and privation. (1) My purpose here is to consider what "A slumber" may have to tell us about being or, to use the language of the poem, "seem[ing]" to be a "thing," a possibility that the poet introduces in line three:

  A slumber did my spirit seal,
  I had no human fears,
  She seemed a thing that could not feel
  The touch of earthly years.

  No motion has she now, no force;
  She neither hears nor sees;
  Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course,
  With rocks, and stones, and trees.(2)

Traditionally, readers have identified the unnamed "She" of line three, who "seemed a thing," as "Lucy," the doomed or threatened heroine of poems like "Three years she grew," "She dwelt among the untrodden ways," and "Strange fits of passion," with which "A slumber" is often grouped. But as Hugh Sykes Davies first pointed out in 1965, this identification is largely a result of the editing and anthologizing decisions of Wordsworth's Victorian admirers (148-152). Within the context of the poem as a purely autonomous work, "She" can only refer to "my spirit," the direct object of "seal" in the first line.(3) Based on this grammatical antecedent, Davies interprets "A slumber" as expressing a distinctive, trancelike state of mind found elsewhere in Wordsworth's poetry (155) and typically associated with moments when the world appears, solipsistically, as an image or a dream "sealed" in the "spirit" or mind of the poet, making his observing "spirit" and what it observes a single, transcendental unity. (4) The word "diurnal" particularly reminds Davies of a passage in the `1805 Prelude composed at about the same time as "A slumber," while the poet was residing with his sister. Dorothy, in Goslar, Germany, during the winter of 1799. Here Wordsworth describes ice skating as a boy on Lake Windermere, spinning rapidly in a game of "crack the whip" and stopping short: "yet still the solitary cliffs/Wheeled by me--even as if the earth had rolled/With visible motion her diurnal round!" (I, 458-60).(5) The connection is clear, writes Davies, "but instead of stopping suddenly and watching the earth visibly roll past him, he imagines himself joined with it, and in a trance-like state identified with its diurnal motion" (155).(6)

"My spirit" is likewise "sealed" in the solipsistic waking dream that overtakes the poet in "Tintern Abbey," when the "beauteous forms" of the Wye Valley, a retrospective picture of the mind" (62), induce in him during the years following his first visit "that blessed mood,/In which [...] we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul" that can "see into the life of things" (42-49; emphasis added). The pantheistic implications of Davies's reading were first recognized about a decade previously by F. W. Bateson, who subscribed to the traditional understanding of "She" as "Lucy." Focusing on the exhilarating, sublimely cosmic perspective opened up in the second stanza, Bateson argued that "Lucy is actually more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature and not just a human 'thing'" (59).

In his exhaustive study of "problematics of reading" the poem, however, Brian G. Caraher rejects Davies's interpretation for its inability to account for the shift in tense between the first and second stanzas, a shift that "Lucy" advocates like Bateson and Cleanth Brooks read into the syncope and silence of the white space between the two quatrains as a sudden shock of realization: she who "seemed" immortal to the poet, eternally young, is now dead, and the reality of her death has awakened him from his lover's pleasant, self-delusive "slumber. …

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