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Despite being published in 1798, William Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” gracefully tackles many topics still controversial today in the 21st century. Themes such as pregnancy out of wedlock, murder, abortion, and ghosts are presented and addressed. Wordsworth uses detailed scenery as well as character ambiguity to cause the reader to believe that Martha Ray is merely an apparition guarding the grave of her infant son.
The narrator sets up the poem by describing the horrid ugliness of a thorn not even as high as his knees, growing on an extravagant mossy hill. He illustrates the lovely, eye-catching colors of: “This heap of earth o’ergrown with moss,/Which close beside the thorn you see,/So fresh in all its beauteous dyes,” (Wordsworth 104). In contrast with the spectacular scenery, he begins to mention and romanticize a small plot of land that appears to be a grave fit for an infant child. The narrator appears to become infatuated with not only the grave, but the history behind it as well.
In stanza VII, he says:
“At all times of the day and night
This wretched woman thither goes,
And she is known to every star,
And every wind that blows;” (Wordsworth 105).
At this point in the poem, we do not know who this woman is that sits by the infant’s grave. We can deduce that there is something different about her however, because the stars and the wind do not typically know of individual human beings. The narrator of the poem then goes on to say:
“In rain, in tempest, and in snow,
Thus to the dreary mountain-top
Does this poor woman go?
And why she sits beside the thorn
When the blue day-light’s in the sky,
Or the whirlwind’s on the hill,
Or frosty air is keen and still,” (Wordsworth 105).
The irony of this passage is that mortals, or average human beings, would not be able to endure these extreme weather conditions.
The narrator continues to explain that the woman, whom is dressed in a scarlet cloak, sits by the grave day and night and rain or shine. She cries to herself “Oh misery! oh misery!/Oh woe is me! oh misery!” (Wordsworth 105). The narrator appears to be new to the village where he is living, and delves into the story of this woman named Martha Ray. We find out that she was engaged to a man named Stephen Hill, and she became pregnant out of wedlock and then was left at the altar. Due to the time period that this piece was written during, Martha Ray would not have been allowed to have a child while unmarried, and thus retreated to the hill far away from the village. It is unclear as to whether or not she gave birth to the baby; however, according to the village tale he is buried underneath the moss surrounding the thorn that Martha Ray clings to, and she indeed murdered him after giving birth.
In stanza XVI, the narrator mentions:
“Cries coming from the mountain-head,
Some plainly living voices were,
And others, I’ve heard many swear,
Were the voices of the dead:
I cannot think, whate’er they say,
They had to do with Martha Ray” (Wordsworth 108).
This is the least ambiguous accusation that Wordsworth makes about Martha Ray being an apparition, or immortal. Similarly, the fact that the people in the village have made up stories about her, but not actually ventured to inquire about them, causes Martha Ray’s character to be suspicious and lack credibility. The moss that she invariably sits upon is said to be scarlet with the drops of her infant’s blood. She is also always wearing a scarlet cloak, which could be colored due to the accusation that she murdered her child shortly after he was born, and has not left the hill since.
As the narrator goes to the hill to inquire about the village rumor, he finds Martha Ray by the grave. “I did not speak—I saw her face,/Her face is was enough for me;/I turned about and heard her cry,” (Wordsworth 109). The narrator is alarmed by Martha Ray, and hides while observing her from afar. He has now seen proof of the infant’s grave that the people in the village have spoken of:
“The shadow of a babe you trace,
A baby and a baby’s face,
And that it looks at you;
Whene’er you look on it, ‘tis plain
The baby looks at you again” (Wordsworth 110).
The ambiguity of Martha Ray’s character, with her credibility being built solely on rumors, causes the reader to question her physical existence. The narrator states in stanza XIII: “Yet often she was sober sad/From her exceeding pain” (Wordsworth 107). It could easily be interpreted that Martha Ray had died from heartache, a medically proven fact, after murdering her newborn child, and was cursed to remain at the site of her infant’s grave.
“The Thorn” is a very progressive poem for the late 1700s. One might think of The Scarlet Letter, by both word association and content, when reading this poem. In this era, it would be unheard of to give birth to a child out of wedlock; therefore, this subtly brings up the controversy of abortion and the murder of a child that has already been born.
As reinforced throughout the poem, Martha Ray’s and the narrator’s lack of credibility support the likelihood of Martha Ray being an apparition.
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