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Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is a short and powerful poem that centers around the loss of someone close to the speaker. The poem is composed of two four line stanzas, which both follow a simple ABAB rhyme scheme and are based on the abstract and unnamed concept of death.. The poem refers, as the title suggests, to a slumber that has had a profound effect on the speaker, and to a girl that the reader can assume to be dead. The poem, although shrouded in ambiguity, possesses a unique emotional draw, which Wordsworth achieves through stylistic choices such as the simplicity of language, juxtaposed images, and, ironically, the absence of identifying details.
“A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is told from the first person perspective, although the speaker is not the main focus of the poem; it is instead focused predominantly on a girl whom the speaker has chosen to leave unnamed. Of the poem’s eight lines, only the first two refer to the speaker himself, and the remainder of the poem centers entirely around the girl—referred to by the speaker as “she”—who remains unidentified for the duration of the poem. This is perhaps the poem’s most distinctive characteristic: it is shrouded throughout in ambiguity. Both the speaker and the “she” that is referred to throughout much of the poem are without any identifying features, and the reader is left with very little concrete information about either character. The reader knows only that the speaker has experienced a slumber of some sort—presumably a symbolic one, although this too is vague and unspecified—and that the “she” the speaker refers to is dead, which does not become apparent until the poem’s second and final stanza.
The poem’s second stanza makes it relatively clear that the speaker is talking about death, and that the “she” to which he refers has died. Though this is not explicitly stated in the text—the speaker never makes any direct reference to “death” or “dying”—it is strongly alluded to by the speaker’s remarks that she has “No motion… no force” (line 5), as well as by his final statement that she is now “Rolled around… / With rocks, and stones, and trees” (lines 7-8). However, this is the extent of the information that the speaker offers about the girl; the rest is left for the reader to infer and interpret. The speaker does not reveal how or when she died, whether or not she was young, or what the speaker’s relationship to her was—all things that, it would seem, are fundamental to the reader’s ability to achieve any semblance of understanding of the poem as a whole.
However, although it might seem counterintuitive to write so vaguely about the main subjects of the poem, this stylistic choice works to help peak the reader’s interest in the speaker’s words. Beyond the obvious fact that the lack of detail requires the reader to actively think and infer about the poem’s meaning, the ambiguity surrounding the poem’s main characters allows the reader to connect more deeply with its primary subject: death. The result of the speaker’s lack of specificity is that the reader is struck less by the character of either the speaker or the girl, but by the concept of death as a whole, leaving the reader with a vast ability to interpret the poem as they wish and apply its abstract concepts to their own experiences with death and loss.
This effect is aided by the fact that Wordsworth’s poem is short and relatively simple, both in structure and in language. It is separated into two stanzas, dividing the poem into two distinct parts that represent the past and present. This divide, although seemingly simple, contributes heavily to the poem as a whole. The first stanza is told entirely in past tense, while the second stanza is written in the present tense, separating the poem into two decidedly different sections. In this way, the first stanza offers a context, albeit vague, for the death that is described in the second half of the poem. This structural shift in perspective from the first to the second stanza also contributes to the sense that the speaker is looking back regretfully on the events leading up to the girl’s death, and on his state of mind back when he believed, falsely, that “she… could not feel / The touch of earthly years” (lines 3-4). This emphasis placed on his miscalculation of the girl’s mortality contributes heavily to the sense of loss that characterizes the poem.
Additionally, despite the lack of detail offered to characterize either of the poem’s characters, Woodsworth’s choice of language and imagery add to the poem’s distinct tone, which make up for the absence of concrete detail. This is achieved largely though the simplicity of language, as the poem is unencumbered by superfluous words and lengthy phrases, and relies instead on the raw emotion that this discussion of death evokes. Since the language does not serve as a barrier to the reader’s comprehension, the emotion of the poem is far more striking than if would be if the text was adorned with elevated diction and lengthy, complex sentences. This simplicity of language, coupled with the juxtaposition of imagery that the speaker employs, helps contribute to the poem’s wistful tone and its accompanying feeling of loss. For example, the statement in the first stanza that “She seemed a thing that could now feel/ The touch of earthly years” (line 4-5) is cleverly juxtaposed with the later imagery in the second stanza , in which the speaker describes the ambiguous “she” being “Rolled around in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees” (lines 7-8) in order to convey the sense that the speaker’s initial assumptions about death and the girl he describes were misguided. These two images, which center around earthliness, are starkly contrasted to help paint a picture of death and to leave the reader with a strong sense of the speaker’s regret and sense of loss. The contrast between the image presented in the first stanza and that of the second stanza represents the difference between the speaker’s perception of mortality and the reality of it in relation to the girl, making the poem much more poignant than the death of the unidentified girl could achieve alone.
Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” despite its apparent simplicity, is filled with the deepness and complexity of human emotion and the tragedy of death and loss. This poem’s power lies, ironically, in its simplicity and ambiguity, which, combined, allow the reader to forge a deep emotional connection to the speaker’s reflection on death. Despite the poem’s surface-level ambiguity, the underlying feeling of the poem is quite clear, and the reader can easily feel and connect to the speaker’s sadness and regret over failing to realize the mortality of someone about whom he cared deeply.
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