Close Reading: A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

One of the joys of close reading is that it allows us to look at a poem as words on the page, unencumbered by any received wisdom about its “themes” or “interpretation”. Sometimes this can lead us in surprising directions.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal (William Wordsworth, 1798)

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;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

This is powerful stuff, and I could happily spend the whole post looking at its sound-play and diction (the music of those open vowels; the lurch from plain language into that incongruous and brilliant “diurnal”). But there’s a dragon – or at least a critical worm – to be slain here first.

The poem is normally grouped as one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, a cluster of elegies about the death of a young girl. This has led to a traditional reading where “she” is Lucy and the poem is an eerie but beautiful meditation on the finality of death. And yes, the poem can certainly be made to fit this reading. It works.

But I’ve always had a problem with interpreting the poem this way. For starters, it was editors after Wordsworth’s death who deemed this one of the Lucy poems, not the poet himself. It’s also the only one not to mention Lucy by name. But these are contextual points: my main problem with the “dead girl” reading of the poem is that it’s at odds with the natural logic of the words themselves.

To be clear from the outset: poetry is an art born of ambiguity, and many of the best poems can be read in different ways – so I’m not saying that it’s wrong to interpret the poem as an elegy. I enjoy looking at it through this lens and through a number of others. But for me it’s not the interpretation that most naturally and immediately arises from the words themselves – or at least it wouldn’t be if we hadn’t been pre-conditioned to see it that way by generations of critics and study guides.

Let’s take it line by line. “A slumber did my spirit seal; / I had no human fears”. The choice of words (“slumber” rather than “sleep”), syntactic inversion (“my spirit seal” rather than “seal my spirit”) and the strong sound-patterning all put us in the realm of heightened poetic language, but at its simplest the poet fell asleep and wasn’t frightened. (We might ask why he feels the need to qualify the fears he doesn’t have as human, but otherwise this is straightforward).

Now comes the point where the study guides lead us astray: “She seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years”.

Who is “she”?

It’s still considered impolite to refer to someone as “she” in conversation without first establishing who she is, hence the conventional “Who’s she? the cat’s mother?”. The eccentric (and poetry-loving) headmistress of my junior school used to point out sternly that “she is a pronoun” whenever someone committed the faux pas of launching straight into “she” without first defining who she was. Poetry has long had a partial exemption on this front (e.g. Byron’s “She walks in beauty like the night”, to take one example among thousands), but with today’s poem I think my headmistress may have had a point: she is a pronoun, and if we look back at the first stanza we’ll see that we’re still in the first sentence, where the pronoun has an antecedent:

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

The natural parsing of English syntax would lead us to associate “she” with “my spirit”. If this seems odd for a male poet, we should remember that the spirit was conventionally gendered as female (every classically-educated 18th century poet would have known that Psyche was a woman), and it would have killed the poem dead to have used “it”. That said, if we conduct a thought-experiment and replace every “she” with “it” (to get over the alienating effect for a modern reader of gendering spirit), the poem makes complete sense.

It also makes sense in a way that the “Lucy” reading doesn’t quite. If you’re writing an elegy for a dead girl, why say that she “seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years”? That “seemed” would be redundant, prompting us to blurt out like Hamlet “Nay, it is; I know not seems”. She didn’t seem to be dead; she was dead. But if we’re talking about “my spirit”, that “seemed” is not only meaningful but necessary.

What’s being described here is a mystical experience. The speaker of the poem falls into some sort of sleep or trance-state and experiences a sense of liberation from time (“could not feel / The touch of earthly years”) and unity with inert nature. This is the timeless moment that William James would later document and that many poets have described in one form or another (most famously Eliot in Four Quartets). The speaker’s perception of the external world falls away (“She neither hears nor sees”) as does the sense of movement and urgency (“No motion has she now, no force”). Instead of conscious will, there is passive acceptance (“Rolled round”). This is why “diurnal” disturbs and comforts at the same time; it’s also why the fears left behind in line 2 are explicitly “human”. And it’s what the poem mimics by taking us from a historic past tense in the first stanza to a timeless present in the second.

Many people who describe having these experiences (whether they believe them to be religious phenomena or the result of brain chemistry) report a sense of dislocation from themselves, which is also the effect this poem creates by splitting the “I” of line 2 from the “she” of lines 3, 5 and 6 – although if we look closely the split is already there in the distinction between “my spirit” and “I”.

Having said all of this, it’s also worth remembering that Wordsworth had just completed a series of poems about a dead girl called Lucy (after all, poetry is an art born of ambiguity).

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