William Wordsworth

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

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A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal Summary

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“A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is a short poem by the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It was first published in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of verse by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. From 1798-1799, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived in Goslar, Germany, where they endured a cold winter in relative isolation. It was during this miserable year that Wordsworth wrote “A Slumber” and three other poems that, together with a later poem, are commonly referred to as the “Lucy poems.” While the other four poems include Lucy’s name, “A Slumber” does not, but like them, it features a speaker grieving the loss of a beloved.

“A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” is the first line of the poem, from which its title is taken. Comprised of two stanzas of four lines each and exhibiting the rhyme scheme ababcdcd, the poem follows the form of a folk ballad. One of the oldest forms of verse, ballads typically tell a story, and “A Slumber” does so. But it’s a very compact story, as the poem is also a lyric, a type of verse characterized by emotional intensity, subjective meditations, and brevity.

In short, “A Slumber” is essentially about the passage from innocence to experience. The poem’s speaker – conventionally regarded as a man – reflects on the past in the first stanza and ponders his formerly oblivious state of mind. Because his “spirit” was sealed, or protected, by a lack of consciousness about mortality, he had no “fears” of death. Indeed, he never suspected that “She” would succumb to aging, or “[t]he touch of earthly years.” Although it’s possible to interpret the “She” the speaker mentions in this stanza as a personification of his spirit sealed in slumber, the prevailing assumption among scholars is that “She” refers to Lucy.

In the poem’s second and final stanza, the speaker no longer dwells on his past naiveté, but instead addresses the present circumstances that have exposed his assumptions of immortality as delusions. Lucy is now dead: “No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees[.]” Literary scholar J. Hillis Miller assigns “major formal” significance to the blank space, or “bar,” between the poem’s stanzas, as it marks “the shift from past to present tense […].” He argues that “this bar opposes then to now, ignorance to knowledge, life to death. The speaker has moved across the line from innocence to knowledge through the experience of Lucy’s death.”

In the poem’s last two lines, the speaker imagines Lucy “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.” She no longer has force or motion aside from what the earth’s rotation imparts to her buried body. The use of the word “diurnal” in line seven has generated a good deal of commentary, partly because it’s the only three-syllable word in the poem and partly because it strikes an unusually formal tone. According to Walter S. Minot, Wordsworth forces “metrical, alliterative and conceptual emphasis on the middle syllable of the word (-urn-) and thus suggests by a play on sounds […] that the earth is an urn, a tomb, a burial place.”

Although the “story” of this short poem may seem straightforward, critical debate about its ultimate meaning suggests otherwise. While allowing that “She” in the poem can be identified as Lucy, some scholars argue that Lucy is a symbol for Wordsworth’s mother, who died when he was just eight. “A Slumber,” then, is about the irrecoverable loss of maternal comfort.

To underscore the essential ambiguity of this poem, Marc Redfield offers an unconventional, albeit unlikely, interpretation. He points out that it’s plausible to read “slumber” in line one as a metaphor for death, in which case, the speaker is delivering his words from the grave, and “She” is his spirit. Moreover, he suggests that the “She” in the second stanza may, in fact, be alive, because motionlessness, blindness and deafness do not necessarily add up to death.

In his discussion of “A Slumber” as a text that defies a definitive reading, Redfield also references E. D. Hirsch’s 1960 publication, “Objective Interpretation.” In this paper, Hirsch juxtaposes two contradictory interpretations of “A Slumber” by two respected scholars. Cleanth Brooks’ 1949 analysis of the poem concludes that the speaker’s attitude is one of bitter resignation to the “horrible inertness” death brings. Taking into consideration Wordsworth’s belief in the unity of humans with nature, F. W. Bateson arrives at a different interpretation. He argues that Lucy’s integration with “rocks and stones and trees” in the poem’s final lines implies that she’s “more alive now that she is dead, because she is now a part of the life of Nature […].” Hirsch judges these two opposing interpretations irreconcilable.

Perhaps it’s this resistance to interpretation that makes “A Slumber” one of Wordsworth’s most widely read and studied short poems. The poem’s undecidability invites debate not only about its meaning, but about the identity of the real Lucy behind the Lucy poems, and about whether or not “A Slumber” is a Lucy poem. In 1997, the chamber pop band Divine Comedy released a single titled “Lucy” which features lines from “A Slumber” and from two other Lucy poems.