18 pages 36 minutes read

William Wordsworth

A Complaint

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1807

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Published in 1807 at a threshold moment in British poetry, William Wordsworth’s “A Complaint” addresses what might now seem like a cliché worthy of contemporary pop music: How does one mend a broken heart? The poem represents a seismic shift, a moment when the staid and decorous wisdom poetry of more than a century of Neo-Classical verse was giving way to the emotional and highly personal poetry of the self-styled Romantics. “A Complaint,” then, speaks to how the poet, presumably Wordsworth himself, is to handle the complex emotions stirred in the wake of the departure of some unnamed but obviously dear friend. How can I live, the poet asks, sustained only by memories, when those memories only make the absence harder to handle?

Given this quandary, the title is not so much a complaint as a reflection of a genre of poetry that dates to Antiquity—the plaint, a poem that records the pain of a heart left suddenly devastated. Graced by Wordsworth’s careful and studied prosody—a pliant if steady rhythm and a tight rhyme scheme—the poet uses the poem to anatomize his emotional despair, certain only that for now the departure of the friend has left his heart empty and wanting.

Poet Biography

William Wordsworth, who would rise to become the leading poet of his era and the architect of British Romanticism, was born 7 April 1770 in the small market town of Cockermouth (pronounced “cock-er-myth”) in the heart of the Lake District, some three hours northwest of London. Wordsworth’s early years reflected the everyday world of the British middle class, whose joys and sorrows, agonies and ironies he would see as fit subjects for poetic treatment. Surrounded by the unspoiled wildness of the Lake District, Wordsworth grew up intimately taken as much by the rattle and hum of the busy streets of Cockermouth as he was astounded by the vistas of unspoiled nature.

Early on a voracious reader who knew before he was 10 that he wanted to be a poet, Wordsworth was indifferent to the classroom. Indeed, the turning point in his emotional life came when he took a hiatus from his studies at St. John’s College in Cambridge to take what he termed a walking tour of Europe. For close to a year, Wordsworth immersed himself in the radical theories and heated rhetoric of the French Revolution, committing himself (and later his poetry) to the celebration of the people and a passionate rejection of entrenched authority. When he returned to London in the early 1790s, however, he had no job, no family money, really no home—only his convictions and his desire to create a new kind of poetry.

In 1795, Wordsworth met fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That stormy friendship would become central to the evolution of Romanticism. In 1798 Wordsworth, with Coleridge’s guidance, published his first collection, Lyrical Ballads. In so completely separating his poetry from the Neo-Classical models that had defined British poetry for more than a century, Wordsworth, in his essay that served as the collection’s introduction, spoke of the wisdom and worth of the lives of everyday people and the joys (and sorrows) all around. He stressed that poets should open up poetry to the widest audience and forsake the elitist ornamental language of the Neo-Classical poets. This democratization of British poetry, in turn, encouraged a generation of young poets to upend inherited models of poetry and to use poetry that reflected more common speech to explore their emotions and their world.

For more than 40 years, Wordsworth shaped the Romantic movement through a steady publication of poems and essays, among them the collection Poems, Volume 2, in which appeared “A Complaint,” composed after Coleridge departed for a long stay in Europe. During most of those 40 years, Wordsworth labored over an ambitious work that sought to explore the genesis of the poetic spirit. The volume, The Prelude, would not be published until after Wordsworth’s death.

Although Wordsworth’s private life was riven by tragedies and heavy sorrows, he maintained a celebrated public profile as England’s most recognized poet—indeed, Queen Victoria named him Poet Laureate in 1843. At his death just seven years later, Wordsworth was buried back home in the Lake District in a modest churchyard in Grasmere.

Poem Text

A Complaint

There is a change—and I am poor;  

Your love hath been, nor long ago,   

A fountain at my fond heart's door,  

Whose only business was to flow;  

And flow it did; not taking heed  

Of its own bounty, or my need.

 

What happy moments did I count! 

Blest was I then all bliss above!  

Now, for that consecrated fount  

Of murmuring, sparkling, living love, 

What have I? shall I dare to tell? 

A comfortless and hidden well.

 

A well of love—it may be deep—

I trust it is,—and never dry: 

What matter? if the waters sleep 

In silence and obscurity. 

—Such change, and at the very door 

Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

Wordsworth, William. “A Complaint.” 1807. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

The poem begins with the speaker focusing on private pain, saying, “[t]here is a change—and I am poor” (Line 1.) The speaker has lost “Your love” (Line 2), although particulars are left open. That love, that presence, has until recently been a reassuring energy in the speaker’s life. The love that is now lost was once, not so “long ago” (Line 2), like a fountain at the speaker’s very heart’s door, playful and lively, a fountain “whose only business was to flow” (Line 4). The speaker, looking back now, feels how reassuringly constant this love once was, how he felt as if that love would never, could never ebb.

Stanza 2 puts the memory of love into sharper perspective. The speaker recalls how blissful he was in the presence of that love, saying, “[w]hat happy moments did I count” (Line 7). The stanza pivots on the word “Now” (Line 9). Now, the speaker muses, what of that “murmuring, sparkling, living” (Line 10) love does he still have? The love has gone underground, out of sight, deep and distant. He asks boldly, directly in Line 11 what he has left if he doesn’t have this love. The love the speaker craves has now become more like a “comfortless and hidden well” (Line 12).

In the final stanza, the speaker tries to rally. The “well of love” (Line 13), he argues, can indeed be very deep (those who love each other can be separated by great distances). But, he trusts, it is never dry. And yet, though love does not go away, the speaker wonders what does it matter that this love is strong if it is as silent and as obscure as some underground well. The speaker sees the futility of faint hope. The love, in reality, is distant, obscure, now a memory and not a reality.

The speaker sees that the loss of his beloved has rendered his “fond heart” (Line 18) empty and alone. In the end, it is love that is richness, and its absence renders the speaker poor. All he has left are the memories that in turn only make him feel more keenly his loneliness.

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