She Was a Phantom of Delight – William Wordsworth

Background

William Wordsworth is one of the most renowned English poets, who along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge established the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth defined poetry as “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” The origin of poetry for him lay in “emotion recollected in tranquility”. This poem was written about his wife, Mary Hutchinson. Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson were students at the same school. This poem goes through three distinct stages.

Metaphysical Inferences

The first stanza depicts the woman not as a creature of flesh and blood but as a phantom or an insubstantial being. He calls her an “apparition” that can “haunt, startle and waylay”. Though she is ethereal, she is cheerful, sprightly and so light hearted that her shape seems to be dancing. In the next stanza, the poet sees her as a living breathing creature who charms him as she goes about her role as a housewife. She is gentle and soft and brings comfort to everyone around her. She may not be too “bright or good” but she has other qualities that make up for this deficiency. In the third stanza, the poet is struck by her capacity for hard work; she is almost like a machine though in it beats a heart. She can be firm and in command when needed, at other times, she is angelic and serene.

Summary

This is a poem written in honour of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary Hutchinson. Mary knew Wordsworth even when they were children. In this poem, the poet treats or addresses the subject in three distinct styles. In the first stanza, the poet refers to his wife as an apparition or a phantom which is an insubstantial being. She appears to be made of light, her eyes are like stars at night and her hair has the darkness of dusk. Her beauty can startle and haunt him. But she is at the same time, a happy spirit who spreads joy around her. In the next stanza the poet speaks of her as a creature of flesh and blood. She walks with such a light step that she seems to float as she goes about her work. She is able to cope with the common sorrows of life with smiles, tears, love and kisses. When the poet gets to know his wife better, he is awestruck by her strength and resourcefulness. She can be firm when the occasion demands it though she is never harsh. She is interested in worldly and spiritual matters equally. She is as perfect as a human being can ever be.

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Analysis

This poem is written in three stanzas of ten lines each. Wordsworth uses couplets in this poem. Right from the first moment that he set eyes upon her, the poet had been delighted with his wife. To him she appeared as an apparition that had eyes as bright as stars at night and hair that had the darkness of dusk. Nature seemed to have dipped into the lush spring season and the pure morning to choose the most attractive features for his wife. She moved about like a graceful dancer and her perfection sometimes surprised and scared him. Her beauty had the ability to disturb him when he was busy at work.
When the poet started seeing her at close quarters, he realized that apart from being a spirit, she was a woman too. Her step was so light when she moved about his home that he was struck by its virgin felicity. Her face seemed to have happy memories and she seemed to make sweet promises. She may not have been too bright or very good at some things but she was good at coping with smiles, tears, love and kisses.
The poet then perceives her with calm eyes. She works so efficiently that he refers to her as a machine, albeit one that has a heart and a pulse. While she travels between “life and death”, she is thoughtful and kind and she has endurance, foresight, strength and skill. She is a perfect being who has been designed nobly by the creator and she can command, warn and comfort in equal measure. Yet she remains a spirit who is full of angelic light.

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Overall Impression

Wordsworth finds praiseworthy qualities in his wife. During the early days of marriage she was more of a blithe spirit than a person made of flesh and blood. As he gets to know her better, other qualities that she has captures his attention. She is not an intellectual but she has definite views that she is not afraid to express. This is a poem that warmly expresses the poet’s opinion of his wife.