Elegiac Stanzas: by William Wordsworth - Summary & Analysis

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Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont

I was thy neighbour once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene'er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle things.

Ah! then , if mine had been the Painter's hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet's dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;—
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,—'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanised my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne'er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.

Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O 'tis a passionate Work!—yet wise and well,
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,
Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, the trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for 'tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.


      Elegiac Stanzas were suggested by a picture of Peele Castle in a storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont. Peele Castle is on a small island, a little south of Barrowr-in-Furness, Lancashire. Sir George Beaumont was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, much interested in art and literature and in landscape gardening. Wordsworth spent a winter once in a farm-house lent to him by Beaumont. In the dedication to him of the 1815 edition of his poems, Wordsworth says that “several of the best pieces were composed under the shade of your own groves, upon the classic ground of Coleorton.” An engraving of his picture forms the front’s piece to the edition. The Your summer weeks’ in line 2 were passed at Rampside, a neighboring village, probably in 1794. The poem was written in the summer of 1805, some months after the poet’s sailor brother, John, had been drowned at sea. The deep distress mentioned in line 36 refers to that bereavement.


      In the poem, Elegiac Stanzas, Wordsworth refers at first to his stay near Peele Castle, when he saw it every day in the calm and quiet atmosphere, its form sleeping on a glassy and gentle sea. If he had been a painter, he would have painted what he saw and also what he fancied, not the mere objective reality but the reality colored by a youthful fancy. It would not have been a picture of Peele Castle in a storm but in a smiling seascape, a tranquil landscape and a blissful skyscape. It would have been a picture of lasting ease, a quiet without toil or struggle such as reigns in Elysium, without any motion except that of the tide, a breeze of the breathing of silent nature’s life.

      But now that his brother is dead, a power is gone from him irreparable, a deep distress has made his soul human and humane. He thus praises and does not find fault with Beaumont’s picture, depicting the sea in anger, the dismal shore, the ship pitching and rolling in a heavy sea, the ominous sky, the magnificent spectacle inspiring terror. The huge Castle stands sublime, braving the storm. The poet pities the individual who lives alone separated from the rest of mankind. He welcomes such sights or worse than depicted in the painting before him. These misfortunes are to be borne with fortitude and cheerful patience.


      Elegiac Stanzas was inspired by a visit to Peele Island with its magnificent ruined castle. Wordsworth spent some weeks on the island, and during his stay there, the weather had been calm. The poem is an elegy for his brother John, a sailor who has been much loved by William and Dorothy Wordsworth. He had always undertaken the sea voyages, especially in times of war, with the thought of bringing back of great fortune which he would then share with his brother and sister. However, in the February of 1805, his ship was wrecked, and John along with everyone else on board had drowned. John had been the favorite brother of William and Dorothy and his death was a great blow to them. Indeed, with his death they considered a period of their life to be over—they felt that the carefree optimism of youth was forever dead for them.

Picture of Peele Castle and the Poem

      The poem, says Wordsworth, was inspired by seeing a picture of Peele Castle which depicted the castle against a storm. How then, we wonder as we start reading the poem, is Wordsworth telling us about how calm the sea was, and how tranquil the land, and how the sky of bliss reflected the peace of the sea and land. As we read on, however, we realize that the beginning is not the whole of the poem. The connection between the picture painted by Beaumont and the poem and John’s death becomes clear. John’s death made the poet realize that the sea’s calm is deceptive, and beneath the calm is great violence. Now he will never be able to see things in that way. Years ago, if he had been a painter, he would have painted a calm sea and a tranquil scene. But now he could not paint such a picture of peaceful joy. That:

.....power is gone which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.

      He cannot overcome his sense of loss; he will never be able to “behold the smiling sea”.

Greater Truth in the Picture of Stormy Seas

      Wordsworth now feels that Beaumont’s picture of the castle in the storm holds more truth than the picture of calm seas. He admires the artist for showing things as they are. The sea in anger, “that dismal shore”, “the rueful sky”, and “this pageantry of fear” bring out the truth of things. The storm with its lighting, fierce wind and trampling waves, as depicted in the picture, recalled for Wordsworth that tragic night when his brother died.

Determination to Face Life with Fortitude

      The youthful dream-like joy in the calmness of Nature might have gone for ever. Wordsworth is not too regretful about it having passed off. He has comprehended that the gleam which he would have given to his peaceful picture of the sea bespoke a “light that never was, on sea or land”—it is the fancy of youth, the illusion of the youthful poet. Now in his maturity, he is aware of the suffering and sorrows of humanity, and from this experience of life’s sadness, he will draw the lesson of fortitude and patience. He will learn to sympathize and understand humanity better. He declares:

But welcome, fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights, or worse, as are before me here,
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

      Tragedy is part of life, indeed, something which makes life richer. It is necessary to face it with determination and strength of mind. Death is an inescapable fact, and human greatness lies in facing unpleasant facts courageously. The castle and storm are symbols of reality and death. Maturity teaches one to understand the unpleasant side of life. Wordsworth bids farewell to:

.....the heart that lives alone
Housed, in a dream, at distance from the kind !

      Such happiness is blind, and is to be pitied, for it is severed from the realities of life. Wordsworth, as usual, draws a moral lesson in his poem.


      The poem ends on a note of hope—that the sufferings of humanity and the sadness have a purpose. The poem has some beautiful images. The picture of the calm sea with its glassy smoothness is well evoked. Indeed, we can sense a foreboding underneath the picture of peaceful surface. The line, “the light that never was, on sea or land”, is famous and often quoted; unfortunately, however, out of context so that the meaning Wordsworth intended is lost. He does not mean by it that such light is the product of poetic imagination, at least not the mature poetic imagination. He implies by it the superficial colorings of youthful fancy. He does not regret the passing of this phase. He is better appreciative of the ability to comprehend the violence and suffering in Nature and Humanity and learn from such painful experiences the lesson of fortitude, patience and strength of mind. Only out of understanding this reality can true happiness be born.

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