The Thorn: by William Wordsworth - Summary & Analysis

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      The Thorn is one of Wordsworth’s experiments “to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure”. It was first published in the 1798 Lyrical ballads.

      The story of The Thorn was devised by Wordsworth to fit the landscape, with a view to illustrating the power of imagination. In 1800-05, a long note by Wordsworth describes the type of man who is supposed to tell the story; a retired captain of a small ship, unemployed, superstitious and credulous, ready to retail any “yarn” concerning local scandal. Thus the poem complies with the theoretic “language of conversation in the middle and lower classes” as an experiment in dramatic diction, and is, at the same time, implicitly a psychological study of a self-revealed character. The mention of a telescope suggests the seafaring narrator.


      The Thorn has a simple ballad theme. It is the story of a woman whose lover has betrayed her and married another. On the day of the wedding, the betrayed woman goes out of her mind. Afterwards, her baby is born and mysteriously disappears. The narrator does not know whether it was still-born or how it dies, but everyone believes that it lies buried under a little mound, by an ancient thorn-tree. When the villagers go to dig up the mound to see if they can find the child’s remains, the grass on the mound seems to shake on its own. Thus they were too frightened to dig it up. No one knows for certain what has happened to the baby. The mad woman sits by the thorn-tree and keeps crying. “Oh, Misery !” The poem develops it in an effective manner by using the thorn-tree, the pond and the mound as symbols of Nature. The story is related, not by the poet, but by a fictitious narrator, supposed to be an old sea-captain of the neighborhood.


Origin of the Poem and its Theme

      Wordsworth himself records that he noticed a Thorn-tree on the ridge of Quantock Hill on a stormy day; a thorn-tree which he had passed many a time on fair days without noticing it. He writes that the impression produced by the thorn-tree in the storm made him wonder if he could not “by some invention.....make this thorn permanently an impressive object.” As a result, he composed the poem. As such one can assume that the poem’s primary theme is the Thorn-tree, and that the narrator and the Martha Ray story belong to the “invention” devised by Wordsworth to make the thorn impressive to the imagination of his readers. Places are as important to Wordsworth as people. The image of the old stunted thorn-tree on the ridge must have been fertilized in his mind by his memory of the ballad of the forsaken woman who might have murdered her illegitimate baby. The center of the poem is the thorn-tree, with the little pond and the hill of moss beside it—the strange haunting scene of a human tragedy. Here the wretched woman comes, and here her misery finds utterance, and finds in some inscrutable way fulfillment.

The Thorn: A Vision of Desolation and Alienation

      Bereaved mothers and deserted females are common in Wordsworth’s poetry. In The Thorn, the woman has been seduced and deserted by her lover. The woman has become mad and is considered with contempt and is frightened by the villagers, who want to bring her to “public justice” for the child murder which they presume she has committed. The distracted woman in The Thorn is both a solitary and a person enfeebled in mind by her sufferings. The poem becomes a vision of desolation and alienation from human society. Nature offers comfort to these outcasts of society. Nature sympathizes with Martha Ray and her suffering.

The Thorn and the Pond: Living Natural Metaphors for something Human

      The thorn-tree is not merely an object for description. Wordswroth’s perception of Nature is symbolic—the thorn is linked with the solitary human being. We note the comparison made with “rock or stone” - anticipating an image which will recur in Resolution and Independence. It associates the thorn with the mineral immovability and imperviousness of extreme old age. The thorn, in the poet’s experience, has undergone cruel experience. It is exposed to the stormy winter gales and subject to apparently malignant forces in the mosses growing over it, trying to destroy it — “to bury this poor thorn forever”. An atmosphere of wretchedness, of isolation (“forlorn”), of “melancholy” is thus created around the tree. The tree could thus easily be seen as an “emblem of a being overcome by the suffering of outside forces”, as Albert S. Gerard observes.

      The thorn, however, “stands erect”—indicating resilience in the face of adverse powers such as the gale, the lichens and the mosses. The little muddy pond near the thorn tree echoes the quality of resilience symbolized by the little thorn-tree—the pond manages never to dry up in spite of its being constantly exposed to sun and wind. The “little muddy pond” and the small thorn, “so old and grey”, together present an image of persecution and misery but also of stubborn and unobtrusive resilience.

Significance of the “Beauteous Heap’’

      Wordsworth coalesces contrast and unity skillfully in this poem. Thus we come to the “beauteous heap” and the “fresh sight of it contrasts with the “aged” thorn. While the thorn is “grey” and the pond is “muddy”, the mound is covered with lovely colors.

      The mound is also a link in the chain that slowly leads to the most gruesome suggestion, before which the narrator recoils. The infant motif first appears in stanza I, when the thorn is compared to a two-years-old child in size. With the mound comes the suggestion of a dead baby—“infant’s grave”. In stanza XIII the story is seen to deal with an actual infant; and in stanza XV we learn that the child has disappeared—whether it was still-born or, as intimated in stanza XX, killed by his mother, is not certain.

      The mound has the further significance of suggesting the ‘positive’ elements of the poem—it becomes an image of spontaneous natural beauty and joy and luxuriance. In its connection with infancy, it suggests innocence; the thorn, on the other hand, is connected with experience, suffering and endurance.

Natural Setting and its Symbolic Significance to Human Story

      The Thorn provides a natural setting and symbolic value to the Martha Ray story. Both the tree and the woman are solitary in a hostile environment. The mosses and gales are equivalent not only to the woman’s abandonment by her lover but also to the hostility of the villagers wanting “public justice”. The thorn is “like a stone”; Martha Ray crouching on the hill looks like a “jutting crag”. By being associated with Martha Ray’s story, the thorn becomes a permanently impressive object because it is seen as an analog of human suffering.

      The mound appears as an image of nature’s tenderness to man. Its luscious colour tone clown the horror of the woman’s predicament. When the villagers undertake to dig for the baby’s corpse, then the beauteous hill of moss,

Before their eyes began to stir;
And for full fifty yards around,
The grass it shook upon the ground.

      This supernatural event is as improbable as the others mentioned in the villager i.e. the voices of the dead and the baby’s face peering out of the pond. But this event has a special function in the narrative pattern. It denotes Nature’s intervention to protect Martha from the villagers and from human judgment. Nature thus points the way to the right attitude towards Martha Ray: an attitude of pity and sympathy focused on the woman’s misery and not on the facts which might show her to be guilty in the eyes of “public justice”.

Significance of the Narrator

      The narrator is partly a device to hide the autobiographical character of the emotions described in the poem. He also serves, like Nature, to counteract the attitude of the villagers towards Martha Ray. Of course, he is a loquacious creature, given to repetitions and tribal detail. He is somewhat prone to superstition. However, he is not a part of the villagers. He does not believe with them that Martha could have killed the child. But he does sense the aura of horror and mystery surrounding the woman. The villagers are malevolent; they are bent on discovering what they believe are facts which would bring Martha to “justice”. The narrator, on the other hand, functions as does nature — sympathizing with Martha’s predicament. Thus we can say that on the plane of the story, Martha is rescued from the hostility of the villagers by the miraculous intervention of Nature. On the level of the story’s moral, she is rescued by the narrator’s attitude. He does not judge her as badly.

The Thorn: A Lyrical Ballad

      Wordsworth intended to use the ballad not so much for purposes of pure narrative as for the vehicle of personal emotions which he had learned to objectify and to sublimate. In The Thorn, the narrator’s imagination has penetrated to the truth of human misery which is the actual theme of the poem, and which lies beyond the realms of fact and guilt and justice. Thorn, pond and hillock, and their exposure on the mountain—these are clearly related to the human situation, seen in terms of the crazed mother. In the poem Wordsworth showed how the “feeling” could give “importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling”.

Style and Language

      The poem is spoken by a narrator different from the poet. The language is decidedly simple and devoid of any literary flourish. It is customary to quote the lines,

I’ve measured it from side to side:
’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

      To show how banal Wordsworth’ insistence on simplicity could become. However, if we keep the poem and its speaker in mind, the lines appear quite suitable. It suits the psychology of the narrator; for he wishes, by the cumulative effect of trivial but concrete details, to impress upon the listener the general truth of a story which is not devoid of wildly improbable incidents. It is all a part of Wordsworth’s search for a diction which would record effectively the emotion in a situation. In The Thorn, the pathos shines out all the more through the account which, though half-comprehending, is close to the fact.


      The Thorn has been called a great and remarkable poem by Helen Darby shire. It is made out of “elementary feelings” or “essential passions of the heart”. The poem has its defects, but it remains alive, powerful and able to capture the imagination. “Its triumph is in its fusion of the elements, the human passion and the natural scene, so that each expresses itself in and through the other: the misery and love of the woman, and the bleakness yet beauty of the tree, pond, and mound. We see the wild desolate scene Through the human passion, whilst the stark human passions are lifted into permanence by the setting of earth, air and sky”.

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