When/if you ever get married, you’ll learn quickly the value of praising your partner and pandering to their ego (making them feel good about them self). Here Wordsworth does exactly that as he paints a picture of his wife that is hugely complimentary.
In the first stanza we can see how she bewitches him with her beauty and she is painted as being to be otherworldly in her perfection. Next he gets to know her as his wife and finds her to be equipped with all the qualities needed to make a woman of the earth, but still holding some heavenly allure to him.
Finally, presumably after being married for some time, he finds her to be more woman than spirit. However, this isn’t meant as an insult, rather he recognises how perfectly designed she is for earthly existence and because of that redefines her as a spirit in another respect.
She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.
I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
What I like about Wordsworth is his positivity. The previous poem covered on my site is one of my favourites as it is a depiction of his wonder and satisfaction with the beauty of the world – Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.
Not only was he evidently a fan of the world he lived in, but he also dearly loved his wife. Mary Hutchinson had been a childhood friend and may not have become Wordsworth’s wife at all if the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror hadn’t separated him from his prior love and mother of his first child, Annette Vallon.
However, in 1802 he was married to Mary. This poem was written two years later and shows that he was pleased as punch with her performance as a wife. They had five children together, two by the end of 1804, and were evidently happy together for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, with infant mortality being pretty high in those days, three of their children died before their parents, two of them before their tenth birthdays.
This isn’t just love based on beauty, but it is love that has evolved through initial attraction to young companionship and romance and finally to appreciation for one another’s accomplishments.
We begin with a description of Mary from a distance. When he first sees her she is described as being like a spirit, which suggests he is putting her on a pedestal and seeing her as being from another world. The stanza focuses on her physical attributes, which are described using natural imagery: with the night and stars representing her hair and eyes respectively; and every other aspect of her being derived from the beauty of the first months of Summer.
This was obviously the hook that drew Wordsworth in, but quickly he realises that she is much more than a heavenly beauty. He admires her for her innocence and purity, but also for her down to earth qualities: she’s neither too smart or too stupid to appreciate the world, him and others; and she experiences the full range of human emotions, but doesn’t dwell on them. These qualities reveal someone who is perfect for their faults, she is just a normal woman, but that is what makes her so special to him.
The final stanza is seen through his ‘serene eye’, which tells us that he is sure that he has made the right decision and is completely satisfied. He seems to now have a full understanding of her qualities and no longer begins the stanza referencing that she is any way otherworldly. He expounds upon her qualities, which are now all about her personality, and nothing to do with her physical beauty. Through these qualities he recognises her perfection and finds another reason to elevate her to the status of being above mere mortals.
Language and techniques
Lots of interesting stuff here.
The first thing you’ll need to comment on is the title of the poem and the seeming contradiction between the words ‘Phantom’ and ‘delight’. A ‘Phantom’ or an ‘Apparition’ is a ghost or spirit and a word that we typically associate negatively with haunting and causing mischief from the other side. Wordsworth wants us to recognise this connotation as he initially feels she ‘haunt[s]’ his thoughts, as if he was obsessed with her and can’t shake her from his thoughts.
However, this is definitely a compliment. He is not being haunted in a particularly bothersome way and the dreams she disturbs, I would imagine, are pretty pleasant – or a ‘Delight’. The fact she is positioned as being as some sort of spirit as opposed to a woman is elevating her above mere mortals. In addition, it makes her seem unobtainable and out of reach to him.
This is a common thought amongst the love struck, I don’t know how many women I regarded in this way and actively avoided them because I was sure they couldn’t be interested – DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKES!
Anyway, enough about me. Added on to the comment above about Wordsworth elevating Mary Hutchinson, you should also point out that every time she is referred to Wordsworth capitalises the word. Whether it be as a ‘Phantom’, ‘Apparition’, ‘Shape’, ‘Image’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Woman’, ‘Creature’, ‘Being’ or ‘Traveller’. No, this is not a series of printing errors, but a deliberate attempt to make his Mrs seem super important. The only other person we have to capitalise when using pronouns to describe them is the big guy in the sky (…seriously? I mean God, Allah, Vishnu!)
We’ve also got some lovely pathetic fallacy in the opening stanza, with nature being used to paint an image of her beauty. ‘Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair’ should be fairly easy to deconstruct – they are twinkly! Her hair is ‘like Twilight’s’, which suggests it is jet black. However, the more powerful imagery is a bit more subtle. Every other feature of her doesn’t directly borrow from nature, but rather it is ‘drawn/From May-time and the cheerful Dawn’. This makes me think that her features are soft and gentle, reminding us of the beginning of summer or of the day. Think of how beautiful a sunrise is or the more cool days that join Spring and Summer – these are not brash images of beauty that we may be confronted with today, but more like the image of an English rose that I was always in love with growing up. Think Keira Knightley rather than Angelina Jolie:
However, these descriptions are cosmetic and she is also referred to as ‘a moment’s ornament’, which is meant to be a compliment, but to me (and possibly any feminists reading) sounds a bit patronising and even emphasises the brevity of beauty. We’d all like to be thought pretty, but hopefully we’d like to be loved for who we are rather than just our shiny teeth, perfect hair or bulging bosom.
In the second stanza, when he is examining her character more after marrying her, he is impressed with her innocence and purity (‘virgin-liberty’), but more interestingly he says she is ‘not too bright or good’. At first glance this is an insult, but basically he’s praising her for being down to earth and being a creature of humanity. She engages in the full range of emotions and doesn’t see herself as above others, even if her husband does elevate her.
The emotions he lists as being ones she experiences show the range of human life: the highs and lows, if you will. However, crucially the ways she experiences these emotions is described as ‘transient’ and thus short-lived. Wordsworth sees value in her being completely bloody normal, which is quite lovely really.
While the second stanza is open to feminists claiming Wordsworth is a patronising pig, keeping women down with his misogyny, the third isn’t. If his eye is ‘serene’ it means it is truly peaceful and satisfied when looking at his wife. This is lovely and really shows what I would consider to be true love, he is utterly content with his lot and appreciates every element of his wife.
Notice the description in the third no longer begins with connecting her with another world or plane. In the first she is a ‘Phantom’, in the second she is a ‘Spirit’ first and then a woman. Now she is a ‘Being’ and a ‘Traveller between life and death’. He now sees her as being an earthly being and recognise now the extreme level of praise for her character. The skills listed are ‘reason firm, temperate will,/Endurance, foresight, strength, and will’. They aren’t what you’d refer to as sexy qualities, but they represent a rounded and reasonable person – probably not the first things you’d look for in a lover, but in a life companion…? Furthermore, ‘firm’ and ‘temperate’ demonstrate that she is moderate and fair rather than ambitious, focused or self-centred. For this he recognises her as a ‘perfect Woman’.
I’d also comment on the final two lines, which bring the poem back on itself. He begins with an idea of her being otherworldly, and he returns to this when he considers the perfection of her earthly qualities to give her an ‘angelic light’ and make her a ‘Spirit still’.
The three stanzas represent the three stages of his appreciation for his wife. They also neatly show us the lifecycle of love as an emotion: from haunting lust and desire, to the appreciation of someone’s company, to the respect for someone’s value to you and the world.
I’m not sure what stages I’m at with my wife, but it doesn’t sound like any of those really. Did Wordsworth forget to include a stanza about dealing with this Phantom when she was hormonal and struggling to prevent herself reacting angrily to the slightest provocation?
The only other things worth mentioning here is the rhyme. We have regular rhyming pairs in each ten line stanza (AABBCCDDEE), which lends the poem a sing song air and reflects the joyful tone with which the poem is composed.
Joyful and full of appreciation throughout. We go from the awe of her physical attributes, to a gentler appreciation for her as a person and then a respectful admiration for her qualities as a wife and mother.
Well worth having a read of this if any of my ideas are unclear. Alternative analysis.