On Poetry: A poem you may want to take to a deserted island

Allison Batdorff, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
·3 min read

Apr. 4—I think Wordsworth's 19th century poem would not be out of place today in a Nature Conservancy or National Wildlife's magazine. The world is more than we can handle, he writes. We keep messing things up, the way we collect things and spend money. Look at us wasting our precious powers — our time and our abilities. We keep cutting ourselves off from nature.

We've given our hearts to other things — "a sordid boon," which is deeply ironic. Sordid means "morally distasteful," while "boon" is something beneficial. A disgusting benefit. Wow.

Then the poem turns to nature — the sea and howling winds. We see later he's standing by a lea, or an open area, probably looking at the sea. At the moment, sea and winds are gathered up "like sleeping flowers," while we are out of tune to it all. We're barely aware of these wonders. They don't move us as they once might have.

I get this. He'd rather be a Pagan brought up on the old beliefs where the gods are part of nature, where Proteus rises from the sea and Triton blows his horn, rather than live in this age where humans feel so divorced from the natural world. This was certainly a reactionary point of view during the first Industrial Revolution, when for many it seemed that machines would solve all our problems!

I've loved this poem for many years. It's an Italian sonnet — 14 lines, rhymed in a particular scheme. The last six lines (the solution) answer the first eight (the problem). I think Wordsworth used this very strict, traditional form to counteract his radical ideas. "Look at me, writing this nice, conventional sonnet! You may not notice at first how radical it is."

The rhythm is iambic pentameter, or five regular beats per line. Notice that he has to make "wreathéd" into two syllables to make it come out even.

Such a maneuver was common in 19th century poetry.

The closer a poem comes to a regular beat, the more it's like a ballad, or a simple song. Easy to remember, easy to sing (if it's a song). There are modern poems that still follow this tight structure, but often they have some variations. The modern world feels rough and uneven and doesn't often lend itself to smooth rhythms.

Yet it's a joy to memorize this poems like this, that can come to us at odd times and be a comfort, just in the words as we say them to ourselves. Years ago, a teacher said to me, "You want to memorize a few good poems in case you get stranded on a desert island, or get locked in jail. They'll keep you sane."

Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, go to www.fledabrown.com. To sign up for her twice-monthly Wobbly Bicycle blog, contact her at her site.