On This Day in 1815: William Wordsworth and a Sonnet for a Season

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This is part of a new series of On This Day posts edited by Anna Mercer.  If you’re interested in contributing to the series, please contact her on anna.mercer@york.ac.uk. We are currently looking for contributions about literary/historical events in 1816.

September’s post is contributed by Katherine Fender, who is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Wordsworth on Helvellyn”, (1842) – oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Wordsworth on Helvellyn”, (1842) – oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

…I have never been so moved as I was on reading your exquisite sonnets…I must say that I have felt melancholy ever since receiving your sonnets, as if I was elevated so exceedingly, with such a drunken humming in my brain, that my nature took refuge in quiet humbleness and gratitude to God.

– Benjamin Robert Haydon in a letter to William Wordsworth, 29th December 1815

On 12th September 1815, in a letter to painter Benjamin Robert Haydon – who he had befriended on his visit to London in May-June 1815 – Wordsworth declared that:

I have not forgotten your Request to have a few verses of my Composition in my own handwriting, and the first short piece that I compose, if it be not totally destitute of merit, shall be sent you.

Close to many key Romantic figures such as Shelley, Hazlitt and Keats, Haydon had already taken a plaster cast of Wordsworth’s face on 12th June 1815 in order to make a life mask of the poet. Haydon was determined to ensure that – as Wordsworth phrases it in a later letter (of 13th January 1816) – “my [Wordsworth’s] merits as a Poet might be acknowledged during my life-time.” True to his word (albeit slightly later than anticipated), Wordsworth sent the sonnet below to Haydon a few months afterwards:

September, 1815


While not a leaf seems faded; while the fields,

With ripening harvest prodigally fair,

In brightest sunshine bask; this nipping air,

Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields

His icy scymetar, a foretaste yields

Of bitter change, and bids the Flowers beware;

And whispers to the silent Birds, “Prepare

Against the threatening Foe your trustiest shields.”

For me, who under kindlier laws belong

To Nature’s tuneful quire, this rustling dry

Through leaves yet green, and yon crystalline sky,

Announce a season potent to renew,

‘Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song,

And nobler cares than listless summer knew.

The poem initially centres on images of comfort and plenitude: “not a leaf seems faded”, “ripening”, “prodigally”, “brightest”, “bask”. However, by line 3, a chilling wind – “this nipping air”, which spooks the speaker – heralds change. The alliteration in the phrase “where Winter wields” in line 4 – through repetition of the voiced labio-velar approximant “w” – mimics the motion and sound of the blustery onset of the winter wind referenced. Similarly, the repetition of the bilabial “b” in the stressed syllables of “bitter” and “bids” in line 6 reinforces the sharp contrast between the initial potential for gathering – the sheer abundance of autumn at the poem’s opening, highlighted by the reference to harvest – and the comparative emptiness of the winter, signalled by the expulsion of air necessitated by the bilabial sounds. Autumn invites acts of reaping, gathering, taking all inward; the coming winter promises to be cold, “silent”, “threatening”, with all warmth and growth expelled. The speaker’s choice of words hints at warfare: “wields”, “scymetar”, “Foe”, “shields”. The coming season is presented as an adversary to the landscape; it is the “Flowers” and the “Birds” that are warned to prepare for the “bitter change” that the winter shall bring.

However, the whispering wind – the “rustling” of the autumn leaves prompted by the wind, warning of winter’s imminent arrival – highlights the benefits of nature and of natural forces to the speaker. This becomes the focus of the poem’s sestet. Rather than foregrounding the landscape (as in the sonnet’s octave) by detailing its sights and its sounds, the chill in the air contrasting with the autumn sunshine, the emphasis of the sestet from its outset is on the personal, on the individual, in relation to changes in the external world. Opening with the prepositional phrase “For me” – foregrounding the human subject, the speaker – these lines invert the poem’s earlier theme of sterility, typically associated with winter, by highlighting the creative potency of the winter months. Affiliating himself with “Nature’s tuneful quire”, the “rustling” brought about by the winter wind relieves the silence of the birds and the eerie quiet of the landscape for the speaker.

This could, perhaps, be seen as a metaphor for Wordsworth’s own frustration at not having been able to produce as much writing as he had wished to during the preceding summer months. The poem, though set in September, was not in fact penned until December of 1815, when Wordsworth sent it (together with two others, “November 1, 1815” and “To R. B. Haydon, Esq.”) to Haydon. In the accompanying letter, of 21st December, he begins:

My dear Sir,

I sit down to perform my promise of sending you the first little Poem I might compose on my arrival at home. I am grieved to think what a time has elapsed since I last paid my devoirs to the Muses, and not less so to know that now in the depth of Winter when I hoped to resume my Labours, I continue to be called from them by my unavoidable engagements.

Wordsworth informs Haydon that the poem offers an account of a “still earlier sensation which the revolution of the seasons impressed me with last Autumn”. It seems that the sharp, stinging effects of the “nipping air” and “frost and snow” are rejuvenating ones for the speaker, the noun phrase “green leaves” connoting growth, life, potential, bolstered by the phrase “a season potent to renew”. The phrase “instinctive joys of song” suggests that it is these – the joys of song, poetry – which can be revived by the change in season.

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker implies that there is greater creative inspiration to be found in times of adversity than in those of calm and comfort, the latter state conveyed through the phrase “listless summer”:

                                               …this rustling dry

…and yon crystalline sky,

Announce a season potent to renew,

‘Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song… [ll. 10-13]

In The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), Jared Curtis speculates as to whether the “nobler cares” described relate to Wordsworth’s concerns for Dorothy – specifically, his anxiety about how, given her fragile state of health, she would cope with the bitterly cold winters of the Lake District.

The final word of the poem is a crucial one. End-stopped, and constituting the last beat of the final line of the poem, the sense of finality we may expect is instead replaced by an echo of “renew” in line 12. Rather than simply rhyming with line 12, the last word of line 14 is a homophone of the second syllable of “renew”. Thus, a seasonal and textual end marks a new intellectual and artistic beginning: it is a reminder to create.

Fittingly, the poem was itself recreated. Unsurprisingly, the text was revised by Wordsworth – as well as reprinted in various publications – multiple times. It was published in the magazine Examiner on 11th February 1816, and subsequently appeared in both The Advertiser and, just a week later, Wordsworth’s local paper, the Westmoreland Advertiser.

The publication of the poem in Wordsworth’s local paper seems appropriate given that, like so many of his other poems, “September, 1815” foregrounds the important of locality and community. Firstly, emphasis is on the perception and experience of the external world – the sensory, and the grandeur of nature. Then, the focus shifts to the speaking subject’s personal, emotional and psychological response to it. This is what Geoffrey Hartman has described as “a summons to self-consciousness”: the poet is alone with the landscape.[1] Such a process leads to acts of imagination, whether of recollection or innovative creation. Finally, the speaker turns to consider broader concerns and “nobler cares” – about community, society, faith and family. As David Ferry has observed, and as Frances Ferguson has helpfully phrased it:

Wordsworth learns from his love of nature a love of man that is a love of the idea of man – and that is, in turn, again a love of nature.[2]

For Wordsworth, acts of introspection induced by one’s surroundings afford a depth of thought – and feeling – that in turn engenders nobler cares and even greater imaginings.

Plaster cast of William Wordsworth’s life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1815). National Portrait Gallery, London

Plaster cast of William Wordsworth’s life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1815). National Portrait Gallery, London

Works cited: 

[1] Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 29.

[2] Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 125.