As arguably the most popular Romantic poet in the history of literature, William Wordsworth is regarded by many to be the exemplar of the poetic craft. As the Romantics preferred illustrating emotional/intuitive themes in their poetry over the hard-line concept of reason, a type of verse was born that gave readers a figurative breath of fresh air and centered on common, natural subjects and themes that were both full of definitive meaning and ambiguity. The purpose of this essay then argues that despite his “Poor Susan” being a somewhat minor poem in the canon of Wordsworth – Peter Manning regards it as never being “central to the presentation of Wordsworth” (Manning 351) – it nonetheless remains compelling in that it addresses both social and gender themes of the early 19th century Romantic period. Additionally, while it fits nicely around the poetic principles outlined by Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads, there is an arguable level of ambiguity surrounding Susan herself – which makes the poem even more receptive to a thoughtful and critical interpretation.
Wordsworth specifically defined a set of poetic principles that he regarded as necessary for the creation and handling of Romantic Era poetry. First among these is the choice of subject from common life, with a touch of the humble, rustic, or simple. This could also include elements of the natural world, for nature held a tremendous amount of importance for the Romantics. Hand in hand with this concept is the use of common language, not flowery or ornate, but increasingly literal and exact in its descriptiveness. He continues this guideline with the charge of gazing steadily at the subject, after which a spontaneous overflow of emotion will carry the poet into what he terms “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This concept is best defined as the inspirational muse from which creativity flows forth – summarily gained only by deep introspection into the subject and a reverence for what it can display.
In this particular poem, ambiguity, or double-meaning, is also introduced as we meet Susan in the early morning hours on a London street. As any student embarks on the task of critical interpretation, noticing ambiguity about her occupation, or why she is on the street at this hour, is vital to any real discussion. Attempts at understanding what kind of woman Susan really is will certainly aid in the analysis. David Simpson even argues in his article, “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan?” that the work “is a very sophisticated poem…in particular and general ways” (Simpson 603). This is to say that what is seemingly simple about the story is really anything but. And while it may be easy to suggest that Susan is just a plain servant maid, an equally compelling argument can be made that she is indeed a prostitute (read: fallen woman) at the end of her “work-day.” With this crucial ambiguity in mind, we can also address some of the social implications that would be prevalent during this era – including how women were viewed, what effects societal bias had on the lower class, and what role the Industrial Revolution may have had in framing much of this context.
Since subject matter is one of the most important poetic principles according to Wordsworth, it follows that this topic must serve as an appropriate jumping off point for our discussion. The poet’s choice of subject fits nicely into his definition that it must be from common life – for we see a very common woman from a lower class background simply oozing humbleness. Readers see her in a “plain russet gown,” carrying “her pail,” which are vivid images very unlike those associated with the upper-middle class. She is what Manning calls “the rural girl transported to the city,” (Manning 361), and there is textual evidence to suggest that she has come to the city for economic reasons (her possession of a pail contributing to this idea of work), and not as a prostitute as the ambiguity would suggest. As representative of this lower class, we are given a clear picture as to how this class of people may have been treated during this time.
Wordsworth’s use of common language solidifies this poem as also fitting into the poetic principles framework. Not only does it use simple language to describe picturesque elements such as an “ascending” mountain, “green pastures”, and a “single small cottage…of the dale,” it brings to light the girl’s vision of her home in the country, something she is currently removed from, but longs for. He uses these elements to draw his reader into understanding the contrast between the pastoral setting of the country and the mean morning streets of the city, where “volumes of vapor…glide.” David Simpson confirms this area of London as being “the place of work of the most miserable and unfortunate among that class.” (Simpson 593). Wordsworth also uses this language to identify female images, such as the “nest like a dove’s,” and the notion in the final stanza of “receiving,” which is generally female in nature. Both examples speak to the nurturing side of the female, which is in stark contrast to Susan’s character.
A third instance of the principles involves the steady gaze a poet must have in order to reach the overflowing emotion mentioned earlier. There is little doubt that one would certainly have to gaze intently to come up with the level of emotion exhibited in this poem. How else would a poet gain such intimate insight into the simple, sweet song of a rare bird in the city? How else, other than by close observation, would a poet notice the notes of “enchantment,” or describe nature in such colorful detail? In another example of how emotion is treated, my interpretation of the poem argues that Susan has been exiled to the city, away from her country home, which is the “only dwelling on earth that she loves.” Placing this interpretation within the context of the time would indicate that she has done something to justify the exile, with the most reasonable explanation (in early 19th century idiom) being that her misdeed was sexual in nature. Now she makes her living as a lowly servant maid, outcast and removed from her former life. For a young English girl, the only acceptable solution and “place of resort would often be the streets of London” (596). This would also explain what Simpson terms her “melancholy response to the thrush’s song,” (593) which is something she has heard against the “silence of the morning” for the last three years. It fairly suggests that hearing the sweet melody of the bird reminds her of a happier place and time. This, by all accounts, represents what Wordsworth would most assuredly term “emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Much of this analysis also must consider that the Industrial Revolution created an extremely large jump in the urban population. With more people in the area, an increased merchant class, and an exploding economy, there would necessarily be work to be found for a young girl like Susan. Economically speaking, she was doing the only real thing she was qualified (expected?) to do. The only other source of income for a female in her position would be prostitution, but I see very little evidence in the text that she fell to this option. An additional point to be made in regards to the poem’s conclusion revolves around the idea of “thy Father” opening the door – most likely to welcome her back. I prefer to interpret this not as Susan’s earthly father, but as a Christian allusion to God the Father. Wordsworth’s capitalization of the word “Father” must symbolize something, and I think it is unlikely that this treatment of the word is accidental. So in a sense, this is Susan’s acceptance, or redemption, in God’s eyes for her mistakes on earth. This discussion maintains that yes, Susan was a fallen woman, but that redemption comes in the end as she is allowed to “hear the thrush sing from a tree of its own,” which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of her idea of heaven.
As with all critical readings, interpretations can be somewhat open and most often subject to even deeper criticism. This is just one of many possible interpretations of one of Wordsworth’s less regarded poems. As David Simpson remarks, in regard to the popularity of the work, “the ignoring of this poem (by critics) comes as no surprise” (590). While this makes the task of a critical reading a little more difficult, it nonetheless offers us good, challenging work to undress some of the elements of subject, language, and emotion that we find within Wordsworth. By doing this, a student can begin to understand how the poetic principles work, and see them in a definitive application. Overall, the poem is a excellent study of Romantic-era verse and embodies exactly what the era was about – emotion in composition and expressing that emotion over reason. For Wordsworth (who viewed the poet as removed from the reader by mere degrees), this was how he clearly thought of his craft: being alive with elements of the natural, a spontaneous outpouring of sensation, and early 19th century idealism, with “emotion recollected in tranquility” leading the way.
Manning, Peter J. “Placing Poor Susan: Wordsworth and the New Historicism.” Studies in Romanticism 25.3 (1986): 351-369.
Simpson, David. “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 26.No. 4, Nineteenth Century (1986): 589-612.