Wordsworth extract from the prelude boat stealing Robert browning my last duchess summary analysis quotes gcse

Guilt in poetry: Reading Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and William Wordsworth’s ‘Extract from The Prelude’

One of the most interesting things about literature is what I like to call the ‘certainty of ambiguity’.

With fiction, there’s always the nagging question of whether the characters authors create are a shadow of themselves.

And when these characters happen to be abhorrent or immoral, it becomes challenging for our judgment of the author to not come into the interpretative fold. In my post on the unreliable narrator, I ask if literary creations necessarily bear an authorial birthmark, and if so, what moral complications this poses for the reader.

girl smile GIF

Like our response to Nabokov’s paedophilic Humbert Humbert in ‘Lolita’, there is little basis for us to view Robert Browning’s murderous speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ as the alter ego of his creator.

That said, when one is able to portray the mindset of evil in such a convincing manner, it’s perhaps fair to question if the writer himself has entertained darker thoughts in an otherwise seemingly respectable life. 

For a poet whose life and marriage were tame by most literary standards (and you’ve got some real bonkers in the mix – Byron, I’m looking at you), Browning certainly had a wild poetic imagination.

Besides ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the Victorian poet’s equally well-known ‘My Last Duchess’ is also a dramatic monologue about a man with an uxoricidal streak. But while the spouse-killing is part of the action in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in ‘Duchess’ the act has already been done by the time we hear about it straight from the horse’s mouth. 

Robert browning autobiography summary quick facts Elizabeth Barrett browning

The ‘I’ in the dramatic monologue 

As I point out in this post, the beauty of the dramatic monologue lies in the way it “compresses into a single vivid scene a narrative sense of the speaker’s history and psychological insight into his character”, which crystallises for us in a few lines the complexity of human nature.

In analysing this poetic form, however, it’s important to note the role of the audience.

If we recall, there’s no clear listener implied in ‘Porphyria’, whereas in ‘Duchess’ the Duke of Ferrara explicitly addresses the emissary of a Count, as he relates the history of his late wife (the Duchess) and makes a case for marrying the Count’s daughter.

It’s one thing for a character to confess to a murder when the listener lies outside the diegetic frame (i.e. the reader), but when he’s doing it to someone who’s part of the fiction, the ‘confession’ is probably going to be a lot less genuine, or a lot more equivocating. 

This invites a broader question about the portrayal of subjectivity in poetry.

Does the presence of a first-person voice imply authenticity? And if not, who else can we rely on for the ‘truth’ of an account? From an aesthetic standpoint, does the creation of a dishonest speaker require more technical sophistication than that of an honest one? But how would we know for sure if the first-person speaker is really being honest anyway?

To unpack these questions, perhaps we should read Browning vis-à-vis another poet whose subjective voice epitomises authenticity for many (and for some, at times sometimes to a fault) – William Wordsworth.

If Browning’s dramatic monologists are the vessels of villainy, then Wordsworth’s autobiographical self would seem like the voice of god-fearing earnestness. This is especially apparent in the earlier parts of his epic ‘The Prelude’, where deference to nature and devotion to life seep through every line. 

Did Browning and Wordsworth know each other?

As a contextual side note, Browning and Wordsworth shared an ambivalent relationship.

While the men didn’t really know each other on personal terms, Browning was once a great admirer of both Wordsworth’s craft and vision, but upon the latter’s disillusionment with the French Revolution and subsequent shift to conservatism, Browning – who was a staunch Liberal – became a voracious critic of his once-idol.

And this sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in Browning’s 1845 poem ‘The Lost Leader’ (who is, of course, implied to be Wordsworth): 

We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

Notwithstanding the two poets’ political differences (which I’ll save for another post), there’s no denying that their poetic oeuvres deserve equal attention, and are made all the more refreshing by way of comparison. 

Reading Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’: “she stands as if alive” 

Robert browning my last duchess summary analysis quotes gcse poetry

(Scroll to the bottom of this section for the full video lecture on this poem)

Published in 1842, ‘My Last Duchess’ is allegedly based on the first marriage of Alfonso Il d’Este, the fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533-1598), to the 14-year-old Lucrezia de’Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the mid-16thcentury.

The marriage was controversial because Lucrezia died under suspicious circumstances three years after marrying the Duke, who grew bored and abandoned her early on in their marriage. Rumour has it that the Duke himself had poisoned his wife, but concrete evidence for this was never found.

Nevertheless, this historical interlude was inspiration enough for Browning, who filled in the ‘backstory’ of the murder by developing the Duke’s motive in the poem. 

While ‘Duchess’ is ostensibly about the heartless murder of a wife, and by extension, the power imbalance in a relationship where the man has the upper hand, it is also concerned with the idea of looking as a form of transgression. 

As a key motif in the poem, the act of looking carries very different consequences for male and female agents. Whereas the Duchess is killed because (apparently) “her looks went everywhere”, the men – the Duke and to a lesser extent, the Count’s emissary – wield their authority by transforming the Duchess into a ‘stare-able’ object (i.e. a painting). 

Culpable sight

This notion of wayward sight is highlighted by the momentary divergence in end rhyme in lines 7 to 8, with the words “countenance” and “glance” being sonic anomalies as eye rhymes – 

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

(l. 1-11) 

The Duke’s reference to “The depth and passion of its earnest glance” isn’t so much a praise of his wife’s emotional loyalty as it is a jibe at her refusal to obey her husband, which is suggested by the wayward “glance” that’s both symbolically and sonically decoupled from her “countenance”. 

The polyptoton of “looking” and “look” establishes the thematic centrality of sight, but whereas the woman is passively “looking as if she were alive” (the implication being that she’s dead and as such is stripped of her agency to ‘look’), one man is now inviting another man to “please you sit and look at her”, all the while maintaining absolute control over who gets to ‘look’ at his last duchess with a parenthetical footnote – “But to myself they turned (since none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)”. 

shifty eyes GIF by Gabo Lara

For the Duke is a man whose jealousy knows no bounds, and we soon discover that it is his late Duchess’ ‘looking too much’ and looking “everywhere” which has led to her death. 

As the poem reaches its end, we see another pair of eye rhyme, which spans lines 45-47 – 

This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.

Like “countenance” and “glance”, “commands” and “stands” are a pair of eye rhymes. The break they effect to the end rhyme scheme is appropriate to the incident implied, which is the Duke’s murder of the Duchess, or the ‘breaking’ of her life. 

Our knowledge of his murder is gained from his euphemism of “then all smiles stopped together” and “she stands as if alive”. 

The caesurae after “This grew” and “I gave commands” create an asyndetic structure that breaks up the flow of the line, and renders the phrase “This grew” as a spondaic unit (with stresses falling on both words), which emphasises the inevitability of the Duchess’ end.

In a poem that follows a strict iambic pentameter structure, the only hypercatalectic line in this 56-line monologue stands out for comment. It comes about halfway through the monologue – 

                          My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least.

(l. 26b-31a) 

The extra syllable in “Would draw from her alike the approving speech” (l. 30) hinges on the verb “draw”, and it is by allowing her speech and blush to be ‘drawn out’ that has sealed the Duchess’ fate. 

That anything beyond his own attention should invite his wife’s “approving speech/Or blush” only inflames the Duke’s jealous tendencies, because the husband sees his wife’s positive response to any other than himself as a symptom of infidelity, disobedience and transgression. 

This line, then, is evidence enough for the Duke that his last Duchess was up to no good, and was going beyond the acceptable limits that he’s mentally prescribed for her. Indeed, this sentiment is echoed later in line 39, when the Duke imagines chastising his late wife for “exceed[ing] the mark”. 

But is the Duke’s jealousy justified?

From the string of references he makes to the “all and each” that invite the Duchess’ pleasure, it seems that he’s driven to jealous madness by his own irrational assumptions. 

We know this because the things she’s “blushed” at are rather innocuous: a brooch that the Duke’s gifted her (“my favour at her breast”), the delight of sunset (“the dropping of daylight in the West”), a “bough of cherries” that someone has picked for her, and the experience of riding a “white mule… round the terrace”. 

My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least.

(l. 25b-31a) 

None of this should suggest to the Duke any intention of cuckoldry, but because the Duke’s mind is preoccupied with anxieties of sexual betrayal, he sees ‘proof’ where there’s none. 

What’s up with ’em cherries??

What is the symbolism of breaking cherries?

The association of the cherry with virginity is a popular motif in the Bible, as well as in Medieval and Renaissance art (see Titian’s ‘Madonna of the Cherries’). To use an anachronistic phrase, ‘popping someone’s cherry’ also means ‘deflowering’ a girl (pardon the mixed metaphor). And so the Duke’s obsession is not only limited to monopolising his young wife’s attention, but also with gaining total control over the woman’s body and her identity. 

Titian’s ‘Madonna of the Cherries’

Similarly, the image of a woman riding a “white mule” evokes the idea of female sexual agency (the woman takes the reins over an animal which symbolises masculinity… you get the idea), and this, of course, is something that a chauvinist like the Duke couldn’t possibly stomach. 

Another device that exposes the Duke’s psychology in this poem is Browning’s use of interpolated speech. 

This is especially interesting in the context of a dramatic monologue, because a mono-logue is supposedly the speech of a single character. 

If we pay attention to the nature of the inserted quotes, though, we’ll notice that they are all imagined, not reported, speech. 

For example, in lines 15-19 –  

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps 
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” 

The hedging word “perhaps” is the clue that reveals the imagined nature of the Duke’s suspicions of Fra Pandolf, who happens to be the painter he had commissioned to produce the Duchess’ portrait. 

The Duke’s paranoid mind comes through in the personification of “Paint/Must never hope to reproduce the faint/Half-flush that dies along her throat”, which is a comment that he fantasises the painter to have made in response to the Duchess’ rosy complexion. 

The reference to “dies along her throat”  rings doubly sinister, and confirms the ghastly realisation we would have formed from the Duke’s earlier euphemistic remark of his Duchess “Looking as if she were alive” – she is now dead, and the only remaining trace of her ‘existence’ is this painting. 

Later, we see that the Duke isn’t just paranoid and psychopathic – he’s also self-obsessed and self-conscious. When he explains why he never confronted the Duchess on he alleged infidelity, he claims –

Even had you skill
In speech – which I have not – to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark” – and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse –
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. 

(l. 35b-43a)

To say that he has not “skill/In speech” is of course ironic (and this is an example of apophasis – the device of bringing up a subject only to deny it – which we’ll return to later in the video), because this entire monologue is an exercise in using rhetorical manipulation to mask a criminal act. 

But the ambiguity of “Just this/Or that” and “here… Or there” exposes the baselessness of his accusations towards the Duchess, which are probably made up to fulfil his murderous desires. 

The polyptoton of “stooping” (l. 42) and “never to stoop” (l. 44) reveals the fundamental disdain (indeed, “disgust”) that he feels towards her – not for any wrong she’s done him, but rather, for the fact that she’s socially beneath him, and of not deserving his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (l. 33). 

He doesn’t even want to engage with her in an argument because he deems her unworthy of a real dialogue (which is likely to have happened had he initiated it, since he implies that she won’t “let/Herself be lessoned so”). His alternative, then, is simple, quick and ruthless: to kill her off and turn her into property for possession. 

Finally, the monologue ends on a heavy dose of dramatic irony, which is delivered through another instance of apophasis: the Duke insists that it is not the dowry, but the Count’s daughter, which he hopes to win. Yet, he says this only after reminding the emissary that – 

                                                          I repeat, 
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. 

(l. 48b-53a) 

With this periphrastic jumble of equivocation, we realise that the Duke’s pride in his “nine-hundred-years-old name” is but a hollow one: instead of women marrying him for his family name, we see that he is the one who propositions himself to other families in exchange for their wealth. 

As the poem ends with the Duke flaunting a bronze Neptune statue to the emissary, we see the portrait of a man beset by a narcissistic need for external approval, while his allusion to the Roman sea god Neptune “taming a sea-horse” suggests a possible parallel to his own possessive need to ‘tame’ wives, and exposes the delusional grandiosity of his mind.

… or watch my lecture here:

Reading William Wordsworth’s ‘Extract from The Prelude – Book I’ (1850 version): “an act of stealth and troubled pleasure” 

William Wordsworth the prelude extract boat stealing gcse summary analysis quotes

(Scroll to the bottom of this section for the full video lecture on this poem)

‘The Prelude’ is a mammoth work, and one that Wordsworth had worked on for a lifetime. It was first written in 2798 when Wordsworth was 28, by which time he had already travelled to France, basked in its revolutionary energies, and returned to England disillusioned by the violent excesses he had witnessed in the Reign of Terror (1793-4). 

The Prelude’s full title is ‘The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: An Autobiographical Poem’, and true to the spirit of ‘growth’, this work went through various revisions during Wordsworth’s lifetime, which explains the 3 versions of the manuscript we’ve inherited today (1799, 1805, 1850). The 1805 and 1855 versions are rather similar, but the 1799 and 1850 versions reveal significant changes that reflect the maturation, development and indeed – ‘growth’ – of Wordsworth’s mind as he grew older. 

Because most schools tend to use the 1850 version, I’ll be referring to this edition in my analysis below. 

Manuscript of The Prelude (Photo credit: Wordsworth Trust)

The ‘boat-stealing’ episode

The ‘boat-stealing’ episode comes from the first book in this 14-book poem, in which Wordsworth (or the autobiographical speaker) recounts on a specific night when he stole away with someone’s boat, only to be overwhelmed by the sublimity of nature upon seeing a huge, imposing mountain while sailing.

The speaker begins with gusto, as he states, “proud of his skill”, but upon witnessing a huge, black peak which both terrifies and overwhelms him with emotion, he aborts his stealthy excursion and retreats to the bank. This experience leaves him in a troubled mental state, which looms large over his mind as “darkness” for days after.

At first glance, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Boat-stealing’ extract seem like entirely different poems, but a close juxtaposition of these texts reveals that they are both concerned with the ways humans deal with sin and guilt. 

An interesting entry point is to ask if ‘The Prelude’ is a sort of dragged-out ‘dramatic monologue’. As an autobiographical narrative poem written in blank verse, its form resembles more of a journal entry than a speech, but the psychological depth we get from the Wordsworth text is no less than that conveyed in Browning’s ‘Duchess’.

In fact, one could argue that the speaker in ‘Prelude’ is a lot more honest and reliable about his thoughts and feelings than the Duke, whose address to the emissary is an attempt at rhetorical artifice underpinned by sinister intentions. 

A point to note about Wordsworth’s use of blank verse for The Prelude is that he uses a supposedly elevated form for rather pedestrian topics, like going out for a boat ride, which in turn elevates the mundane and imbues the drabness of common life with the gloss of transcendence. 

By adopting the blank verse of Milton’s Adam and Eve (in Paradise Lost) and Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, even a moment like that captured in this boat-stealing episode takes on the scale and solemnity of a cosmic struggle, as if the speaker and “the huge peak” are opposing forces representing human fallibility and pantheistic authority. 

Hidden clues in extra syllables

Speaking of form, notice there are three metrical anomalies in the form of hypercatalectic lines in this excerpt, which are – 

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

(l. 15-16) 

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

(l. 22) 

Towered up between me and the stars, and still, 

(l. 25-26) 

Notice that all three hypercatalectic lines are concerned with the notion of a “boundary”, and specifically, of the distinction between mortal and divine domains, between “me and the stars”. 

In the cosmic framework, man has his rightful place, and so any attempt to step beyond the boundaries of the mortal sphere is an act of violation. In line 15, the notion of the horizon having an “utmost boundary” – the implication being that there is nothing else beyond, is immediately negated by the extra syllable at the end of the line, as it reaches “above” and into the next line to paradoxically reveal that there is “nothing but the stars and the grey sky”. 

So, what seems to the human vantage like an absolute limit turns out to be misleading; there are other cosmic forces beyond our understanding of ‘limits’, unbeknownst to us, governing mortal operations below. 

When we reach line 22, this idea of an inflated boundary once again emerges, with the peak’s “uprear[ing] [of] its head” (24) metrically prefaced by the extra syllable and repeated final word “huge”. The growth of this power reaches its apex in lines 25-26, when it “Growing still… Towered up between me and the stars, and still” seems to endlessly expand with an appetite to engulf the boat-stealing speaker. 

The repetition of the word “still” here meaning continuous – emphasises the impression of a ballooning, gargantuan force, which contributes to the sublime characterisation of this “grim shape”. 

By stealing the boat in a desire to explore, then, the young Wordsworth has ventured into the mysterious, darker side of Nature, which is symbolised by the constantly growing “black and huge… peak”. The sublimity of the mountain is not something that human sensibility can either fathom or control, and the more the peak seems to grow, the smaller the speaker feels, with the ‘pride’ he first felt at the start of his journey now dented by both humility and terror-stricken awe. 

These three hypercatalectic lines, then, are both representative of nature’s superiority over man, and of man’s powerlessness in the face of elemental forces. 

Trauma and aphasia

As a result of this somewhat traumatic experience, the speaker is left at a loss for expression. The stunning grandeur of the peak is the stuff of ineffability, which is why the more he tries to recall the specifics of this incident, the more he is forced to fall back on ambiguous, impressionistic descriptions, such as – 

“the grim shape” 

“measured motion like a living thing” 

“unknown modes of being” 

“huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men” 

“Shape”, “thing”, “modes”, “being”, “forms”: these words claw at the edges of specificity, but fail to crystallise the vague into the concrete. This inability to be specific, then, is a reflection of the limits of human language and the constraints of the human mind.

What troubles the speaker is as much the imposing “spectacle” of the huge, dark peak, as it is the verbal paralysis he suffers after this incident. As a poet whose survival relied on his ability to describe, Wordsworth is likely to have reflected on this temporary aphasia with fear. 

Part of what makes this extract so powerful yet disturbing is the implied analogy Wordsworth makes between nature and God. 

For Wordsworth, nature and God are often portrayed as one and the same, which is the concept of pantheism

pantheism definition Spinoza

In much of Wordsworth’s poetry, there’s a Spinozan undercurrent in the way he often conflates nature with god, both being forces that elude the mortal mind. 

This is why, despite the speaker having “struck and struck again… the grim shape”, he soon realises that it isn’t something he should even attempt to battle against. The “huge peak” in this extract possesses a might and indefatigability which rivals that of a godlike figure, and invokes a deistic power that intimidates man into cowering deference. 

From the speaker’s vantage, the force that overtakes him after the incident stems from a supernatural mystique, and is as such beyond the comprehension of man. 

But is the speaker’s guilt entirely centered on his awareness of man’s inferiority vs nature or God’s power? Or is there perhaps a more autobiographical reading lurking somewhere? 

The clue lies in the feminisation of the little boat, and the sexual imagery that recurs throughout the excerpt. This is a point that diverges rather significantly between the 1799 and 1850 versions, so we’ll explore that in a bit. 

The elusive “she”

But first, Notice that the boat is referred to in the third-person female pronoun – “she” and the possessive “her”.

By the way, this does not include the “her” in the parenthetical remark “(led by her)” in the first line, which instead alludes to Nature. 

There is a strong hint of sexual transgression in the portrayal of the speaker’s relationship with the boat, as suggested by references including – 

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure […]” 

(l. 4-6) 

The illicit connotation of “stealth”, of a man “unloosen[ning] her chain… stepping in/Pushed”, and the oxymoronic phrase “troubled pleasure” all serve to mind the imagery of sexual violation. 

And most tellingly, in lines 17 to 20 – 

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily 
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;

The swan symbolism is worth examining here. 

At the end of Shakespeare’s Othello, which is a play obsessed with the notion of sexual purity, Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting, Emilia, laments the Moor’s misguided murder of his wife, and cries out in anguish that “I will play the swan. And die in music”. 

The suggestion here is that swans symbolise chastity and fidelity, and in the context of Wordsworth’s extract, the simile of the boat as being “like a swan” compounds the guilt that the speaker feels over having transgressed into “her” chaste space. By “dipping” and “rising”, he seems to have disturbed the peace and sanctity of the “little boat”, which is now “heaving” to escape from her ‘kidnapper’. 

The dactylic stress of “lustily” in line 17 lends weight to this reading, and the word is especially intriguing for its absence in the 1799 edition of the poem (in lieu is the phrase “twenty times”). 

The earlier version does not contain the references to “unloosed” and “stepping in” either, which perhaps underscores the change in perspective – and the deepening sense of guilt – that an older Wordsworth would have felt reflecting on the incident. 

In fact, the 1799 version begins on a much lighter, unburdened note, with an impression of the boat having its own agency, rather than being the target of subjugation – 

                                                        from the shore
I pushed, and struck the the oars, and struck again
In cadence, and my little boat moved on
Just like a man who walks with stately step
Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure […]” 

(l. 5b – 10a) 

Rather than being characterised as a passive female being “stolen” and navigated by a man, the 1799 boat is “like a man who walks with stately step/Though bent on speed”, which marks a rather substantial shift in the nature of its personification. 

Who is Annette Vallon?

A possible interpretation for this relates to Wordsworth’s relationship with Annette Vallon, a woman whom he had met in Orleans, France in 1791. 

Annette vallon Wordsworth
Annette Vallon

They never married, but Vallon was pregnant only after two months of meeting Wordsworth, and in 1792, she gave birth to their daughter, Caroline. 

When the Anglo-French wars broke out as part of the French Revolution, however, Wordsworth returned to England before Caroline was born, and he lost contact with Vallon until 1803, when he once again travelled to France – only to inform Vallon of his impending marriage to another woman, Mary Hutchinson. 

Although Wordsworth ensured that Caroline would be financially provided for, it’s probable that the poet’s abandonment of Vallon had weighed on his conscience for a long time afterwards. 

reign of terror
The Reign of Terror, Execution by guillotine (Pierre-Antoine Demachy, c. 1793) Photo credits: Jupiterimages

Having revised this section after their meeting in 1803 (the changes which would have been incorporated in the 1805 and 1850 versions), could the boat in this excerpt be an analogous stand-in for Vallon, who Wordsworth had, in a way, taken advantage of and ultimately cast aside? 

But the presence of the grim, dark and huge peak in this excerpt suggests that a greater force was at work to separate Wordsworth from his French lover, and read historically, this force would have been none other than the French Revolution and its attendant conflicts at the cusp of the 19th century. 

Equally, that “she was an elfin pinnace” – the word ‘pinnace’ meaning a small boat on a larger ship which carries goods and people to the shore – could convey Wordsworth’s gratitude for Vallon. 

After all, she was the woman who had ‘carried’ him back to the shore of safety (all the while carrying his child), thus enabling him to return to his homeland and start his life anew, away from the chaos and brutality of revolutionary france. 

Stasis vs progress

Finally, throughout this excerpt, there is an overarching tension between the reality of stasis and the desire for progress. 

We see this in the imagery of the “small circles glittering idly in the moon”, which refer to the rippling movements on the lake surface, and are contrasted against their “melt[ing] all into one track/Of sparkling light”. 

As the speaker begins his boating journey, his ambition is to disrupt the circular tranquility of the environment and “to reach a chosen point/With an unswerving line”. But the speaker is ultimately forced to come full circle, as it were, as the huge peak thwarts his single-minded plan of reaching “the summit”. 

This geometric juxtaposition of circles and lines, then, symbolises man’s perennial struggle with staying put versus moving forward, with being content with the status quo versus blazing new, but potentially risky, trails, and indeed with starting a revolution or labouring after slow progress.

The conclusion that Wordsworth seems to suggest, perhaps, is that man often pursues beyond the extent of his capability, and just as the speaker is forced to accept his defeat in the face of a darker, greater force, so the poet reflects on the need for fervent souls to see the ‘boundaries’ in human power. 

This idea is also reflected in the contrasting syntactic rhythms between the opening and the closing lines of the poem – 

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cove, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. 

(l. 1-5a) 

Contra – 

               No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. 

(l. 39b-44 / final line) 

Compared to the enjambed opening from lines 1 through 3, the final section of the poem is a lot more cluttered with caesurae. There are 4 pauses in l. 1-5a, and 8 pauses in l. 39b-44. 

This could reflect the change in the speaker’s mood and orientation: from self-assurance and anticipation to self-doubt and pensiveness; from taking the action of stealing and steering a boat to resuming a more passive pose of reflecting and brooding over his experience. 

Wordsworth in old age

Unlike the forward-plunging momentum of the enjambment, the scatter of commas represents the speaker’s growing hesitations about his behaviour and beliefs post-event. 

This would also be an appropriate parallel for Wordsworth’s own life trajectory, having changed from being a hot-blooded pro-revolutionary in his youth to becoming a disillusioned conservative in his later years. 

And so this ‘boat-stealing’ extract conveys a level of raw humility that counterposes the narcissistic deceit in ‘My Last Duchess’, as Wordsworth’s speaker ponders on the guilt he feels over having once overstepped the boundaries determined for him (and for man at large) and discarded a relationship that was doomed to begin with, whereas the Duke feels no compunction about – and indeed revels in – his moral transgression towards his late wife. 

To read my analysis of other poems, check out my posts below: 

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