Poet's Pick April 10
William Wordsworth: "It Is a Beauteous Evening"
Selected by K. A. Hays
National Poetry Month 2014

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K. A. Hays's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2014

"It Is a Beauteous Evening"
by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.


* K. A. Hays Comments:
Wordsworth’s “It Is a Beauteous Evening,” published in 1807, gives us, at the very least, and in appealingly compact sonnet form, a primer in Romanticism: suffused in a “holy” silence, nature moves with “gentleness” and “calm.” When Wordsworth’s speaker addresses the “dear child” with whom he walks, he hails her as a sacred being, closer than he to divinity because she feels and senses, rather than assigning language to, this “beauteous” moment. As readers, we are invited—no, commanded—to join in the experience:

Listen! The mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.

This animate sea, its comforting rumble mimicked by the poem’s rolling iambic motion, lulls and soothes. Matthew Arnold would, half a century later, command the reader similarly in “Dover Beach”:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Here Wordsworth’s “mighty Being” has been drained of noble agency, and instead we “hear the
grating roar / of pebbles,” a haphazard and inanimate tossing, not unlike the chaos (weather, disease) that upturns our own lives. Contemporary readers may well, then, find Arnold’s indifferent sea, with its flung pebbles that remind us of ourselves, easier to take seriously, and without irony, than Wordsworth’s infused and “beauteous” one. Indeed, Wordsworth’s vision of the sun “sinking down in its tranquility” and time as “quiet as a Nun / breathless with adoration” at times seem little more than endearingly quaint.

And yet.  If the world has, as “Dover Beach” puts it, “really neither joy nor love nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor hope for pain,” if our lives are overfull of knowledge, information, and “confused alarms of struggle and flight,” then Wordsworth’s “It Is a Beauteous Evening, ” speaking from a still more distant time, offers us an answer—even a reprieve. Wordsworth holds out to us a lyric, “calm and free,” into which we can step. Whether or not one subscribes to notions of divine agency, the poem itself serves as some form of divine agent, which rolls through us, whether “known” through imagery and voice or “felt” through meter and rhyme, awakening in us the delight of knowing and feeling, momentarily—and despite the chaos of experience—the perfection of an evening.

About K. A. Hays:
K. A. Hays's books of poetry are Early Creatures, Native Gods (Carnegie Mellon, 2012) and Dear Apocalypse (Carnegie Mellon, 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Gray's Sporting Journal, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Bucknell.

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