A Complaint by William Wordsworth

Romantics dealt with loss in a variety of different and interesting ways, the chief of which was poetry. At the time when they were writing – the first generation poets started their writing in the 1700s, following on the tenement that Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract; ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ At the time, there were several historical upheavals going on: the French Revolution dominated most newspapers, and several Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth, were heavily inspired by the attempt of the French populace to overthrow their monarchy. Dissatisfied with their way of living, therefore, most artists turned to their talent to try and bring some form of change to their country. They didn’t merely want to exist in the world; they wanted to live in a world that allowed them the liberties that were sorely lacking in their life. Furthermore, there was an emphasis on the importance of the individual, a movement that was novel at the time, because so much of literature had, up until that point, focused on the broader and more general themes of religion, love, loss, grief, the imperceptible movements of the heavens and how they affected human kind. This is not to say that there was never a focus on the individual! It was just rare to find things of that nature, but the Romantics eschewed the idea of collectivism, much like they eschewed the ideas of religion, war, the exploitation of the poor, the expression of personal feelings.

This is why so much of Romantic poetry focuses on emotions, why so much of it is written not only to ensnare the senses – here, Keats comes to mind as the ultimate poet of the sensual, with such works as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode to Melancholy’, but it was not only Keats who lost himself in the expression of emotion through poetry.

There was, of course, another reason why Romantic poets of both the first and second generation chose to write their works in the way that they wrote them: this was a time where physical confrontation and violent rebellion where the bare minimum of what could be expected; all around Europe and America, anarchy and revolts were breaking out all over Europe, and the Romantics believed that they needed to guide all others throughout the messy reality of their world. Many Romantics actually supported and wrote in favour of the French Revolution, until following the Reign of Terror done by the Jacobins and the more extremist Girondins, after which they gradually grew disaffected with the French Revolution (Wordsworth was one of these poets, however others still clung to the ideals of the French Revolution).

In the poem A Complaint, the first and primary emotion is loss – loss of ideals, loss of friendship, loss of love.

It is also worth noting that Wordsworth, in particular, attempted to make poetry accessible to everyone; he saw the poets that had come before him as elitist and high-brow, whose language and subject matter were unavailable for ordinary people to understand, and thus he wanted to be a different sort of poet; he wanted to make poetry accessible to everyone who had read it. He maintained that poetry should be written ‘in the language really spoken by men’, as seen in the following bit from Lyrical Ballads:

If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what has just been said on the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such Poetry as is here recommended is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and, if metre be super added thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind. What other distinction would we have? Whence is it to come? and where is it to exist? Not, surely, where the Poet speaks through the mouths of his characters: it cannot be necessary here, either for elevation of style, or any of its supposed ornaments: for, if the Poet’s subject be judiciously chosen, it will naturally, and upon fit occasion, lead him to passions the language of which, if selected truly and judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated, and alive with metaphors and figures.

 

Summary of A Complaint

The poem speaks about a grave change that the poet has undergone in his life – someone in his life, a friend, a lover – has gone away from him, or has changed his ideals, and remains no longer the person that the poem knows, the person that the poet cared for and loved; he has become, instead, a stranger that he does not know, and this leads the poet to lamenting the fact that his heart has led him into misery; that his emotions for this person whom he had once held so closely have now become a problematic, trying thing for him.

 

A Complaint Analysis

There is a change—and I am poor;
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart’s door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.

A Complaint begins unnervingly – the poet writes ‘there is a change – and I am poor’ – and one can take the use of the word ‘poor’ to mean a loss of something great (health, love, familiarity, friendship; the options are endless); it is the same way as saying that a person is ‘poorer’ for not experiencing travel at a young age, for example; we can infer that this is the meaning he means through the syntax used in the poem. For an opening line, it is a dark, sombre message of the grief that is yet to come – it sets the tone for the rest of the poem, and opens up the idea of this loss as being something personally shaking.

In the second line, we get an idea of what has been lost – some person’s love, which ‘hath been, nor long ago, / A fountain at my fond’s heart’s door’. This tells us that, whatever happened between the two of them, it was shocking to the poet, and that it probably happened quite recently; whatever it was, the poet took it quite strongly to heart.

Read more:   October, 1803 by William Wordsworth

Historians generally agree that the friend that Wordsworth was writing about was probably Coleridge, who had gone to reside in Malta; he had hoped that his long absence in a sunny state would cure Coleridge of his addiction to drugs, and to restoring his health, which had suffered partly because of his addiction to drugs. However, this hope was unfounded, as Coleridge and Wordsworth met after a three year absence to find that Coleridge had worsened, rather than bettered. Dorothy even wrote about it in her diary, stating that they had ‘never never did I feel such a shock as at the first sight of him’ – this suggests that Coleridge was in quite a bad state, which would certainly corroborate with the poem.

The image of the fountain occurs later on in A Complaint, but here, Wordsworth is using the idea of a fountain to show the strength of his love – ‘a fountain at my fond heart’s door / Whose only business was to flow’; notice, then, how he considers his love for his friend as ‘flowing’ and constant and, more than that, as natural – a fountain’s nature is to flow, after all.

It is worth remembering that fountains were, at the time, a status symbol; most families barely had running water, let alone fountains, at the beginning of their inception – however, as time went on, fountains became a far more public creation, bringing livelihood to those (as the water was inevitably cleaner, when it wasn’t used as a lavatory, something that happened quite often!) that needed water the most. Therefore, fountains were linked to the livelihood of the people who used them. It gave them access to water.

What happy moments did I count!
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I? shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.

In the second stanza, Wordsworth delves into the emotions surrounding the time before – he states that ‘what happy moments did I count! / Blest was I then all bliss above!’, thus showing that he and the unspoken friend or lover were truly some of the happiest moments of his life; we do not know precisely what happened between the poet and the poet’s subject, but it seems as though their parting is slightly one-sided; we do not hear what happens between the man whom the poet is shunning, whom he has fallen out of love for, we only hear from the poet, and this lends the poem a sense of nostalgia in the second stanza. Note how much emotion goes into the first couple of lines – ‘what happy moments did I count!’ – showing that there have been more than a few happy moments that live deeply within his heart, and then ‘blest was I then all bliss above!’ – where he gives his happiness an almost divine quality.

‘Now for that consecrated fount’ follows on in the same image of the fountain and the sacred quality of the love, though now that divinity is, it is implied throughout the poem, ruined, and therefore there is no more to say, nothing more to speak about, because there is no love left. A ‘fount is sometimes used in church as well, thereby further strengthening the idea of sacredness.

The poem is a little bit selfish, honestly, because it doesn’t really take into account the feelings of the person who has been pushed aside, so to speak; there are only the feelings of the person who has fallen out of love with the subject of the poem. The selfishness inherent could be a by-product of the themes of the Romantic era; though it was dressed up as the rights of the individual, really what it means is that the emotions of the artist writing are placed at the forefront, and the resultant effects of that fallout are not practiced. This happens with other poems as well, such as Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’, where the individual’s attention is given far more impact than anything else (Keats is, of course, not the only Romantic poet to lean very hard on the idea of the individual as the ultimate bargaining chip, however he has written several poems circulating around the theme of the individual’s emotions, and thus easily comes to mind).

Notice the dullness in the second set of lines. Wordsworth writes: ‘What have I? Shall I dare to tell? / A comfortless and hidden well’ – a well, although hearty and important, is hardly along the lines of a ‘consecrated fount’, thereby showing how his love has diminished not only in strength, but also in divinity, and in function – though one could argue that the well is far more functional than the consecrated fount, which really only has one use.

A well of love—it may be deep—
I trust it is,—and never dry:
What matter? if the waters sleep
In silence and obscurity.
—Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

However, even that is not enough for the poet – he says ‘a well of love – it may be deep – ‘ implying that it might not be, that even this is left up to chance, and to the person whose emotions are so sharply contained and so easily broken, and then goes on to say that, deep or not, this doesn’t matter. The love that is there is now gone ‘in silence and in obscurity’.

In the second bit, he reiterates the first few lines of A Complaint, thereby making it cyclical, a process that, while not never-ending, can be said to repeat itself; dishearteningly, it seems as though he’s saying that love is fickle, and that people fall in and out of it with such ease that the sacredness of it is lost rather quickly. This could be written about both filial and romantic love, as there is no specification made to who it is written for, though, as stated above, historians generally pin the friend as Coleridge, after he met him again after some three years of absence.

 

Historical Background

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are considered to be the pioneers of the English Romantic period, and their publication, Lyrical Ballads, is perhaps one of the most in depth examples of the first generation of Romantic poetry. However, William Wordsworth’s most remembered work is probably The Prelude, a semiautobiographical poem of his earlier years, which may have been written to Coleridge, though there are those that disagree with this view.

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2 Comments

  1. Jenny E. April 8, 2018
    • mm Lee-James Bovey April 9, 2018

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