This fascinating poem, Animal Tranquility and Decay, by William Wordsworth depicts an old man who walks in peace and tranquility. He seems to walk aloof from the cares and concerns of this world. This man, perhaps a reflection of the author himself, seems to possess a quality rare among men, the ability to feel tranquility. Perhaps the subject of this poem symbolizes the author, or perhaps he is someone the author envies. Either way, the speaker makes it clear that this man has tapped into a secret few have found, the secret to peace, tranquility, and satisfaction. Within Animal Tranquility and Decay itself, this seems a quality to earn for. Only the title offsets this feeling by giving the readers the idea that total tranquility is more animal-like than human-like. Therefore, it is unclear whether or not the speaker thinks in high regard to this kind of aloof, peaceful state of mind.
Animal Tranquility and Decay Analysis
The little hedgerow birds,
That peck along the roads, regard him not.
The speaker reveals that the man often goes unnoticed. Even the “ little hedgerow birds” seem to disregard his presence entirely. This initial image allows the readers to become instantly aware of the tranquility of this man. For, usually birds will flutter and fly away as a human passes by, but this particular man has such a peaceful way about him that the birds are not the least bit concerned about his presence.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression: every limb,
Here, the speaker begins to describe the look on the man’s face. The man has but one expression that can be seen in “his face” and “his step” and “his gait” and in “every limb”. The way he looks and the way he moves suggest tranquility. It is important to note that while the speaker suggests that this man experiences peace and tranquility, he does not mention joy or happiness. Therefore, it is yet unclear to the readers whether the speaker reveres this man.
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought.—He is insensibly subdued
In this lines, the speaker reveals that every movement this man makes, every expression on his face, all “bespeak a man who does not move with pain, but moves with thought”. This suggests that although the man is elderly and is probably experiencing physical pain, that is not what he is focused on. Rather, he is living in the world of his own thoughts. He is so intently focused on his thoughts that the pain does not seem to bother him. This is why the speaker describes him as “insensibly subdued”. There is no physical reason the man should be so tranquil, but his thoughts take him to that place of peace which transcends the physical realm.
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten; one to whom
Long patience hath such mild composure given,
This man is “settled” and “quiet”. He is a man who seems to make no effort in anything. Rather, it would seem that he has long forgotten what it is like to strive and toil. The speaker suggests that this man is so calm because years of patience have made him that way. “Long patience” suggests that the man has been bearing with life for many years, and that he has practiced patience with all that hurt, bothered, or frustrated him. These years of practicing patience have given the man a “mild composure” so that he was as peaceful and tranquil a man as there ever was.
That patience now doth seem a thing of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect that the young behold
With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels.
The speaker then describes that the years of trying times which produced patience in this old man, had also resulted in his becoming someone who no longer needs patience. Patience, after all, is a virtue exercised when one is bothered or frustrated, and this man is now above those trivial feelings. He has come to a place of total tranquility, and he seems to live more in his thoughts than in reality. In fact, it has become like second nature to live in peace that is “so perfect” that the young men see him and envy his peace and contentedness. Yet, the old man has been so tranquil for so long that he “hardly feels” it anymore. This is where the title of the poem, Animal Tranquility and Decay, comes back to mind. Is this man’s tranquility “animal” like? The speaker causes the reader to wonder whether this tranquility is really something to be envied, or whether it is something animal-like in nature, thoughtless and unfeeling. The man will, undoubtedly, spend the rest of his days in peace and solitude, but the speaker causes the reader to question whether total tranquility is worth the loss of true depth of feeling.
- Wordsworth, William, and Jack Stillinger. Selected Poems and Prefaces. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Print.