‘A Character’ by William Wordsworth is a five stanza poem which is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent and structured rhyming pattern of aabb, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. In regards to meter, Wordsworth was also very consistent. Each line contains four beats, or iambs. The first is unstressed and the second stressed, making the poem into iambic tetrameter.
A reader should also take note of the thoughtful and varying mood of the poem. There is a general feeling of pensiveness and meditativeness to the text. There are also moments where Wordsworth has chosen to use alliteration and hyperbole. Alliteration can be seen in phrases like, “ shame scarcely seeming” and “such strength.” Hyperbole, which refers to the overstating of facts or the stretching of truth, is seen towards the end of the poem in the speaker’s statement that he’d be happy for “five centuries.”
Summary of A Character
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “Nature” has found a way to imbue the face of “man” with an endless array of emotions. He is able to read these emotions and sees them as being both contrasting and complementary. The speaker points out “thought and no thought” as well as “pleasure and gloom.”
In the following lines the speaker moves from describing all of humanity to a small portion he calls “man.” This word ends up standing in for a particular type of man he fears will run away with his listener’s heart. It is his goal with this piece to expose the flaws in their moral character and steer her away from them and towards him.
Analysis of A Character
I marvel how Nature could ever find space
For so many strange contrasts in one human face:
There’s thought and no thought, and there’s paleness and bloom
And bustle and sluggishness, pleasure and gloom.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins what will be a long string of observations about “one human face.” He is marvelling at a human’s ability to show so many different emotions and states of being. The first line gives “Nature” the credit for this remarkable ability. There is so much depth to human expression and complications around freedom and choice that it doesn’t seem as if there would be enough “space.”
The contrasts that appear in one’s complexion, such as that between “thought and no thought,” are “strange.” He is intrigued and surprised by the way “paleness” as well as “bloom,” or liveliness, can be present at the same time.
The last line mentions two more contrasting elements of expression, “bustle and sluggishness, pleasure and gloom.” These are not all good/bad comparisons. There are pros and cons to each way of being.
There’s weakness, and strength both redundant and vain;
Such strength as, if ever affliction and pain
Could pierce through a temper that’s soft to disease,
Would be rational peace–a philosopher’s ease.
In the second stanza the speaker goes on to explain how deeper human emotions are present too. He is able to see the “weakness” of one’s mind and heart as well as its “strength” on one’s face. The speaker is so impressed by the “strength” of the person he is referring to that he ruminates on what it could become. He imagines a situation in which “affliction and pain” were able to “pierce” through this person.
Due to the strength this person has, they would never really be disturbed. There would always be a consistent peace. Nothing could change their “philosopher’s ease.” In this instance the speaker is taking a side. He does see weakness as being less than strength, but still not as something to be ignored. The speaker acknowledges its presence in the subject.
There’s indifference, alike when he fails or succeeds,
And attention full ten times as much as there needs;
Pride where there’s no envy, there’s so much of joy;
And mildness, and spirit both forward and coy.
The third stanza goes on to refer to a “he.” It does not become clear who this person, or who he represents, until the end of the poem. At this point it is enough to know that the speaker is passing judgment on him.
In the following lines the speaker describes how there is always “indifference.” It is present when the man “fails of succeeds.” There is also “attention” at a level that is not needed. This is likely a statement referring to the man’s ability, or inability, to care for things that do or don’t deserve the attention.
Alongside the “Pride” felt by the man, there is “so much joy.” These two emotions, as stated above, are not mutually exclusive. Due to the noted lack of “envy” he is able to be happy in his pride. There is no reason to want to change from his current state. This might make one question why the speaker is worried about these features. What is the reason for his questioning of the way the man lives his life?
In the human mind and face there is a “mildness” and “spirit.” The spirit is said to be both “forward and coy.” This comparison is applied to the speaker’s current subject. He is able to bounce back and forth between acting as an extrovert and introvert.
There’s freedom, and sometimes a diffident stare
Of shame scarcely seeming to know that she’s there,
There’s virtue, the title it surely may claim,
Yet wants heaven knows what to be worthy the name.
In the fourth stanza the speaker expands on where he left off in the third. He states that there is a “freedom” in the way the man lives. There is also a “diffident,” or self-conscious, “stare” that is filled with shame. This fact is again in direct conflict with the previous statements. The man is both confident and shy, a combination which bothers the speaker.
By this point in this piece it has become abundantly clear that the speaker is referring to a specific person, or type of person He seems to have a problem with this personality and does not find someone of this nature to be “worthy” of something they have. This might be due to the speaker’s own envy or the combination of emotions he sees as being present in the “man’s” face.
This picture from nature may seem to depart,
Yet the Man would at once run away with your heart;
And I for five centuries right gladly would be
Such an odd such a kind happy creature as he.
In the final stanza the speaker finally reveals relevant details concerning the dynamic between the man, the listener and himself. The listener ends up being someone he is infatuated with. He uses this stanza to tell the person that this man would “at once run away with your heart.”
A reader should take special note of the fact that “Man” is capitalized. This makes it seem as if the speaker is referring to a general idea of other men. He sees them as being capable of “run[ning]away with” the speaker’s “heart.” This is not something he wants to have happen, for his own good and that of the listener.
In an effort to set himself apart from the men he is referring to, the speaker states that he would be “a kind happy creature” if he was allowed to spend “five centuries” with the listener. He would not become bored after a period of time or give into another aspect of his contrasting personality.