Wordsworth, poet to It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free, was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until 1850. During 1791, he visited France where he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, a beautiful surgeon with whom he had a child, a daughter named Caroline. However, financial problems and the uneasy relationship between Britain and France at the time led Wordsworth to return alone. Scholars differ as to whether or not Wordsworth was ever going to marry Annette and to raise Caroline, but it is doubtful. In 1802, he visited France again, taking his then-fiancee Mary Hutchinson.
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free is a sonnet written after a walk in Calais with his nine-year-old daughter Caroline.
William Wordsworth was fascinated by the innocence of children, and their natural connection to nature; he viewed it as an expression of their deeper innocence that they were not affected by the beauty of the natural surroundings the same way that he was, were not moved to tears the same way that he was. Thus, he came to the conclusion that nature – to Wordsworth akin to the divine – was lost when men grew older.
It is notable that this is the first sonnet that Wordsworth ever wrote. Discover more William Wordsworth poems.
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free Analysis
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 tranquillity;
Cleanth Brooks, in his seminal work The Well-Thought Urn, points out the apparent sense of anticipation evident in the opening lines of It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free. Although it is described as a ‘beauteous evening, calm and free’, the use of his adjectives denotes a certain tension in the word. For example, the idea of being ‘breathless’ with anticipation helps to loan the poem the idea that something is about to happen. Brooks writes, ‘the adjective ‘breathless’ suggests tremendous excitement; and yet the evening is not only quiet, but calm’. This apparent verbal tension is the cornerstone of the majority of the sonnet.
Note the typical sonnet form; Wordsworth, however, as a pastoral poet who was largely concerned with the beauty of nature, subverts it by using it to denote the ultimate beauty of the world: the evening at Calais with his young daughter. The reverence evident in the earlier stanza of the poem shows, without a doubt, that Wordsworth is enamored with the view and with the idea of nature as he views it.
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 worship’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not
The use of divine language to denote nature is repeated again in the second half of the sonnet. Note the reference to the ‘gentleness of heaven broods o’ver the Sea’, perhaps hinting that the Creation myth of the Bible and, more likely, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’; the use of the word ‘broods’ is also used in intimations, perhaps alluding that it is far more likely to be the Milton reference than the creation myth. The reference to the ‘eternal motion’ shows immortality; nature will survive where man does not.
Here is the second evidence of Cleanth Brooks’ paradox. He notes that, although the poet is overcome by the divinity of nature, whereas the child seems largely unmoved by it, one would assume that it is the poet who is the most divine and not the child. However, Wordsworth, although filled with the worship of nature, cannot be as close to nature as the child is. It is the child, therefore, that is the closest to nature and not the adult poet. She is consumed with nature regardless of whether or not she finds herself in its depths, a parallel opposite to the poem, for whom the majesty of nature seems to exist only when he himself is deep within it. Wordsworth himself says as much – ‘thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year’, thus showing the constant connection between children and the natural world, between children and the divine, that Wordsworth believed we lost as we grew older.
We arrived at Calais at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning the 31st of July [1 Aug] … We walked by the sea-shore almost every Evening with Annette & Caroline or Wm & I alone … seeing far off in the west the Coast of England like a cloud crested with Dover Castle, which was but like the summit of the cloud — the Evening star & the glory of the sky … Nothing in Romance was ever half so beautiful. Now came in view as the Evening star sank down & the colours of the west faded away the two lights of England, lighted up by Englishmen in our Country to warn vessels of rocks or sands. These we used to see from the Pier when we could see no other distant objects but the Clouds the Sky & the Sea itself. All was dark behind. The town of Calais seemed deserted of the light of heaven, but there was always light, & life, & joy upon the Sea itself. — One night, though, I shall never forget, the day had been very hot, & William & I walked alone together upon the pier — the sea was gloomy for there was a blackness over all the sky except when it was overspread with lightning which often revealed to us a distant vessel. Near us the waves roared & broke against the pier, & as they broke & as they travelled towards us, they were interfused with greenish fiery light. The more distant sea always black and gloomy. It was, also beautiful on the calm hot nights to see the little Boats row out of the harbour with wings of fire & the sail boats with the fiery track which they cut as they went along & which closed up after them with a hundred thousand sparkles balls shootings, & streams of glowworm night. Caroline was delighted.
— Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal, Sunday, 1 August 1802.
William Wordsworth greatly loved his daughter, even though he did not raise her and had been absent for most of her life. He set her up with an annual £30 per year, the equivalent of £1360 in today’s money, which was later replaced by £400 as a capital settlement. They only met once more – in 1820, when Caroline had two daughters. Caroline died in 1862, a few years after her father.