‘October, 1803′ by William Wordsworth is a sonnet made up of fourteen lines, following the rhyme scheme of ABBA ACCA DCDCCD. The poem’s form is not traditional, but it does follow the meter of iambic pentameter. Additionally, as is the case with Italian sonnets, it can be separated into two initial quatrains, and then one final sestet.
This piece was published five years after its title suggests and details the expected invasion of England by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. This series of battles began in the same year and would not conclude until 1815. Within this conflict, a variety of European powers, mostly led by the English, fought against Napoleon I and the French Empire. The war began due to disputes left over from the French Revolution.
The speaker begins the sonnet by utilizing the first grouping of four lines to describe the way the rich and noble lords of England are reacting to an impending battle with France. They are not mentally or physically prepared for a fight in their own homeland. They are filled with “apprehension and despair” so much so that they poison the world with it when they breathe.
In contrast, there are the men who have much less. These people, who’ve been give only what is “sufficient” for their own survival, are unreservedly happy. They know what is coming and do not have nearly as much to lose as their counterparts.
In the final set of lines, a concluding sestet, the speaker declares his own hopes, and those of his followers. He is of the mind that if the French do come, riches will be no defence. The nobles will have nothing but fear, while the working men and women have the value of their interior virtue to fall back upon.
These times strike monied worldlings with dismay:
Even rich men, brave by nature, taint the air
With words of apprehension and despair:
While tens of thousands, thinking on the affray,
The speaker begins this piece by stating that the changes, events, and horrors of this age are “strik[ing]” everyone, most especially the rich, or “monied” with fear and “dismay.” England is changing unpredictably, and is possibly on the verge of a battle on their own territory with France.
He continues on to emphasize this point by saying that those who are “rich” feel a new fear. The noble population of the world is “taint[ing]” the air with “words of apprehension and despair.”
The speaker believes that up until this point fear had never had the power it does now. It is rare that a war reaches England’s shore and even threatens to change the lives of the richest men of the country
The whole population is dwelling on what is to come and while everyone knows what might happen, no one exactly knows what to expect. This uncertainty, combined with the knife’s edge fear caused by waiting, had filled the rich with trepidation.
Men unto whom sufficient for the day
And minds not stinted or untilled are given,
Sound, healthy, children of the God of heaven,
Are cheerful as the rising sun in May.
In the next quatrain of ‘October, 1803,’ the speaker continues discussing what the people of England are doing as they prepare for the predicted onslaught. While the first group of people discussed, the upper classes that are generally not involved in conflict, are quite fearful, the lower classes, those who truly think on, and understand what is to come, are “cheerful as the rising sun in May.”
These men that the poet now brings into the storyline have what is “sufficient for the day.” They might be of little means, but their minds have equipped them to deal with the situation. Their thoughts, unlike those mentioned in the previous set of lines, are “not stinted or untilled.”
What do we gather hence but firmer faith
That every gift of noble origin
Is breathed upon by Hope’s perpetual breath;
That virtue and the faculties within
Are vital,—and that riches are akin
To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death?
In the final sestet of the sonnet the speaker admits his own hopes for what is to come. It appears that those who’ve been listening to the poem are in agreement with what he is about to say, as he asks them, for what other reason do we gather here?
He knows, and is reminding everyone who hears him, that the group gathered is there in the hope that a coming battle with France will prove fruitful to the poor, and life changing to the rich.
The speaker is holding onto “faith” that the ”gift of noble origin” is worth nothing in the face of upending change and that what really matters are the “faculties within,” such as kindness and bravery. He compares the interior lives of the rich to nothing more than “fear… cowardice, and death.”
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was born in Cumberland, England in 1770. He met with early tragedy in his young life as his mother died when he was only seven years old and he was orphaned at 13. Though he did not excel, he would eventually study at and graduate from Cambridge University in 1791. Wordsworth fell in love with a young French woman, Annette Vallon while visiting France and she became pregnant. The two were separated after England and France declared war in 1793 and Wordsworth began to develop his radical ideology. Soon after, Wordsworth became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the two co-wrote, Lyrical Ballads, which contains some of the most well-known poetry from both writers.
Wordsworth’s radical ideas did not last as he aged and by 1813, reunited with Vallon and their child, he moved to the Lake District. Wordsworth continued to create poetry, although his most productive period had passed until his death at 80 in April of 1850. He had held the position of England’s poet laureate for the last seven years of his life.