W William Wordsworth

Surprised by Joy by William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth, one of the most renowned British writers of all time, penned Surprised by Joy which speaks of joy and pain in such compelling terms so as to gain the hearts of many a reader. By the time Wordsworth wrote this particular poem, he had experienced immense pain and suffering in his life. Given the painful occurrences in his life, the title of this poem is fitting. Wordsworth was, indeed, surprised to experience joy in the midst of grief. Surprised by Joy expresses a feeling those who have suffered loss can relate to. For when a moment of joy sweeps over one who is deep in the midst of grief, it can be nothing other than surprising, at the very least. These lines resonate with those who have suffered loss, and they offer healing and comfort, as do many of Wordsworth’s poems.

Surprised by Joy by William Wordsworth


Surprised by Joy Analysis

Line 1

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind

The speaker realizes that when he is surprised by this feeling of joy that overcomes him so suddenly, he becomes “impatient as the wind” and is eager to share with someone this feeling of joy before it disappears like a mist among all of his grief.


Line 2-3

I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom

But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,

In this line of Surprised by Joy, Wordsworth turns to share this joy with someone. But, in one horrifying moment that sweeps away his joy, he realizes that the one with whom he most desires to share is joy, is also the one whose death has caused him insurmountable grief. For this reason, when he turns to share his joy with someone, he cries out, “Oh! With whom But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb”. Many critics have suggested that the word “Thee” refers to his daughter, Catherine, who passed away. It is also possible that “Thee” the speaker refers to is Wordsworth’s son, who died not long after Catherine. In either case, the one with whom the speaker most longs to share his joy is “buried deep in the silent tomb” and is unable to share in his joy.


Lines 4-6

That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,

In these lines, the speaker suggests that no change of scenery or circumstance can change the fact that one he dearly loves is forever in the grave. He claims that his love has brought thoughts of the lost one back to his mind. He asks himself, “but how could I forget thee?” In his feeling of joy, and his desire to turn and share that joy with the very one he had lost, he realized that he had forgotten the death for a moment. He wonders how he could have forgotten about so grievous a loss. He wonders how he could have felt joy again, even if only for a fleeting moment. And in his love for his lost one, he recalls memories that are filled with the person who is now buried in the tomb.


Lines 7-8

Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind

Here, the speaker continues to question himself, asking how he could forget about the loss, even for a “division of an hour” or a few minutes. He wonders how he could have been so “beguiled” that he would be swept up by the feeling of joy and forget his “most grievous loss”.


Lines 9-10

To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

In these lines of Surprised by Joy, when the realization of the loss he had experienced returns, the speaker feels sorrow comparable to that which he felt at the first news of the death. He claims that having to realize the death again, after having forgotten it for a moment, was “the worst pang that sorrow ever bore”.


Lines 11-12

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

After having described the feeling of reliving the first initial loss as the “worst pang” he had ever felt, he clarifies that he had only ever experienced one more painful moment than that, and this was the moment in which he first heard of the loss of his loved one. He describes that feeling as one which came over him when he “stood forlorn, knowing [his] heart’s best treasure was no more”.


Lines 13-14

That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

In these lines of Surprised by Joy, the speaker realizes that nothing, not time, not money, not power, not all the tears in the world can bring his loved one back to him, and he laments. He cries out that “neither present time, nor years unborn could to my sight that heavenly face restore”.



Surprised by Joy which begins in joy, ends in sorrow. At first, the speaker experiences joy, and he is very surprised by the feeling. It is a feeling he never expected to experience again. And so he quickly turns to share it with someone, but that someone is gone. All at once, the speaker becomes acutely aware of his grief. It sweeps over him and blots out any hint of joy that was once there. The speaker had turned to share his moment of joy with the very one whose loss he was suffering. Thus, it felt to the speaker like he had just experienced the shock of loss all over again, and grief took over him as it had done when he first heard the news of the death of the one he loved so dearly. Surprised by Joy ends with the realization that his joy would always be swept away in grief, because no amount of time could ever bring back to him that “heavenly face” which he was missing so dearly.

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Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
  • Jo Nuchols says:

    Thank you. I certainly will be reading them.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Glad to hear it.

  • Jo Nuchols says:

    I could feel everything that he was saying. It feels like I will never have complete or satisfied joy not until I see my son again. I know I will see and be with him again.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      That is so sad. Sorry, you find this poem so relatable.

  • Ken Hogan says:

    I enjoyed your analysis of this poem. C.S. Lewis used it as impetus for a more expansive definition of joy that is less fleeting.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Ken.

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