Willam Wordsworth’s ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory’ depicts the tragic death of a young man and the creation of a priory in his honor.
Throughout ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory,’ Wordsworth uses imagery and language that’s recognizably his own and can be found in all of his best poetry. The natural images of the Wharf are just as powerful as those of the mourning mother and her lost son. He tells their story clearly and directly, ensuring that readers do not leave this poem without understanding exactly what happened to him and what the mother did in order to ease her sorrow.
Explore The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory
In the first lines of the poem, a mother finds out that her son, Romilly, has died. The poem transitions to the scene of his death and the events that led up to it. He was jumping over a notoriously dangerous river and was pulled into its current because his greyhound did not jump at the same time that he did. The young man died and his mother was filled with a distinct kind of sorrow, that belonging to mother’s alone. In order to honor his memory, she chose to have a priory built along the river’s banks. Now, the speaker says, the sound of the river’s waters can be heard while “Matins,” or morning prays, are sung.
Wordsworth engages with themes of faith, loss, and mothers and sons in ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory.’ The poet’s speaker narrates the story of a son’s death, but unfortunate accidental circumstances, and what the mother did in order to try to ease her sorrow and draw closer to God. Through the creation of the Bolton Priory, the mother is able to dedicate herself fully to God and make “Him” her “Friend.” Wordsworth is implying that the deepest sorrows are those that need God the most.
Structure and Form
‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory’ by William Wordsworth is a seventeen stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines vary in the number of syllables, ranging from six up to ten depending on Wordsworth’s word choice.
Wordsworth makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Caesurae: examples can be found in line three of the first stanza and line four of the sixth stanza.
- Alliteration: examples include “bootless bene” in line one of the first stanza and “Striding” and “Strid” in line one of the sixth stanza.
- Enjambment: examples can be seen between lines one and two of the fourth stanza and lines three and four of the ninth stanza.
“What is good for a bootless bene?”
With these dark words begins my Tale;
And their meaning is, whence can comfort spring
When Prayer is of no avail?
“What is good for a bootless bene?”
The Falconer to the Lady said;
And she made answer “ENDLESS SORROW!”
For she knew that her Son was dead.
She knew it by the Falconer’s words,
And from the look of the Falconer’s eye;
And from the love which was in her soul
For her youthful Romilly.
In the first lines of ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory,’ the speaker begins by introducing his story, one that’s concerned with what people do when prayer “is of no avail,” or doesn’t work. It’s in the second stanza that the story actually begins and includes a “Falconer,” or someone who works with and trains falcons, and a “Lady,” or a woman of means in Wordsworth’s time.
The Lady, who is mother to a young man, Romilly, hears the Falconer’s words and knows immediately that something has happened to her son. There’s nothing that prayer can do to change that, she understands.
—Young Romilly through Barden Woods
Is ranging high and low;
And holds a Greyhound in a leash,
To let slip upon buck or doe.
And the Pair have reached that fearful chasm,
How tempting to bestride!
For lordly Wharf is there pent in
With rocks on either side.
This Striding-place is called The Strid,
A name which it took of yore:
A thousand years hath it borne that name,
And shall, a thousand more.
In the fourth stanza the poem shifts for a second time, now to the past and the events that lead to Romilly’s death. He was out walking through Barden Woods alongside the infamous River Wharf, of which the Strid is part. Today, the Strid is regarded as one of the most dangerous rivers in the world due to the underwater chambers and caves underneath the river banks.
The poet emphasizes the power of the river through references to its age. It has had the same name for “a thousand years” and will have it for a thousand more. He also uses words like “lordly,” “fearful” and “chasm” to describe it.
And hither is young Romilly come,
And what may now forbid
That he, perhaps for the hundredth time,
Shall bound across The Strid?
He sprang in glee,—for what cared he
That the River was strong and the rocks were steep?
—But the Greyhound in the leash hung back,
And checked him in his leap.
The Boy is in the arms of Wharf,
And strangled by a merciless force;
For never more was young Romilly seen
Till he rose a lifeless Corse!
In the following stanzas, the poet’s speaker describes how Romilly approached the river to cross it, as he has done a hundred or more times. He’s used to making this crossing (one that’s expressly forbidden today due to the dangers of slipping into the water). The young man, in all his youth, “sprang” across the water. He knew he could make it and the powerful water, rocks, and other dangers did not intimidate him. Unfortunately, the greyhound he was walking on a leash did not have the same confidence. The latter didn’t jump and, as Wordsworth describes it, “checked him in his leap.” Meaning, the leash grew tight and the young man didn’t have the reach to make it all the way across.
He fell into the “arms of the Wharf” and was “strangled,” (an example of personification) by its “force.” The river has no mercy for the young man and he was never seen again. That is until he “rose a lifeless Corse.”
Now there is stillness in the Vale,
And long unspeaking sorrow:—
Wharf shall be to pitying hearts
A name more sad than Yarrow.
If for a Lover the Lady wept,
A solace she might borrow
From death, and from the passion of death;—
Old Wharf might heal her sorrow.
She weeps not for the wedding-day
Which was to be to-morrow:
Her hope was a farther-looking hope,
And hers is a Mother’s sorrow.
Transitioning back to the mother’s world, and the time after her son was discovered dead, the poet describes how “still” the “Vale” became. The place was filled with “sorrow.” The poet spends the next lines making sure to draw a distinction between the type of sorrow she’s feeling now and other, less impactful kinds. Her’s was a “Mother’s sorrow,” and that’s the most painful of all.
He was a Tree that stood alone,
And proudly did its branches wave;
And the Root of this delightful Tree
Was in her Husband’s grave!
Long, long in darkness did she sit,
And her first words were, “Let there be
In Bolton, on the Field of Wharf,
A stately Priory!”
The stately Priory was reared;
And Wharf, as he moved along,
To Matins joined a mournful voice,
Nor failed at Even-song.
The following stanzas describe what the mother decided to do in order to memorialize her son, Romilly. She chose to erect a “Priory” on the “Field of Wharf.” There, it was “reared” and every day since the sound of the Wharf could be heard mingled with the sound of the “Matins” or morning prayer.
And the Lady prayed in heaviness
That looked not for relief;
But slowly did her succour come,
And a patience to her grief.
Oh! there is never sorrow of heart
That shall lack a timely end
If but to God we turn, and ask
Of Him to be our Friend!
In the final two lines the poet circles back to the concept of prayer. Finally, after a period of time had passed, the woman found relief in God. The poem ends with a moral lesson, that there is no sorrow in the heart that can’t be relieved by God if “we turn, and ask / Of Him to be our Friend!”
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Force of Prayer; Or, the Founding of Bolton Priory’ should also consider reading some of Wordsworth’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ —a landscape poem concerned with nature that describes a man lounging underneath a tree and contemplating the changes society has undergone.
- ‘To a Child’ — a short poem in which the poet describes the importance of “service.”
- ‘After-Thought’—speaks on nature, death, and humanity’s impact on the earth through the image of the River Duddon
Also of interest maybe 15 of the Best Poems about Streams and Rivers.