‘To My Sister’ by William Wordsworth is a ten stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD, and so on. The end sounds alternate throughout the text as Wordsworth saw fit.
Wordsworth wrote this piece in 1798 while living in Somerset. It is thought that the poem is part of a group of four, all of which were written with Wordsworth’s home Alfoxden Park in mind. It was a large house, well-loved by Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. They were both comfortable there, with Wordsworth recovering from a drawn-out depression. The poems from Wordsworth’s best-known collection, Lyrical Ballads, also had their start in Alfoxden.
Summary of To My Sister
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is a March day. The weather is “mild” and nature is calling to him. There are birds singing and a sense of joy in the air. It is with the betterment of himself and his sister in mind that he calls to her to get her coat and join him outside. They plan to take along their young charge, who in this poem is named Edward, and spend the morning outside.
Wordsworth hopes that his sister will put aside her chores and journey with him into an environment that is filled with love. Together they will enter into the woods and fill their souls with good, well “tuned” intentions. They will fuel themselves for the coming year with love.
Analysis of To My Sister
It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.
‘To My Sister’ begins with the speaker giving the reader a few bits of information about the setting. It is March and the air is “mild.” The scene is a simple one, filled with peace and the comings and goings of everyday life.
Wordsworth also takes note of the “redbreast,” a reference to the robin redbreast common throughout the UK. It is up in the “tall larch” tree, right next to “our door.” From the use of this plural possessive pronoun the speaker lets the reader know that there is more than one person here. Scholars consider the characters of this piece to be Wordsworth himself, as well as his sister, Dorothy, and a child the two were caring for.
In these lines he uses alliteration. It is seen through the use of “mild” and “March” in line one and “minute” in line two. Another technique that’s similar to alliteration, is sibilance. It is the repetition of words that start with soft vowel sounds, such as “sweeter,” “sings,” and “stands”.
There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare,
And grass in the green field.
It is clear from the second stanza that the speaker is in a very good mood. His head is clear and his mind at peace. He is able to look around and take in all the “blessings in the air.” The world seems rich to him. It is filled with a “sense of joy” that yields itself to the “bare trees” and mountains, as well as the “green field.” His world is a joyful one and these simple lines convey that clearly.The repetition of the word “bare” in these lines alludes to a clarity in these moments. By entering into natural spaces this speaker is able to shake off the mundanity of day to day life.
The speaker’s tone throughout these first lines is peaceful. He is happy to look around him, take his time, and make use of all of his sense when interpreting the world. There is a simplicity to these lines which makes one think of the most pleasant of moments in which all worldly problems disappear.
My sister! (’tis a wish of mine)
Now that our morning meal is done,
Make haste, your morning task resign;
Come forth and feel the sun.
In the third stanza his sister enters into the scene. He exclaims over her arrival. The speaker also has a “wish” for her. He hopes that after breakfast, which they just finished, they are able to leave the house and take advantage of the sun. In these lines there are more examples of alliteration which help with the rhythm of the poem. They are seen through the repetition of words starting with “M”. For example, “mine,” “morning meal,” “Make,” and “morning”. Additionally, a reader should take note of the double “f” in the final line.
The speaker wants his sister to “Make haste” while she still can. It would be for the best, he thinks, if she “resign[ed]” her morning jobs and came with him. It is not just going to be the two of them on his wandering journey though, there is a child.
Edward will come with you—and, pray,
Put on with speed your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
In the fourth stanza of ‘To My Sister’ the speaker asks that “Edward” come with them. While not the name of the child they were taking care of, it is thought Edward is meant to be the son of a friend the two were tending while the couple was away. The first line of this stanza is a good example of caesura, with the separation between the first part of the phrase and the second. This technique is used for a variety of reasons, but in this case it helps to accurately convey the speaker’s words and the pattern with which he said them. The third line is an even better example, with the colon placed squarely in the middle of the line. The first half gives a direction and the second transitions into a statement about the future.
The speaker is particular about what his sister should wear. She should “put on with speed [her] woodland dress.” This is the piece of clothing that is best for walking in the woods. He also tells her that there is no reason to bring a book. His plan is that they go into the woods and enjoy idling there.
No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar:
We from to-day, my Friend, will date
The opening of the year.
In the fifth stanza of ‘To My Sister’ Wordsworth decides that between the two of them they are going to define their own joys. It will not matter what the calendar says in its “joyless forms.” They are going to make their own “living calendar.” This way they are able to celebrate the beginning of year, which in this text is possibly spring. This relates back to the way that nature provides an escape from the day to day grind that everyone is a part of. By entering into these natural spaces they can remake the world as they see fit.
Love, now a universal birth,
From heart to heart is stealing,
From earth to man, from man to earth:
—It is the hour of feeling.
In the sixth stanza, at the halfway point of the poem, there is a turn. The speaker now moves to speak more directly on love. It is something which can travel between hearts, it creeps or “steals” its way there. In particular the speaker sees love coming from the earth to humankind and back to the earth again. It is a cycle that everyone should acknowledge and take part in the best they can. The repetition in these lines is powerful. It adds a lot to the rhythm of the poem while also emphasizing the major themes of the poem.
One moment now may give us more
Than years of toiling reason:
Our minds shall drink at every pore
The spirit of the season.
If the two can leave the house, along with the boy, and journey out into the woods, they are going to get more from the experience than years of “toiling” can get them. It is clear where the speaker puts the value between materiality and spirituality.
There is something about this season, probably the birth of new life and the new feelings in the air that make the speaker want to drink in its “spirit.” Perhaps this is the way the two are going to commune with the natural world. By using the word “Pore” in the third line the speaker is alluding to the full-body experience that is walking in natural spaces. Their minds will act as skin, soaking in everything it can get.
Some silent laws our hearts will make,
Which they shall long obey:
We for the year to come may take
Our temper from to-day.
It is their trip out into the woods “to-day” that Wordsworth wants to base the next year on. He believes they should be able to soak up the love and peace that nature has to offer and carrying it throughout their lives. It will direct their “temper” and their hearts will “long obey” the rules of love.
And from the blessed power that rolls
About, below, above,
We’ll frame the measure of our souls:
They shall be tuned to love.
In the second to last stanza of ‘To My Sister’ the speaker describes the natural world as a force, some kind of higher being or presence. It is from this presence, that exists all around them, “About, below, above,” they are going to “frame the measure” of their “souls.” If they can channel the emotions present in the natural world then they will be able to live full and good lives. It is to “love” that their souls will be “tuned.” The second line of this stanza is particularly effective in conveying how their souls and their lives, in general, are going to be transformed if they can learn to live in a new way.
Then come, my Sister! come, I pray,
With speed put on your woodland dress;
And bring no book: for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.
In the tenth stanza, Wordsworth reiterates much of what he said in the previous. He restates his desire that his sister gets her woodland dress and that they do not bring any books with them. He is determined to make an emotional world for the both of them that is tied to the simple pleasures of love and being outdoors.