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It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free
William Wordsworth
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 tranquility;
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 worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
William Wordsworth was a household name in his own lifetime, and I think it’s safe to say that he is still a household name: he makes a cameo in Taylor Swift’s song “The Lakes” on her album “Folklore”! This sonnet is one of Wordsworth’s most anthologized poems. A sonnet is by definition a short poem—just fourteen lines—but in the hands of Wordsworth, a few lines inspired by a walk with his daughter Caroline on the seashore at Calais become a profound reflection on nature, on childhood, and on God.
In the first eight lines, Wordsworth describes an evening scene, and the sun setting over the sea. His description of the natural world is imbued with religious language. The evening is described as “the holy time,” and the quiet of the atmosphere is compared to “a Nun / Breathless with adoration.” Wordsworth was not Catholic, but he uses a Catholic image suggesting purity and the presence of God. The quiet and peace around him are not the quiet and peace of nothing happening. They are the quiet and peace of prayer, even of ecstatic prayer, the soul at one with God.
Wordsworth walks by the sea, and here, too, his description is full of religious echoes.  “The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea,” he says, evoking the creation account in Genesis, which describes the spirit of God moving over the waters. When Wordsworth says “Listen! The mighty Being is awake,” we are not entirely sure whether he is directing us to listen to the sound of the sea, or to the voice of God. I think that ambiguity is intentional: for Wordsworth, the beauty of the natural world is a path to God.
In the second part of the sonnet, we recognize that Wordsworth is sharing this moment with someone else—a child. While Wordsworth is so moved by what he sees, she “appear[s] untouched by solemn thought.” For her, it’s just a walk by the sea with someone who loves her.
But just because the child does not respond in the same way the poet does, does not mean that her nature is “less divine.” Far from it. “Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year,” Wordsworth says, alluding to the story of Lazarus and Dives from the Gospel of Luke. In that parable, Jesus says that when the poor man Lazarus dies, he is carried away by angels to “the bosom of Abraham.” It’s such a unique and wonderful image of heaven, suggesting protection and safety. This child, Wordsworth’s daughter, is in heaven, in a way that the poet, for all his “solemn thought,” is not.
At the end of the poem, Wordsworth evokes another Scripture story: the account of the prophetic call of Samuel. The boy Samuel serves in the Temple of God under Eli. It is a time when “the word of the Lord was scarce and vision infrequent” (I Sam 3:1). The boy Samuel sleeps in the temple itself, in the very shadow of the ark of the covenant. But when God calls him, the boy does not know God’s voice. God is with him – but he doesn’t realize it.
The girl in Wordsworth’s poem worships “at the Temple’s inner shrine, / God being with thee when we know it not.” Like Samuel, she is in the very presence of God without realizing it. The poet becomes aware of the presence of God through the beauty of the natural world. He is in the outer temple, as it were, glimpsing God through the veil of exterior things. The child is already in the “inner shrine.”
This is one of the dominant themes of Wordsworth’s poetry—with age, his relationship with creation—and the Creator—has become more complicated, and he longs for the unselfconsciousness of childhood. But he knows that experience brings its own gifts—especially the gift of reflection. As he says in another poem, “to me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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