3 prosperous or undone: i.e. whether you are doing well or badly.
29 Neglect me! i.e. has her son deliberately not been in touch with her. For a while she feared this. Now she thinks this impossible, a slur on their relationship.
30 blind: not literally, but “blind-hearted”, “foolish”.
52 Desart: a wild or uninhabited region (not necessarily our modern sense of “waterless, sandy region”).
56 incommunicable sleep: i.e. a sleep in which they are unable to communicate with each other. This is a moving word here, because it reflects the concern with the lack of communication in the whole poem.
67 shake me: i.e. frighten me.
The real title of this poem, which the AQA Anthology chooses to abbreviate, is “The Affliction of Margaret — of —”. In other words, in this title Wordsworth was making clear that he had a particular person in mind, and that his poem is based on real events. This is, in a way, the essence of Wordsworth’s greatness: a turn towards realism. This is a “missing persons” poem, about the pain of someone vanishing, or not being in touch. You don’t know if they are dead. You’re worried about what has happened to them. You’re confused and worried sick about why they haven’t been in touch. To get near to this poem, even though it was published in 1807, there would be no better place to start than to look at the website of the charity that today deals with this matter, the National Missing Persons Helpline.
In a note dictated to Isabella Fenwick many years later, Wordsworth explained the occasion of the poem:
Town-End, Grasmere. 1804. This was taken from the case of a poor widow who lived in the town of Penrith. Her sorrow was well known to Mary, to my Sister, and, I believe, to the whole town. She kept a shop, and when she saw a stranger passing by, she was in the habit of going out into the street to inquire of him after her son.
That in itself is a moving picture, and it obviously formed the basis for Wordsworth’s poem, in which he finds a voice for this woman, giving her simple yet dignified language, and shaping her grief and worry into a moving and meditative poem. The poem is wonderfully direct. It uses immediate and relatively simple language to give us this woman’s pain and distress. Here, as elsewhere, Wordsworth deliberately avoids a high or more artificial eighteenth-century style of vocabulary.
The poem begins with an impassioned cry, “Where art thou …” (line 1), then repeated in the second line. Day and night this woman worries about what has happened to her grown-up boy. There is some suggestion in the poem (in stanza 6 for example) that, in a motherly way, she used to nag him about getting a good job and making money. Now, she doesn’t care at all. If only he would get in touch with her “prosperous or undone” (3), i.e. whether he’s doing well, or whether he’s down and out.
Gradually, she tells us the story of her suffering. Her son has been missing for seven years (8); he was handsome (16). At first she wrongly thought that he might have deliberately snubbed her (29–35); she doesn’t mind now, however he is, just so long as he will get in touch (36–42). She worries what may have happened to him – has he been imprisoned in France, say? Is he lost somewhere in Africa? Or was he drowned when his ship sank? (50–56). She feels wholly isolated in her grief and uncertainty.
The stanza form is relatively simple, to match this emotionally direct subject-matter. The line is iambic tetrameter, a simple eight-syllable line, and the rhyme scheme is alternating, followed by a triplet: ababccc . Nonetheless, within this simple form, Wordsworth organizes her speech beautifully, so that the widow’s total situation gradually unfolds, and the pathos of the speech deepens as it goes along. Most of the vocabulary is direct and straightforward, which gives weight to the polysyllabic “incommunicable” in line 56. At that point, the weighty tragedy of the poem intensifies. The corpses of “Thou and all thy mates” are “incommunicable” in the sense of “not in communication (with others or with each other)”. The corpses can say nothing to each other, as they lie together at the bottom of the sea. But, of course, being “incommunicable” reflects the widow’s own situation: it is the fact that she is out of communication with her son that is so painful to her. She has no idea what has happened to him; she is simply worried sick. If stanza 8 is one climax to her heart-break, the other is the last stanza, and the breathtakingly simple ending: “I have no other earthly friend” (77). That tells us, of course, that she does still think of her dead husband, now in heaven; but here on earth she has no other children and clearly no support-network of relatives. Her only son should have been the prop and support of her old age, but now he is gone, goodness knows where.
The poem represents her private thoughts as we are allowed to overhear them. Notice that the main addressee of the poem is her “beloved son” himself. The poem is like a letter to him, begging him to come home or to be in touch.
We can end with a comment by Basil Bunting, the great poet, on Wordsworth’s realism:
Wordsworth’s chief interests were realism of speech and in matter, and moral edification. Poets had been making more or less clumsy approaches to realism for almost a century before Wordsworth’s time. Goldsmith had a go at it, and Burns achieved it now and then. Crabbe looked at the shopkeepers and schoolteachers of his day, which was also Wordsworth’s day, with an undeceived eye, but tried to describe them in such a wooden literary language that their reality escaped from the page. Wordsworth tried to keep to spoken English, a real language to describe real people, and it enabled him to fulfil at last this Eighteenth century ambition …
You might explore how each stanza of the poem is organized around a single thought, and how these thoughts build up the argument or shape of the whole speech.
The poem is “dramatic” (in the literary sense of that word), i.e. not “dramatic” in the sense of “vivid” or “amazing”, but rather in the sense of dramatizing, bringing to life, a voice that is not the poet’s own. In this sense you could compare it with Browning’s dramatic monologues, “My Last Duchess” and “The Laboratory”, or with Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. In his use of the dramatic mode, Wordsworth is nearer to Hardy than to Browning or Tennyson. Browning and Tennyson give voice to unusual people, in unusual situations: Wordsworth gives us a village widow in the midst of a wholly real and usual tragedy.
Finally, you might like to work with the issue of missing persons today. Apparently many thousands of people go “missing” in any given year, simply vanishing, losing touch with their family and relatives. This is an intensely painful experience for the people who really love them.