Romantic poet William Wordsworth lived from 1770 to 1850, writing nearly 400 poems and fathering six children, only three of whom lived to adulthood. He penned this sonnet in 1814, two years after the death of his three-year-old daughter Catherine. In the poem, Wordsworth captures a tension between joy and sorrow. In the midst of overwhelming grief, the poet is caught off-guard by joy – that thing that ought to have no place in his suffering. He is met by a beauty as poignant as his bereavement, and it leaves him fragmented, feeling that to accept either emotion is to play a traitor to the other and to his daughter.
Nearly a century and a half later, C.S. Lewis recognized this same tension in his own life. Losing his mother to cancer as a child, then his wife to the same thief fifty years later, Lewis was a man well acquainted with grief. Yet joy continued to come to him, piercing his soul with what he described as “a rapier.” So closely did Lewis identify with Wordsworth’s struggle that, when he wrote his spiritual autobiography in 1955, he entitled it Surprised by Joy after this poem.
The tension in which Wordsworth and Lewis lived is a tension well known to us all. Joy and sorrow come to us both, fierce and poignant.
Both are deep realities, each individually true yet demanding to be acknowledged together. What Wordsworth is communicating through this sonnet – what Lewis understood so well in his own life – is something of what it means to be souls living in a beautiful but terribly broken world.
Yet, when we look closely at Wordsworth’s sonnet, we find that it ends honestly but not hopelessly. Poetic proverbs and Christian platitudes won’t bring Catherine back, nor will they reconcile the tension the poet feels – and he knows this. Wordsworth recognizes that no amount of time here will return Catherine to this world; yet he isn’t looking for Catherine in this world. When he turns towards her one final time, the face he seeks is a heavenly one; although he does not hold it in hand yet, the expectation he reaches towards at the last line is the expectation of restoration. Joy and sorrow both remain; yet, as the poem ends, Wordsworth’s hope and vision transcends the present tension.
Wordsworth believed in restoration – that joy and sorrow will not live in tension forever. We have only to pick up any single work by Lewis to know that he believed in restoration – that joy, not sorrow, will have the final word. It is the truth of this belief, shared by Wordsworth and Lewis and all believers, that is deep enough to leave each one of us surprised by joy.