Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, and The Female Vagrant

William Wordsworth’s “The Female Vagrant” tells the first-person narrative of a woman whose life and family have been destroyed by war. Wordsworth details the destructions of war through a feminine lens and emphasizes the lasting ramifications of war on the family and woman. By doing this, Wordsworth presents war not as a singular event on a battlefield, but as an event that harms all involved at various points in time.

In Wordsworth’s poem, even before the husband is officially sent to war, the family is facing destruction. Wordsworth writes, “My husband’s arms now only served to strain / Me and his children, hungering in his view” (lines 302-303). The grammar and line structure of this sentence is particularly interesting. On the one hand, one could read this line as the narrator saying the husband’s labor has forced the family to relocate. They are straining, or pulling, themselves to move to America. Alternatively, this line could be read as the husband’s arms no longer having the ability to be around his children and wife. His body is no longer meant for love, only work. He is property. This leaves the wife and children begging for his attention in his view. Read either way, the husband can see his family, but due to the demand for his labor, he is unable to properly fill the role of loving father and husband.

The concept of the body being strained for physical labor is present in Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft writes that for the poor man who has no liberty or property, “His property is in his nervous arms” (125). Wollstonecraft follows with the image of these arms pulling at a “strange rope” highlighting the absurdity of this labor. As Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth point out, the poor man becomes property of the nation.

However, Wordsworth goes even further to suggest that the entire family is part of the war effort. Each member of the family is partaking in some form of labor, even if it is solely emotional. The second stanza ends with the line, “We reached the western world a poor devoted crew” (line 304). The words ‘poor’ and ‘devoted’ following one another is crucial. The family could be poor in the sense of not having wealth or in the sense of being afflicted with a terrible situation. Either way, this family’s devotion is forced. Moreover, the woman refers to her family as a ‘crew.’ The female narrator is acknowledging that herself and her children are as much a part of the war effort as her husband. Each member of the family has made a sacrifice.

Wollstonecraft calls attention to the concept of the family as a unit or crew. She writes that the “distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them […] were regarded as “vulgar sorrows” (125). Though Wollstonecraft is exposing the mindset of the rich, she still regards the family as a unit.

Unfortunately, this unit does not remain intact for our female vagrant. Wordsworth writes, “All perished, all, in one remorseless year” (line 320). The poem then takes an especially dark turn as the woman returns to England only to discover a nation she does not recognize. As heartbreaking as the second half of Wordsworth’s poem is, it is crucial to recognize that the poem continues even after the narrator’s children and husband die. She has to go on living. The effects of war do not end once the fighting on the battlefield is over. War has never-ending consequences, absurd heartbreaking beginnings, and demands labor from all as both Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft detail.

2 thoughts on “Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft, and The Female Vagrant”

  1. Your lens of Wollstonecraft applied to this Wordsworth poem, I think, makes the poem even more harrowing. I find it even more harrowing to look at that second half, where the woman’s family has died—to what extent, now, is the woman herself “property of the nation”? How much does war continue to necessitate that? I wonder how, if the woman’s story continued beyond the end of the poem, these questions might be answered.

  2. I love your interpretation of the husband becoming property; a man who is all consumed by his work, and even his “duty” later when it comes to his involvement in the war. You’ve articulated the bridge between the two author’s overlapping ideas perfectly! Much like how the woman’s husband changes as a result of work and the war, the woman’s country also turns into a place she does not recognize as you point out in your analysis. These connections only highlight the negative effects of societal structures and expectations, in addition to the haunting themes of change found throughout these writings.

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