The Immediate Verdict on Martha Ray

Ever since we discussed it in class, I’ve been wanting to explore how William Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” looks from a psychological/social perspective, due to the fact that the whole poem operates on gossip! The speaker of the poem’s perspective stems from both their own brief observations of the setting and woman in question, Martha Ray, as well as what others have told them about Martha. The first six stanzas alone communicate a depth to the poem’s central characters and symbols.

The poem begins with an intricate description of nature, establishing the setting and main subject of the poem’s title: the old tangle of thorns, “wretched,” “overgrown” (lines 1-11). The second stanza continues to describe the thorn, but also surrounding nature trying to “bury” the “melancholy crop” (lines 15-22). The landscape’s view itself is eerie: the third stanza’s extended description of setting mentions “thirsty suns and parching air” (line 33). The elaboration on this view and the detail of what surrounds the thorn goes on for five stanzas before Martha Ray is ever mentioned—yet the specific language the speaker uses has already set the tone for the gossip that is about to unfold. The diction is heavy and sinister, painting a beautiful, but certainly haunting, picture of the poem’s setting. The introduction of Martha herself is not by name: added to the landscape in the sixth stanza or part is a “Woman,” and though all she does in her introduction is sit by a pond and cry “oh misery,” readers are already on edge. The setting she resides in has already been established as mysterious in nature—despite all of the detail that has been poured into describing its appearance, particular word choice has given readers the impression that something sinister lurks there. So although all readers are introduced to is a grieving woman, they are inclined to believe that something about her is amiss, consistent with the speaker’s belief and setup. Prior to introducing her, it seems, the narrator of “The Thorn” has pointed out the thorn, representing her supposed murder of her child, as well as setting readers up for a scare through setting before they ever introduce Martha, a woman in clear emotional distress (regardless of how strong the evidence for or against her is). They do not give her a name yet, either—the speaker’s mindset regarding Martha is immediately clear for all of these reasons: they are, at the least, highly suspicious of her. Later stanzas confirm, of course, that this train of thought is consistent with the wider community of the poem, but I especially found it interesting that before readers even realize it, the speaker has taken on a role of not only a storyteller, but an observer and gossip-teller. 

2 thoughts on “The Immediate Verdict on Martha Ray”

  1. I think it’s interesting that you see the narrator as a fellow gossip: I drew the conclusion that the speaker was only telling the gossip to set the record straight. Between the end of page 477 and 478, there seems to be a distinct shift between just telling the story and the actual empathy of the speaker for Martha Ray. Reading the poem through a psychological and economic lens, perhaps the fact that she was with child was the social and economic impetus for her marriage, and the fact that Stephen left her meant she had no money to care for the child which subsequently died. Perhaps the gossip surrounding Martha Ray was supernatural-ized shame upon a single mother.

  2. I think evaluating “The Thorn” through a gossip framework is interesting and can lead to a valuable psychological approach to the poem¬–perhaps evaluating the culture around local legends or in-group versus out-group dynamics during the time period. I think the gossipy nature of the poem also generates a specific lens for the audience, as the speaker has the lay of the land and great familiarity with the landscape and the local story, the audience therefore plays the role of “traveler”. There is a distinct divide in inherent knowledge between the reader and speaker, the foreigner and the local.

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