Wordsworth’s Brutal Withering in Time

I wanted to look at the poem, “Sonnet (To an Octogenarian) by William Wordsworth through the lens of comparing it to Wordsworth’s earlier poem, “An Old Man Travelling”. There were several themes in both of these poems that related to one another. They are both, at the core of their messages, about the concept of time, and how one accepts this constant movement in time. I found this interesting because both of these poems have such developed ideas about time, that differ greatly from one another. It was interesting to see how wordsworth’s perception of time had evolved as he lived through it on his own.

“The Old Man Travelling” emphasizes the idea of re-envisioning the concept of age and growing old in time. This poem romanticizes the experience of an old man and explores the beauty of having been raisined with time. There is this idea that there is a physical pain that may be present through the withering of time, but the mind is at peace. There is a lack of a mental burden in comparing it to physical pain. A line that highlights this idea is, “A man who does not move with pain, but moves | With thought. He is insensibly subdued” (L 6-7). This line captures the theme of the entire poem by expressing how important the old man’s mental space is, despite his old age.

In contrast to this, “Sonnet (To an Octogenarian)” takes a different approach to the idea of time. This poem is a lot more fearful, and in this, a lot more lonely. There is an emptiness to the experience of time that is not present in “The Old Man Travelling”. “Affections lose their object; Time brings forth / No successors; and, lodged in memory, / If love exist no longer, it must die,” (L 1-3). In these lines, Wordsworth expresses how time is not worth experiencing when love no longer exists. In other words, loneliness burdens your experience with time so much that it is empty. There is a lack of motivation to continue on without “love”. Wordsworth also adds to this idea by expressing how mourful it is to be given the part of being the “sole survivor of thy race” (L 10). By this, he is saying that it is painful to feel like you are the last person alive who understands you. Time has not only withered away your body, but the love surrounding you as well. This concept is so different from “The Old Man Travelling”, who, although never explicitly said to be alone, has also gone through the trials of growing old in time. The Old man was never so burdened by age. He was at peace, insensibly subdued.

The contrast of the ideas of time support how much more brutal “Sonnet (To an Octogenarian)” is. Without looking at this lens of comparing this poem to “The Old Man Travelling”, the raw idea of this poem is just focusing on a person who is experiencing an empty loneliness at an old age. However, by comparing the two poems, the audience is given the perspective that this speaker is experiencing an empty loneliness at an old age, but this is so far from their expectations and views on being old, that they had decades ago. It is so morbid because in “The Old Man Travelling” there was a sense of hope for the future. An expectation that time would wither away your body, but your mind would be nourished and at peace. In “Sonnet (To an Octogenarian)”, it is revealed that this is not how things turned out. The hope that was in “The Old Man Travelling” was unfulfilled. Wordsworth is digging at this theme of Man vs. Time in a way that exploits the duality in the beauty and the burden of nature, and things in nature that are out of human control (time).

These ideas are important in understanding both poems because you cannot have it one way or the other. The message that the two poems are speaking together is that time is uncontrollable. The human relationship with time is something that is hopeful and beautiful, but in the same will also always be brutal and painful. The poems together highlight this idea by being in conversation with one another, as opposed to individually. We are only given one side of this conversation by reading these poems separately.

3 thoughts on “Wordsworth’s Brutal Withering in Time”

  1. I love this comparison between young Wordsworth and old Wordsworth; looking at both poems emphasizes his personal growth, like you mentioned, but I also think it reflects the general shift in culture. Wordsworth’s young, “romantic” portrayal of old age is rooted in the Romantic ideals of solitude and individualism, while his old, pessimistic portrayal of old age indicates a fear of solitude and loneliness. This progression in his writing aligns with the shift from Romantic to Victorian ideals.

  2. Dear orangejuice,
    Might I begin with a compliment? I must say, when you said, “the beauty of having been raisined with time.”, I was tickled. What a delicious imagery of aging that is. *ahem* I digress. I’d like to challenge one of your ideas where you state: “There is this idea that there is a physical pain that may be present through the withering of time, but the mind is at peace. There is a lack of a mental burden in comparing it to physical pain.” And you express this as a result of close reading the line ““A man who does not move with pain, but moves | With thought. He is insensibly subdued” (6-7). I actually don’t think the old man’s mind is at peace here because “insensibly subdued” means to be in a state of self reflection or depression without any real awareness of it. And with the added context of the poem, which is about the old man’s love and suffering over his son, I believe the old man’s mind is greatly burdened with thoughts of his poor son at death’s doors. Therefore, the old man isn’t at peace but only becomes at peace with the resignation to death’s inevitability. To put in simpler terms, that we only achieve a peaceful state of mind when we finally acknowledge and accept death along with its shortcomings.

  3. “Brutal” is indeed the word. Wordsworth appears tamed by time and loss. He used to aim to write for “every man” but this is a sonnet to himself. His romanticized ideas of old age and solitude give in to a sort of tenderness in the last two lines: “Still shall be left some corner of the heart / Where Love for living Thing can find a place.” This change goes to show his self-reflectiveness and I kind of love that.

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