The Thorn
by William Wordsworth


“The Thorn” turns on two elements: the narrative and the linguistic.  Two characters, both nameless, speak the poem.  The first, whom Wordsworth in his 1800 “Note to ‘The Thorn’” suggests may be a retired “sea captain of a small trading vessel,” alerts his interlocutor of the presence on a nearby hill of an “old,” “grey,” and “aged” thorn tree (1.1-6), as well as the existence of Martha Ray, “a woman in a scarlet cloak” (6.63) whom he has seen through his telescope “day and night” (7.66) attending the “hill of moss” (4.36) beside the tree and crying “Oh misery!  oh misery!” (6.64).  The second character, who has significantly less to say, only asks questions about Martha.  Curiously, the captain never answers these questions definitively; with the exception of a single accidental encounter he’d had with Martha Ray, during which he “did not speak” (18.199), the captain has only rumors and conjectures to offer.

By granting the principal narrator a dramatic identity independent from Wordsworth’s (e.g. the speaker of “Tintern Abbey”), the poet imbues this character with subjectivity, a consciousness with its own unique perspective, imagination, and obsessions.  By section six of the poem, the narrator reveals the fundamental object of his obsession, Martha Ray, who the narrator refers to, like the thorn itself, as “wretched” (7.67), a woman who he claims sits by the “heap / So like an infant’s grave in size” (6.60-1) through “tempest, and in snow” (8.79) as she repeats her mantra of grief.  For the narrator, Martha Ray becomes another object in the landscape, inhuman if not inanimate, like the mound, the thorn, or the hill.  Even when the narrator recounts his brief encounter with Martha, a scene that constitutes the dramatic turn in the captain’s story, he admits that he mistook her for a “jutting crag” (17.197).  Having almost stumbled over her, the narrator “saw her face,” confronted the reality of her suffering at close range, which “was enough for [him],” then “turned about” (18.198-200).   

Why?  As Wordsworth suggests in his “Note,” the captain, at the time of this dialogue with the unnamed interlocutor, has only recently arrived in this “village or country town of which he was not a native, or in which he had not been accustomed to live.”  It seems logical that, being a relative stranger, the captain, as the unscientific man Wordsworth establishes the captain to be, is more prone to believing or even embellishing local superstitions.  Until he describes his first and only chance meeting with Martha, this seems to be the narrative occasion of the poem: the retired captain’s telling a tale to someone who is even less familiar with the country than he is, attempting to answer the questions of his interlocutor as best he can without knowing the full story.  Interestingly, it is only after the captain sees Martha’s face up close and hears her voice that he admits that the rumors about Martha “hang[ing] her baby on the tree” or “drown[ing] it in the pond” are a “step beyond” (19.215-17), admitting: “But kill a new-born infant thus? / I do not think she could” (20.223-224).

And yet we are left, at the end of the poem, with the repetition of the scene the captain describes again and again: the hill, the thorn, the mound, and Martha crying, “Oh woe is me!  oh misery!”  This is hardly a resolution.  Instead, the narrator, who finally concedes that he “cannot tell how this may be, / but plain it is” (22.243-4) implies that he is content to live within the mystery of these now familiar facts of his adopted home. These facts, while essentially strange, are what compose the local world he inhabits.  Though he confronts Martha’s grief head on, if accidentally, the captain achieves no greater understanding than he’d had before.  Nor is the captain’s interlocutor any wiser after asking “But what’s the thorn?  and what the pond?” (19.210).  The reason for this is that his questions are unanswerable.  Even the villagers, who’d “sworn an oath that [Martha Ray] / Should be to public justice brought” (21.231-2), and were diverted from digging up “the little infant’s bones” (21.234) by an inexplicable “stir[ring]” of the “hill of moss” (21.234-6), have not learned anything; though they maintain that “The little Babe lies buried there / Beneath that hill of moss so fair” (21.241-2), they remain unable or unwilling to respond in any meaningful way, i.e. either by formally accusing Martha Ray or by asking her what actually happened to the child.

This stasis of mind and spirit, which breeds physical inaction, is complicated by the constant repetition of words, especially nouns, throughout the poem.  The poem, as a record of speech—mostly from the mouth of the sea captain—circles back to the key words “thorn,” “hill,” “mountain,” “moss,” “grave,” “woman,” “infant” and “child.”  But the meanings of these words modify as the poem progresses.  This constitutes another kind of turn.  The first mention of “infant,” for example, is figurative; in describing the “heap of earth o’ergrown with moss” (5.49), the captain, without subtlety, says the mound “Is like an infant’s grave in size” (5.52), repeating this simile throughout the poem until he recounts his crucial meeting with Martha Ray.  After this point, “infant” becomes literal, referring to a specific child: “I’ve heard, the moss is spotted red,” the captain says, “With drops of that poor infant’s blood” (italics mine, 20.222-3).  While Wordsworth observes in his “Note to ‘The Thorn’” how “the mind luxuriates in the repetition of words which appear successfully to communicate its feeling,” repetition here also implies obsession.  This shift in mode from a figurative to a literal “infant” implies a turn or a shift in apprehension, if only slightly, one example of the narrator’s capacity to shape his world not only through his perceptions but through his obsessions.

Though no dramatic action transpires during the occasion in which “The Thorn” is spoken, the poem itself becomes a verbal record of the principle narrator’s mind, how he views the world around him, what objects cleave to his consciousness and are transformed by his imagination, and how his perception of these objects shifts through the telling of his tale.  In this sense, the poem conforms to Wordsworth’s idea of poetry as passion in that the poem, as a dramatic exchange between two characters, enacts a kind of “history or science of feelings” linguistically.  The thorn tree, as an object in the landscape, becomes a representation of the essential mystery the captain feels toward his environment, a form in nature that electrifies the imagination of the poet.    



Brian Brodeur is the author of Natural Causes (2012), winner of the 2011 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize; Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize; and the chapbook So the Night Cannot Go On Without Us (White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 2007). Recent poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Pleiades, Quarterly West, Shenandoah, and Verse Daily. Brian curates the blog “How a Poem Happens,” an online anthology of over one hundred and fifty interviews with poets. He lives with his wife in Cincinnati where he is a George Elliston Fellow in Poetry in the PhD in English and Comparative Literature program at University of Cincinnati.