Love, like the song says, can be exciting and new. Or, it can make you feel dreamy and peaceful. Then again, it can make you wonder if, just behind the door to her cottage, your loved one is lying there dead.
Yep, you read that right. This is the puzzling, troublesome notion that gets into the speaker's head at the very end of William Wordsworth's "Strange fits of passion have I known." The poem tells the story of a lover's nighttime trip on horseback to see his main squeeze. He crosses a field, heads up a hill, watches the moon and then—bam—the thought of his dead beloved pulls the rug out from under everything. It's a "strange fit of passion," indeed.
Our minds can be like that, of course. Unpredictable and random associations can often barge their way into our thinking without so much as a "how do you do?" Even the purest of emotions, like love and longing, can often get derailed by the mysterious inner workings of our minds. This poem offers up a textbook case of that.
It was emotion, though, and not randomness, that was Wordsworth's poetical bag. His poetry focused on the emotional lives of everyday people, and he used simple, direct language to communicate those kinds of experiences. Sure, that might not seem like such a big deal to us modern readers, but at the time this kind of poetry was downright revolutionary.
Along with his pal and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth put forward this artistic philosophy in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads." They co-published Lyrical Ballads—a collection of both their poetry—first in 1798, and then again in 1802. It was the second edition that contained the famous preface, along with "Strange fits of passion have I known."
The poem itself was written in 1799, during a trip to Germany that Wordsworth and Coleridge started together. After a while, though, they split up. Wordsworth chilled in Germany with his sister Dorothy, but he sent letters to Coleridge that included this and four other poems that have come to be known as "the Lucy Poems." Each of them focuses on a love interest named—wait for it— Lucy. Tragically, in the poems she dies young, rejects the speaker's love, or dies young after rejecting the speaker's love.
Ever since these poems hit the scene, critics have pulled their hair out trying to determine just who this Lucy was. A symbolic character? A historical person? Wordsworth's own sister? Whoever she was meant to represent, "Strange fits of passion" embodies the kind of writing that made our man Double W one of the foundational figures of British Romanticism. He cuts to the heart of the matter in his content, and he doesn't bother with tons of fancy window dressing along the way.
Strange? Yes. Stuffy? Never. Wordsworth doesn't need any fancy poetic tricks to grab our attention. He has everything he needs, right there in the depths of a lovesick brain.
What does it feel like to be in love? Do butterflies tickle your insides? Do bluebirds circle your head? Do sappy violins start up every time your loved one enters the room?
This is how artists tend to represent love, anyway. The truth—like most truths—tends to be a bit more complicated. Does being in love mean that you experience good feelings all the time? Or could it be that maybe, just maybe, having someone to love means having someone to lose now, too? Along with all those bluebirds, there can be some pretty dark fears circling your head, even in the midst of the most over-the-top giddiness.
If that happens to you, though, you're not alone. This is precisely the kind of experience that we get in Wordsworth's "Strange fits of passion have I known." Just when all is going right with the world, as the speaker is about to arrive at his beloved's cottage, the fear of death grips him.
You might see this as the world's biggest buzz-kill, but at the same time this poem might also be a comfort to you. What, did you think yours was the only brain to seize upon random thoughts at the most inappropriate times? Did you think that those irrational fears were something only you experienced? Guess again.
The truth of the matter is that being in love is a complex experience that's not always sunshine and lollipops. Wordsworth recognized that truth, and he laid it out in this poem in a straightforward way that's designed to speak to everyone who's either worried about a loved one, or who's ever had random fear crash their emotion party.
The Poetry Foundation offers up a great biography and links to Wordsworth's work.
More Words Worth Reading
Here's a more concise biography, plus links to more of Willie's poems.
Documentary Words (Part I)
Check out this documentary (part one of a series) about Wordsworth's life and works.
Student Vid Extraordinaire
This is perhaps an unintentionally funny student video, but it's still worth a look.
Some Staid Words
We enjoy this serious reading.
Reader Ghizela Rowe gives her interpretation here.
This reading lays it on a bit thick for our tastes.
Wordsworth in Thought
We like to call this his "headache portrait."
Wordsworth in…Another Thought
We call this one, "I wonder if I left my toaster on."
That is quite a get-up, Mr. W.
Wordsworth in the New Yorker
This article takes a close look at the theme and subject matter of Wordsworth's poetry.
William and Lucy
The London School of Journalism takes a crack at the Lucy poems.
Get the book that launched British Romanticism.
One stop shopping—get all of Wordsworth's words (of poetry) right here.