There's a reason they call it the L-word. At least, that seems to be the driving notion behind Wordsworth's use of sound in "Strange fits of passion." L-words, and L-sounds in general, seem to be scattered throughout the poem, and it's not just about love. Let's leap in for a little look.
We first see the L sound used in the poem's initial stanza:
And I will dare to tell,
But in the Lover's ear alone,
What once to me befell. (2-4)
We have "will," "tell," "Lover's," "alone," and "befell"—that's some serious consonance going on in just three short lines. We also get L sounds coming to us via alliteration in line 5: "When she I loved looked every day."
The final stanza, too, lobs loads of L's at our locales:
What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover's head!
"O mercy!" to myself I cried,
"If Lucy should be dead!" (25-28)
Here we get "will slide," "Lover's," "myself," and "Lucy"—leaving us with lots more L's to linger over as we leave the last lines.
Of course, the question remains: what gives with all the L's, Wordsworth? Sadly, he's not here to answer our question, so we're left to make connections between Lucy's name (which starts with L) and the other L sounds of the poem. It's as though the speaker's love for her influences his choice of words.
And of course, this is a poem about that biggest L-word of them all: love. When we consider that this is about one man's love of Lucy, then, we can see all these L's as subtly emphasizing the poem's thematic focus. Isn't that just…lovely?
Like a lot of poems, this one shares its title with the very first line. At first, you might just say that was some lazy title-making on Wordsworth's part. He puts all this effort into seven stanzas and he can't even come up with one puny title?
We feel you, Shmoopers, but, as first line titles go, we think this one is pretty appropriate. It essentially summarizes everything to come in the poem itself. "Strange fits of passion have I known" is pretty simple in terms of its content, really. It's all about… a strange fit of passion that the speaker experiences ("knows") during a trip to his beloved's cottage. Simple, right?
Well, let's not move on quite so quickly. This first line title gives us a few words that we think are worth a closer look. Let's take "fits," for example. A fit is really just a moment of losing control, but it's interesting that this word is plural. Clearly this is not the first, or last, time that that speaker's had an experience where a random thought has popped into his mind to ruin his mood.
That may be because the word "fits" is tied to the word "passion." There must be something about being in love—feeling passion—that gives our speaker these fits in the first place. At first that seems totally wrong. After all, being in love is supposed to set your mind at ease, to send all your cares drifting away into a bright blue sky filled with chirping birds. Right?
Think about it: is love really always good times and high-fives? If you're in love, doesn't that mean that—somehow, some way—you could lose love? That possibility sure seems like something to worry about. The anxiety that might naturally go along with being in love, then, goes a long way toward explaining our speaker's passion-induced "fit" in this poem. In that way, it's really not so strange after all.
For this poem, we find ourselves out in the country. We have orchards, cottages, and horseback riding—you name it. Such a setting is not really surprising for a Wordsworth piece, actually. One of the hallmarks of British Romanticism is a reverence for the natural world. We say a whole bunch more about this theme over in our "Themes" section (appropriately enough), but for now we'll just focus on how the setting works as a backdrop to the speaker's anxiety at the end of the poem.
To start with, the country setting means that folks live some considerable distance apart from one another. It's not like the speaker and Lucy live in the same apartment complex. He has to undertake a journey to go see her. It seems to be one that he's taken before, in fact, given his familiarity with the "paths so dear to me" (12).
All the same, the length of the journey allows the poem to build in a sense of urgency. The horse trots along, stanza by stanza, getting closer to Lucy's cottage. As it does, we're continually reminded of how the moon is sinking lower and lower in the sky. A mix of expectation (at meeting Lucy) and dread (at the disappearing moon) creeps into the poem.
This mix, really, is what the poem is all about. The speaker's final worry shows us that you really can't experience the thrill of loving someone without knowing the fear of losing them. That's a lesson that's delivered thanks in part to the poem's rural setting. The speaker's prolonged voyage by horse to Lucy's cottage provides Wordsworth with the perfect opportunity to build suspense, little by little, mixing a dose of dread in with those ladles of love. The result is some fine country cookin' that reveals an undeniable truth about the nature of love and fear.
Our speaker is a man in love. Okay, to be more precise, we're really just assuming that our speaker is a man. We really don't get any evidence to the contrary, and we do get a love interest named "Lucy." Considering that this poem was written at the turn of the nineteenth century, we'd say it's a safe bet that Wordsworth had a man in mind for his speaker when he wrote this poem.
Even still, you don't have to be a man to appreciate the speaker's experience. He's on a journey to visit his boo, but then a horrible thought hits him, just as he's about to reach her doorstep: what if she's dead? So what's up with this guy? Is he a pessimist? A cynic? Is he one of those people who has a hard time accepting happiness?
We'd say that the real answer is something slightly more troubling, but also more profound. It's only because the speaker is in love that he's susceptible to random freak-outs about Lucy's death. Let's face it: if he didn't care about Lucy, he really wouldn't worry all that much about whether or not she was alive.
The speaker's "strange fit," then, shows us that there's a hidden cost to the joys of being in love: the fear of losing a loved one. It seems a pretty harsh lesson, but it's one that's hard to refute. The speaker's experiencing in the poem a kind of fear and anxiety that would be well known to anyone who's loved before. That's probably why he's relating his tale "in the Lover's ear alone" (3). Only those who have loved another can understand the kind of random freak-out that hits him at the poem's end.
The biggest challenge of this poem is some of the archaic language that it uses. That will happen when there's more than two hundred years between you and the poet. Don't take it personally, though. Wordsworth was actually trying to write as simply and directly as possible. Just check out "Calling Card" if you don't believe us. Once you have the vocab under your belt, you can just enjoy the ride to Lucy's cottage—until the end, anyway.
Poetically speaking, William Wordsworth was a straight shooter. In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," in fact, he states "the principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them […] in a selection of language really used by men." In other words, he wanted to make the language of poetry accessible to all. More than that, he wanted to make poetry's subject matter available to all. He represented small, daily scenes with emotional resonance, and in doing so, he was trying to make the point that the life experiences of everyone—from every walk of life—were valuable and worth rendering into art.
In the case of "Strange fits of passion," we have the simple tale of a man going to visit his beloved, who then realizes something profound about the price of being in love. Wordsworth serves up similarly simple, but powerful, poems in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," "The Solitary Reaper," and "Tintern Abbey."
"Strange fits of passion" was published in 1802, in the second edition of Wordsworth's groundbreaking book Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth co-wrote it with his best buddy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and together they essentially launched British Romanticism.
You can check out "In a Nutshell" for more, but for now we'll just let you know that Lyrical Ballads was more than just a clever title. The full title, in fact, was Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, indicating that a majority of the contents were actually ballads, along with some other, non-ballad poems.
Sure enough, a quick glance at the form of "Strange fits of passion" tells us that we have a bonafide ballad on our hands. That means quatrains, with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, and a regular rhyme scheme. Now don't worry if all those poetry terms have set your head spinning. We're here to break it all down for you.
Let's start with the poem's rhythm. Every line is iambic, meaning that they contain a repeating pattern of iambs. An iamb is a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed, and the second one is stressed. The effect sounds like "daDUM."
In the odd-numbered lines of "Strange Fits," we hear four iambs. Check it out:
But in the Lover's ear alone, (3)
If you read that out loud, you should hear a pattern of iambs: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. You can do the same for line 5, 7, 9—really any of the first or third lines in any of the poem's seven stanzas. These lines all have four iambs, or a meter of iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four).
The even-numbered lines are a different story—slightly different anyway. Check out line 4:
What once to me befell. (4)
What you get in the even-numbered lines is iambic trimeter, or three iambs (tri- meaning three): daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Check line 6, 8, 10—the pattern holds up. In fact, the regularity of the poem's rhythm is matched only by the consistency of its rhyme:
When she I loved looked every day A
Fresh as a rose in June, B
I to her cottage bent my way, A
Beneath an evening-moon. B (5-8)
That same rhyme scheme (ABAB) holds up for every stanza. What we have here, by any measure, is a classic ballad form.
Great—so what's the big deal about a ballad anyway? Why did Wordsworth go with this form for "Strange fits of passion"? One reason, we think, is because of the way the meter of the poem subtly puts us in mind of a horse clopping towards its destination. As the speaker's horse carries him closer to Lucy's cottage, we can almost hear the clip-clop of hooves: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM.
Another reason for the ballad form, though, is because Wordsworth was a poet for the people. He was against all the elevated language and obscure references of the poetry of his day, so he went for more popular forms (like the ballad) and more direct language in order to appeal to a broader audience. So don't believe it when the speaker says that he just wants to tell his tale "in the Lover's ear alone" (3). Wordsworth really wanted his poems to reach far and wide.
The moon is no stranger to poetry. It shows up in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of poems. In this instance, the moon seems to be setting. Its downward motion offers a contrast to the speaker on his horse. The higher they climb up the hill toward Lucy's cottage, the lower the moon gets in the sky. Eventually, it drops completely out of sight. This disappearing act seems to have a profound impact on the speaker. He goes from thoughts of love to fears of death (how's that for a 180?) and it seems like that darn moon is to blame.
If our speaker had a GPS app, Lucy's cottage would be his destination. Instead, he has to rely on a horse to get him to where he's going. Still, the horse seems to know the way, and that's good news because, when you think about it, all our speaker's hopes and dreams reside in that cottage. It's the ultimate destination for our speaker's journey and also a symbol of the peace and contentment of the love he has with Lucy. The way that the cottage is presented in the poem, however, suggests that there may be a dark side to this whole love business.
Our speaker is off to visit his beloved Lucy, but we never actually see the two meet. Rather than a sexy rendezvous, we get a panic attack. So, a G-rating it is.