William Wordsworth’s poem, “She Was a Phantom of Delight,” tells the story of a woman’s ethereal beauty as observed by the man who loves her and a man’s personal discovery of what makes a woman truly beautiful. The poem dramatizes the conflict between fantasy and reality as it relates to beauty.
Wordsworth wrote this closed form, lyric poem in iambic pentameter, which allows his words to flow with ease, with the rhyme pattern creating a sing-song quality which is pleasing to the ear. It contains three stanzas containing ten lines each. Wordsworth’s punctuation does not deviate from the norm and does not cause the reader to wonder where the inflection lies.
The overall sense of this poem suggests that the speaker is male, but there is no indication to prove this. It is natural to assume in a poem like this, that because Wordsworth is a man, then the speaker must also be a man; although, if looked at in a different light, it could just as easily be a woman admiring the beauty and mystery of another woman. We, as readers, however, are certain that the object of the speaker’s gaze is female. It becomes apparent as early as reading the title; She Was a Phantom of Delight.
Wordsworth chooses his words carefully and his diction is effective in setting the mood of the poem. He draws the reader through the poem by leaving clues about who the woman might be. Is she a ghost perhaps or someone he knows? The words that he uses to draw the reader’s attention are capitalized for effect. In most cases, the emphasized words all refer to the supernatural, a common theme found among Romantic literature. By highlighting such words as “Phantom”, “Apparition” and Spirit”, he is able to draw the reader’s attention to thoughts of another world which is always intriguing. Wordsworth’s diction sets the tone of his poem to one of calm wonder and curiosity. It also produces an ethereal feel, mirroring in much the same way what the speaker is feeling as he gazes upon the ‘woman’.
The poem begins with the lines, “She was a Phantom of delight When first she gleam’d upon my sight;” (1 and 2), and are the lines that introduce the speaker and set the story being told. Wordsworth then begins to reveal the ‘Phantom’, describing this ‘vision’ by speaking of her eyes and her hair as being like twilight, a time when the earth is between light and dark and a time during which things appear to glow. Wordsworth writes, “Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair; Like Twilight too, her dusky hair” (5 and 6). This is but only one of the examples of imagery that Wordsworth uses in this poem, an image which intentionally portrays the woman in an eerie light. It is only after the first stanza and a closer look by the speaker that the reader discovers the woman is actually mortal and quite ordinary.
The second stanza begins the point in the poem where the reader realizes that the otherworldly ‘vision’ described in the previous stanza may indeed be a mortal woman after all. Wordsworth begins with the speaker’s amazement at making this discovery. “I saw her upon nearer view, A Spirit, yet a Woman too!” He realizes that no matter how beautiful this woman is, she is human and must carry on with everyday chores and challenges. He describes her “household motions” (13) as “light and free (13), which confirms to the reader that the subject is being observed in the home environment, rather than outside as suggested in the first stanza. The reader is now able to deduct that the woman is someone the speaker is familiar with, as opposed to a stranger. This allows the poem to take on a more intimate feel. However, it seems that by taking the woman out of the otherworld and placing her in a domestic setting, it unfairly causes her to become “A Creature not too bright or good For human nature’s daily food.” (13 and 14) She loses her allure immediately and becomes a common housewife. But fortunately, as soon as the insult is spoken, the speaker experiences his epiphany.
Lines 23 and 24 provide the turning point in the poem, “A Being breathing thoughtful breathe; A Traveller betwixt life and death.” in other words, a magnificent human being. These words magically transform the speaker from the dull realization of an ordinary woman in stanza two, back to the sublime; meaning, as we progress through the poem, the woman moves from spirit to creature and back to spirit again. Once he realizes how incredible she is for being human, he then puts her back upon her pedestal once more. In this final stanza, the speaker realizes that he has “A perfect Woman nobly plann’d, To warn, to comfort, and command.” (27 and 28) and this makes him happy.
Simile is incredibly present in this poem. Throughout the poem, the speaker compares the woman with nature, the supernatural and technology. For instance, in lines 7 and 8, Wordsworth writes, “But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful Dawn.”, and in lines 9 and 10, “A dancing Shape, an Image gay, To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.” And finally, “And now I see with eye serene the very pulse of the machine.” (21 and 22). These lines all reflect the themes popular to the Romantic Period.
In the course of thirty lines, William Wordsworth is able to tell the story of a woman’s ethereal beauty as observed by the man who loves her and his personal discovery of what makes a woman truly beautiful. The poem ends with a compliment to the woman. Here the speaker realizes that this woman was sent to him from Heaven, and that even as they go through their seemingly repetitious, domestic life, she does so “With something of an angel light.” (30)