William Wordsworth, "On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress" (1786)

She wept. -- Life's purple tide began to flow
In languid streams through every thrilling vein;
Dim were my swimming eyes -- my pulse beat slow,
And my full heart was swell'd to dear delicious pain.

Wordsworth in his first published poem (at the age of sixteen) takes Helen Maria Williams, the matron of the poetry of sensibility, as his subject matter. These four lines are a catalogue of physiological, sensibilious response (so much so that it almost seems like a parody): tears, pulsing blood, the blush. It is interesting that not until "my swimming eyes" in the third line is it clear whose experiences are being recounted: is it the "purple tide" of Miss Williams or of Wordsworth (the narrator) that begins to flow? This confusion seems to suggest that the response of the reader or observer of the weeping is nearly indistinguishable from the emotions of the weeper herself. Wordsworth is interested primarily in the purpose of this sensitive weeping: it is "delicious," "thrilling," the elixir of life. Importantly, Wordsworth offers us here an explication of the reader's response to the character of sensibility; we see how sensibilious weeping and the literature of sensibility creates bonds between two people, between readers and author.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography