The Relation of Thought and Emotion in William Wordsworth’s Surprised by Joy

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The Relation of Thought and Emotion in William Wordsworth’s Surprised by Joy

Dr. Branson's comments: This essay was written in response to an explication exercise in a course designed to introduce students to the fundamentals of the English major. It demonstrates not only excellence as an explication, but also as an interdisciplinary application of psychological theory to literary analysis.

In the sonnet "Surprised by Joy," William Wordsworth relates an episode of his struggle to cope with the death of his young daughter. That this elegiac poem, written to express grief, begins with joy is a testament to its emotional complexity. Although the poem's emotions range between exposing extremes, the thoughts of the narrator remain stable. As he relates his experience, he looks back with an unfaltering conviction that nothing but sorrow must result. Cognitive psychology's concept of dissonance provides a useful insight into the relationship of thought and emotion in the sonnet. According to dissonance theory, when thoughts and emotions seem to contradict each other, a state of anxiety, called cognitive dissonance, will result. This anxiety motivates attempts to achieve stability by restoring the unity of thought and emotion~ In accord with the cognitive viewpoint, this sonnet differentiates between two types of emotions: those that are independent of conscious thought and are characterized as transient, instinctive, and arousing, and those that comply to conscious thought and are characterized as permanent, orderly, and tranquil.

"Surprised by Joy" is a Miltonic sonnet with the turn occurring roughly in the middle of the first line of the sestet. Wordsworth uses the sonnet form to create tension in the octave and resol...

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... The narrator's progression from instinctive to thought-based emotion is the central event in the poem. The psychological struggle that this progression represents concludes in a defeat. The joy and love that initially overtake the narrator can be seen as a sign that he is ready to abjure his grief-ridden thoughts and recognize a lingering spiritual bond with his daughter. He instead rejects these impulses. Thought is the component of our internal environment that we can directly control, and with it we can actualize or suffocate emotions. The narrator uses his thoughts to reject joy and accept sorrow. In this way, he perpetuates his grieving in the face of impending happiness.

Work Cited

Wordsworth, William. "Surprised by Joy." The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1996.

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