I had the privilege of presenting last weekend at the From Death Unto Life conference in Franklin, Tennessee, and one of my sessions was a short plenary on William Wordsworth’s immortal sonnet, “Surprised by Joy” (the poem from which C.S. Lewis took the title of his stupendously wonderful spiritual autobiography).
I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as we navigate the most important week of the Christian year. Bereavement lends such perspective to the great realities of our Lord’s death and resurrection—there’s just nothing like losing someone we love to seal the brand on our hearts of what “death unto life” really means.
Surprised by Joy
by William Wordsworth
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
I used to think this poem was about joy. After my father died last summer, I thought it was about grief. Now I know, of course—but as never before—it’s about both. At the exact same time.
This lovely and heartbreaking sonnet exemplifies the concept of what the Orthodox Church has long referred to as Bright Sadness, that cohabitation of grief and joy that characterizes the keenest moments of our lives. Those moments when the veil grows thin and we know just how near the unseen verities really are.
It’s the tension that Paul described in II Corinthians as “sorrowful, but always rejoicing”.
When I stepped into the room after my father was gone, I suddenly knew, in a way I could never explain, that everything I believed about life and death and eternity and redemption was absolutely true. It was so devastating and so sublime I could hardly bear it.
Death is arguably the most clarifying force in the world. But when you lose someone you love, there’s this frantic urgency to keep them alive by bringing them into everything you do. By constantly looking at the world through their eyes; imagining how they would react to things; interpreting events the way they would have.
The single most oft-repeated phrase that has come out of my mouth since my dad died last summer is, Daddy would have LOVED this.
Whether the oyster pie at our Christmas feast,
Or the early spring announcement of the sandhill cranes overhead,
Or offshore sailing in our new boat,
Or the Joan Baez concert we went to last week—
He’s here, his memory so integrated with my experience that it’s almost easy to pretend he’s not really gone. (It’s a game we all like to play, I think.)
But a time will come when I forget to remember what he’d think, or say, or do.
Not a permanent forgetting, of course. But a time when my grief grows gentle enough to lie still a while. When sorrow steps outside the frame lines of the camera lens, instead of standing front and center, an entity around which, under which, through which I see everything else.
I dread that—my heart protests it.
But the universality of this poem asserts that it will happen.
Bereavement is so terrifying because it brings the loved one nearer than ever while flaunting their unattainable absence. The early shock of grief protects us from the full blow of death’s finality, and this is a mercy. But a necessary distancing must occur, a withdrawal that feels almost worse than the original loss.
The Second Death, as Sheldon Vanauken called it.
Wordsworth wrote this poem two years after the death of his four-year-old daughter, Catherine, a blow that was as sudden as it was cruel. The heartbreak here isn’t just that he’s forgotten she’s dead—he’s forgotten to remember she’s dead. He hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain—and we all like to bargain with death, don’t we?
If we can just keep dancing in the tip of this precipice we won’t fall over the edge. (Some people describe this stage of grief as feeling like the loved one has died all over again. I’m not looking forward to that.)
It might seem that this poem ends on a hopeless note, but I don’t think so at all. Honest, but not hopeless. It’s a heavenly face the poet contemplates—not in a disembodied sense, or as an overly sentimental assessment of the deceased’s virtues and qualities. Like Rosetti’s Blessed Damozel “leaning out over the gold bar of heaven,” it’s Catherine’s face he sees in his mind’s eye. Catherine as she actually was in life; Catherine as he will see her again. But he acknowledges the distance, the unbridgeable gap between himself and his little girl. Like the antimony of bright sadness, the unseen world is at once astonishingly present and impossibly far away.
I love the fact that Wordsworth does not resort to platitudes in this poem. “Surprised by Joy” is pure lyric poetry, a raw outburst of the deepest feelings of the heart. He doesn’t offer us a cleaned up version of his experience, with a happy Sunday school moral tacked on the end, but the deeply Christian reality of joy and sorrow intermingled, inseparable. Undeniable.
And it ends on Good Friday—the silent tomb, the grievous loss.
But we’ve already seen intimations of resurrection in that impatient surging of life, in the surprise of that sudden, unlooked-for joy, where joy ought not to be—right in the midst of grief.
Joy is the poet’s token in pledge—and it’s ours, as well.
It’s a promissory note of the reunion waiting on the other side of separation.
It’s the first golden shaft of Easter morning…