About the Author:
I am currently a fourth-semester student in the Health Science program. I wrote this for Shalon Noble’s “Lyrical Ballads” class, which introduced me to Romantic poetry and shed light on the ways literature could give a voice to the marginalized. My analysis of “The Female Vagrant” examines the way women were portrayed in literature at the time in an attempt to understand if this representation was beneficial for this disempowered group.
Prof. Shalon Noble
English 102: Lyrical Ballads
Feminine Passivity in “The Female Vagrant”
As they state in the “Advertisement,” William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge shared a mutual intention in writing Lyrical Ballads. This collection of poems, published originally in 1798, aimed to offer representation to the marginalized by shedding light on some of their issues through poetry. The authors achieved this goal by presenting the perspectives of poor, sick, and suffering characters in most of the pieces. They also tell the stories of women, who were considered second-class citizens in the England of the time. Wordsworth’s “The Female Vagrant” highlights the Romantic inclination to depict women as victims of their circumstances.
The female vagrant’s story is shaped primarily by the fate of the men in her life. As she tells her story to the speaker of the poem, the woman talks about her relationships and her relatives more than about herself. This immediately gives the reader the impression that she played a secondary role in the events of her own life. The woman begins by telling the speaker about her childhood, which she evidently cherishes. She details her relationship with her father, a “good and pious man,” who has taught her everything she knows (10). Although the keen admiration she reveals is touching, the important place that the memories of her father take in the recollection of her childhood prevents the reader from getting to know the female vagrant. Instead, it paints her entirely in the image of her father and highlights how, as a child, she found most of her identity, joy, and pride in somebody else. When he falls victim to Enclosure and must give up his land, she becomes, for the first time in her life, homeless alongside him. This tragedy marks the transition between the childhood and the adulthood of the female vagrant because she resorts to marriage in order to protect herself and her father. Even if she mentions love in her tale, it is evident that her decision to marry stems from a desperate urge to find shelter. The tragic circumstances she finds herself in force her to abandon her true desires and ambitions. The second part of her story follows a similar pattern, as the female vagrant goes from depending on her father to leaning on her husband for survival. Tragedy hits again, this time in the form of a country-wide economic crisis. The woman has no way of helping her new family and turns to the man in her life, her husband, to find a solution. When he must depart for America to fight in the war, she leaves the country she loves behind and follows. It is evident to the reader that, once again, she does so against her will and because she has very little autonomy. As she grows older, the female vagrant remains completely dependent on men and sees her life being dictated by circumstances and decisions that are not her own.
Wordsworth characterizes the female vagrant by a spiritual and physical weakness. As she faces various hardships, her suffering seems to be portrayed as disproportionate when compared to the other characters. On many occasions, the changes she has to go through overwhelm her greatly, so much that she has a hard time even processing them. Instead, she describes herself constantly weeping on the shoulders of those around her. To the reader, the female vagrant soon becomes associated with feelings of overwhelming anguish and despair. Wordsworth details a suffering so profound that it takes a toll on the faith she valued so much as a child. She recounts that, as they left their prized home, the vagrant’s father had “[bid her] trust in God,” but she “could not pray” (61-62). Her inability to turn to God reveals that she has lost all hope and emphasizes just how deeply affected she is by the situation. In this scene, the author creates a clear contrast between the young, weeping girl and her older yet stronger father who has always supported, protected, and cared for her. Although both are victims of the same tragedy, they have different responses to it, one being more resilient than the other. Images like this one are recurrent in the poem and highlight the fragile psyche of the female vagrant. The distress of this character is further accentuated by the way she is described physically. Images of agony and pain are used to recount her return to England and the beginning of her vagrancy. She says, for example, that she has had to suffer “pains which nature could no more support” (194) and that she “sunk” and “[crawled]” to reach a hospital (197). This graphic imagery reinforces the idea that this character is a victim and that she has spent her entire life barely hanging on. The frail body in which she is trapped is yet another obstacle to her liberation as it cannot support her efforts to save herself. In “The Female Vagrant,” Wordsworth describes a worryingly weak character faced with continuous trials and takes away any chance she has of overcoming them without leaving a part of her health or sanity behind.
The overwhelmingly defeatist tone of “The Female Vagrant” undermines the inner strength of its main character. Upon discovering the female vagrant’s tale, both the speaker and the reader are left with a feeling of pity and despair. The way in which she narrates her life story paints her as a helpless victim of tragic circumstances and entirely disregards her courage and resilience. As she faces adversity, the female vagrant chooses to be nothing but a loyal wife and a loving mother. It takes courage to leave behind a childhood home and to move across the sea to keep a family together. It also takes immense strength to have to live by yourself after enduring the harrowing loss of your husband and children. Wordsworth makes the female vagrant recount these tragic events with an entirely regretful and shameful tone and gives the character a very negative view of herself. This becomes obvious as she tells the speaker about a group of vagrant dwellers who offered her help when she was at her lowest. Although their support alleviated her suffering, she left without a look back when she realized that they were thieves. The female vagrant, although she is grappling with poverty and sickness, refuses to adopt a lifestyle that goes against everything she believes in. This reveals a tremendous strength of character. When, later in her tale, she tells the speaker that she feels she has “abused” her inner self, she completely disregards this act of value (259). The female vagrant’s lack of self-worth causes the reader to forget that she has overcome the worst with grace and humility. Wordsworth chooses to not only afflict her with constant misfortune, but to also take away any ability she has to recognize her inner strength. The tale of the female vagrant could have easily been made empowering, but the way it was told demoralizes and saddens the reader instead.
The main character of “The Female Vagrant” is depicted as being a mere victim of tragic circumstances. Her marked spiritual and physical weaknesses and the defeatist tone she employs to tell a story in which she has no power undermine her inner strength. Many of the female characters in Lyrical Ballads, as well as the ones presented in Romantic literature generally, are portrayed in a similar way. In trying to make the readers feel for their characters, Wordsworth and other Romantic writers have made them overwhelmingly weak and excessively defeatist.
Wordsworth, William. “The Female Vagrant” Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800 edited by Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter, 2008, pp. 81-89.