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The Thorn by William Wordsworth

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

In this balladic poem, Wordsworth tells the tale of a "solitary thorn," or British Hawthorn Bush, that "marks the spot where a pregnant woman, driven from town and forced to give birth alone on the heath, died from famine, pain and cold and anguish."

In typical Wordsworthian fashion, however, he was not at all interested in the tale of the woman. he was interested in how a tale like that, a stormy night and a solitary thorn can have a deep impact on the mind and soul of a certain type of man.

For Hawthorn, his main purpose for many of his poems was "to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement. But, speaking in language somewhat more appropriate, it is to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature."

Before listening to this poem it is important to note the narrator. In this case, it is NOT WIlliam Wordsworth. Instead, Wordsworth is projecting the character of a specific type of superstitious mind

  • In this poem the narrator is: A sufficiently common man A captain of a small trading vessel Past the middle age of his life retired on an annuity to a small village or country town

  • He is not a native of the town he has retired to

Men such as this having little to do, become credulous and talkative from indolence. They are prone to superstition. This character is best able to exhibit, for Wordsworth "some of the general laws by which superstition acts upon the mind."

This will be our journey for this episode. How does superstition act upon the mind? What effect does it have? What turns of passion do men and women operating under superstition make?


The Thorn

By William Wordsworth


There is a thorn; it looks so old,

In truth you’d find it hard to say,

How it could ever have been young,

It looks so old and grey.

Not higher than a two-years’ child,

It stands erect this aged thorn;

No leaves it has, no thorny points ;

It is a mass of knotted joints,

A wretched thing forlorn.

It stands erect, and like a stone

With lichens it is overgrown.


Like rock or stone, it is o’ergrown

With lichens to the very top,

And hung with heavy tufts of moss,

A melancholy crop :

Up from the earth these mosses creep,

And this poor thorn they clasp it round

So close, you’d say that they were bent

With plain and manifest intent,

To drag it to the ground;

And all had joined in one endeavour

To bury this poor thorn for ever.


High on a mountain’s highest ridge,

Where oft the stormy winter gale

Cuts like a scythe, while through the clouds

It sweeps from vale to vale;

Not five yards from the mountain-path,

This thorn you on your left espy;

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond Of water, never dry ;

I’ve measured it from side to side :

’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.


And close beside this aged thorn,

There is a fresh and lovely sight,

A beauteous heap, a hill of moss,

Just half a foot in height.

All lovely colours there you see,

All colours that were ever seen,

And mossy network too is there,

As if by hand of lady fair

The work had woven been,

And cups, the darlings of the eye,

So deep is their vermilion dye.


Ah me! what lovely tints are there1

Of olive-green and scarlet bright,

In spikes, in branches, and in stars,

Green, red, and pearly white.

This heap of earth o’ergrown with moss,

Which close beside the thorn you see,

So fresh in all its beauteous dyes,

Is like an infant’s grave in size

As like as like can be :

But never, never any where,

An infant’s grave was half so fair.


Now would you see this aged thorn,

This pond and beauteous hill of moss,

You must take care and chuse your time

The mountain when to cross.

For oft there sits, between the heap

That’s like an infant’s grave in size,

And that same pond of which I spoke,

A woman in a scarlet cloak,

And to herself she cries,

“Oh misery! oh misery!

”Oh woe is me ! oh misery!”


At all times of the day and night

This wretched woman thither goes,

And she is known to every star,

And every wind that blows ;

And there beside the thorn she sits

When the blue day-light’s in the skies,

And when the whirlwind’s on the hill,

Or frosty air is keen and still.

And to herself she cries,

“Oh misery ! oh misery!

“Oh woe is me ! oh misery!”


‘Now wherefore thus, by day and night,

In rain, in tempest, and in snow,

Thus to the dreary mountain-top

Does this poor woman go?

And why sits she beside the thorn

When the blue day-light’s in the sky,

Or when the whirlwind’s on the hill,

Or frosty air is keen and still,

And wherefore does she cry?—

Oh wherefore? wherefore? tell me why

Does she repeat that doleful cry?’


I cannot tell ; I wish I could ;

For the true reason no one knows,

But if you’d gladly view the spot,

The spot to which she goes ;

The heap that’s like an infant’s grave,

The pond— and thorn, so old and grey,

Pass by her door—tis seldom shut—

And if you see her in her hut,

Then to the spot away !—

I never heard of such as dare

Approach the spot when she is there.


‘But wherefore to the mountain-top

Can this unhappy woman go,

Whatever star is in the skies,

Whatever wind may blow?’

Nay rack your brain—’tis all in vain,

I’ll tell you every thing I know ;

But to the thorn, and to the pond

Which is a little step beyond,

I wish that you would go :

Perhaps when you are at the place

You something of her tale may trace.


I’ll give you the best help I can:

Before you up the mountain go,

Up to the dreary mountain-top,

I’ll tell you all I know.

’Tis now some two and twenty years,

Since she (her name is Martha Ray)

Gave with a maiden’s true good will

Her company to Stephen Hill;

And she was blithe and gay,

And she was happy, happy still

Whene’er she thought of Stephen Hill.


And they had fix’d the wedding-day,

he morning that must wed them both

But Stephen to another maid

Had sworn another oath ;

And with this other maid to church

Unthinking Stephen went—

Poor Martha ! on that woful day

A cruel, cruel fire, they say,

Into her bones was sent:

It dried her body like a cinder,

And almost turn’d her brain to tinder.


They say, full six months after this,

While yet the summer-leaves were green,

She to the mountain-top would go,

And there was often seen.

’Tis said, a child_ was in her womb,

As now to any eye was plain;

She was with child, and she was mad,

Yet often she was sober sad

From her exceeding pain.

Oh me ! ten thousand times I’d rather

That he had died, that cruel father!


Sad case for such a brain to hold

Communion with a stirring child !

Sad case, as you may think, for one

Who had a brain so wild !

Last Christmas when we talked of this,

Old Farmer Simpson did maintain,

That in her womb the infant wrought

About its mother’s heart, and brought

Her Senses back again :

And when at last her time drew near,

Her looks were calm, her senses clear.


No more I know, I wish I did,

And I would tell it all to you;

For what became of this poor child

There’s none that ever knew:

And if a child was born or no,

There’s no one that could ever tell;

And if ’twas born alive or dead,

There’s no one knows, as I have said,

But some remember well,

That Martha Ray about this time

Would up the mountain often climb.


And all that winter, when at night

The wind blew from the mountain-peak,

’Twas worth your while, though in the dark, .

The church-yard path to seek :

For many a time and oft were heard

Cries coming from the mountain-head,

Some plainly living voices were,

And others, I’ve heard many swear,

Were voices of the dead :

I cannot think, whate’er they say.

They had to do with Martha Ray.


But that she goes to this old thorn,

The thorn which I’ve described to you,

And there sits in a scarlet cloak,

I will be sworn is true.

For one day with my telescope,

To view the ocean wide and bright,

When to this country first I came,

Ere I had heard of Martha’s name,

I climbed the mountain’s height:

A storm came on, and I could see

No object higher than my knee.


’Twas mist and rain, and storm and rain,

No screen, no fence could I discover,

And then the wind ! in faith, it was

A wind full ten times over.

I looked around, I thought I saw

A jutting crag, and off I ran,

Head-foremost, through the driving rain,

The shelter of the crag to gain,

And, as I am a man,

Instead of jutting crag, I found

A woman seated on the ground.


I did not speak—I saw her face,

Her face it was enough for me;

I turned about and heard her cry,

” O misery ! O misery !”

And there she sits, until the moon

Through half the clear blue sky will go.

And when the little breezes make

The waters of the pond to shake,

As all the country know,

She shudders and you hear-her cry,

“Oh misery! oh misery!”


‘But what’s the thorn? and what’s the pond?

And what’s the hill of moss to her?

And what’s the creeping breeze that comes

The little pond to stir?’

I cannot tell; but some will say

She hanged her baby on the tree,

Some say she drowned it in the pond,

Which is a little step beyond,

But all and each agree,

The little babe was buried there,

Beneath that hill of moss so fair.


I’ve heard the scarlet moss is red

With drops of that poor infant’s blood ;

But kill a new-born infant thus !

I do not think she could.

Some say, if to the pond you go,

And fix on it a steady view,

The shadow of a babe you trace,

A baby and a baby’s face,

And that it looks at you;

Whene’er you look on it, ’tis plain

The baby looks at you again.


And some had sworn an oath that she

Should be to public justice brought ;

And for the little infant’s bones

With spades they would have sought.

But then the beauteous hill of moss

Before their eyes began to stir;

And for full fifty yards around,

The grass it shook upon the ground;

But all do still aver

The little babe is buried there,

Beneath that hill of moss so fair.


I cannot tell how this may be,

But plain it is, the thorn is bound

With heavy tufts of moss, that strive

To drag it to the ground.

And this I know, full many a time,

When she was on the mountain high,

By day, and in the silent night,

When all the stars shone clear and bright,

That I have heard her cry,

“Oh misery! oh misery!

O woe is me ! oh misery!”



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