The Female Vagrant by William Wordsworth

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

The Female Vagrant is one of Wordsworth's most political poems. It tells the story two wanderers seeking shelter during a stormy night on Salisbury Plain in England. The woman tells how she came to be destitute and alone: her father had been evicted from his cottage in the Lakes by a wealthy industrialist neighbor, she had married but the advent of war had ruined them and, in a last desperate attempt to support her and their children, he volunteered for the army. He is shipped to fight in the war of the rebel colonialists in 1776 and she follows him. In America, he and their three children all die. She returns to wander Britain desolate, deprived of all home and sick.

The poem is an investigation into the mind of the female wanderer (vagrant). As is Wordsworth's principal object in most of his poetry:  "I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement."

There are many of the romantic flairs we have come to know of this period. The woman, like Hugo's gypsies, is abandoned but remains steadfast and strong. Only when she has lost everything due to imaginary lines drawn in the sand does she lose her "inner spirit." 

This is the code of the romantic. To explore the inner world of human beings, so as to better understand human nature. For Wordsworth, experiencing the French Revolution and all of its upheaval, this was a story that struck his imagination, one night, as he lay exhausted at the stones of Stonehenge.


The Female Vagrant

By Derwent's side my Father's cottage stood,

(The Woman thus her artless story told)

One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood

Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.

Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll'd:

With thoughtless joy I stretch'd along the shore

My father's nets, or watched, when from the fold

High o'er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,

A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.

My father was a good and pious man,

An honest man by honest parents bred,

And I believe that, soon as I began

To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,

And in his hearing there my prayers I said:

And afterwards, by my good father taught,

I read, and loved the books in which I read;

For books in every neighbouring house I sought,

And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.

Can I forget what charms did once adorn

My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,

And rose and lily for the sabbath morn?

The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;

The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;

My hen's rich nest through long grass scarce espied;

The cowslip-gathering at May's dewy prime;

The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,

From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.

The staff I yet remember which upbore

The bending body of my active sire;

His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore

When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;

When market-morning came, the neat attire

With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck'd;

My watchf