Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. The White Doe of Rylstone

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 11. The White Doe of Rylstone

The other manner in which Wordsworth now fought against grief is illustrated by his White Doe of Rylstone (1807). In this poem, he renounced argument and called imagination to his aid. He found his subject in the romantic past, in an old tale of war and bloodshed, the tragedy of a catholic rebel killed with all his sons in a revolt against queen Elizabeth. Only one daughter survived, Emily, who, many years after pillage and ruin had passed over the paternal estate, drew comfort from the visitings of a white doe bred by her in her happy days. The doe is a symbol of the past, the lovely phantom of buried memories. Her first apparition gives the lady “one frail shock of pain”; but the pain soon passes into a holy, mild and grateful melancholy,

  • Not sunless gloom or unenlightened,
  • But by tender fancies brightened.
  • The awful tragedy has thus been transformed by length of time and strength of habit into something both beautiful and sweet. This is as it should be with the deepest of human woes.

    This graceful symbol makes the end of the poem one of the most lovely passages in Wordsworth’s poetry. Yet the poem, as a whole, is languid, and even the moral impression is felt to be less convincing than it might have been. The reason is that the poet never dares courageously to cope with despair. He can paint with free energy neither the fate of the rebels, the clang of arms and shocks of death, nor even the pangs and sorrows of Emily. During the battle which is to end in the death of her father and brothers, she, represented as a protestant in a catholic family, is seen awaiting the issue without even daring to express a wish for either side. When an old man offers to secure a hiding-place for her kindred if vanquished, she declines the offer and declares herself “with her condition satisfied.” Later, before she has seen the white doe, she must already have found springs of comfort, for she is strangely said to be “sustained by memory of the past.” Such reticence in the picture of desolation much enfeebles the effect of the poem. How much more striking it would have been if it had begun with dark, valiant scenes of tragic fate; if Emily’s despair had been made so evident that we should feel for her the want of supernatural comfort, the necessity of the coming in of the white doe!