Wordsworth's "The Discharged Soldier"

Sep 6, 2021
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Wordsworth is one of the most prominent poets of his time who has inspired countless others to write as well. He is known today for his poems that use of dramatic monologue. Wordsworth uses the poetic element dramatic monologue to deliver messages about life. “The Discharged Soldier” is another poem of his that relies on dramatic monologue to portray the human condition. In “The Discharged Soldier,” Wordsworth uses dramatic monologue to tackle to very different types of solitude. On the surface level, the narrator talks about the solitude of the discharged soldier whom he encounters, but a deeper analysis of the poem reveals that, in doing so, he also uncovers his own solitude. In the end, “The Discharged Soldier” makes a strong statement about the human condition—that all humans are alone to a certain extent, and humans can be less alone through empathy.

The poem’s dramatic situation is extremely vivid. The two men appear to be alone on the street. The narrator, while enjoying a peaceful night by the water, notices a man resting nearby. He immediately realizes that the man is a soldier and is alone. He then speaks with the man and learns that the soldier had been discharged from duty right as soon as he arrived in the tropics. Now the soldier is walking all the way back to his home, with no shelter for the night. The narrator feels sorry for the soldier, so he brings him to his friend’s house where he can stay for the night.

The narrator in “The Discharged Soldier” is evidently aware that he is performing a monologue. Not only does he clearly narrate the events that transpired, and described the soldier vividly, he also offers insight into his story. For instance, he offers that the soldier is aware of “…the importance of his theme, / But feeling it no longer.” Perhaps the most crucial insight offered by the unnamed narrator is the one that reveals the truth about him, and the reason why he felt pity for the soldier. In the last three lines of the second stanza, the narrator unconsciously reveals that he, too, is alone and quite lonely:

“And so we parted. Back I cast a look,

And lingered near the door a little space,

Then sought with quiet heart my distant home."

Though this can already be inferred from the beginning of the poem, provided that he and the soldier were the only ones left on the street, it is not readily available that the man is also far from his home. Whether the narrator’s own solitude is the forced or his own choice, it is clear that he also misses his home.

Through the narrator’s tone, it also becomes clear that he realized his own solitude, and perhaps, loneliness only upon seeing the soldier. He begins his monologue with the statement “no living thing appeared in earth or air,” meaning he, too was companionless like the soldier. Although he does not explicitly state that he was also alone, it is obvious. However, this fact also implies that the narrator was not consciously aware of his own solitude. He seems content looking out at the scene before him. Though he is not aware, the soldier is, to some extent, a mirror of himself, and because of this he felt sympathy.

The narrator’s is not only prompted by the two men’s solitude, but also in similarities between their pasts. Based on his tone while narrating their journey, the narrator was sympathetic in the sensitivity of the soldier’s recent past. He admits, in his monologue, that he could not help himself from speaking about war, battle, and pestilence (line 52-53). The fact that he sprinkles his questions about the soldier’s experiences (line 54) implies that the man must have experienced war, battle, and pestilence himself. Thus, it is possible that the man, too, is a discharged soldier. 

Thus, the narrator’s encounter with the discharged soldier prompted the former to reflect on his own past and present. Although the narrator is not likely to forget his own past, the soldier’s presence brought the past to the forefront of the former’s mind. The narrator is reminded of the importance of their “theme,” and at the same time, he is forced to reflect upon his own solitude. 

The narrator’s state is clearly not miserable. He was in a state that allows him to offer help to the discharged soldier. One may even say that, in the literary present, the narrator’s solitude is his choice. However, as the last lines of the poem reveal, this only applies to the present. Much like the soldier, he is also away from his home. Furthermore, should his fate change—for instance, if he becomes sick—he will be at the mercy of those who will see him. Thus, in this aspect, his past and present—as well as the soldier’s past and present—come together. 

William Wordsworth’s “The Discharged Soldier” is a great example of a poem that uses the dramatic monologue. With this simple monologue, Wordsworth was able to not only make a grand statement about the human condition, but he also told a great story with well-developed characters. “The Discharged Soldier” tells a great deal about each man’s solitude, and that each one of us will need help from another person at some point. This poem is truly one of Wordsworth’s great poems because of its style and message.

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