The speaker proclaims that he has been the victim of “strange fits of passion”; he says that he will describe one of these fits, but only if he can speak it “in the Lover’s ear alone.” Lucy, the girl he loved, was beautiful—“fresh as a rose in June”—and he traveled to her cottage one night beneath the moon. He stared at the moon as his horse neared the paths to Lucy’s cottage. As they reached the orchard, the moon had begun to sink, nearing the point at which it would appear to the speaker to touch Lucy’s house in the distance. As the horse plodded on, the speaker continued to stare at the moon. All at once, it dropped “behind the cottage roof.” Suddenly, the speaker was overcome with a strange and passionate thought, and cried out to himself: “O mercy! If Lucy should be dead!”
The stanzas of “Strange fits of passion have I known” fit an old, very simple ballad form, employed by Wordsworth to great effect as part of his project to render common speech and common stories in poems of simple rhythmic beauty. Each stanza is four lines long, each has alternating rhymed lines (an ABAB rhyme scheme), and each has alternating metrical lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, respectively—which means that the first and third lines of the stanza have four accented syllables, and the second and fourth lines have only three.
This direct, unadorned lyric is one of the most striking and effective of the many simple lyrics like it, written by Wordsworth in the mid to late 1790s and included in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. This little poem, part of a sequence of short lyrics concerning the death of the speaker’s beloved Lucy, actually shows extraordinary sophistication and mastery of technique. The sophistication lies in the poet’s grasp of human feeling, chronicling the sort of inexplicable, half-fearful, morbid fantasy that strikes everyone from time to time but that, before Wordsworth, was not a subject poetry could easily incorporate. The technique lies in the poet’s treatment of his theme: like a storyteller, Wordsworth dramatizes in the first stanza the act of reciting his tale, saying that he will whisper it, but only in the ear of a lover like himself. This act immediately puts the reader in a sympathetic position, and sets the actual events of the poem’s story in the past, as opposed to the “present,” in which the poet speaks his poem. This sets up the death-fantasy as a subject for observation and analysis—rather than simply portraying the events of the story, Wordsworth essentially says, “This happened to me, and isn’t it strange that it did?” But of course it is not really strange; it happens to everyone; and this disjunction underscores the reader’s automatic identification with the speaker of the poem.
Also like a storyteller, Wordsworth builds suspense leading up to the climax of his poem by tying his speaker’s reverie to two inexorable forces: the slowly sinking moon, and the slowly plodding horse, which travels “hoof after hoof,” just as the moon comes “near, and nearer still” to the house where Lucy lies. The recitation of the objects of the familiar landscape through which the speaker travels—the paths he loves, the orchard-plot, the roof of the house—heightens the unfamiliarity of the “strange fit of passion” into which the speaker is plunged by the setting moon.