A man walks through the countryside after a night of rain. The creatures around him are lively and refreshed. At first, he shares their joy, but his mood soon turns as he reflects that care and pain are the inevitable balance to the care-free life he has lead so far: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness; But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."

He comes upon an old man staring into a muddy pond. The man seems weighed down with care; he is so still he seems dead. He greets the man and asks what he is doing. The old man is a leech-gatherer, leeches being needed by eighteenth-century doctors. He wanders the moors, sleeping outside, and thus makes a steady living. The wanderer resolves not to give in to misery, but to think instead of the courage and firm mind of the leech gatherer.


Wordsworth had a firm belief in the wisdom of what he called "the common man" (even if the common man needed his thoughts and feelings expressed by an elevated poet like himself). The leech gatherer has wisdom and fortitude that can elevate the wiser poet. The poet’s art and aim is not to instruct, but to reflect the beauty of the world. This was a revolution in poetry as poetry in earlier times had a pedantic function.

A similar revolution occurred in Romantic medicine. Doctors were expected to listen to their patients’ complaints, taking a history much like the wanderer of this poem takes the history of the leech gatherer to gain his enlightenment. Like the wandering poet, the physician is a being with a higher level of language and knowledge.

The leech gatherer also reveals the economics that underlie medicinal practices. Someone has to gather the leeches. Notice that Wordsworth finds the gatherer’s oppression ennobling. Finally, the poet’s sense that doom must follow happiness reflects a common Romantic belief that opposition/balance is a guiding principle. Suffering and joy go hand in hand.


First published: 1807

Primary Source

Poetical Works


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

New York




Thomas Hutchinson