I wrote a long post and then lost it because of the problems with my Wi-Fi. So just in short: this is a poem based on memories from Wordsworth’s childhood, when dressed in old clothes, not too costly to be torn by brambles, he set off with a bag and a crook to look for hazelnuts. He remembers his exhilaration when he finally reached a nook which apparently hasn’t been touched by other nut-pickers yet, with all the boughs intact. He luxuriates for a few moments in the joy of finding it, or even wastes some time on playing with flowers and listening to the river, safe in the knowledge that he has no rivals. Then he finally does what he’s come for: he uses his crook to break down branches and gather hazelnuts. But when he’s leaving, and Wordsworth is careful to point out that he might be just projecting his mature thoughts onto himself as a boy, he feels pain when he looks back and sees the mutilated trees and the sky peering through the gaps he created. So he asks the hitherto unnamed Maiden to move along gently because “there is a spirit in the woods”. In the MS version the maiden appeared at the beginning in a kind of introductory passage. Her name was Lucy (possibly linking her to the Lucy poems) and her presence made the whole poem a bit more like “Tintern Abbey”, with the poet reliving through her his childhood days. Some scholars read this poem as a rape fantasy or masturbatory fantasy, and while I myself wouldn’t go as far as that, I do agree that this is a story about the Fall: from innocence to knowledge, obtained not by plucking an apple but a hazelnut. The boy loses his innocence by marring the innocence of the woods, but he gains an important piece of knowledge about nature: it’s fragile and what is done, cannot so easily be undone.
Yet another poem about a Lucy; however, this Lucy is not the speaker’s romantic interest, but a child. Still, she is similar to “Lucy” from the previous poems – lonely, surrounded by nature, and ultimately dead. She is apparently an only child, living on a secluded farm. The poet links her with the natural world, saying that you may see now on the moors a hare or a fawn, but Lucy will never be seen. What happened is really, in contemporary terms, a case of gross parental neglect: the father sends his daughter in snow storm with a lantern to light the way for her mother, who is coming back from the town. It’s two (I assume two pm), the father is busy making bundles of faggots and just raises his hand to wave goodbye when Lucy goes on her last journey. The mother apparently made her way back home without Lucy’s lantern, but Lucy was nowhere to be found. Her parents were looking for her all night long. In the morning they stand on a hill and see the bridge “a furlong from their door” (a furlong is 220 yards, so surely they had known it was there?) They weep and say “In heaven we all shall meet”, but then they notice Lucy’s footmarks in the snow. They follow them until the middle of the bridge, when they break off. Wordsworth does not state this explicitly, but apparently Lucy’s body was never found. This gave rise to the belief that Lucy is still out there somewhere, like a spirit of nature, whistling her song in the wind. What is really a pretty gloomy story becomes a kind of myth, in which Lucy by dying simply returns to her original state.
I feel very self-conscious about writing anything about the first poem after a number of eminent scholars such as Culler, Eco et al. analysed it in Interpretation and Overinterpretation. The poem begins with the speaker describing his state of mind as if he were in a coma: he is not afraid anymore, because Lucy seems to be outside time. The second stanza clarifies that she is dead, and now became a part of the planet Earth, rolling with it like rocks and trees on its diurnal course. Wordsworth emphasizes this eternity that death gives us by switching from the past tense in the first stanza to the present tense in the second stanza: being dead, Lucy is now outside history.
“I travelled among unknown men”, the last poem written in the cycle, begins like a poem about the love for one’s homeland: the speaker didn’t realize how much he loved England until actually he went abroad (reflecting perhaps Wordsworth’s homesickness in Germany). He promises that he will never leave England again. The following stanzas explain that his love is not some kind of abstract love for English landscape, but it’s because it is associated with his love for Lucy: this is where he fell in love with her, this is where she lived and worked (spinning her wheel, perhaps recalling the mythological Moirais, who spun the thread of human life, which was going to be cut short in Lucy’s case). And the green field there is the last one Lucy saw in her life.
Today I’m reading the first three of the so-called “Lucy” poems, a group of poems written by Wordsworth in 1799, during his stay in German, all connected by a shadowy figure of a dead girl called Lucy. Is she somebody real, or just a made-up figure to fill in the need for a poetic subject? We don’t know. “Strange fits of passion…” begins with the declaration that the speaker is going to tell a story, but only in the Lover’s ear, because presumably only lovers will understand the irrational feeling he describes. The speaker was travelling to his beloved’s house one night in June, looking at the moon and feeling a bit dreamy and drowsy. As they were approaching Lucy’s cottage, the moon seemed to rise directly above it, and then suddenly, presumably because of the terrain, it dropped behind it. The lover has a strange premonition that Lucy is dead and here the poem ends, leaving its readers in equally fearful state as that of the speaker. A footnote quotes one more stanza from the manuscript, which Wordsworth decided quite smartly not to include: in the stanza the lover told Lucy about his thought, she was laughing, but now his eyes are dim with tears, so presumably his premonition became true. But spelling this out rather diminishes the effect of the poem.
“She dwelt among the untrodden ways” is like the previous poem written in the traditional ballad stanza of alternating 8 and 6-syllable lines. He describes Lucy as a violet hidden in the moss and a star in the sky, somebody unknown to the wide world. Few people knew her when she was alive and few noticed her death, but it makes all the difference to him – emphasized by the rhythm of the line “the difference to me”, making the speaker pronounce the silent “e” in the word “difference” in order to make it fit the rest of the lines.
In “Three years she grew” it is Nature who speaks mostly: she chooses Lucy at the age of three to be her own. She would be Lucy’s moral guardian and teacher, influencing her through “rock and plain”. Lucy would be like a young animal, a fawn roaming through meadows and communicating with the mute parts of nature. She is going to be influenced not only by the conventionally pretty aspects of nature, but also she is going to see some grace in storms. She is going to grow up looking at the stars and listening to rivulets. So Lucy grows up to be this perfect child of Nature, but then she dies and leaves to her lover “this heath, this calm and quiet scene” – the beauty of the landscape of which she was a part.
In the thankfully last excerpt Wordsworth returns to his formula that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which originates in “emotion recalled in tranquillity”; he explains that composition takes place only after the original experience is past and the poet recalls it, feeling these emotions again. The pleasures of rhyme and meter help to overcome any painful feelings associated with these emotions. Wordsworth asserts that if we have two descriptions of the same event, one in prose and one in verse, of the similar artistic quality, it’s the one in verse which be read much more often. He admits that his poetry is new and not likely to please the readers who are accustomed to the older style of poetry. But he hopes that the readers can appreciate what he’s trying to do, which is to write genuine poetry. I feel it’s a very inadequate summery, but it’s getting late and I really lost all patience with Wordsworth at this point.
Wordsworth writes at great length and in rather abstruse language (maybe it’s the fault of the late time I’m reading it) about how scientists describe particular aspects of the universe, but the poet describes them all, because man is his proper subject. In a rather prescient way, Wordsworth suggests that the machines of the future may be a subject of poetry, as well as future artificial human beings, should science ever create them. So in a way Wordsworth anticipates Frankenstein. Then he circles back to his pet subject, the language of poetry. Again he reiterates the argument that it should be the language of real men: in dramatic poetry, because of course the speech of the characters has to be natural, but also in lyrical poetry, because the poet shares the common human lot, with its ups and downs, and so he should write in the language of men.
The second excerpt is an attempt to answer the question: what is a poet? Wordsworth answers this, writing at length about how the poet is somebody super-sensitive and super-imaginative. But however imaginative the poet may be, he can never imitate perfectly the kind of language people actually use when they get emotional. The poet has to imagine himself(* so vividly to be in the shoes of the people he describes it’s almost like a delusion and the only modifications he uses are artistic ones, because his purpose is to give pleasure. But he knows his words will always fall short of the real thing. Some could argue that the poet is like a translator, trying to convey the beauty of the text from one language to another, and sometimes even surpassing the original to make up for other passages where he fell short. Wordsworth feels it’s a cop-out and it puts poetry on a par with other hobbies. It’s something far more serious. Wordsworth says, paraphrasing Aristotle, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing, because in contrast to non-fiction, the purpose of poetry is to create a true image of things, and one doesn’t have to be an expert at anything to appreciate the pleasure derived from it, but just another human being. And the necessity of poetry producing pleasure doesn’t mean that it always has to be happy and light-hearted; every pursuit of knowledge gives one pleasure, even if the things studied are themselves unpleasant, like for a physician studying a disease.
*For Wordsworth, the poet is always a “he”.