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.
The poet doesn’t regret the loss of his younger self with all of its “aching joys” because he believes he gained more maturity and the ability to hear in nature “the still, sad music of humanity”. And he has often felt a spiritual presence in Nature, which he doesn’t call by name but we can sense Wordsworth is strongly pantheistic here (even if in his older years he disavowed his youthful pantheism). Nature is for him “the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being”. At this point, we learn somewhat to our surprise that he is not on the banks of the Wye alone because his sister Dorothy (unnamed here) is with him and through her, slightly younger and visiting this place for the first time, Wordsworth can relive and experience again vicariously what it is to be a young person for the first time in this beautiful spot. He prays that for her, like for him, Nature can be the source of comfort and joy in the world which is often dreary and joyless. He foresees how in her later life, even if they should be apart, she is still going to remember that moment when they were together and happy. Life added a cruelly ironic coda to this thought, as Dorothy (who lived with her brother and his family all her life and outlived William) was suffering for the last two decades of her long life from some form of dementia.
Couldn’t be bothered to copy the full title of the poem, which is always referred to as “Tintern Abbey”, since the title “Lines” is not distinctive enough, although, funnily enough, the ruined abbey itself does not appear in the poem. Wordsworth had this thing, as A.A. Milne put it, he “liked to tell his readers where he was staying, and which of his friends he was walking with”. This long blank-verse meditation begins with the statement emphasizing that it is indeed, as the title indicates, a revisit, since the poet was here five years before. Now he again takes in the idyllic landscape, although the smoke coming from between the trees makes him spin more romantic or Gothic fantasies about vagrants or hermits hiding in the forest. This landscape is far more important to him than just a pretty picture you can put on your computer’s wallpaper: even without consciously thinking about them, it sometimes brought him pleasure in the moments of weariness, leading him to the moments of almost trance-like meditation and perhaps helped him to be a better man. And even if this “be but a vain belief”, still he can remember how many times in difficult moments he turned in his mind to the banks of the Wye for comfort.
Now he looks around, comparing the reality with the mental image, inevitably somewhat distorted. He hopes that also this time, the pleasure is not going to be limited to the present moment, but is going to give him “life and food” for the future. In a famous passage, Wordsworth contrasts his present 28-year-old self with that of a young boy, for whom nature is just a playground, and his 23-year-old self, which he describes somewhat incongruously, as both responding to the landscape on purely aesthetic level (it “had no need of a remoter charm/By thought supplied, nor any interest/Unborrowed from the eye”), and yet somehow feeling scared and haunted: “more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, that one/Who sought the thing he loved.”
The speaker thought that he saw a jutting crag and ran to hide under it, but then stops cold when he realizes it’s the crying woman. This is where she sits every day and shudders when the wind makes ripples on the surface of the pond. Some people say she drowned her baby in the pond, and others say she hanged it on the tree, but everybody agrees the baby must be buried in the little flowery mound nearby, and interpret the red drops on it as the drops of the baby’s blood. And others claim that if you look long enough in the pond, you will see the baby’s face reflected in it. Some said Martha Ray should be brought to justice and went with shovels to dig the bones up, but then apparently the mound started to move and the grass started to shake for fifty yards around it, so they got scared. The speaker ends by saying that he really can’t tell how all these things could be, but he knows two things: the thorn is dragged down by heavy tufts of moss, a metaphorical equivalent of Martha Ray being dragged to the place of her trauma, whatever it could be. And the other thing is that he heard her cry “Oh misery! oh misery!/Oh woe is me! oh misery!”
This is an effective little shocker and I didn’t suspect Wordsworth was capable of writing such Poe-adjacent poetry before there was any E. A. Poe to speak about, with its supernatural elements, gloomy ponds and an unreliable narrator. Stephen Parrish in an important article pointed out that this narrator is really the main subject of “The Thorn”. While I wouldn’t go as far as Parrish, who seemed to think that most things in the poem are a figment of the narrator’s imagination, I do recognize the kind of obsessive interest with mother murderers. Martha Ray might be notorious only locally, but in today’s world of the mass media infanticidal mothers inspire a lot of morbid interest. The tragic story of Martha Ray seen through the eyes of this narrator (who isn’t wholly unsympathetic towards her and he even exclaims he wishes the baby’s father were dead instead) becomes the source of chills and thrills, multiplied by superstition.
Wordsworth revised the poem for its edition in 1820, apparently inspired by Coleridge’s criticism, and again NAEL doesn’t indicate it. Sigh. Some of the changes are quite major, like “old Farmer Simpson” becomes a more poetic “grey-haired Wilfred of the glen”. BTW, a shoutout to the excellent project on Lyrical Ballads by graduate students from Simon Fraser University: https://lyricalballadssfu.wordpress.com/