Poetry Peeks : Wordsworth Part II – The Lucy Poems

If you missed part one you can find it HERE.  In that post I explained my new feature “Poetry Peeks,” introduced my first poet, William Wordsworth, and commented on his poem Tintern Abbey.

The next set of poems that I read are collectively known as “The Lucy Poems,” a series of 5 poems (4 of which were included in Lyrical Ballads) that revolve around the death of a young female character called Lucy.  There is some debate surrounding the origins of Lucy and whether she is based upon a real person or resided only in Wordsworth’s imagination.  One theory is that the poems spawned from Wordsworth’s depression over a prolonged separation from his friend Coleridge while he was living in Germany.  Coleridge was either back home in England or in anther part of Germany (I’ve read both, not sure which is correct).   In any case, Wordsworth and Coleridge were accustomed to daily conversation and contact so the separation resulted in loneliness coupled with homesickness for Wordsworth who also grew to miss his native England.

Wordsworth never commented directly on who or what inspired the Lucy poems so it’s been left entirely to speculation.

Strange fits of passion have I known

Strange fits of passion have I known :

And I will dare to tell, 

But in the Lover’s ear alone,

What once to me befell.

.

When she I loved looked every day

Fresh as a rose in June,

I to her cottage bent my way,

Beneath an evening moon.

.

Upon the moon I fixed my eye, 

All over the wide lea;

With quickening pace my horse drew nigh

Those paths so dear to me.

.

And now we reached the orchard-plot;

And, as we climbed the hill, 

The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot

Came near, and nearer still. 

.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,

Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!

And all the while my eyes I kept 

On the descending moon.

.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof

He raised, and never stopped:

When down behind the cottage roof,

At once, the bright moon dropped.

.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide

Into  a Lover’s head!

‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried,

‘If Lucy should be dead!’

.

This is the first of the poems, written in 1799.  It is a 7 stanza ballad with each stanza containing 4 lines following the a-b-a-b rhyme scheme.  In the poem the natural procession of the setting of the moon parallels Lucy’s descent from health to sickness and death.  When she is “Fresh as a rose in June,” the moon is high in the sky.  When she’s dying in her cot, the moon is sinking.  And it drops out of the sky completely at her death.

.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

.

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

–Fair as a star, when only one 

Is shining in the sky.

.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh

The difference to me!

.

This is probably the most well known of of the series.  When I read it, I immediately recognized it as a poem that I studied in college but I didn’t remember a thing about it.  It is comprised of three quatrains (or three stanzas with 4 lines each).  Fitting with Wordsworth’s “language of the common man” the words are simple, most just one syllable.  Like Strange Fits of Passion, it follows the style of a ballad, or a straightforward simply told story.

Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower (click to read) highlights how nature’s responses can clash and offset each other with the use of opposing words in close succession, such as “sun and shower,” “law and impulse,” “earth and heaven,” “glade and bower,” “kindle and restrain.” Perhaps this speaks to Nature imparting not only life but also death. It reminds me a bit of Hardy, who, in The Mayor of Casterbridge ends a scene by saying that “all terrestrial conditions were intermittent” or in other words that states of nature are temporary.  A bucolic scene of blissful beauty one day might be transformed into one that is “raging loud” the next.

Each of the poems connects Lucy’s state with some aspect of nature as well as the interplay between man and nature.The shortest of the poems, A slumber did my spirit seal, also speaks of being connected to nature even in death and becoming a part of nature’s cyclic course.  When Lucy dies, she’s said to have:

“Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks and stones and trees.”

The last of the Lucy series, I travelled among Unknown Men, makes only a brief mention of Lucy and wasn’t included in Lyrical Ballads.  This poem definitely seems to make the case for the poems reflecting Wordsworth’s homesickness as he makes direct mention of his longing for England.

I travelled among unknown men, 
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.
.
Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore 
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.
.
Among thy mountains did I feel
The joy of my desire;
And she I cherished turned her wheel
Beside and English fire.
.
Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed,
The bowers where Lucy played;
And thine too is the last green field
That Lucy’s eyes surveyed.
.

In the end, the poet stays connected with Lucy also through nature, by looking on the land that she looked upon.  In keeping with the line, “Nor will I quit thy shore,” upon Wordsworth’s return from Germany he vowed never to live abroad again.  And he didn’t.  He lived out the remainder of his days in Grasmere, dying of a lung inflammation in April of 1850.

These poems are haunting in their simplicity.  Though there’s the common thread of nature and man’s relationship with nature, the Lucy poems feel very different from the others that I’ve read from Wordsworth thus far.  They are more succinct and feel more stark and somber in their use of nature to point to the inevitability and finality of human mortality.

~

logoStay tuned for more.  I’m not finished with Wordsworth yet!

O Captain! My Captain! – OR – How Walt Whitman Saved Me

When I was in 11th grade, I took a drama class as one of my electives.  As I was a rather reserved kid, this really threw me out of my comfort zone.  I mostly loved drama class, though I probably approached it with a bit more seriousness than it required – as I did with most things in those days.  Early in the year, we had a public speaking unit during which we recited short pieces revolving around different themes, such as prose, poetry, humor, etc.  I typically chose my pieces well in advance and practiced the hell out of them – to the point of over-rehearsing every pause, every inflection (hence the seriousness, spontaneous I was not).

There was, however, one exception . . .

On the eve of my poetry piece, I had selected no poem and didn’t have so much as a single book of poetry in my possession. This was before the “internet in every home” phenomenon, so with no other options, I stood in front of my father’s library of moldy books and began to pull volumes off the shelf.  One by one I would flip through them and one by one I would despairingly return them to their spot on the shelf. Eventually I realized that I was starting to pull the same books off the shelf over and over again.  I started to panic; and then I started to sneeze.  Most of these books hadn’t been touched since they were bought so I had stirred up quite a bit of dust in my search.  My dad had a sizable collection, but as I soon learned, these were mostly decorative antique volumes by obscure authors, none of them poets!

It was hopeless; but I kept yanking books off the shelf anyway.  What else was I going to do?  It was getting late and I started to plot how I could arrive at school early and beg to be let into the library.  I was just about to give up and go to bed when I found a tattered book of short stories for young boys.  As I flipped through the pages, I discovered that between every story there was a POEM!!  And where there was a poem, there was HOPE!!  A glimmer of beautiful, glorious hope!  Until I started to read the poems anyway.  Most of them were ridiculously simple verses with even simpler rhymes about things like balls and bikes and fishing lures.  Ugh.

Towards the end of the book, I reached a poem entitled O Captain! My Captain! My heart started to race.   As my red, allergen-infested eyes glanced over the words, I could feel hope welling up within me again.  After the first reading, I knew this was a poem I could respectably perform without being laughed out of the room.  After the second reading, I could feel the emotion, the expression, the sheer power behind the words.

At the time, I had no idea that the author of that poem was a well known poet.  I had never heard of Walt Whitman.  My drama instructor must have assumed that I knew because she made no mention of it.  I didn’t realize it until years later, when I studied Whitman in a college poetry class.  What I had thought was just an obscure verse in a yellowed and tattered book for boys was actually a famous poem by a great American bard!

And that is how Walt Whitman saved me.

*****

The poem is actually a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with the “Captain” representing Lincoln.  The “ship” refers to the United States and the “fearful trip” alludes to the Civil War.

.

O Captain! My Captain!

.

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is

won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

.

O Captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores

a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and

done,

From feartul trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

*****

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

 

OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations 
         after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful 
         fable only,
May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men,
         hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms— 
         May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only 
         apparitions, and the real something has yet to be 
         known; 
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
         found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
         aught of them;)
May-be seeming to me what they are, (as doubtless 
         they indeed but seem,) as from my present point 
         of view—And might prove, (as of course they 
         would,) naught of what they appear, or naught 
         anyhow, from entirely changed points of view; 
—To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously 
         answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends; 
When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long 
         while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that 
         words and reason hold not, surround us and 
         pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom 
         —I am silent—I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that 
         of identity beyond the grave; 
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

 

-Walt Whitman

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