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 thenWhat love I bore to thee..Tis past, that melancholy dream!Nor will I quit thy shoreA second time; for still I seemTo love thee more and more..Among thy mountains did I feelThe joy of my desire;And she I cherished turned her wheelBeside and English fire..Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed,The bowers where Lucy played;And thine too is the last green fieldThat 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.