The Lucy Poems


Lyrical Ballads

In 1798, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge jointly published Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, a collection of verses each had written separately. The book became hugely popular and was published widely; it is generally considered a herald of the Romantic movement in English literature.[3][4] In it, Wordsworth aimed to use everyday language in his compositions[5] as set out in the preface to the 1802 edition: "The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect."[5]

The two poets had met three years earlier in either late August or September 1795 in Bristol.[6] The meeting laid the foundation for an intense and profoundly creative friendship, based in part on their shared disdain for the artificial diction of the poetry of the era. Beginning in 1797, the two lived within walking distance of each other in Somerset, which solidified their friendship. Wordsworth believed that his life before meeting Coleridge was sedentary and dull, and that his poetry amounted to little. Coleridge influenced Wordsworth, and his praise and encouragement inspired Wordsworth to write prolifically.[7] Dorothy, Wordsworth's sister, related the effect Coleridge had on her brother in a March 1798 letter: "His faculties seem to expand every day, he composes with much more facility than he did, as to the mechanism [emphasis in original] of poetry, and his ideas flow faster than he can express them."[8] With his new inspiration, Wordsworth came to believe he could write poetry rivalling that of John Milton.[9] He and Coleridge planned to collaborate, but never moved beyond suggestions and notes for each other.[10]

The expiration of Wordsworth's Alfoxton House lease soon provided an opportunity for the two friends to live together. They conceived a plan to settle in Germany with Dorothy and Coleridge's wife, Sara, "to pass the two ensuing years in order to acquire the German language, and to furnish ourselves with a tolerable stock of information in natural science".[11] In September 1798, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Dorothy travelled to Germany to explore proximate living arrangements, but this proved difficult. Although they lived together in Hamburg for a short time, the city was too expensive for their budgets. Coleridge soon found accommodations in the town of Ratzeburg in Schleswig-Holstein, which was less expensive but still socially vibrant. The impoverished Wordsworth, however, could neither afford to follow Coleridge nor provide for himself and his sister in Hamburg; the siblings instead moved to moderately priced accommodations in Goslar in Lower Saxony, Germany.[12]

Separation from Coleridge

Between October 1798 and February 1799, Wordsworth worked on the first draft of the "Lucy poems" together with a number of other verses, including the "Matthew poems", "Lucy Gray" and The Prelude. Coleridge had yet to join the siblings in Germany, and Wordsworth's separation from his friend depressed him. In the three months following their parting, Wordsworth completed the first three of the "Lucy poems": "Strange fits", "She dwelt", and "A slumber".[14] They first appeared in a letter to Coleridge dated December 1798, in which Wordsworth wrote that "She dwelt" and "Strange fits" were "little Rhyme poems which I hope will amuse you".[15] Wordsworth characterised the two poems thus to mitigate any disappointment Coleridge might suffer in receiving these two poems instead of the promised three-part philosophical epic The Recluse.[16]

In the same letter, Wordsworth complained that:

As I have had no books I have been obliged to write in self-defense. I should have written five times as much as I have done but that I am prevented by an uneasiness at my stomach and side, with a dull pain about my heart. I have used the word pain, but uneasiness and heat are words which more accurately express my feelings. At all events it renders writing unpleasant. Reading is now become a kind of luxury to me. When I do not read I am absolutely consumed by thinking and feeling and bodily exertions of voice or of limbs, the consequence of those feelings.[15]

Wordsworth partially blamed Dorothy for the abrupt loss of Coleridge's company. He felt that their finances—insufficient for supporting them both in Ratzeburg—would have easily supported him alone, allowing him to follow Coleridge. Wordsworth's anguish was compounded by the contrast between his life and that of his friend. Coleridge's financial means allowed him to entertain lavishly and to seek the company of nobles and intellectuals; Wordsworth's limited wealth constrained him to a quiet and modest life. Wordsworth's envy seeped into his letters when he described Coleridge and his new friends as "more favored sojourners" who may "be chattering and chatter'd to, through the whole day".[17]

Although Wordsworth sought emotional support from his sister, their relationship remained strained throughout their time in Germany. Separated from his friend and forced to live in the sole company of his sister, Wordsworth used the "Lucy poems" as an emotional outlet.[18]

Identity of Lucy

Wordsworth did not reveal the inspiration for the character of Lucy, and over the years the topic has generated intense speculation among literary historians.[19] Little biographical information can be drawn from the poems—it is difficult even to determine Lucy's age.[20] In the mid-19th century, Thomas DeQuincey (1785–1859), author and one-time friend of Wordsworth, wrote that the poet "always preserved a mysterious silence on the subject of that 'Lucy', repeatedly alluded to or apostrophised in his poems, and I have heard, from gossiping people about Hawkshead, some snatches of tragic story, which, after all, might be an idle semi-fable, improved out of slight materials."[21]

Critic Herbert Hartman believes Lucy's name was taken from "a neo-Arcadian commonplace", and argues she was not intended to represent any single person.[22] In the view of one Wordsworth biographer, Mary Moorman (1906–1994), "The identity of 'Lucy' has been the problem of critics for many years. But Wordsworth is a poet before he is a biographer, and neither 'Lucy' nor her home nor his relations with her are necessarily in the strict sense historical. Nevertheless, as the Lyrical Ballads were all of them 'founded on fact' in some way, and as Wordsworth's mind was essentially factual, it would be rash to say that Lucy is entirely fictitious."[23]

Moorman suggests that Lucy may represent Wordsworth's romantic interest Mary Hutchinson,[A 2] but wonders why she would be represented as one who died.[24] It is possible that Wordsworth was thinking of Margaret Hutchinson, Mary's sister who had died.[25] There is no evidence, however, that the poet loved any of the Hutchinsons other than Mary. It is more likely that Margaret's death influenced but is not the foundation for Lucy.[26]

In 1980, Hunter Davies contended that the series was written for the poet's sister Dorothy, but found the Lucy–Dorothy allusion "bizarre".[27] Earlier, literary critic Richard Matlak tried to explain the Lucy–Dorothy connection, and wrote that Dorothy represented a financial burden to Wordsworth, which had effectively forced his separation from Coleridge.[28] Wordsworth, depressed over the separation from his friend, in this interpretation, expresses both his love for his sister and fantasies about her loss through the poems.[28] Throughout the poems, the narrator's mixture of mourning and antipathy is accompanied by denial and guilt; his denial of the Lucy–Dorothy relationship and the lack of narratorial responsibility for the death of Lucy allow him to escape from questioning his desires for the death of his sister.[29] After Wordsworth began the "Lucy poems", Coleridge wrote, "Some months ago Wordsworth transmitted to me a most sublime Epitaph / whether it had any reality, I cannot say. —Most probably, in some gloomier moment he had fancied the moment in which his Sister might die."[30] It is, however, possible that Wordsworth simply feared her death and did not wish it, even subconsciously.[31][A 3]

Reflecting on the significance and relevance of Lucy's identity, the 19th-century poet, essayist and literary critic Frederic Myers (1843–1901) observed that:

here it was that the memory of some emotion prompted the lines on "Lucy". Of the history of that emotion, he has told us nothing; I forbear, therefore, to inquire concerning it, or even to speculate. That it was to the poet's honour, I do not doubt; but who ever learned such secrets rightly? or who should wish to learn? It is best to leave the sanctuary of all hearts inviolate, and to respect the reserve not only of the living but of the dead. Of these poems, almost alone, Wordsworth in his autobiographical notes has said nothing whatever.[32]

Literary scholar Karl Kroeber (1926–2009) argues that Lucy "possesses a double existence; her actual, historical existence and her idealised existence in the poet's mind. In the poem, Lucy is both actual and idealised, but her actuality is relevant only insofar as it makes manifest the significance implicit in the actual girl."[33] Hartman holds the same view; to him Lucy is seen "entirely from within the poet, so that this modality may be the poet's own", but then he argues, "she belongs to the category of spirits who must still become human ... the poet describes her as dying at a point at which she would have been humanized."[34] The literary historian Kenneth Johnston concludes that Lucy was created as the personification of Wordsworth's muse, and the group as a whole "is a series of invocations to a Muse feared dead. As epitaphs, they are not sad, a very inadequate word to describe them, but breathlessly, almost aware of what such a loss would mean to the speaker: 'oh, the difference to me!'"[35]

Scholar John Mahoney observes that whether Lucy is intended to represent Dorothy, Mary or another is much less important to understanding the poems than the fact that she represented "a hidden being who seems to lack flaws and is alone in the world."[36] Furthermore, she is represented as being insignificant in the public sphere but of the utmost importance in the private sphere; in "She dwelt" this manifests through the comparison of Lucy to both a hidden flower and a shining star.[37] Neither Lucy nor Wordsworth's other female characters "exist as independent self-conscious human beings with minds as capable of the poet's" and are "rarely allowed to speak for themselves."[38]

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