The Lucy Poems

The poems

The "Lucy poems" are written from the point of view of a lover who has long viewed the object of his affection from afar, and who is now affected by her death.[A 4] Yet Wordsworth structured the poems so that they are not about any one person who has died; instead they were written about a figure representing the poet's lost inspiration. Lucy is Wordsworth's inspiration, and the poems as a whole are, according to Wordsworth biographer Kenneth Johnston, "invocations to a Muse feared dead".[39] Lucy is represented in all five poems as sexless; it is unlikely that the poet ever realistically saw her as a possible lover. Instead, she is presented as an ideal[40] and represents Wordsworth's frustration at his separation from Coleridge; the asexual imagery reflects the futility of his longing.[40]

Wordsworth's voice slowly disappears from the poems as they progress, and his voice is entirely absent from the fifth poem. His love operates on the subconscious level, and he relates to Lucy more as a spirit of nature than as a human being.[41] The poet's grief is private, and he is unable to fully explain its source.[42] When Lucy's lover is present, he is completely immersed in human interactions and the human aspects of nature, and the death of his beloved is a total loss for the lover. The 20th-century critic Spencer Hall argues that the poet represents a "fragile kind of humanism".[43]

"Strange fits of passion have I known"

"Strange fits" is probably the earliest of the poems and revolves around a fantasy of Lucy's death. It describes the narrator's journey to Lucy's cottage and his thoughts along the way. Throughout, the motion of the moon is set in opposition to the motion of the speaker. The poem contains seven stanzas, a relatively elaborate structure which underscores his ambivalent attitude towards Lucy's imagined death. The constant shifts in perspective and mood reflect his conflicting emotions.[44] The first stanza, with its use of dramatic phrases such as "fits of passion" and "dare to tell", contrasts with the subdued tone of the rest of the poem. As a lyrical ballad, "Strange fits" differs from the traditional ballad form, which emphasises abnormal action, and instead focuses on mood.[45]

The presence of death is felt throughout the poem, although it is mentioned explicitly only in the final line. The moon, a symbol of the beloved, sinks steadily as the poem progresses, until its abrupt drop in the penultimate stanza. That the speaker links Lucy with the moon is clear, though his reasons are unclear.[45] The moon nevertheless plays a significant role in the action of the poem: as the lover imagines the moon slowly sinking behind Lucy's cottage, he is entranced by its motion. By the fifth stanza, the speaker has been lulled into a somnambulistic trance—he sleeps while still keeping his eyes on the moon (lines 17–20).

The narrator's conscious presence is wholly absent from the next stanza, which moves forward in what literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman describes as a "motion approaching yet never quite attaining its end".[46] When the moon abruptly drops behind the cottage, the narrator snaps out of his dream, and his thoughts turn towards death. Lucy, the beloved, is united with the landscape in death, while the image of the retreating, entrancing moon is used to portray the idea of looking beyond one's lover.[47] The darker possibility also remains that the dream state represents the fulfilment of the lover's fantasy through the death of the beloved. In falling asleep while approaching his beloved's home, the lover betrays his own reluctance to be with Lucy.[48]

Wordsworth made numerous revisions to each of the "Lucy poems".[49] The earliest version of "Strange fits" appears in a December 1798 letter from Dorothy to Coleridge. This draft contains many differences in phrasing and does not include a stanza that appeared in the final published version. The new lines direct the narrative towards "the Lover's ear alone", implying that only other lovers can understand the relationship between the moon, the beloved and the beloved's death.[50] Wordsworth also removed from the final stanza the lines:

I told her this; her laughter light Is ringing in my ears; And when I think upon that night My eyes are dim with tears.[51]

This final stanza lost its significance with the completion of the later poems in the series, and the revision allowed for a sense of anticipation at the poem's close and helped draw the audience into the story of the remaining "Lucy poems". Of the other changes, only the description of the horse's movement is important: "My horse trudg'd on" becomes "With quickening pace my horse drew nigh", which heightens the narrator's vulnerability to fantasies and dreams in the revised version.[48]

"She dwelt among the untrodden ways"

"She dwelt among the untrodden ways" presents Lucy as having lived in solitude near the source of the River Dove.[A 5] According to literary critic Geoffrey Durrant, the poem charts her "growth, perfection, and death".[52] To convey the dignified, unaffected naturalness of his subject, Wordsworth uses simple language, mostly words of one syllable. In the opening quatrain, he describes the isolated and untouched area where Lucy lived, as well as her innocence and beauty, which he compares to that of a hidden flower in the second.[53] The poem begins in a descriptive rather than narrative manner, and it is not until the line "When Lucy ceased to be" that the reader is made aware that the subject of the verse has died. Literary scholar Mark Jones describes this effect as finding the poem is "over before it has begun", while according to writer Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897), Lucy "is dead before we so much as heard of her".[54]

Lucy's "untrodden ways" are symbolic of both her physical isolation and the unknown details of her thoughts and life. The third quatrain is written with an economy intended to capture the simplicity the narrator sees in Lucy. Her femininity is described in girlish terms. This has drawn criticism from those who see the female icon, in the words of literary scholar John Woolford, "represented in Lucy by condemning her to death while denying her the actual or symbolic fulfillment of maternity".[55] To evoke the "loveliness of body and spirit", a pair of complementary but paradoxical images[53] are employed in the second stanza: the solitary, hidden violet juxtaposed to the publicly visible Venus, emblem of love and first star of evening.[56] Wondering if Lucy more resembles the violet or the star, the critic Cleanth Brooks (1906–1994) concludes that while Wordsworth likely views her as "the single star, completely dominating [his] world, not arrogantly like the sun, but sweetly and modestly", the metaphor is a conventional compliment with only vague relevance.[57] For Wordsworth, Lucy's appeal is closer to the violet and lies in her seclusion and her perceived affinity with nature.[55]

Wordsworth acquired a copy of the antiquarian and churchman Thomas Percy's (1729–1811) collection of British ballads Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) in Hamburg a few months before he began to compose the series. The influence of the traditional English folk ballad is evident in the metre, rhythm and structure of "She dwelt". It follows the variant ballad stanza a4–b3–a4–b3,[58] and in keeping with ballad tradition tells a dramatic story. As Durrant observed, "To confuse the mode of the 'Lucy' poems with that of the love lyric is to overlook their structure, in which, as in the traditional ballad, a story is told as boldly and briefly as possible."[52] Kenneth and Warren Ober compare the opening lines of "She dwelt" to the traditional ballad "Katharine Jaffray" and note similarities in rhythm and structure, as well as in theme and imagery:

"Katharine Jaffray" "She dwelt"

There livd a lass in yonder dale, And doun in yonder glen, O. And Katherine Jaffray was her name, Well known by many men, O.[59]


She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, A maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love; (lines 1–4)

The narrator of the poem is less concerned with the experience of observing Lucy than with his reflections and meditations on his observations.[60] Throughout the poem sadness and ecstasy are intertwined, a fact emphasised by the exclamation marks in the second and third verses. The critic Carl Woodring writes that "She dwelt" and the Lucy series can be read as elegiac, as "sober meditation[s] on death". He found that they have "the economy and the general air of epitaphs in the Greek Anthology... [I]f all elegies are mitigations of death, the Lucy poems are also meditations on simple beauty, by distance made more sweet and by death preserved in distance".[61]

An early draft of "She dwelt" contained two stanzas which had been omitted from the first edition.[62] The revisions exclude many of the images but emphasise the grief that the narrator experienced. The original version began with floral imagery, which was later cut:[63]

My hope was one, from cities far, Nursed on a lonesome heath; Her lips were red as roses are, Her hair a woodbine wreath.[64]

A fourth stanza, also later removed, included an explanation of how Lucy was to die:[65] "But slow distemper checked her bloom / And on the Heath she died."[64]

"I travelled among unknown men"

The last of the "Lucy poems" to be composed, "I travelled among unknown men", was the only one not included in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Although Wordsworth claimed that the poem was composed while he was still in Germany, it was in fact written during April 1801.[16][49] Evidence for this later date comes from a letter Wordsworth wrote to Mary Hutchinson referring to "I travelled" as a newly created poem.[66] In 1802, he instructed his printer to place "I travelled" immediately after "A slumber did my spirit seal" in Lyrical Ballads, but the poem was omitted. It was later published in Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807.[67]

The poem has frequently been read as a declaration of Wordsworth's love for his native England[68] and his determination not to live abroad again:

'Tis past, that melancholy dream! Nor will I quit thy shore A second time; for still I seem To love thee more and more. (lines 5–8)

The first two stanzas seem to speak of the poet's personal experience,[69] and a patriotic reading would reflect his appreciation and pride for the English landscape.[70] The possibility remains, however, that Wordsworth is referring to England as a physical rather than a political entity, an interpretation that gains strength from the poem's connections to the other "Lucy poems".[71]

Lucy only appears in the second half of the poem, where she is linked with the English landscape. As such, it seems as if nature joins with the narrator in mourning for her, and the reader is drawn into this mutual sorrow.[72]

Although "I travelled" was written two years after the other poems in the series, it echoes the earlier verses in both tone and language.[23] Wordsworth gives no hint as to the identity of Lucy, and although he stated in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that all the poems were "founded on fact", knowing the basis for the character of Lucy is not necessary to appreciating the poem and understanding its sentiment.[23] Similarly, no insight can be gained from determining the exact geographical location of the "springs of Dove"; in his youth, Wordsworth had visited springs of that name in Derbyshire, Patterdale and Yorkshire.[23]

"Three years she grew in sun and shower"

"Three years she grew in sun and shower" was composed between 6 October and 28 December 1798. The poem depicts the relationship between Lucy and nature through a complex opposition of images. Antithetical couplings of words—"sun and shower", "law and impulse", "earth and heaven", "kindle and restrain"—are used to evoke the opposing forces inherent in nature. A conflict between nature and humanity is described, as each attempts to possess Lucy. The poem contains both epithalamic and elegiac characteristics; Lucy is shown as wedded to nature, while her human lover is left alone to mourn in the knowledge that death has separated her from humanity.[73]

"A slumber did my spirit seal"

Written in spare language, "A slumber did my spirit seal" consists of two stanzas, each four lines long. The first stanza is built upon even, soporific movement in which figurative language conveys the nebulous image of a girl who "seemed a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years". The second maintains the quiet and even tone of the first but serves to undermine its sense of the eternal by revealing that Lucy has died and that the calmness of the first stanza represents death. The narrator's response to her death lacks bitterness or emptiness; instead he takes consolation from the fact that she is now beyond life's trials, and "at last ... in inanimate community with the earth's natural fixtures".[74] The lifeless rocks and stones depicted in the concluding line convey the finality of Lucy's death.[75]

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