William Wordsworth and Lucy

Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed

The bowers where Lucy played;

And thine too is the last green field

That Lucy's eyes surveyed.

[I Travelled Among Unknown Men]

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hells can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,

See Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name. (V. i.7-17) [1]

It is strange why the first thing that springs up from some dark forgotten recess of the mind on reading William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) 'Lucy' poems is this observation made by Theseus in his palace in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Night's Dream. These lines were written in 1595 or 1596, almost two centuries before the 'Lucy' lyrics composed in or after the winter of 1798-99, or even Wordsworth's Preface to the second (1800) edition of Lyrical Ballads. Yet, it is not difficult to see why Wordsworth rued:

The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.- [...] this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, [2]

The two writers, separated by a couple of hundred years, are on a similar, even if not identical, track.

The comparison occurred unbidden when I read 'Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known'. As a «fond and wayward thought» that his beloved may be dead enters the mind of a lover, he works himself up into a frenzy. The poem is born from the shift from an ordinary ride to her cottage into an extraordinary fit of passion that only another lover can sympathize with, in the same tempo as the «quickening pace» of the horse. The origin of the poem is reflective of Wordsworth's own ideas on the composition of poetry outlined in his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. [3]

Wordsworth's poetry contained elements of Shakespeare's lunatic, lover and poet, even as Wordsworth the poet arrived at the thought that he outlined in his Preface. All five of his 'Lucy' poems - 'Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known', 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways', 'I Travelled Among Unknown Men', 'Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower' and 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal' - confirm his poetic perspectives. And nothing is more obvious than Wordsworth's reliance on feeling and emotion both as inspiration and subject of poetry. 'Passion' may have been un-decorous in society then but a poet's fundamental character lay in his ability

Of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, [4]

Not that the emotion was mawkish. The love for Lucy is intimate and intense. In revealing it, the poet is baring his soul. Lucy is «The joy of (his) desire;» She is «cherished», present everywhere. He seems to see her, feel her at every point in place and time. The sentiment is all-consuming. So much so, that even his love for his country can be traced to his devotion to her. True, nationalism was a part of the Romantic character; but Wordsworth's was blatantly driven by his all-pervasive passion for Lucy. This blatancy is underscored by the blunt admission in 'I Travelled Among Unknown Men' on the heels of waxing eloquent about ardor for country, that the determination not to «quit thy shore» is because it is «an English fire» beside which Lucy «turned her wheel» and

Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed

The bowers where Lucy played;

And thine too is the last green field

That Lucy's eyes surveyed.

Grief at her loss, of which the cold fear «If Lucy should be dead!» in 'Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known' seemed a premonition, is equally impassioned. Sorrow is stark, sharp and poignant - drenching everything in it. Mourning transforms the «happy dell» of 'Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower' into a barren heath. The lament in 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways' reverberates:

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

The realization and confession come suddenly after description of other matters, and the seeming control is deceptive. The reflection in 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal'

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Is less matter-of-fact than it appears. The sadness is deep and stays long after the poem has finished. The finality, in 'Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower', of

And never more will be.

Is - well - final.

After all this, it becomes a little nerve-wracking that 'Lucy' cannot be neatly labelled. Who was 'Lucy'? A beloved mistress? A well-loved child? A friend? Or a figment of the imagination? Some feel the «poems represent an attempt to give literary expression and distance to Wordsworth's feeling of affection for his sister» [5], Dorothy? The 'Lucy' of these poems is no celebrity. As the poet concedes in 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways', she was quiet, unobtrusive, living «unknown»,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

However, Lucy's allure lies in her being the embodiment of Wordsworth's preferred character: solitary, simple, innocent. For William Wordsworth believed that for poetry to continue to please mankind permanently, it had to do with «essential passions» and these were to be found in «humble and rustic life» where

They can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; [6]

Lucy is also proof of the transforming power of imagination, voiced through Theseus by Shakespeare as well, that Wordsworth was convinced about. This is the power that exalts Lucy into a luminary. In her Wordsworth puts into practice his own advice: «to throw [...] a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect;» [7] Lucy is simple but not crude. She is superlative. In 'Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower', Nature says

A lovelier flower

On earth was never sown;

In 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways' she is delicate-

A violet by a mossy stone

She is matchless in her exquisiteness -

-- Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

And in 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal' she is almost ethereal -

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

Another facet of Wordsworth the poet emerges in these 'Lucy' lyrics: that of a lover and bard of nature. If «humble and rustic life» allowed the play of elemental emotions, it is also a state in which «passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.» [8] Inevitably, for a man close to nature who spent hours amidst scenic landscapes, frequently alone, the eye and ear of a lover of nature for detail is evident. Lucy belongs to a world abounding in references to manifestations of nature: Lucy's «cot» under «the sinking moon», the bowers as places of play, the «wayward» rivulet and its murmurings, the «floating clouds» and the turbulent «motions of the Storm». The images of Lucy as a half-hidden shy «violet by a mossy stone», as «Fresh as a rose in June», «sportive as the fawn - That wild with glee across the lawn» are crystal-clear, precise.

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