“They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” (William Wordsworth, Preface to The Lyrical Ballads).
Unlike poets before him, who wrote poetry solely based upon classical subjects, Wordsworth wanted his poetry to imitate the actions and thoughts of people like himself. He also wrote poems containing personal subject matter, such as the group of poems known as the ‘Lucy poems,’ written in conjunction with Samual Coleridge. This made his work strangely revolutionary at the time. This and the simple language of these poems (The Lyrical Ballads, 1798) show Wordsworth being extremely daring with his wish to get them published. The Lyrical Ballads were simply nothing like anyone had ever read before. The poems were intended as a revolution, as explained by Wordsworth in the ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.’
These poems are grouped together in ‘The Lyrical Ballads,’ for many different reasons. The form the poems have is very similar. Four of the poems are made up of a number of quatrains with a rhyming pattern of A-B-A-B. The fifth poem, Three years she grew, is less direct. It is made up of sextets with rhyming pattern A-A-B-C-C-B. These regular rhythms to the poems add to the sense of similarity and also to the simplicity of the poems.
The simplicity of the language Wordsworth uses is present in all of the poems, however one poem in particular is more elaborate than the others. The word order in Strange fits of passion is more complicated than in I travelled among unknown men. This is used to emphasise the words at the end of the sentence; “…and wayward thoughts will slide.” Wordsworth aimed for this simplicity of language. It’s almost child-like which was contrary to poets before Wordsworth’s time. Also unlike poetry before was the nature of the subject matter. Wordsworth wrote of his personal feelings. These poems are grouped together because they all focus on Wordsworth’s sense of loss for ‘Lucy’. He uses one particular method of doing this at the end of She dwelt among. He uses an apostrophe; “…and, oh the difference to me.” This is also the very last sentence of this poem. It is also the first time he mentions himself. The apostrophe is used to emphasise the word ‘me,’ but also to mimic a sobbing rhythm, which emphasises the sense of loss he feels for Lucy.
The poem, She dwelt among, concentrates solely on Lucy. Apart from the last word, the poem serves as an introduction to Lucy, informing us of Wordsworth’s feelings for her and also informing us that she is dead. This is different from the other poems as they mainly concentrate on Wordsworth and mostly mention Lucy only once or two times. This fact leads me to believe that this could be the first Lucy poem and is an introduction to the others. Conversely, the rhyming pattern and more elaborate language Wordsworth uses in Three years she grew, makes me think that this was not intended to be part of the same group as the other Lucy poems despite the similar subject matter.
Wordsworth shows a strong sense of the natural world around him in all of his Lucy poems. This is one of the main recurring themes included in the poems. There is often nature speaking; “Then Nature said, ‘A lovelier flower…'” This is in Three years she grew. Wordsworth also uses this in Strange fits of passion. Here there is a preface to nature, “What once to me befell,” lasting one stanza, then a conclusion in the final stanza, “What fond and wayward thoughts will slide.” This encloses five quatrains of Wordsworth noticing the nature around him; “All over the wide lea.” In She dwelt among, Wordsworth says, “A violet by a mossy stone half-hidden from the eye!” this emphasises the sense of something only half being there, “Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed.” When Wordsworth writes about this emotion he is referring to Lucy being dead, “But she’s in her grave,” but part of her still existing in his mind, “the memory of what has been.” The poems also place Lucy in part of a balanced system in “earth’s diurnal course.”
This is achieved principally in Three years she grew. Wordsworth achieves this by using a stanza full of oxymorons. “Law and impulse,” and “glade and bower,” are two examples. Wordsworth also describes Lucy as “a rose in June” in Strange fits of passion. By comparing Lucy to a rose he is telling us that as roses in June don’t last, Lucy won’t last. This is contrary to the “violet” in She dwelt among, which is a rare flower signifying Lucy’s beauty and bashfulness. In Strange fits of passion, Wordsworth mentions an “orchard-plot.” This may represent a likeness to the Garden of Eden, which in turn signifies Wordsworth’s feelings that Lucy is ‘heavenly’, almost ‘goddess-like’ status. In this poem, Strange fits of passion, there is a strong sense of attachment to the landscape emphasised by the continuous reference to the ‘hill,’ and the ‘wide lea’. In the same poem, Wordsworth brings in a very tight focus on ordinary things and makes them seem special; “My horse moved on, hoof after hoof.” This is induced by: “one of those sweet dreams.”
Wordsworth brings in his mental state in each of the poems; “A slumber did my spirit seal,” and “That melancholy dream.” This is used to emphasise the feelings he has for Lucy and particularly his sense of loss when she dies, “…and, oh, the difference to me!” it also makes his passive movements seem more dynamic. “My horse moved on; hoof after hoof.” These passive, or sometimes non-existent, movements of Wordsworth, ” …pace my horse drew nigh,” are often used to contrast the movements of Lucy, particularly at the beginning of the poems; “She shall be sportive as the fawn.” However, they can also be said to be a similarity used to link Wordsworth with Lucy as Lucy’s movements are passive at the conclusion of each poem when we find out she’s dead. “No motion has she now.”
When we do find out that Lucy is dead, Wordsworth doesn’t dwell on the death. He uses effective euphemisms such as “When Lucy ceased to be.” I think these are effective because they emphasise Wordsworth’s sense of loss by making it clear that he doesn’t really think of Lucy as gone forever and that he doesn’t want to believe that she’s dead. This is an effective way of also showing us that part of Lucy still exists, if only in his mind. Wordsworth also makes clear his feelings for Lucy. In Strange fits of passion, Wordsworth says, “and I will dare to tell, but in the lover’s ear alone.” This means that only people of similar experience with love will understand. It is a way of imitating the actions of people, an aim which Wordsworth wanted his poetry to achieve.
The tone that Wordsworth uses in the poems is also similar. The tone is very regretful and shows Wordsworth worrying about Lucy. “She seemed a thing that could not feel…” in A slumber did… and in Strange fits… “If Lucy should be dead!” This tone accompanies the subject of the poems and in doing so, creates an important similarity.
Another important similarity is the way Lucy is described and in which parts of the poems this occurs. Wordsworth often uses metaphors to explain to the reader how he thinks of Lucy. In Strange fits, “Fresh as a rose in June,” and in She dwelt among, “A violet by a mossy stone.” He does this to emphasise her ‘natural’ beauty as she is often described as an aspect of nature, which is thought to be very beautiful. Another way he shows her beauty is by his use of similes: “Fair as a star, when only…” in She dwelt among, and in Strange fits, “(as) fresh as a rose in June.” These two similes come in the second quatrain of their respective poems. Lucy is described as beautiful, using these methods, during the first few quatrains, or at the beginning of the poems. It is only in the final stanza of each poem that we find out that she is actually dead. For example, in I travelled, “The bowers where Lucy played,” and in A slumber did, “No motion has she now, no force,” (another effective euphemism for death). This adds rhythm and familiarity to the group of poems. However, there are also many differences between the poems.
The way the poems are presented is different. The tone of She dwelt among is very descriptive. It describes Lucy and her actions as well as whom she is. It doesn’t mention Wordsworth until the very last word. This is done for emphasis and also to introduce an element of intrigue to the poem. It makes the reader want to read on and find out about Wordsworth’s relationship with Lucy. The major theme throughout this poem is nature; “among the untrodden ways.” It mentions “the springs of Dove.” This refers to Wordsworth’s cottage in the Lake District. This poem is based around Wordsworth’s home there. The poem A slumber did is very different. The tone is emotional. It tells us more of Wordsworth’s feelings for Lucy, “I had no human fears.”
It is about a one-way emotional exchange between Wordsworth and Lucy. This is different from She dwelt among which does not speak of Wordsworth’s emotions. Both stanzas are also to do with passage of time; “The touch of earthly years.” There is also no sense of location in the poem. Differing to these poems is the poem Strange fits of passion. This poem commences with a preface to the narrative. This narrative tells of an actual event (Wordsworth approaching Lucy’s cottage on his horse), “And, as we climbed the hill.” As they climb the hill, Wordsworth says: “Those paths so dear to me.” This is a sharp contrast to the “untrodden ways.” In the conclusion to this narrative, in the final stanza, we see Wordsworth worrying about Lucy. We find out that she is not actually already dead; “If Lucy should be dead!” this is also a contrast to the other poems where Lucy is already dead.
This adds drama and suspense to the poem, which entices the reader. I think this is a key effect, which makes this poem different from the other Lucy poems. The poem I travelled among unknown men, brings in a third party which none of the other poems have. “What love I bore to thee.” Here, Wordsworth isn’t talking about Lucy. He is in fact speaking of his love for England. He has gone to France but realised how much he misses his homeland and what it contains, Lucy. He uses personification to describe England, “to love thee more and more.” I think that this works well in conjunction with his effective use of metaphor and simile when describing Lucy. It also brings variation into the Lucy poems, which works to differentiate this poem from the others. The way in which Wordsworth varies Three years she grew is to use a different rhyming pattern and by using sextets in place of quatrains. I think this makes the poem differ too much from the others and I would not include it in the same group as the four other Lucy poems. It also is narrative, but it is nature narrating; “This child I to myself will take.” This means it is less about Wordsworth’s feelings which makes it differ. This shows that the poems contradict each other in many ways. Lucy is the only real constant in each of the poems.
Lucy is the person with which the poems are concerned. But who is Lucy? To find out we need to examine the evidence presented in the poems. There are many clues presented to us as to Lucy’s life. As to her age, “a maid…” (meaning virgin). This implies that she is young. However, she is old enough to have a profession and work as a spinner “Turned her wheel.” She does this in her own house, “Lucy’s cottage,” which is perhaps in solitude away from any of her family and friends: “she lived unknown,” and “very few to love.” We also find out that Wordsworth was having a relationship with her: “The joy of my desire.” If Wordsworth was writing about a real-life love, she could have been perhaps Annette Vallon, the women he had a relationship with while in France. However evidence in I travelled among unknown men (in France) points to Lucy being in England: “Thy mornings showed thy nights concealed, the bowers where Lucy played.” It might also have been Mary Hutchinson, his future wife. Some people also say that Lucy is really Dorothy, his sister. It is also thought that Wordsworth was, consciously or not, having some feelings for her. His extreme guilt at such feelings explains why Lucy is killed off in the poems! However, I prefer to think of Lucy as, above all, one or more imaginary creations of Wordsworth’s own fertile psyche.
It is obvious to me that there are many similarities and also many differences between these poems. I believe that these differences were inevitable in order to make the poems as varied as possible but at the same time intending them to be taken as a group. This groups intention was to describe figments of Wordsworth’s imagination known only to us as ‘Lucy’.