Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wordsworth's "We Are Seven," (lines 65-69)

"We Are Seven" is one of the most evocative, yet disarmingly simple of Wordsworth's contributions to the famous Lyrical Ballads of 1798. The poem describes an encounter between the first-person speaker and an eight-year-old "cottage girl." This encounter represents the contrast between a relatively experienced, urbane, and rather patronizing speaker and the simple, innocent, rural life represented by the girl, and one might expect the weight of the "argument" to favor the more sophisticated speaker. As the final stanza (below) illustrates, however, the speaker is unable to persuade the girl that his view is "correct." Thus, the contrast between these characters is not resolved within the poem—they never agree with one another—but the poem as a whole is suffused with a gentle, sometimes comical irony that undercuts the speaker's supposed "superiority."

Initially, the speaker meets the girl, asks how many brothers and sisters she has, and finds out that, of the seven original siblings, four have moved to distant locations and two have died. By the speaker's reckoning, the dead siblings no longer "count," so the girl should have said that there are now a total of five siblings. The girl, however, insists on "counting" the dead siblings. After all, they are perhaps even more present to her than her absent living siblings—she still goes to their graves to knit her stockings or eat her porridge. The speaker, of course, tries repeatedly to get the girl to see the "error" in her thinking, but, to the speaker's growing exasperation, she sticks to her claim. Finally, in the last stanza the speaker exclaims


"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"


It's an amusing conclusion to the poem, and perhaps more subtle than it might first appear. The speaker, of course, expresses a kind of half-genuine, half-mock exasperation at the girl's stubborn refusal to acknowledge his accounting. This is followed by the common expression, "'Twas throwing words away"—the line seems to me to have a familiar tone, as one might adopt in telling the story to a confidant who (you were certain) agreed with your way of thinking. Ironically, however, it is the speaker who has been "throwing words away"—it is the speaker's arguments that have failed to convince the girl, and she is the one with the poem's final words.

Potentially even more significant here are the religious overtones to the "argument." From the speaker's point of view, death is a matter of transcendence and complete separation. The spirits of the departed are...well...departed—they no longer "count" in the world of nature. Or, to put this another way, the speaker sees human identity in metaphysical terms. Once the "spirit" is in "heaven," the body no longer counts for anything. From the girl's perspective, however, this absolute identification with the spirit and consequent dismissal of the body is simply wrong. While she fully acknowledges that, at some level, her sister Jane "went away" and that her brother John "was forced to go," she also recognizes that they still—in the actual practice of her daily life—are very much physically present. She insists, in effect, that one cannot make such a clean distinction between the spirit and the flesh, between body and soul, as the speaker assumes. The tangible, physical world of porridge and knitting and singing and Nature itself offers a comforting and companionable presence even when the spirit has departed.

The poem is a short easy read, and easily accessible on the web. One tidy reading copy is on Bartleby.com; or, check the edition from the University of Oregon. For a full-blown and beautifully edited electronic edition, complete with the many different versions of Lyrical Ballads and "We Are Seven," see the Electronic Scholarly Edition at Romantic Circles.

Read well.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cool blog!

Anonymous said...

great stuff man

kent norton said...

Physical empiricist vs. Spiritual narrativas. Neuroscience, metaphysics and naturalism. Great contrasts