William Wordsworth

Lucy Gray by William Wordsworth

Any readers familiar with William Wordsworth’s poetry, such as ‘Lucy Gray,’ know that the death of a child is a common theme throughout his works. Wordsworth suffered the loss of his own son and daughter, and those deaths seem to forever haunt him.

Wordsworth’s works of poetry are filled with themes of death. Sometimes, he finds comfort in thoughts of the afterlife. Other times, he despairs. In his poem, ‘Strange Fits of Passion have I known,’ he describes the crippling fear of losing the one he loves. Throughout his poetry, the name Lucy nearly always refers to one he loved and lost. Sometimes, Lucy symbolizes a lover, and other times she symbolizes the pure and innocent love a father has for his daughter. Many critics have argued over the identity of Lucy, but most have concluded that she does not represent one single person. Rather, she is a character comprised of all the people that Wordsworth ever loved and lost.

Critics have referred to five of Wordsworth’s poems as the “Lucy Poems”. These include, ‘Strange Fits of Passion Have I known,’ ‘She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways,’ ‘I Travelled Among Unknown Men,’ ‘Three Years She Grew in Sun and Shower and ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.’

This particular poem, ‘Lucy Gray,’ was written sometime after his other “Lucy” poems and is not often grouped with the others. Critics have not been able to come to a decisive stance on the identity of Lucy, and those who knew Wordsworth best claim that he was very elusive when asked about her. All that can be gathered about Lucy from his poems suggest that she represents more than one person and that she is the combined representation of all the people that Wordsworth had loved and lost. She seems to possess a supernatural perfection and flawlessness of character. Her spirit seems to haunt Wordsworth, and he dwells upon her. The sheer number of poems that mention her reveal that he was forever thinking about her, or those whom she represents.

Lucy Gray
William Wordsworth

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray:And, when I crossed the wild,I chanced to see at break of dayThe solitary child.

No mate, no comrade Lucy knew;She dwelt on a wide moor,--The sweetest thing that ever grewBeside a human door!

You yet may spy the fawn at play,The hare upon the green;But the sweet face of Lucy GrayWill never more be seen.

"To-night will be a stormy night--You to the town must go;And take a lantern, Child, to lightYour mother through the snow."

"That, Father! will I gladly do:'Tis scarcely afternoon--The minster-clock has just struck two,And yonder is the moon!"

At this the Father raised his hook,And snapped a faggot-band;He plied his work;--and Lucy tookThe lantern in her hand.

Not blither is the mountain roe:With many a wanton strokeHer feet disperse the powdery snow,That rises up like smoke.

The storm came on before its time:She wandered up and down;And many a hill did Lucy climb:But never reached the town.

The wretched parents all that nightWent shouting far and wide;But there was neither sound nor sightTo serve them for a guide.

At day-break on a hill they stoodThat overlooked the moor;And thence they saw the bridge of wood,A furlong from their door.

They wept--and, turning homeward, cried,"In heaven we all shall meet;"--When in the snow the mother spiedThe print of Lucy's feet.

Then downwards from the steep hill's edgeThey tracked the footmarks small;And through the broken hawthorn hedge,And by the long stone-wall;

And then an open field they crossed:The marks were still the same;They tracked them on, nor ever lost;And to the bridge they came.

They followed from the snowy bankThose footmarks, one by one,Into the middle of the plank;And further there were none!

--Yet some maintain that to this dayShe is a living child;That you may see sweet Lucy GrayUpon the lonesome wild.

O'er rough and smooth she trips along,And never looks behind;And sings a solitary songThat whistles in the wind.
Lucy Gray by William Wordsworth

Lucy Gray Analysis

Stanza One

Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray:
And, when I crossed the wild,
I chanced to see at break of day
The solitary child.

This stanza provides the setting and the foreshadowing for the rest of the poem. The reader knows that Lucy Gray has been heard of before, and often. The speaker then claims that he saw “the solitary child” right “at break of day”. At this point, the speaker does not reveal why he has heard of Lucy Gray. Nor does he reveal why seeing her is worth mentioning. The first stanza simply strikes up curiosity about Lucy and sets her up as an important figure.

Stanza Two

No mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wide moor,
–The sweetest thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!

This stanza continues to create curiosity about Lucy. The speaker says that she has “no mate” and “no comrade”. This corresponds with his description of her in the previous stanza as a “solitary child”. Then he says that “she dwelt on a wide moor”. It is a strange thing to imagine a child with no friends or family, alone and living outside. One might begin to think that he is describing some kind of feral child, but line three of this stanza contradicts that idea entirely. The speaker says that she is “the sweetest thing that ever grew beside a human door”.

Now, the readers can understand that Lucy is a sweet, darling child. The last line says that she grew “beside a human door”. It seems strange that she did not grow inside that door, since she is a human child. The speaker has already mentioned that “she dwelt among the moor”. These two descriptions cause the readers to wonder about Lucy and her strange identity.

Stanza Three

You yet may spy the fawn at play,
The hare upon the green;
But the sweet face of Lucy Gray
Will never more be seen.

Here, the speaker talks directly to the readers and says that they may “spy the fawn at play” and that they may catch sight of a “hare upon the green” but that “the sweet face of Lucy Gray will never more be seen”. With this stanza, the speaker reveals that something has happened to Lucy.

Stanza Four

“To-night will be a stormy night–
You to the town must go;
And take a lantern, Child, to light
Your mother through the snow.”

The quotes here indicate that the speaker is now telling a story. This perhaps is a story he has heard from another. He begins to talk from another’s point of view. This person apparently sent the child out in the snow with a lantern to find her mother.

Stanza Five

“That, Father! will I gladly do:
‘Tis scarcely afternoon–
The minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the moon!”

The speaker has already described Lucy as “the sweetest thing” so it does not come as a surprise that she should respond, “That, Father! Will I gladly do:”. This also reveals that the speaker within the quotes is Lucy’s father. The father sends his daughter out at two o’clock in the afternoon. He asks her to take a lantern to her mother. Lucy gladly goes.

Stanza Six

At this the Father raised his hook,
And snapped a faggot-band;
He plied his work;–and Lucy took
The lantern in her hand.

This stanza continues the story from the original speaker’s point of view. He says that the father returned to his work as Lucy went out with “the lantern in her hand”.

Stanza Seven

Not blither is the mountain roe:
With many a wanton stroke
Her feet disperse the powdery snow,
That rises up like smoke.

This stanza describes Lucy as walking along slowly and carelessly, kicking up the “powdery snow” as she walks, and watching it rise “like smoke”. These descriptions of Lucy help to continue to paint a picture of a sweet and innocent child. The more the reader gets to know Lucy, the more he feels anxious about her because the speaker has previously stated that she is to be seen no more. The image of a little girl, doing as her father asked, kicking up snow as she walks, serves to attach the readers to Lucy.

Stanza Eight

The storm came on before its time:
She wandered up and down;
And many a hill did Lucy climb:
But never reached the town.

With the first line of this stanza, the speaker reveals what will happen to Lucy. “The storm came on before its time” and Lucy “wandered up and down” and climbed “many a hill…but never reached the town”. With this description, the readers can imagine poor little Lucy, lost in the storm and climbing hill after hill only to be lost in the storm.

Stanza Nine

The wretched parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.

This stanza reveals that at some point during the night, Lucy’s mother returned home. When her parents realized that Lucy had never made it to town with the lantern, they were “wretched…all that night” as any parent would be as they frantically search for their child. They “went shouting far and wide” but found nothing in the darkness and silence of the night.

Stanza Ten

At day-break on a hill they stood
That overlooked the moor;
And thence they saw the bridge of wood,
A furlong from their door.

Again, the speaker mentions day-break. This is a significant time in the poem. This is the time of day when the speaker mentions having seen Lucy Gray. This is also the time of day when the parents realize that Lucy has probably not made it through the winter storm.

Stanza Eleven

They wept–and, turning homeward, cried,
“In heaven we all shall meet;”
–When in the snow the mother spied
The print of Lucy’s feet.

At this point, the parents weep and give up their search for Lucy. They turn home and cling to the hope that they would meet with their daughter again in heaven. At that moment, “the mother spied the print of Lucy’s feet”. She has been all night in the storm. She is not likely to have survived. However, the sight of her footprint gives hope.

Stanza Twelve

Then downwards from the steep hill’s edge
They tracked the footmarks small;
And through the broken hawthorn hedge,
And by the long stone-wall;

With this, the parents begin to follow her footprints. They see that she walked “through the broken hawthorn hedge and by the long stone-wall”. With hope in their hearts, they continue to follow in her footsteps. By now, the reader is likely fully sympathizing with the parents. The feeling of frantically searching, the weeping and accepting her death, and the renewed hope at seeing her footsteps are all feelings the readers can either relate to or at least imagine.

Stanza Thirteen

And then an open field they crossed:
The marks were still the same;
They tracked them on, nor ever lost;
And to the bridge they came.

The parents track her prints all the way across the field and to a bridge. The readers can imagine the way the parents must be feeling as they followed their daughter’s footprints and were forced to imagine her trudging through the snowstorm, lost and afraid.

Stanza Fourteen

They followed from the snowy bank
Those footmarks, one by one,
Into the middle of the plank;
And further there were none!

This stanza invokes the feeling of intense loss. While the parents follow in the footsteps of the child, there is hope that she might be found alive at the end of those footprints. Instead, the prints led the parents to the “middle of the plank” on the bridge, and suddenly the footprints stop. The only conclusion is that Lucy fell off the bridge.

Stanza Fifteen

–Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.

This stanza reveals to the readers that the body of little Lucy was never found. Had it been found, people would not continue to claim that “she is a living child”. But they do, and furthermore, they claim that she can still be seen “upon the lonesome wild”. This suggests that it is the spirit of Lucy that is alive and can still be seen. This also gives more insight into the opening stanzas in which the speaker claims that he saw her and that she was a “solitary child”. It was the spirit of Lucy Gray that he had often heard of and which he claims to have seen.

Stanza Sixteen

O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.

The speaker repeats again that he has seen Lucy Gray, and he describes her as she is now. He says that “she trips along and never looks behind” as she “sings a solitary song”. This gives a peaceful description of Lucy and implies that she perhaps sang and skipped along before the storm took her away. It suggests that she was not terrified by the storm, but that she was taken suddenly and by surprise. Essentially, it suggests that she died happy, skipping along in the snow. This, of course, would be what the parents would have desperately hoped for after realizing that their daughter was not alive.

The story perpetrated about Lucy Gray suggests that if her spirit lives on, it is the happy spirit of a lively young child skipping along through the snow.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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