Wordsworth explores this question and more in ‘Michael.’ He also makes it clear that despite its visual beauty, life in the country isn’t always as ideal as it seems.
‘Michael’ written in 1800 at Grasmere and published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. The poem deals with man’s struggle in this hostile world to maintain his values and reputation, through the life of Michael, a lonely former. As Bernard Groom remarks about the poem, “Wordsworth’s picture of rural life in Michael is less idyllic and nearer to historical truth than some readers may suppose.”(The Unity of Wordsworth Poetry)
‘Michael’ is a simple pastoral poem that bears the closest resemblance to the bareness of solitude in the mountain as well as the difficult life lead by the people in the mountains.
Michael is a story of a man’s struggle to maintain himself and his values in a hostile universe. As Wordsworth himself stated, this tale of Michael heard when he was a boy, led him to feel for other men and to think ‘on man, the heart of man, and human life.’ The poem depicts the story of an old shepherd, his wife, and their son, Luke.
As the son grew up, he became his father’s ‘comfort and daily hope.’ When the boy is eighteen, Michael had to discharge the debts of a nephew for whom he has given surety. To compensate for this loss, he sends his son to a wealthy distant relative for employment. Before his departure, Michael instructs Luke of his obligations towards his forefathers. He needs to lay a cornerstone as a sacred promise to fulfill his duty. But, when the boy goes into the world, he is distraught, and the outer world tempts him. He leaves old Michael and his wife alone to take care of themselves.
Theme and Setting
Michael is a tragic poem that deals with the traumatic life of Michael, a shepherd with dignity. Wordsworth focuses on man’s struggle to maintain himself and his values in a hostile world that tries to pull him down. It delineates how an orderly life of a man breaks up into disconnectedness and chaos.
Theme and setting go hand in hand to express the purpose of the poet. The poet got the inspiration for this poem when he visited the lonely valley of Greenhead Ghyll. In this place of utter solitude, he learned about the tales of shepherds. Thus, he set the poem in the hills of Grasmere valley, an idealized rural setting. Here, Michael, the shepherd on whom the poem is written leads a respectable life, until fate has its way with him.
Form and Structure
Michael is a long narrative poem that consists of 483 lines. It is a pastoral poem for it deals with the life of a shepherd and the struggles he undergoes in his life. Michael is written in blank verse. The Michael of the title is the poem’s protagonist. Wordsworth begins the poem with a detailed description of the place and the inspiration he has received.
Michael as a Pastoral Poem
Michael is a simple pastoral poem but does not follow the exact definition of it. The poem tells the pathetic life tale of a poor shepherd. The setting of the poem is pastoral as it happens around the place in “Greenhead Ghyll.” But, it lacks the artistic beauty and mood of the typical pastoral poems. The poem is conceived of a great mind like that of Wordsworth, an acclaimed nature poet, thus earned the credit of a pastoral poem despite him missing out to meet up the standard of traditional pastoral farm and style.
Analysis of Michael
Lines 1 -39
IF from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone.
In this introductory part of the poem, ‘Michael,’ Wordsworth vividly describes the land on which Michael lives, making it seem like paradise. It is a lonely valley of Greenhead Ghyll, a solitary place in the valley among the high mountains. There is a small river and by the side of that small river, there lie some uncut stones. This place is associated with rich and strange events, some tales of shepherds. The poet, at this point, is a boy, careless of books, yet having felt the power of natural objects. He learns about the people and life that existed there, he starts to think of ‘on man, the heart of man and human life.’ As the poet says, here, he introduces his subject of the poem, a ’homely and rude’ life of a shepherd.
Upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale
There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name;
An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself.
In these lines, he introduces “Michael,” the protagonist of the poem. He was an old man, ‘stout of heart, and strong of limb’. In his occupation, he was prompt and watchful more than an ordinary man. He could understand the nature of winds. When the south wind blew, he anticipated the storm and so he hurried to the mountain top to bring his sheep to safety. He had in his memory many incidents of hardships, skill or courage, joy, or fear. For him, the hills were a book in which he could read many experiences. He had a pleasurable feeling of blind love for the fields.
Lines 78 – 109
His days had not been passed in singleness.
His Helpmate was a comely matron, old—
Though younger than himself full twenty years.
Some injury done to sickle, flail, or scythe,
Or other implement of house or field.
Between lines 78 and 109, Wordsworth describes Michael’s wife and their child. His wife is twenty years younger than him. She was a homely woman fully conscious of her domestic duties. She had two wheels, one for spinning wool, the other for flax. The son, they had in their old age. From his young age, the child seems to help his parents, along with the two sheepdogs they had. The trio, together, showcases hard work among the villagers. Even after they retire from the day’s work, Michael and Luke work on repairing plow or sickle or cleaning wool. Altogether, the speaker elaborates on how they live in dependence on nature.
Lines 110 -139
Down from the ceiling, by the chimney’s edge,
That in our ancient uncouth country style
Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
Both old and young, was named THE EVENING STAR.
In the lines from 110 to 139, Wordsworth shares a vivid description of the house and their life around it. The cottage they lived in stood on a huge projected piece of land. When the sunset, Isabella being a housewife, lights a lamp which was an old piece hanging from the ceiling. The light in the house symbolizes the labor the family engages in after the sunset also as a name meaning for the house. The house came to be called the ‘Evening Star’ for when the fellow villagers retire to work; the trio continues to work in their cottage by their respective types of equipment.
Lines 140 -176
Thus living on through such a length of years,
The Shepherd, if he loved himself, must needs
By catching at their legs, or with his shouts
Scared them, while they lay still beneath the shears.
Wordsworth in these lines between 140 and 176 of ‘Michael’ illustrates the bonding between the father and son. The shepherd loved his wife Isabel, but when Luke entered their life, he came to love his son more. He loved his son more than a father for he has seen the hope for his future in Luke. A son in old age by Michael is considered as a gift if a man ‘by the tendency of nature needs must fail.’ Thus, when the boy was a baby, he tended him with the care of a mother more than a father who takes care of his child as a pastime. Also, Wordsworth clearly portrays the father and son bonding in the work field at a very young age. Michael seems to take the boy to the field at a very young age and under the oak tree known as clip tree, he will ensure the boy getting along with the sheep at the same time checking on him from throwing any tantrums that would scare the sheep off.
Lines 177 – 206
And when by Heaven’s good grace the boy grew up
A healthy Lad, and carried in his cheek
Two steady roses that were five years old;
Thus in his Father’s sight the Boy grew up:
And now, when he had reached his eighteenth year,
He was his comfort and his daily hope.
In these lines between 177 and 206 of the poem ‘Michael’, the poet shares a glimpse of how Luke grows into a young man of eighteen under the care and guidance of his father. From the time Luke turned five, Michael gave him the shepherd’s staff and started training the boy in guarding the sheep. Though, at that young age, his works were more of a hindrance than a help. But, as he grew up he becomes a bold boy who is not afraid of any hard work. Thus, he became a companion to his father as he grew up to a healthy young man of eighteen.
Lines 207 – 303
While in this sort the simple household lived
From day to day, to Michael’s ear there came
Distressful tidings. Long before the time
Did she bring forth, and all together sat
Like happy people round a Christmas fire.
Wordsworth brings in the twist into this happy tale in line 207, when a distressful event happens, where Michael was called to clear out the debt of his nephew. Michael realizes that the repayment would cost him half his wealth. At this point, he gets an idea and decides to send Luke away to the city to work under a wealthy Kinsman. For he has witnessed many young boys become rich who go into the city. He hopes the same would help him to clear out the debt without selling his property. Isabel works on arranging the required things for her journey at the same time worried about her husband’s situation. Knowing her heart Luke reassures her and decides to leave for the city.
Lines 304 – 360
With daylight Isabel resumed her work;
And all the ensuing week the house appeared
As cheerful as a grove in Spring: at length
And said, ‘Nay, do not take it so—I see
That these are things of which I need not speak.
These lines capture the excitement of sending the boy to the city and the emotional transactions between the father and son. The family spends the week preparing for his journey. And, the day before his departure, Michael takes him to the valley, where he has planned to build a sheepfold. He recollects all those days he has spent with young Luke and tells him of his love for the boy. This emotional side of the father makes the son sob.
Lines 361 – 418
Even to the utmost I have been to thee
A kind and a good Father: and herein
I but repay a gift which I myself
’Twill be between us; but, whatever fate
Befall thee, I shall love thee to the last,
And bear thy memory with me to the grave.’
In these lines, Michael further speaks about his father and how they worked in the field. Moreover, he tells the boy about the reason for sending him away against his own interest in keeping him. Also, he suggests the boy lay the cornerstone believing that it would help the boy to remember the hard works of his parents and him. He then tells Luke, how he would love him to his last.
Lines 419 – 448
The Shepherd ended here; and Luke stooped down,
And, as his Father had requested, laid
The first stone of the Sheepfold. At the sight
To evil courses: ignominy and shame
Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.
Wordsworth elaborates on how the boy who goes with the goodwill of his parents and the neighbors’ turn the evil way to bring shame upon him. Initially, he seems to work hard, earning a good name for himself that makes the old couple happy. But as time passes, he is taken over by the evil claws of the city life and driven away by ignominy.
Lines 449 – 483
There is a comfort in the strength of love;
’Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart:
Of the unfinished Sheepfold may be seen
Beside the boisterous brook of Greenhead Ghyll.
In these concluding lines, the poet details how the parents, especially, Michael receives the news of his son’s haphazard life. The old man bore the news with unusual strength and love went about his work happily. Despite the disappointment, he went on building the sheepfold, until he could no longer work on it. Still, he seems to be found around the sheepfold with his dog often until seven years later. He dies a lonely death with his son, who used to be his helpmate and companion. Another three Isabel too dies leaving the land in the hands of a stranger. In the place where they lived nothing remains now except for the half-finished sheepfold that stands to testify the story of Michael.
Literary and Poetic Devices Used
‘Michael’ deals with a simple shepherd whose tale is narrated in simple language. Still, Wordsworth has incorporated some of the literary and poetic techniques such as Personification, Allusion, Amplification, Aphorism, Metaphors, Similes, Analogies, Imagery, and Mood.
- Personification. Personification is when a nonliving thing is given living or human characteristics or abilities. In this popular poem of Wordsworth, he has used personification at many levels while he describes the elements and characteristics of nature in close association with the life of Michael. The land, Brook, Sun, Wind and the field, etc are given human attributes in the poem as he says. “the land was free,” “boisterous brook,” “The sun himself has scarcely been more diligent than I,” “free as is the wind,” “The field went forth with a light heart,” and “her mind was busy.”
- Allusion. Michael is enriched with references that echo biblical allusions. Michael’s situation is parallels narratives such as “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” “The Profits of Isaac,” and “The Prodigal Son.” When Michael describes the way he is blessed, “God blessed me in my work” it alludes to Isaac being blessed with a hundred percent profit for his hard work. Also, the father and son duo is compared to the relationship between Abraham and Isaac also towards the end Luke’s act of letting go of his father’s word to be rotten in ways refers to the prodigal son who goes away to exploit the wealth of his father. But, here, he goes away to forget all the good teachings of his father.
- Amplification. Amplification as a literary technique embellishes a sentence by adding more information to it in order to increase its worth and understandability. In ‘Michael’ Isabel tells Luke “do not go away,/ For if thou leave thy Father he will die” which exaggerates the father-son strong bond.
- Aphorism. Aphorism is a phrase that embodies a moral, a pithy observation that contains a general truth. While parting Michael tells Luke, “God will strengthen thee: amid all fear and all temptations.”
- Alliteration. Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. And in ‘Michael’ alliteration could be seen in the lines “Boisterous brook,” “summer shade,” “Sailing in the sky,” “made mention,” which provide rhythm and musicality.
- Metaphors, similes, and analogies. A simile is comparing one with the other, while a metaphor is often comparing something with something else. Similarly, an analogy is comparing one with the other to make some sort of an explanatory point. Often, metaphors and similes are combined when creating an analogy. Wordsworth in ‘Michael’ has used the comparisons in the lines “Like a book, reserved the memory,” “free as is the wind,” and “the land was a precious gem” to draw an analogy.
- Imagery and mood. Imagery and setting help a writer create a mood that could affect the emotional reaction of the readers towards the piece of literature. Wordsworth’s imagery and mood in the lines “and kites, that overhead are sailing in the sky,” “the mountains have all opened out themselves, and made a hidden valley of their own,” “The pastoral mountains front you,” and “light to the sun and music to the wind” adds to the pastoral beauty of the poem.
The lasting fame of the pastoral form of poetry remains untouched across ages in the field of literature. Similar to Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ pastoral poems explore the relationship between humans and nature, also romanticizes the ideals of simple country life as in:
- The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlow
- Lycidas by John Milton
- The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Walter Raleigh
- Adonais by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman