William Wordsworth was certainly not without his share of tragedy, and this poem, We Are Seven, is one which evokes this tragic feeling and helps the readers to empathize with the character and thus indirectly empathize with the author.
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Summary of We Are Seven
We Are Seven by William Wordsworth begins with the speaker asking what a child, who is clearly full of life, could possibly know about death. At first the poet makes it seem as if the child doesn’t know anything about death This is due to the fact that she does not seem to understand that her siblings have died. The little girl continues to spend time singing to them, and speaking with them as if they were still alive.
By the end of We are Seven it becomes clear that the girl understands more than it seemed. She is not allowing grief to ruin her life or keep her from living happily. She shows a greater understanding through her acceptance of their deaths, and continued optimism.
You can read the poem in full here.
The speaker opens with a question, one that resonates with most if not all people. Why should a child ever have to experience death? Immediately, any reader whose ever known the untimely death of a child, or experienced a young child loose a mother, father or sibling, identifies with the speaker.
The speaker then begins to describe a young girl with whom he is speaking. He describes her “clusters” or curls around her head and her very light eyes. Once the reader has the image of a beautiful little girl in mind, he/she can imagine the conversation taking place and thereby further identify with the speaker. When the speaker claims that the beauty of the young girl made him “glad”, the reader begins to feel the effect this little girl had on the speaker.
The speaker begins a conversation with this young lively girl in which he asks her how many siblings she has. The girl replies that she is one of seven. She then explains that “two [were at] Conway”, or going to school, and that “two [were] out to sea” and finally that two were buried “in the church-yard” and that she alone lived with her mother in a home not too far from where her two siblings were buried.
Within the innocent, light-hearted answers of the young girl, there are embedded the realities of the tragedies this girl has already experiences. The reader immediately feels the loss this young girl has lived through. Even if she doesn’t express overt sadness or despair, the reader can begin to feel it for her as the reality of what she has been through sets in. The reader quickly realizes that having once had six siblings, she now lives alone with her mother.
Upon hearing her answer, the speaker questions her calculations, claiming that if two are gone to study and two are at sea, there could not be seven left. The speaker apparently doesn’t have the heart to mention the two buried siblings, but he does question how she can claim to belong to a family with seven children, when four are away. He asks her, “sweet maid, how this may be?”
To which the girl replies with much confidence, “Seven boys and girls are we”. She then reaffirms that two are laid in the ground under the tree in the church-yard.
In stanza 9 of We Are Seven, the speaker again challenges the girl. He apparently decides to let her count the siblings that are away at sea and school as part of her family, but of the two buried siblings, he says, “if two are in the church-yard laid, then ye are only five”. It would seem this stranger wants to convince the little girl of the reality of the tragedy she has endured. He is trying to get his point across that her two siblings are dead and gone, and that would mean she is only one of five children.
But the girl is unwavering in her resolve that she is one of seven. Her description of her deceased siblings reveals that they are still very real to her and very close to her. She describes their green graves, and their close proximity to where she and her mother live. She then describes her interactions with them, claiming she often knits there and sits on their graves to sing to them. She also tells this stranger that she often takes her supper out to the church yard to eat with them.
In the following three stanzas, the girl recounts her relationship with her siblings, which is enough to bring any reader to tears, although the girl shows not even the slightest sign of despair. She describes her sister Jane’s death. She says that at the moment of death, “God released her of her pain”. This description reveals that the little girl is not angry with God for taking her sister, but rather sees God as compassionate for easing her sister’s pain and taking her to be with Him rather than leaving her to suffer in the world.
The girl then tells memories of her brother, John, and how they played “together round her [Jane’s] grave”. Her memory of her brother’s death is contrasted with her lively childlike demeanor as she explains that it was in the winter when she could “run and slide” on the snow that her brother John was “forced to go”.
It is apparent that her description of her brother’s death is slightly more bitter than that of her sister’s, even if only because she was a bit older and could feel the sting of death more intensely than when she lost her sister the year before. However, she makes it very clear that she still counts both John and Jane as present siblings, even though they are laid in the church yard.
In the final two stanzas of We Are Seven, the speaker becomes frustrated at the little girl’s resolve, and in his attempt to make her understand the reality of her loss, he says, “But they are dead! Those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven”. The girl’s joyful demeanor even as she tells this stranger of the deaths of her siblings is so frustrating to him that it drives him to be distasteful enough to say to this little girl not once, but twice “they are dead!”. He is obviously irritated that the girl did not seem aware of her loss, but rather continued to live as if her siblings were simply away for a while.
His attempt to make her understand her loss was in vain, for he was “throwing words away” because “the Maid would have her way” and said as confidently as ever, “Nay, we are seven”.
As We Are Seven progresses, the reader can clearly see that the child has a much more hopeful idea of death than the stranger she was speaking with. It was hard for the child to see her siblings laid in the ground, but she never felt as if they were gone. She still felt close to them, and she kept them alive in her heart by engaging in activities with them. Most intriguing, is this little girl’s confidence that she would see them again. In fact, she was just as confident that she would again see Jane and John as she was confident that she would see her other four siblings that were away. It is apparent that this hope kept the young girl from being overcome with grief. The description in the second stanza of this girl being full of life, beauty, and hope, makes it clear that she has not been overcome with sadness.
Even though the speaker seems to think the girl is unreasonable, and even illogical, the quickly becomes aware that the child possesses wisdom deeper than that of the adult with whom she is speaking. Her ability to endure such tragedy without growing cold and bitter or sad and depressed, reveals a wisdom and understanding beyond her years. The speaker, who is the adult the little girl is speaking with, symbolizes the average adult. Had the speaker been faced with the tragedy this little girl had faced, he would have despaired because he would have counted the deceased ones as dead and gone forever. The little girl on the other hand had hope for an after-life and found joy in their memories.
This young girl’s ability to grieve and yet hope in the midst of loosing ones so close to her reveals the inward peace that comes from her hope and confidence in a gracious God and a better after-life.
William Wordsworth Background
William Wordsworth himself suffered the loss of his mother at age eight, the same age as this little girl in We Are Seven. He also lost his father when he was thirteen. It is possible that the speaker in We Are Seven symbolizes the adult version of William Wordsworth, while the eight year old symbolizes his younger self.
Wordsworth lost his two children. These tragedies he did not overcome the way he overcame the loss of his mother and father. He suffered loss as a child, and as a child, he was able to press on with hope for the future. When he suffered loss as an adult, however, he no longer had the same childlike faith and his grief overcame him.
Wordsworth implies through We Are Seven that the ability to deal with loss as a hopeful child would, is indeed a great feat. To see death with the confidence and hopefulness of a child and to cherish the memories and still feel close to the lost ones is something that takes childlike faith. The juxtaposition of the speaker and the child suggests that the child, in fact, possesses the greater wisdom.