Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | "Michael" | Summary

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Summary

"Michael" is an extended ballad, pastoral in nature, dealing with rural life and shepherding. A long poem of 491 lines, it appeared at the end of Lyrical Ballads. The story involves an aged father, Michael, and his younger wife, Isabel. The couple has one son, Luke, whom they raise lovingly to take over their property with devotion to the simple ideals they have lived by. Their setting is lonely and isolated as they concentrate their lives and energies on themselves. The story seems familiar as part of the folklore of the area, which as the poet says is, "homely and rude," meaning down to earth and unpolished.

The story is of a man who became a father late in life and the cares he and his somewhat younger wife take to form the family bond. They became legendary for the great work they expended on their rocky land and their devotion to it. Isabel hung a lamp "by the chimney's edge," which became a familiar sign in the area. It signaled their uncounted hours of labor, called in the poem "a public Symbol of the life the thrifty pair had lived." Their homestead was called by all "The Evening Star."

Michael, the father, gave great attention to the child as a baby and youth, sharing duties with his wife, so that Luke grew up with two close parents. Michael and Luke often sat by a huge oak called the Clipping Tree and tended the sheep. When Luke was old enough, he had to be sent, against all their desires, to work in the city to pay off an obligation Michael had incurred in good faith. Years before he had to stake his ownership of his land because his nephew had run up debts by ill luck, and no one else could help. To hold it for Luke, he would have to come up with a large sum or have the land seized.

The family struggles emotionally with the decision to separate, but both parents eventually find peace with sending Luke to work in the city for another relative, in the hope he can earn enough to settle the legal claim. To comfort them all, Michael lays a large rock at the spot where he promises Luke they will together build a new sheepfold, or shelter for the sheep, upon his return. Nothing will touch the spot in his absence. But after a time Luke falls victim to the temptations of city life, loses his direction and family devotion, and disappears. Michael and Isabel wait faithfully for their son, but their own lives reach their end, and he never returns. Michael is comforted by his loyal dog for some years, but he dies at 80, and Isabel follows him three years later.

In time everything changes around their land, The Evening Star cottage is demolished, and they live on only in legend. But the stone placed by the father for his son, as well as the giant oak tree, remain as reminders they were there at all.

Analysis

"Michael" has great power and strength in its form of pastoral legend. It may seem material for song or visual portrayal since the details in almost 500 lines are so vivid. Unusual for Wordsworth, it deals more with actual images of objects than impressions given on a receptive mind. In fact, the land he describes is so isolated and difficult that is seems contrary to the usual green and lush surroundings of the poems normally so suggestive to his mind. But this may be for greater effect: the poet narrates a story of intense devotion, even fanatical love of the land and family. At the time of its composition in 1800, the poem's story is already dealing with changes in ownership of land in England under the Industrial Revolution when properties were bought and consolidated and often long-standing ownership ended.

Michael's family is small, but tightly united and bound to each other. The story has distinct echoes of the Bible and the aged fatherhood of Abraham in one story and the sending off of Joseph into captivity in another. This gives greater depth to the poem, which might otherwise seem mostly a folktale of a time and place.

There is much attention given to all aspects of the family life, how they live, and how they light their surroundings and spend their time, including the devoted mother. Clear symbols are given in the lamp, the tree, the stone for the sheepfold never built, the debt that can never be paid, the dog that replaces Luke in its loyalty to Michael, and the eventual disappearance of their presence from the land—which remains after they are gone. Through these images, Wordsworth praises the duties inherent in the rural way of life as opposed to the variabilities of existence away from it. His pessimism may cloud for readers the love of the family members, since one senses as the story unfolds that it will end badly.

Tears are shed in the story, but at the end, adult strength of character remains. Michael can die knowing his land was as much his as it ever was during his lifetime, just as his fierce paternal devotion outlasts the temptations that lead his son astray. What could seem sentimental instead stands as flinty and hard as the land where he has laid the one stone his son could take as a sign of faith in human relationships, even if Luke does not fulfill his part of the promise.

As in the "Ode on Immortality," the fear of loss and abandonment that the parents suffer in sending Luke away and see realized is finally too deep for tears in old age. The poem ends in stoicism and acceptance of changes in life and humanity, but the parents at least are true to each other, to the land, and to their son. The silent sheepfold stands as witness to their love and faith.

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