Happy New Year! Here’s to a year of growth, success, love & good literature. All the best! ♡ This year I want to read more poetry so I’m kicking off 2019 with a post on William Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Three years she grew in sun and shower’.
To speak of suffering in literature is hazardous; it can, understandably, be considered unethical and graceless to use grief as a means of gratifying a reader but William Wordsworth, in his poetry, speaks of suffering tactfully and beautifully, in a way that neither offends, nor jades. He allows a feeling of calm to fall over his poems that speak of suffering evocatively, to soften the expression of suffering that they elicit; there is nothing hard or distressing about the sorrow in these poems, it is beautiful, gentle and moving.
In his ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’ (1802), Wordsworth writes,
‘The human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability’.
Wordsworth wrote some of his most provocative poetry during the time of the industrialisation of England, a time in which the ‘increasing accumulation of men in cities’ meant that that these men sought ‘extraordinary incident’ both in the printed media, which perpetually reported the horrific happenings in France during the French Revolution, and in the ‘frantic novels’ that consumed contemporary literature. He believed that this craving for violently stimulating narrative equated to a loss of connection with the ‘beauty and dignity’ of the human mind and his work, he seemed to hope, would restore his readers’ sensitivity to the inherent ‘beauty and dignity’ of human nature.
Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Three years she grew’ is one of five compositions that, collectively, are known as ‘The Lucy Poems’. In ‘Three years she grew’ Wordsworth’s speaker tells the story of Lucy, a young girl whom Nature decided to take for her own. Nature, in the second stanza of the poem, takes control of the narrative, detailing, for the duration of five stanzas, the things that will happen once she has taken her: she will become a part of Nature, she will understand Nature’s secrets, she will mature, become a woman, and live happily. Despite the content of the poem being concerned with suffering, Wordsworth’s remarkably beautiful way with words leaves the reader with a sense of quiet sadness, rather than excited anguish. In the final stanza of the poem, Wordsworth presents his reader with a ‘calm and quiet scene’; the tone of the heath reflects the emotional state of the speaker. A kind of numbness is suggested in the quietude and a sad acceptance in the calm falls over the poem, but it is not only a gentle sadness that is present in this final stanza, there is also a sense of quiet defiance and anger. Wordsworth writes, ‘She died, and left to me / This heath’, and when he places the comma, a caesura, after ‘she died’ on the next line, when the reader must pause while reading the poem, he places an emphasis on the phrase; it becomes arresting, but it isn’t striking, it’s gentle rather than ‘exciting’ or ‘stimulating’, sad, but beautiful. Not only this, but Wordsworth’s caesura laid in the middle of a line; Lucy’s life has ended, but her memory lives on, both on that very same line, and in the heath that she ‘leaves’ to the speaker.
On the line just before, Wordsworth writes, ‘How soon my Lucy’s race was run!’. This exclamation suggests a feeling of enmity on behalf of the speaker but it is tamed by the sense of calm that prevails over the poem. The pain is there, but the speaker does not howl with anguish; the line is an expression of dejection but is filled with feeling rather than untamed scorn. There is nothing of Lord Byron’s ‘haughty scorn’ or bleeding heart’ in this poem, only — as Wordsworth writes in his poem, ‘Tintern Abbey’ — the ‘still, sad music of humanity’.
William Wordsworth certainly does not shy away from the theme of suffering in his poetry — in fact, writing something as matter-of-fact as ‘she died’ is possibly one of the most evocative and powerfully moving ways of talking about death — he, instead, envelopes feelings of suffering in a beautiful serenity, disallowing excitement and eliciting, only a feeling of soft and gentle sorrow, poignant and melancholic. His poetry speaks of the most honest and human experience, suffering, in a way that does not excite and does not breed temporary pleasure and while speaking of human suffering in literature is precarious, Wordsworth’s careful infusion of a feeling of calm into these poems of suffering, evokes, not excitement and not a passing gratification but, instead, a sense of something deeply moving and meaningful.