Wordsworth: “We Are Seven”

 William Wordsworth, English Romantic poet (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850)

In 1798, Wordsworth was staying with Samuel Coleridge at Alfoxden.  The two men had decided to publish a book of poetry together.  After Coleridge completed his Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth was inspired to write a poem based on a young girl he had met during a walk six years prior:

          That lightly draws its breath,
          And feels its life in every limb,
          What should it know of death?

          I met a little cottage Girl:
          She was eight years old, she said;
          Her hair was thick with many a curl
          That clustered round her head.

          She had a rustic, woodland air,
          And she was wildly clad:                                    10
          Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
          –Her beauty made me glad.

          “Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
          How many may you be?”
          “How many? Seven in all,” she said
          And wondering looked at me.

          “And where are they? I pray you tell.”
          She answered, “Seven are we;
          And two of us at Conway dwell,
          And two are gone to sea.                                    20

          “Two of us in the church-yard lie,
          My sister and my brother;
          And, in the church-yard cottage, I
          Dwell near them with my mother.”

          “You say that two at Conway dwell,
          And two are gone to sea,
          Yet ye are seven!–I pray you tell,
          Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

          Then did the little Maid reply,
          “Seven boys and girls are we;                               30
          Two of us in the church-yard lie,
          Beneath the church-yard tree.”

          “You run about, my little Maid,
          Your limbs they are alive;
          If two are in the church-yard laid,
          Then ye are only five.”

          “Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
          The little Maid replied,
          “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
          And they are side by side.                                  40

          “My stockings there I often knit,
          My kerchief there I hem;
          And there upon the ground I sit,
          And sing a song to them.

          “And often after sunset, Sir,
          When it is light and fair,
          I take my little porringer,
          And eat my supper there.

          “The first that died was sister Jane;
          In bed she moaning lay,                                     50
          Till God released her of her pain;
          And then she went away.

          “So in the church-yard she was laid;
          And, when the grass was dry,
          Together round her grave we played,
          My brother John and I.

          “And when the ground was white with snow,
          And I could run and slide,
          My brother John was forced to go,
          And he lies by her side.”                                   60

          “How many are you, then,” said I,
          “If they two are in heaven?”
          Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
          “O Master! we are seven.”

          “But they are dead; those two are dead!
          Their spirits are in heaven!”
          ‘Twas throwing words away; for still
          The little Maid would have her will,
          And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

After reading the poems  Wordsworth had selected for the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads, friend James Tobin approved of them all except for, We are Seven.   He warned, “It will make you everlastingly ridiculous.”

Indeed, for many years critics faulted the poem.  One, because Wordsworth seemed to be in sympathy with the supernatural beliefs of the young girl rather than the rationalist views of the narrator; and secondly, because they claimed a little girl could  not possess the intellectual capability of expressing her views on death and the afterlife.

In the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads published in 1801, William Wordsworth included a preface in which he appealed for sincerity of language  over the  grandiose diction common in poetry at that time.

He stated,  “The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

He continued, ” From such verses the  Poems in these volumes will be found distinguished at least by one mark of difference, that each of them bas a worthy purpose. Not that I mean to say, that I always  began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived; but I believe that my habits of meditation have so formed my feelings, as that my descriptions of such  objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If in this opinion I am mistaken, I can have little right to the name of a  Poet. For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced  on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.”

Perhaps stung by earlier criticism of his work, he also stated, “I have one request to make of my Reader, which is, that in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others. How common is it to hear a person say, “I myself do not object to this style of composition or this or that expression, but to such and such classes of people it will appear mean or ludicrous.” This mode of criticism, so destructive of all sound unadulterated judgment, is almost universal: I have therefore to request, that the Reader would abide independently by his own feelings, and that if he finds himself affected he would not suffer such conjectures to interfere with his pleasure.”


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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great insight on the poem 🙂

  2. I think if anything the poem shows how little idea children do have of the finality of death. If you’ve ever tried to explain death to a child, you know how they turn things to fit in with their understanding of the world. To the child in the poem, her siblings were in the churchyard, and therefore in need of companionship and hearing songs and playing games. Makes perfect sense to me that she would think of them as still being with them. A small child like that would be less likely to be able to grasp the idea of the end of consciousness.

  3. “…in judging these Poems he would decide by his own feelings genuinely, and not by reflection upon what will probably be the judgment of others.”

    A good wish for any writer, really. 🙂

    I don’t read it as a supernatural belief so much as that the lost siblings are still part of her life: if the graves of *our* loved ones were right in the front yard, I expect we’d probably number them among us too.

  4. Thanks Chazz! 🙂

  5. DD,

    I think her belief that her siblings needed companionship was very sweet.

    And I wonder, is her playing songs for them any different than an adult bringing flowers to someone’s grave? Or lighting a candle in someone’s memory? For many of us, our deceased loved ones are still here, and we communicate with them in some fashion.

    She just spoke of it with that wonderful childhood frankness. 🙂

  6. Amy,

    Indeed, a good wish!

    It made me think of all the times lately that I’ve heard someone sound apologetic or embarrassed that they liked a particular author who might be popular with the masses, but critically bashed.

    People have the right to like or dislike anything, and they shouldn’t worry if that opinion happens to go with or against the grain.

  7. I like most of Wordsworth’s work, and this particular poem still stands as a dark and clever look at the way in which death is appropriated into the everyday by children. Of course, there is a second reading of the poem which could suggest supernatural aspects at play (they aren’t dead, they are… other) which gives me cause to grin a sly grin and nod whenever the supposed deficiencies are highlighted. Wordsworth – even at his weakest moments – still towers above many poets who like to think of themselves as superior.

    The grandiosity of language has never really slipped from poetry – not even now, when certain individuals prefer to dazzle with show rather than delve deep into their feelings and express something real. He knew what he was doing when he spurned the common consensus on writing verse. An easy way to see how right he was is to try and name his contemporaries – how many can most people manage? I’m willing to bet that there aren’t so many names which come readily.

  8. Hey Bigwords,

    I also prefer his simple language over the more heady poetry styles. I do enjoy some of the latter, but in much smaller doses.

    This made me think of Percy Shelley. When he was critiquing Mary’s Frankenstein, he changed a lot of her vernacular words (which she preferred) to more grandiose terms. They give some examples in the forward of my copy of the novel, but I don’t have it presently at hand.

  9. that poem is awesome. I usually don’t understand poetry and maybe it’s because of the grandiose verbiage? But I understand this poem easily. I really enjoyed it.

    “Tale of an Ancient Mariner” reminds me in ways of the story “Heart of Darkness”. Just wanted to throw that in there.

  10. Hey Lyra,

    I think a lot of us have trouble understanding the grandiose verbiage of poetry. I started enjoying it more when I stopped trying to understand it on an intellectual level, and just enjoy it on an emotional one.

    Glad you liked that poem, btw.

    I have to admit I haven’t read “Tale of an Ancient Mariner”. I’ll keep your opinion of it in regards to “Heart of Darkness”, when I do. Perhaps Conrad was inspired by it…

  11. lovely, gypsy!

  12. Glad you liked it, Colby. 🙂

  13. I liked this poem a great deal. Can’t write the stuff myself, and a lot of it sails right over my head, but this one…well,yeah. I liked it. Thanks for posting it, and for your analysis. Veddy interesting!

  14. Thanks Jen! Glad you liked the post, and the poem. 🙂

  15. This poem always gets to me because it was one of my mother’s favorites and she could recite it in its entirety. I can’t examine it critically; it is part of my childhood. I always remember believing as a child that there really WERE seven children, that dead or alive, they would always be part of the little girl’s heart, ever alive to her in memory. Now I envy her.

  16. Mary,

    Thank you for sharing that about your mother and the poem. 🙂

  17. Oh, it’s so sad… or so touching, really 🙂 Love it. And amen to simple, but TRUE poetry. 🙂

  18. What a contrast between the clarity and brevity of his poetry, and the ornate verbosity of his prose! But that was the style of the time, I suppose.

  19. Hi Edward,

    Interesting comment. I don’t think of this poem as being verbose, or too wordy. But I always enjoy reading your opinions!

  20. Hi gypsy,

    Note that I loved the poem, it was his commentary that I found difficult to wade through.

  21. Thanks for clarifying that, Edward. I had misread your comment.

  22. With great admiration i then say that the poem is a reflection of what a child may think of a family that has received death situations.i say it out of experience,but of a little girl of about the age of three.Wordsworth most have written this poem due to the feelings he could read from this small girl.

  23. Hi Afoni,

    Thank you so much for stopping over my blog.

    And I agree. Wordsworth did a beautiful job getting into the psyche of the little girl.

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