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:
A SIMPLE Child,
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.”