Study Guide

Michael

by William Wordsworth

Michael Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Coming to terms with human loss and the power of love to support an otherwise unbearable situation are the poem’s basic themes. The rich meanings of the poem, however, depend on how one interprets the character of Michael.

Michael, as an archetype, represents the collective entity of humanity. He is the shepherd or patriarch for humankind and the mother who rocks the cradle. He manages material loss with a cheerful hope, and he remedies and accepts the loss of his son in silent grief and stubborn perseverance. Throughout his life, he functions as the guide for a public life, the educator of youth, and the guardian of nature. Under Wordsworth’s Romantic exaltation, Michael, an archetypal hero of unusual strength at an incredibly great age, embodies a natural paradigm, an inextinguishable spirit crystallized out of the good qualities bequeathed from generation to generation.

Michael can also be seen as a man of his time. As social history, Michael is relatively accurate; it records the infiltration of new capitalism into rural areas and the encroachment of trade upon the land. The prototype of Michael is that small independent proprietor of land called a “statesman.” If one regards Michael as a lamentation over the rapid disappearance of this class of men, one may find Wordsworth politically quite conservative. In fact, Wordsworth does instill the spirit of his age into his imaginary character. To some extent, Michael is a rustic version of a self-made man; through his own efforts, he doubles his inheritance and wins the freedom of the land. He cherishes the freedom of the land as a sign of his individualist independence. Yet he is also tempted by the rags-to-riches story and by the opportunities of getting rich in the cities. Michael’s pragmatic judgment of gain and loss eventually leads to his choice of...

(The entire section is 757 words.)