Wordsworth wrote "She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways" in 1798, the year he and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads (the same year, incidentally, that Jane Austen was composing Pride and Prejudice). He wrote it while he was staying in Germany with his sister Dorothy but without the company of his close friend and collaborator, Samuel Coleridge. While in Germany, Wordsworth wrote four of the five Lucy poems during the short time of 1798 to 1799. The fifth Lucy poem was written in 1801. In 1799, he, Dorothy and Coleridge moved from Germany back to England and took a cottage called Dove in the coastal Lake District of northwestern England, to the northeast of the more southerly Midlands Peak District.
Scholars note that during their German stay, Wordsworth was growing wearied of his sister Dorothy and feeling the strain of her dependence upon his finances. He had a modest income that contrasted with Coleridge's ample income. What was enough for Wordsworth to live on and travel alone on in Coleridge's company was not sufficient to the living and traveling expenses needed for both himself and Dorothy. The absence of his friend Coleridge and the strain of straitened finances had a negative effect on Wordsworth emotionally and psychologically.
Wordsworth insisted upon keeping the origin, true inspiration and identity behind the Lucy poems a great secret all his life, never volunteering any biographical notes to accompany the publication of the poems. Scholars have speculated and put forth many theories as to what lay behind and within the Lucy poems. Some speculate that Wordsworth used the anonymous Lucy as a vent or a catharsis for his pent up annoyance toward Dorothy. Some speculate that Lucy is the personification of his Muse and the poems explore the Poet/Muse relationship. Coleridge himself speculated that perhaps Wordsworth was envisioning Dorthy's death in the Lucy poems.
In any event, Wordsworth himself identifies the poems as experimental. They share characteristics of the poems that Wordsworth was publishing in collaboration with Coleridge as Lyrical Ballads (1798), which also present his Romantic theory of poetry, which was elucidated in detail in the later (1801) Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. The characteristics they share are:
- They are in simple language.
- They express simple ideas.
- They have pastoral settings.
- They idealize simple pastoral people and life.
It is possible that these Lucy poems are just what Wordsworth identified them as: They were experimental attempts at successfully illuminating the characteristics of his new poetic aesthetic. Nonetheless, there are three tangible externals that may have influenced Wordsworth for at least "She Dwelt": the actual location of the "Dove" river; the specific violet flower referred to; and the connection of Lucy with Wordsworth.
Line 2 identifies Lucy, unnamed until the third quatrain (stanza of 4 lines), as being beside the "springs of Dove." The imagery immediately calls forth a vision of "springs" originating a mountain creek or river: The springs well up and a river or creek is born. "Dove" as a physical location has meaning for Wordsworth because of the proximity of the Dove-Elbe to where he was staying in Germany; the proximity of the originating source of River Dove in the north Midlands of England; the cottage name at the Lake District in England to which he, Dorothy and Coleridge returned after departing Germany.
The Dove-Elbe river runs through the part of Germany Wordsworth stayed in during his time in Germany. He and Dorothy stayed in Ratzeburg while the Dove-Elbe was to the west at Hamburg, about 66 miles from Ratzeburg. The Dove-Elbe river shares etymological origins with the bird name, making it a dual-symbol of the peacefulness and safety of the dove.
Wordsworth had had wonderful childhood experiences at England's Lake District, so he and Dorothy were particularly delighted to go back there again where they could try to reclaim their lost youthful experiences with nature, lost following the death of their father after which Dorothy was separated from her four brothers and sent to be raised apart from them. The cottage they and Coleridge took as a residence in Grasmere was called Dove Cottage. Formerly it had been an inn called the Dove and Olive Branch Inn.
The coastal Lake District of England is around one hundred miles north of the Midlands Peak District located to the southeast of the Lakes. It is here in Hartington that the River Dove originates, where are the source "springs of Dove." Since Wordsworth was in Germany but dreamed of returning to Grasmere's lakes, which he did do in December of 1799, it might have been any one of these three locations that exerted inspirational influence on Wordsworth's composition of "She Dwelt."
Another question that arise from the Lucy poems is what kind of love does Wordsworth express for Lucy in these lyrical ballads, or does he express any love at all? In "She Dwelt," there is no clear expression of love at all, although scholars assume the expression of romantic love because of the ending lines:
... and, oh, / The difference to me!
Yet if that constitutes an expression of love, it constitutes a very weak expression. From just this Lucy poem, it might be argued that the poet is expressing no love for Lucy. In this case, the difference her death makes to him is of an unexplained importance. Thus it may be that the poetic speaker is a distant admirer, a father, a brother. It may be that the speaker is an objective observer who is chronicling death, and the difference to him that her death makes is that he has witnessed it in all its simplicity, thus marking his life forever.
It can be argued further that the Lucys of I. "Strange Fits of Passion" and II. "She Dwelt" are not the same "Lucy's" since the speaker projects a different persona in each and since the Lucys fulfill very different functions/roles in each.
I. Strange Fits
When she I loved look'd every day
Fresh as a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath an evening moon.
Upon the moon I fix'd my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.
II. She Dwelt
SHE dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
The poetic voice in I is energetic, almost frenzied. Lucy's role is as a dream object and a romantic love interest. The poetic voice in II is subdued, objective, distant. Lucy's role is merely to be silently remembered in a symbolic death dirge.
Explication of Symbols
Some of the symbols used in "She Dwelt" add clarity to our understanding of the poem when they are correctly described and have their meanings explicated.
"untrodden ways": Pathways that are remote and lack populace travelers; untrodden pathways are in remote pastoral areas.
"springs of Dove": The originating source of either the River Dove in Hartington, Derbyshire, England, or the Dove-Elbe running about 66 miles west of Ratzeburg.
"none to praise": There were no well-wishers who gave her laurels for what she produced; she was a work-a-day lass who toiled without praise for her labor.
This description fits with locating "springs of Dove" in Hartington because it was, at that time, a village producing dairy, cheese and other products. In such a setting, Lucy could easily be seen as an unpraised dairy- or cheese maid.
"very few to love": Laborers typically have restricted sets of loved ones and friends because the dominant emphases of their lives are labor and restoring sleep.
"a violet": Violets come in many colors and shades; the predominating and most popular violet flower shades are not dark, ominous colors but rather transparent, fresh violets, light hued purples and yellows.
The violet is important in this lyrical ballad for its floral symbolism as well as for its potential color (color is never specified). Firstly, "violet" can easily be misconstrued as "purple." To help distinguish violet from purple, keep in mind that the color violet is present in the electromagnetic spectrum in the visible light frequency range while purple is not. Purple comes into being only when red and blue are mixed and produces a darker, more intense color than that of violet. Secondly, wild violets that would grow along rivers or in woods are many different colors: The "blue" or "violet" violet flower is but one color of many wild violet varieties, with colors ranging from yellow to white to violet to bi-colors and many others. Thus to immediately interpret "violet" as symbolizing a "dark" death-like hue of "purple" would be incorrect.
The violet flower symbolizes many qualities including: gentle appearance, love that is delicate, humility and faithfulness, retiring modesty, harmony of the mind and emotions, selfless love. In addition, since the color violet has the highest vibrational frequency in the visible light spectrum, the violet flower symbolizes death and resurrection and is associated with achieving balance between physical and spiritual energies. Additionally, violet flowers of different colors were used in eighteenth century "flower language" (secret messages conveyed between sweethearts through the kind and color of flower given) to communicate a range of ideas. Wordsworth has presented modern day readers--who don't often wander in untouched English and European woods--quite a challenge in trying to understand the violet in "violet by a mossy stone."
JoellesSacredGrove.com, "The Forgotten Language of Flowers" -- Flower Messages
Violet, Blue: Faithfulness; Modesty, modest love; I will remain faithful; I'll always be true
Violet, Dame: Watchfulness; You are the queen of coquettes
Violet, Purple: You occupy my thoughts
Violet, Sweet: Modesty
Violet, White: Purity; Candor; Modesty; Innocence; Let's take a chance on happiness
Violet, Yellow: Modest worth; Rural happiness
"mossy stone": Stones covered in moss, or "mossy stones," often collect near rivers or streams, such as near "the springs of Dove"; they also are found in sheltering, shaded woodland areas.
When trying to piece together Wordsworth's juxtaposition of "violet" and "mossy stone," we need to consider the nature of the violet he is most likely describing. This may also help us choose which "Dove" river inspired him: The one in the grass-covered Peak District of England's Midlands or the lush forestation of the Hamburg area of Germany.
While most of us know violets as cultivated flowers intentionally gracing gardens, Wordsworth and Coleridge--who identified Nature as the source of the eighteenth century poets' inspiration (differing from past poets who found inspiration in Greek and Roman Muses or, later, in Divine Truth)--would also know violets as wild flowers growing in shaded areas, like in mossy forests or by mossy-stoned rivers. Wild violets of the European and English forests might have been a yellow variety or a blue or violet colored variety. Some possible varieties that Wordsworth may have had in mind--may have seen and used as the inspiration for his poem--are the violet colored Viola odorata of European/English forests; the violet colored Viola reichenbachiana also of European/English forests; the yellow Viola biflora called the yellow wood violet and also found in European/English woods; or the yellow and white bi-colored Viola arvensis called the field pansy and found in European fields. Incidentally, the yellow field pansy /violet in flower language symbolizes "rural happiness," which suggests one of the pastoral tenets of Wordsworth's romanticism.
If we try to piece together the symbol Wordsworth offers in "violet by mossy stone," we can rule out the yellow field pansy as the identifier for "violet" since it is not as likely there will be moss covered stones in a field. That elimination leaves one or two violet wood varieties as candidates and one yellow wood variety as a candidate. One might suspect that one of the violet colored candidates was the source of Wordsworth's inspiration but, either way--violet or yellow--the "violet" by the stone provides characterization for Lucy and paints her as humble, modest rural person whose death equates with resurrection because of inner spiritual balance as symbolized by the violet. This perfectly reflects the Romantic tenets with which Wordsworth was, in his own terms, experimenting. To clarify, when resurrection and inner balance are combined with death, the gloom and darkness of it are done away with. This, again, presents part of the spiritual, Nature message of Romanticism.
In addition, the discussion of violets draws us toward the speculative conclusion that the "Dove" river might easily be Germany's Dove-Elbe (one of the sub-branches of the Elbe)--which Wordsworth might have seen near Hamburg--because the River Dove of England's Midlands Peak District originates in a land that is open and grassy and without forestation, rendering the presence of mossy stones and forest violets rather improbable. Since Wordsworth wrote "She Dwelt" while in Ratzeburg, Germany, our speculative conclusion that he was inspired by Germany's Elbe gains more strength.
"half hidden": Lucy is herewith symbolically "half hidden" from the wisdom of city dwellers who do not know of or possess the qualities "violet" ascribes to rural, pastoral Lucy.
"Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky": This "star" is generally thought to be the planet Venus, the symbol of love, that arises first in the evening sky in the Northern Hemisphere; this reinforces the love symbolism represented by "violet" and ascribed to pastoral Lucy.
"She lived unknown": With Lucy positioned as a rural worker--possibly a Hartington dairymaid if England's River Dove added to Wordsworth's inspiration--"lived unknown" represents living without fame or renown such as that which city dwellers seek and measure their lives by; Lucy would have lived a quiet rural existence meeting her own and others basic love and survival needs.
"few could know / When Lucy ceased to be": Quite logically, if Lucy had no fame, she could have no great heralding of her passing; none would know her life, none could know her passing.
"But she is in her grave": Lucy has died; Wordsworth is aware of it for one reason or another. Perhaps he was nearby at the time of her death. Perhaps he saw her simple gravestone while wandering through a village graveyard either in Ratzeburg or earlier in England. Perhaps he is imagining Lucy as a symbolic Everywoman representative of tenets of Romanticism.
"and oh, / The difference to me!": Usually understood as his proclamation of romantic love for Lucy, justified by the allusion to Venus--the first star of evening and the harbinger of love--there is actually no concrete suggestion of romantic love in Wordsworth's remark. What might be more probable in light of the tightly crafted representation of Romanticism that Lucy's symbolism and characterization offer, is that her death is important to Wordsworth's poetic persona because Wordsworth finds in her the illustration and proof of his beliefs as set forth in his Romantic poems and in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.