In Wordsworth's “Simon Lee: The Old Huntsman,” how does the poem depict social change—as a positive or negative force?
In Wordsworth's "Simon Lee: the Old Huntsman," the poet presents the reader with an example of how social change (in this case) is a negative force.
There was a time in England when manor homes were grand, employing a multitude of servants to carry out tasks from housekeeping and gardening, to caring for the stables and even organizing the hunt for the members of the upper class.
Simon, it seems, was the man who organized the hunt: he made it exciting for the participants:
No man like him the horn could sound,
And hill and valley rang with glee
When Echo bandied, round and round,
The halloo of Simon Lee.
This passage indicates that Simon roused those on the hunt with the blowing of the horn and his call. Use of "glee" indicates the pleasure that spread throughout the surrounding areas under the direction of Simon. And Simon personally loved the hunt—aside from the service he provided his "betters."
Full five-and-thirty years he lived
A running huntsman merry...
He all the country could outrun,
Could leave both man and horse behind...
And though Simon can no longer lead the chase...
...still there's something in the world
At which his heart rejoices;
For when the chiming hounds are out,
He dearly loves their voices!
It is interesting to note that while he was a servant, indicated by the use of the word "liveried"—which indicates the uniform worn by someone in the employ of the moneyed gentry—Simon loved what he did...with no suggesting that he resented servitude in the least.
We are aware of the alteration of society from those frivolous days (for the rich) with the following lines:
His Master's dead, and no one now
Dwells in the Hall of Ivor;
Men, dogs, and horses, all are dead;
He is the sole survivor.
The poem notes the Master of the Hall of Ivor is dead; we can infer that because the manor is empty and everything associated with the hunt—including the animals—is gone, the Master's death may be literal, but also (symbolically) it may refer to the passing of a way of life. For no one has taken over the manor house and continued the tradition of the hunt.
Again we can infer that with the Industrial Revolution, a way of life changed. Through industry, a stronger middle class emerged—the landed gentry—who worked to make their millions, and did not have the time for hunting: a form of entertainment for the indolent rich.
And so, the way of life Simon knew is gone. He is left to face old age without employment. The things he was once able to do are no longer needed—loss of purpose for the old, ages these men and women more quickly. Social change has brought about a new way of life in the country. Those once employed by the very wealthy have lost their jobs. Simon never cared for farming or raising animals in the old days:
In those proud days, he little cared
For husbandry or tillage...
So now, change has taken its toll. Simon is thankful for the author's help with the tree root. For what strength and vigor Simon had has been spent pursuing the fox and hounds. Symbolically, Simon's inability to adapt or carry out simple tasks on his land may also indicate that he, like many others, was completely unsuited to any other job when manor life ended.
Wordsworth, a Romantic poet, would feel sorrow for this change, for society also turned its back on nature, concern for women and children, etc.; the Industrial Revolution was a scourge upon the country. And Simon may represent a happier past.