The epigraph at the beginning of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a quote from William Wordsworth’s “Michael: A Pastoral Poem,” a piece that describes a shepherd from the Lake District, “keen, / Intense, and frugal,” and his son Luke:
A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
The titular Silas Marner is a man who has lost hope in God and humanity. He clings to his money and barely interacts with others. Marner’s best friend had framed him for stealing. His former community renounced him, and his fiancée married the duplicitous friend. Moreover, Marner suffers from catalepsy, a condition that alarms many who witness it. Some even take advantage of these episodes where he stands still and seems unaware of his surroundings.
Marner spends his days weaving clothes and is indeed a “declining man” whose only joy is his gold. One night, his trove is stolen (and consequently lost). He tells other people, hoping for its return. Instead, he receives the company of curious and religious townspeople. Marner is still despondent until he thinks he sees his gold. Instead, it is the golden hair of a motherless child. She “brings hope” and “forward-looking thoughts,” disrupting his lonely life:
Eppie was a creature of endless claims and ever-growing desires, seeking and loving sunshine, … making trial of everything, with trust in new joy, and stirring the human kindness in all eyes that looked on her.
Marner loves and cares for Eppie. He gradually regains faith in life and reconnects with his fellow men.
The epigraph is a beautiful match for the novel. Though the poem “Michael” portrays a rift between father and son, the sentiment of the chosen quote fits the themes of Silas Marner, a tale of an aging man and the child who rejuvenates him.