Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

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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 property over his son. Michael’s tragedy reveals the demoralization of domestic affections in the face of commercial realities. Luke’s corruption is very much an extensive projection of Michael’s inner corruption. At the loss of Luke, the individualist Michael, purged of the contamination of the material age, merges into the collective entity of the archetypal Michael.

Michael, above all, is Wordsworth’s vision of Natural Man. Being a shepherd of nature, he merges his whole life with nature. Nature is the test of his courage, the fruit of his labor, and his ever-faithful companion. His blood and sweat nourish nature, and nature repays him with pleasure (lines 65-79). The covenant between him and nature is stronger than the covenant between him and his son, because nature is the anchor of human integrity and purity.

In his creation of Michael as a man of nature, Wordsworth not only expresses the “passions that were not my own” and his concern with the bond between nature and man, but also identifies himself with Michael to explore the bond between the rustic life and the poet. He shares Michael’s sensitivity to nature, his experience and wisdom gained from nature, his singularity, and his solitude. Wordsworth’s description of Michael as having breathed “the common air” and “learned the meaning of all winds,/ Of blasts of every tone” pictures an ideal natural poet who has gained freedom in the poetic representation of nature and human life. To create a new poetic path, Wordsworth needs Michael’s indestructible spirit and must refuse to cater to the depravity of the age. Michael’s stubbornness in not giving an inch of the free land expresses Wordsworth’s determination to strike ahead, by himself, even when other poets fail to follow.

Although Wordsworth was only thirty when he wrote Michael, he seemed to imagine himself as an old poet of natural heart, using the tale to show “youthful Poets” his experience in composing poems. He notices what others might “see and notice not.” From “a straggling heap of unhewn stones,” the shapeless material of nature, he spins endlessly, as with Isabel’s two wheels of “antique form.” The natural objects, like “dumb animals,” and the characters, like restless “summer flies,” come and go in his murmuring imagination until his senses are blurred. Then he recollects the eternal truth in tranquil solitude. With this heap of rough stones, he hews and builds a sheepfold—a tombstone for Michael and an eternal monument for the poet. It is unfinished, for the old poet expects continuity. It turns back into its original material, “a straggling heap of unhewn stones,” for the old poet hopes that the youthful poets can start anew.

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