The Poem

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Michael is a long poem in blank verse, its 490 lines divided into sixteen stanzas. The Michael of the title is the poem’s protagonist. The subtitle, “A Pastoral Poem,” seems to challenge the traditional conception of pastoral poetry as a form for the idyllic and the bucolic, and to prepare the reader to accept the “low and rustic life” as the ideal pastoral.

The poem is written in the third person. The poet himself assumes the role of narrator, guiding the reader to a tragic scene. There, he relates the tale of Michael with intense love and pure passions. In spite of some homely conversations, the poet speaks in his own character. From the viewer of a tragic scene to the listener of a tragic tale, the narrator emerges as the creator of a tragic poem in new style and new spirit.

The poem begins with a two-stanza prelude. The poet, almost like a tour guide, introduces to the reader a hidden valley in pastoral mountains and advises the reader to struggle courageously in order to reach it. There, through “a straggling heap of unhewn stones,” the poet thinks “On man, the heart of man, and human life.” He decides to dignify the aged Michael for the delight of men with natural hearts and for the sake of youthful poets.

The main body of the poem can be divided into three parts. Part one (stanzas 3 to 5) extolls the unusual qualities of Michael, an eighty-year-old shepherd—his gains from nature and his love for nature. Together with his wife Isabel and son Luke, Michael’s household presents a picture of endless industry. Through the images of an ancient lamp and the evening star, the poet depicts that archetypal family as “a public symbol.”

The second part (stanzas 6-12) reveals the conflict between Michael’s love for his inherited property and his love for his son. It vividly portrays Michael’s care and love for his son from cradle to the age of eighteen. When he is summoned to discharge a forfeiture, however, Michael eventually chooses to send Luke to the city to earn money rather than sell a portion of his patrimonial land. Before Luke leaves, Michael takes him to the deep valley where he has gathered up a heap of stone for building a sheepfold. He not only educates Luke with two histories—the history of Luke’s upbringing and the history of their land—but also asks Luke to lay the cornerstone of the sheepfold as a covenant between the father and the son.

The last part contains only three short stanzas. It briefly recounts Luke’s good beginning and eventual corruption in the city. Luke is driven overseas by ignominy and shame. Despite his grief over the loss of his son, the strength of love enables old Michael to perform all kinds of labor and to work at building the sheepfold from time to time as before. He lives another seven years, then dies with the sheepfold unfinished. Three years later, at his wife’s death, their estate goes into a stranger’s hand. All is gone except the oak tree, which embodies both nature and Michael’s indestructible spirit.

Forms and Devices

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In September, 1800, William Wordsworth put forth his new poetics in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Wordsworth opposed sentimentalism that resorted to violent stimulants and gaudy and inane phraseology to gratify certain stereotypes of imaginative association. Michael is one of the experimental poems Wordsworth wrote to demonstrate the strength of his new poetics. The success of Michael is characterized by the freshness of its subject, the naturalness...

(This entire section contains 724 words.)

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of its diction, and the vividness of its rural picturesque imagery. Along withThe Ruined Cottage (wr. 1797-1798) and The Brothers (1800), Michael establishes the common and rural life as a legitimate subject matter for Romantic poetry. By exploring elemental affections in a domestic world, the poem displays the beauty and dignity of lowly life and extracts cathartic pleasure from the pathos of humanity.

Wordsworth’s efforts at experimenting with a new poetic language in Michael are obvious. For example, in lines 178-179, one reads “Thence in our rustic dialect was called/ The Clipping Tree—a name which it bears,” and in lines 91-92, “To deem that he was old—in shepherd’s phrase,/ With one foot in the grave.” Apart from such declarative lines, in many places the reader can feel the poet’s imitation of the language of the common people. For example, “Well, Isabel, this scheme/ These two days has been meat and drink to me” (283-284); “else I think that thou/ Hadst been brought up upon thy father’s knee” (360-361). It is not the simple adoption of the language of ordinary men but Wordsworth’s skillful metrical arrangement of the plain, simple diction that makes a new poetic language. The resilient, vigorous musical cadences of lines 40-52 are set in a basic iambic pentameter, which is pleasing to the English ear. The rhythm of the phrase “stout of heart and strong of limb” resembles the beating pulse of rustic people. The phrase “the meaning of all winds,/ Of blasts of every tone” gives symmetrical beauty to its syntactical visual form. The lines “he heard the South/ Make subterraneous music, like the noise/ Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills” link the inaudible subterranean sound to the sound of the noise. Yet because of the vastness of the pastoral landscape, the distance turns the noise into a music so subtle that it almost fades into the inaudible. Such peculiar aural sensitivity enables Wordsworth to convey the rustic people’s intimacy with nature.

Wordsworth emphasizes that the story of Michael is “a history/ Homely and rude.” The phrase “Homely and rude” expresses the peculiar beauty of the poem; in its tone, the poem is affectionate and homely. As shown in the lines “he to himself would say, ‘The winds are now devising work for me!’” and “why should I relate/ That objects which the shepherd loved before/ Were dearer now?” the conversational style is exactly right for a tale to be told by “the fireside” or in “the summer shade.”

This “homely and rude” beauty is effectively conveyed by the rustic symbols and images. By using the never-ceasing spinning wheels to represent “endless industry” and the humble lamp to stand for a modest but inextinguishable spirit as well as for frugality, Wordsworth gives the poem a rare freshness, simplicity, and profundity. Wordsworth typically employs a common rustic object such as a cottage to convey his extraordinary thematic ideas. In The Ruined Cottage, he uses the decaying of the cottage into a hut to depict the decline of Margaret’s mind; in Michael, he uses the cottage on a rising ground with a large prospect and the lofty name “The Evening Star” to elevate Michael to a public symbol. The images in the second part of the poem are centered on the themes of education and protection. The old oak, the Clipping Tree (Michael), is opposed to a fettered sheep and a hooped sapling (Luke). As the central symbol of the poem, the sheepfold, an image of protection, evokes multiple meanings: It is the covenant between the father and son, the link of love, the anchor and the shield. At the end of the poem, the unfinished sheepfold, eternally fragmentary and incomplete, suggests the hope for human continuity. The oak, which carries the “inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind” represented by Michael is permanent, while all human gains and losses are mere passing shows of being.