The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 of its diction, and the vividness of its rural picturesque imagery. Along with The 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...

(The entire section is 724 words.)