The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

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.

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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.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

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...

(The entire section contains 1256 words.)

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