Themes and Meanings
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,...
(The entire section is 757 words.)