“She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is a Romantic poem by one of the founders of English Romanticism. The poem celebrates an admired girl or young woman (a “Maid”) by associating her with the beauties of nature. Both in its topic and its method, the poem is a prototypical representative piece of Romantic writing. Other common Romantic traits of this work include its relatively simple, straightforward language; its emphasis on the personal, emotional expression of a particular speaker; its concern with rural life; its freedom from references to classical mythology (such as were often used in earlier poetry); and its short, lyric form.
Right from line one, the speaker introduces “She,” his subject of affection. Only much later in the work, however, do we discover that this “She” has a specific name: “Lucy” (10). She is less important, though, as a particular, precisely individualized person than as a symbol of any beloved female. Although this poem is part of a series of lyrics by Wordsworth involving “Lucy,” she remains more a “type” of character than an individual with a highly specific personality of her own. She is more important as the object of the speaker’s feelings than as a complicated subject in her own right. The poem, as it turns out, is indeed as much about the speaker as it is about the woman he praises.
No sooner is the woman’s presence established by the poem’s first word than we immediately sense that something has changed. No sooner, that is, do we read “She” than we read “dwelt” (past tense). Why is she no longer dwelling? Has she moved? Has something bad happened to her? We later learn, of course, that she is dead, but, for the moment, the word “dwelt” merely raises questions.
The fact that the woman dwelled among “untrodden” ways is significant. Her surroundings, apparently, were rural; she was a figure of the country rather than the city. Romantic poets in general—and Wordsworth in particular—often saw the country as a place of virtue and the city as a place of vice, and so we can expect that the speaker will be sympathetic toward (rather than dismissive of) a young woman living in the countryside. Presumably she was not only a rural woman but a woman of relatively modest circumstances, and it is partly the fact that she represents the common folk of rural England that will make her attractive both to the speaker and to Wordsworth.
Wherever it was that she “dwelt” in the countryside, it was in a place (or places) not frequently visited. Notice, then, what this fact implies about the speaker: he, somehow, has visited her dwelling place; he, somehow, has had the chance to know and appreciate her, and now he shares that privilege with the reader. The poem will imply that she was somehow a particularly intriguing person, but the poem will also imply that the speaker himself was capable of valuing a human being who might easily have been overlooked or ignored by others.
The fact that the “Maid” dwelled “Beside the springs of Dove” (2) is intriguing for several reasons. First, the word “springs” immediately associates her with life and purity—with freely running, clear water emerging from the earth. Thus in all these ways she is associated with the beauty and vitality of nature. Secondly, “springs” once again emphasizes the remoteness of her home: she did not live in a place where the river was wide, deep, or well-traveled. Just as the paths on the ground leading to her home were relatively “untrodden,” so her home was...
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not easily accessible by boat. In both ways, then, her isolation is emphasized.
Finally, the reference to the “Dove” river seems significant. Several rivers in England and Wales bear this or similar names, and so the word “Dove” seems important more for what it symbolizes than for its precise geographical significance. The birds called doves, of course, have long been associated with peace, tranquility, gentleness, tenderness, love, beauty, life (as in the Biblical legend of Noah), and even the Holy Spirit (as in various other Biblical passages). (For more on the symbolism of doves, almost all of it attractive in a variety of cultures, see Hans Biedermann's Dictionary of Symbolism.) The resonance of the poem’s second line would be quite different if, for instance, the speaker had mentioned “the springs of Hawk” or “the springs of Raven,” not to mention other kinds of birds one might easily name. The phrase “springs of Dove” implies, in two ways at once, both freedom and beauty.
Line 3 describes the “Maid” as someone “whom there were none to praise,” but of course this poem, paradoxically, rectifies that deficiency. In other words, this very poem praises the Maid even as it laments the absence of persons to praise her. Similarly, when line 4 describes her as someone whom there were “very few to love,” the poem itself once again seems to express the very love or affection it says the woman was denied. Yet the emphasis here on the past tense (“were”) implies that both the praise and the love the poem expresses may somehow be coming too late.
In the poem’s second stanza, both the imagery and the tone of the work become literally darker. The color white, associated with the “Dove,” had been the main color emphasized in the first stanza. Now, in stanza two, the dark, purple flower (and color) known as “violet” receives immediate stress. The speaker, using a metaphor, describes the “Maid” as “A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye,” thereby implying her beauty, her smallness and delicacy, and her remoteness. Once again, the phrasing is paradoxical: if the young woman was once “Half hidden from the eye,” part of the function of the present poem is to call attention to her and celebrate her, yet the speaker’s praise (as the poem will soon reveal) comes too late. When we later discover that the maid is dead, we realize that she is now no longer merely half-hidden but (at least physically) completely hidden in the grave. Yet (to compound the paradoxes even further) she will be much better known through this poem (while dead) than she ever was when she was literally alive.
Imagery of darkness becomes even more intense in the second half of the second stanza than it had been in the first. Lines 5-6 had compared the maid to a dark-colored violet, but lines 7-8 compare her to a single star surrounded (and highlighted) by the darkness of the sky. (The name “Lucy” literally means “light.”) This phrasing makes the maid sound, quite literally, uniquely attractive, but it also begins to associate her with a kind of beauty that is far more remote, and far less accessible, than the beauty described in stanza one. The first stanza had associated her with the water flowing from the earth; the second stanza associates her, in its final two lines, with the distant beauty of the heavens.
Stanza three reiterates the key idea that the maid lived in a place and in a way that made her very existence basically unknown. Indeed, her life was so remote from the lives of others that when she “ceased to be” (10), her passing went mainly unnoticed. The poem announces her death to other people even as it also has called her very existence, which has now “ceased,” to their attention. This, of course, is just the latest in a variety of paradoxes that characterize this brief lyric.
Notice the symmetry afforded by the poem’s ending. The poem began by emphasizing that Lucy was physically remote and basically unnoticed. It ends by stressing that she is now in her “grave” (11), so that now she is even more remote, and even less subject to notice, than she had been while living. The poem opened with basically factual statements carrying little emotional stress; the poem ends, however, by implying a variety of emotions through the single, emphatic exclamation “oh!” (11). This simple, two-letter word can suggest shock, pain, regret, remorse, and longing (to mention just a few possibilities). Finally, the poem had opened with the pronoun “She,” but it closes with the pronoun “me”—a small fact that nonetheless symbolizes how the focus of the poem has shifted from Lucy herself to the speaker’s personal feelings for the maid who is now, unfortunately, dead.