The Lucy Poems Teaching Approaches
by William Wordsworth

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Teaching Approaches

Unraveling the Identity of Lucy: For two centuries readers have been pondering the question, Who is Lucy? Wordsworth never elaborated on the subject, and there’s no figure from his biography that corresponds to her. Some scholars have found points of similarity between Lucy and Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, and others see some points of connection to his close friend and fellow poet, Coleridge, but no proposed real-life counterpart has proven satisfying.

The mystery surrounding Lucy’s identity can become a means of engaging students with the poems. Some students may be disappointed that the mystery has no definitive resolution, but for others the mystery may prove stimulating. In any event, contemplating who Lucy is leads to questions that are central to the meaning of the poems. 

  • For discussion: What concrete biographical information do the poems provide about Lucy? Which poem contains the most details about her? 
  • For discussion: Many readers find that the poems don’t present a consistent picture of Lucy. What are the possible inconsistencies, and why might Wordsworth have included them? 

Lucy as Wordsworth’s Muse: Given the few, largely fanciful details provided about Lucy, students are likely to recognize that the crucial question raised by the poems isn’t so much “Who is Lucy?” as “What does Lucy mean to the speaker?” The most widely held theory regarding her identity is that she’s primarily a symbolic figure who represents Wordsworth’s poetic muse. 

This presents an opportunity to introduce students to the concept of the muse—the personification of artistic inspiration. The modern notion of the muse has its origins in Greek mythology; since that time, writers have been citing muses as sources of creativity. They’ve traditionally been female, and the writers they’ve inspired have most often been male. Some muses have been real people (for instance, Irish nationalist crusader Maud Gonne is frequently identified as the muse of William Butler Yeats), but more often they’re products of the writers’ imaginations. 

  • For discussion: What details from the Lucy poems signal that Lucy is a muse for Wordsworth? What do these characteristics indicate about Wordsworth’s approach to poetry? 
  • For discussion: Can Lucy be both the subject of the poems and also the muse that inspires them? What challenges—for the artist and the audience—might arise when a poem’s muse and its subject are one and the same? 

The Lucy Poems as Elegies: The poems as a whole represent an extended elegy in that they memorialize the deceased Lucy. They have an air of melancholy and longing, but Lucy’s death also gives her character an aura of transcendence—she’s lost to Wordsworth, but in death she remains one with nature and a continual source of aesthetic renewal. 

Though Lucy has no known biography outside of the poems, Wordsworth’s own biography gives clues to the symbolic significance of her mortality. At least three of the poems were composed in the winter of 1798–1799, while he and Dorothy were living in Germany. It was an unhappy time for him. They were isolated and short on funds, and Wordsworth’s letters from the time indicate that his spirits were low. He envied Coleridge, who was also in Germany, but thanks to his greater financial resources Coleridge was better able to integrate himself into German literary society. 

Beyond the biographical context, Lucy’s death can also be seen as a reflection of Wordsworth’s poetic sensibility. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, he writes that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” For him, imagination is rooted in past experiences that now exist only in memory. He has an elegiac approach to how the imagination works. 

  • For discussion: If Lucy is Wordsworth’s muse, what does her death say about his state of mind as he’s writing? Can she continue to inspire him even if she is no longer alive? 

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(The entire section is 1,612 words.)