Last Updated on September 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612
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...
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- Teaching Guide
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?
The Role of Nature in Romantic Poetry: Throughout all of the poems, but particularly in “Three years she grew in sun and shower” and “A slumber did my spirit seal,” there’s a strong connection between Lucy and the natural world. She’s portrayed as much more a creature of nature than of human society, to the point of almost being wild. She dwells “among the untrodden ways” and is “sportive as a fawn.” In describing her death, Wordsworth never contemplates her ascent to heaven, but instead depicts her union with the earth. In death, she becomes one with “rocks, and stones, and trees.”
The exaltation of the natural world is a defining feature of Wordsworth’s poetry and of the Romantic sensibility in general. In his longer poem “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth explains that he considers nature to be half what his senses perceive, and half what his imagination creates. It is “The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being.” Those lines could serve as a characterization of Lucy.
- For discussion: Wordsworth believes that nature is a combination of perception and imagination. Is this an accurate account of nature? Why would he think that nature isn’t simply what
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Five Poems Don’t Present a Consistent, Coherent Portrait of Lucy: The series begins with “Strange fits of passion have I known,” which has the qualities of a gothic romance story. The Lucy of that poem, who is civilized enough to live in a cottage and engage in a conventional courtship, seems like a different creature than the nymph who frolics in the woods in “Three years she grew in sun and shower.” Meanwhile, in “I travelled among unknown men” she’s an ideal of English domesticity, sitting by a fire spinning yarn. Students may find it confusing and frustrating that Lucy takes on such different, sometimes conflicting identities in the different poems. They don’t seem to add up to a coherent character.
- What to do: Challenge students to look for threads of consistency. Regardless of her varying characteristics, Lucy always is cast in the role of an ideal, whether she’s a domesticated Englishwoman or a wild creature in the forest. Consider how her shape-shifting relates to the idea that she is Wordsworth’s muse.
The Poems May Seem Too Insubstantial or Too Varied to Build a Lesson Around: The poems are relatively short and, despite the unifying subject of Lucy, they have varying themes, narratives, and perspectives. At first reading, it can feel like there’s not enough overlapping substance among them to create a unified lesson.
- What to do: Two strategies can help. First, encourage your students not to approach the Lucy poems as a continuous narrative. After all, the poems combine to form more of a collage or loose collection of vignettes. By setting aside the need for a clear story, the class can explore each poem on its own terms, discussing the formal techniques, images, and themes it offers.
- The second strategy is to broaden the discussion by putting the work in context. Through supplementary reading, give students a sense of the tenets of the English Romantic movement. Consider how the Lucy poems reflect those tenets, and how Wordsworth’s attitudes contrast with those of other Romantics.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching the Lucy Poems
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, the following suggestions represent alternative approaches that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the poems.
Focus on the use of ballad form. Drawing students’ attention to the formal qualities in poetry can be challenging, but the Lucy poems are fairly easy to negotiate, and there are some rewards gained by addressing their form. Have students consider what impact the rhyme scheme and alternating line lengths have on the experience of reading the poems. Why do they think Wordsworth changed from four- to six-line stanzas for “Three years she grew in sun and shower”? It’s also worthwhile to point out that using the ballad structure, with its roots in folk culture, is in keeping with Wordsworth’s desire to reject what he saw as the stuffy pretensions that marked the most lauded English poetry of his time.
Focus on gender issues related to the concept of the muse and the personification of nature. Traditionally, muses have been female, and the poets they’ve inspired have been male. Is this relationship inherently sexist? If so, does that mean the Lucy poems are sexist? Can students come up with a line of defense to charges of sexism against Wordsworth? Another gender issue arises in “Three years she grew in sun and shower,” which consists primarily of lines spoken by a personified Nature. It’s more common in such circumstances for Nature to be portrayed as female, but in this case Nature appears to be male. Why would Wordsworth have broken from convention in this way? Is there any room for ambiguity in interpreting the gender of Nature in the poem? If so, how likely is it that the ambiguity was intentional on Wordsworth’s part?
Focus on Wordsworth’s use of metaphor to describe Lucy. Throughout the Lucy poems, Wordsworth uses a broad array of metaphors to characterize Lucy, contributing to her enigmatic nature. Surveying these metaphors, what patterns emerge? What do the metaphors reveal about the speaker’s vision of Lucy? To what extent are the metaphors expected and clichéd? To what extent are they surprising and unexpected?