The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“We Are Seven,” written in 1798, is a short poem of sixty-nine lines divided into seventeen stanzas. It relates the story of a narrator meeting an eight-year-old girl who tells him about her family. (According to William Wordsworth, the poem was suggested by a real child he had met near Goodrich Castle in Wales five years earlier.)

Stanza 1 asks a broad question that points to the theme of the poem: What can a lively child “know of death”? In stanzas 2 and 3, the narrator sets the scene. He is presumably walking in the country when he encounters an eight-year-old “cottage Girl,” the kind of ordinary lower-class child he might have expected to meet there. He is struck (“madeglad”) by her beauty, in particular by her thick curly hair and “very fair” (blue?) eyes, by her strange clothes (“she was wildly clad”), and in general by her rural “air.” He pauses and, in order to make conversation with her, asks ordinary questions: How many sisters and brothers do you have? Where are they?

The girl gives him an extraordinary answer: How many siblings? “Seven in all.” There are herself, two living in Conway (a seaport in Wales), two at sea, and two others who “in the church-yard lie.” In short, of the seven, two are dead. She and her mother live in the churchyard cottage near the two dead children—a sister and a brother. Even though it is obvious to the narrator (and to the reader) that these two are dead, the girl...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Wordsworth wrote most of this poem during the spring of 1798 while walking in a grove of trees near his rural home in Somerset. He composed the last five-line stanza first, beginning with the last line. After he had composed most of it, he recited it to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and remarked that it needed an opening stanza. Coleridge then improvised what is now stanza 1. (Coleridge’s first line was “A little child, dear brother Jem,” later changed to “Jim”; the first line was changed and shortened in 1815.)

Except for the last five lines, “We Are Seven” is written in standard ballad stanzas in which the lines are alternately eight and six syllables long and which usually rhyme abab. This is the stanza of many anonymous oral folk ballads, a kind of poetry that began to be written down, collected, and imitated in the eighteenth century, even though most major poems of that age employed heroic couplets. So when Wordsworth elected to write in the ballad form, he labeled his poem as different from those written during the age that preceded him.

Because “We Are Seven” is written by a single poet, it is a literary ballad, not a folk ballad. Nevertheless, it shares many characteristics with folk poetry: Ballads tell simple stories of uncomplicated characters with straightforward emotions; when they speak, they speak simply and often repetitiously. A ballad’s rhythm is marked and fairly regular, for many ballads...

(The entire section is 518 words.)