There are two key themes in this poem by William Wordsworth. The first is the prevalence of death in childhood, a state of affairs the speaker laments in the opening stanza, in which he asks what "a simple child" should "know of death." In the poem, it is described how two out of seven children are now buried in the churchyard near a cottage the speaker encounters on his travels; their living sibling, a girl of eight, has therefore been brought into close contact with death. In part, then, the speaker seems to be trying to draw attention to the prevalence of childhood death.
The other key theme is the innocence of childhood. In the opening stanza it is asked what a "simple child" can possibly understand of death. The speaker goes on to explain how, despite his efforts to explain that dead children are no longer here on earth, the eight year old he is speaking to simply does not understand death. Her innocence is such that she insists adamantly, "we are seven," despite the fact that two of her siblings are buried in the churchyard.
Describing them as Jane and John, the child gives an illustration of her innocence in her tales of how she and John would play around Jane's grave before John, too, was taken. There is no sense from the child that death has taken her siblings away from her; instead, she sings to them, sits on their grave to do her knitting, and considers them very much part of her family. This astonishes the speaker, but it is given as evidence of the child's purity of spirit, not to truly understand or mourn death as adults do.
The poem may seem simple at first reading, even childish and laughable. It is true that Wordsworth has not availed himself of many of the resources of impressive poetry, but the dramatic confrontation of the narrator and the little girl is not merely a conversation at cross-purposes. The poet raises important questions to which several answers have been given.
What is one to make of this confrontation? Wordsworth himself gives an opening to an interpretation in the Preface. He says that “We Are Seven” shows “the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion.” This passage has meant to many readers that one should sympathize with the girl because she is blind to the reality that her brother and sister are dead; one should pity her benignly for her childish ideas but reflect sadly that time will teach her the lesson that everyone must learn about death.
Wordsworth’s Preface was intended, however, to ease the reception of his poems, not to engage the reading public in specific interpretations. In reality, the poet’s (and the poem’s) sympathies may have been profoundly with the girl. Late...
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