The Point of this Guide
This is a tutorial.
My aim here is NOT just to ‘tell you stuff’ about Wordsworth’s very short poem ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’. After all, there are lots of other articles and guides which will do that.
Instead, I want to:
- Give you some ideas about the poem
- Show you how I got them – so that you can analyse a ballad or another poem for yourself
- Show you a ‘journey’ for thinking about the poem – which can turn into an effective essay structure – for writing about this poem or other poems.
In short, this is more than an analysis of ‘She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways’:
It’s a tutorial in how to analyse a ballad and how to analyse poetry in general.
She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, A Maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love: A violet by a mossy stone Half hidden from the eye! —Fair as a star, when only one Is shining in the sky. She lived unknown, and few could know When Lucy ceased to be; But she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference to me!
Introduction to the essay [write later and insert at the beginning]
As I always say…
… we can’t write the introduction until we know what we’re introducing.
Students rarely take me up on this advice, but I will say it again:
Write your introduction towards the end of the writing process and slot it in at the beginning of your essay.
So let’s get stuck into the poem and start building the arguments that we will eventually ‘introduce’.
And the first thing to do is take a step back take an overview of what is in the poem:
The Story / Conceit / Scenario
We need to establish what binds this poem together – and in this case that isn’t too difficult:
Recognising that the poem tells a story
Does that sound obvious?
Maybe it does… once somebody has pointed it out to you.
In my experience it takes a bold and independently-minded student to recognise that fact – to say:
“OK, first things first: the poem tells a story.”
After all, not all poems tell stories – and you’ll have been given many poems at school which do something different.
But plenty of poems do tell stories – and this poem happens to be one of them.
Developing and evidencing a high quality summary of the story
So now we’ll try and work out and articulate the different parts of the story. We’ll begin by paraphrasing – simply putting it in our own words.
So what’s the story?
At its simplest, the story runs like this:
There once was a girl – of marriageable age but unmarried.
She was beautiful.
And she lived in a beautiful place.
… Oh no! She was isolated and cut-off.
And she died!
Yes, she died – possibly of loneliness (although that isn’t spelt out).
Oh, and by the way, there’s a twist…
It turns out that there was ONE person who knew this girl and took an interest in her…
And that person was…
The speaker of the poem! [head explodes]
Yes, and not only that – he knew her by name.
And he admired her from afar.
Perhaps… perhaps… he even loved her.
But he never did anything about it, OR she rejected him.
And now she’s gone! And he is heartbroken.
Maybe he could have saved her? And now perhaps he too is doomed to loneliness?
Now, let’s just break that down and make sure we can provide evidence for all of those claims. Because if we can’t…
… then we can’t make any of those claims in an essay.
And I’ll have led you a merry dance.
Seriously, though –
this is where a lot of students start to go wrong. They say to themselves:
Ah, good. Now I understand the story. I can now repeat the story in my own words to show that I have understood it. And I will get credit for that.A student’s secret thoughts
It’s like mathematics – you have to show your working. So let’s do that now:
Identifying the evidence
There once was a girl, of marriageable age but unmarried: A Maid
She was beautiful: She was “A Maid” (i.e. she was young), “a violet”, “fair as a star.”
And she lived in a beautiful place: Beside the springs of Dove [more on this later].
… Oh no! She was isolated and cut-off: she lived “among the untrodden ways” (i.e. not many people passed by); she was “unknown” and “half-hidden” with “very few to love” her.
And she died! She “ceased to be” and now she is “in her grave”.
Yes, she died, possibly of loneliness: OK, we’re not told this, but Wordsworth has spent two stanzas banging on about how isolated she was – and then we’re told that she died. Those two things have been put together in a poem (‘juxtaposed’ if you like) with very little else: there is (if you ask me) an implied connection between them.
Oh, and by the way, there’s a twist…
It turns out that there was ONE person who knew this girl and took an interest in her…
And it was…
… the speaker of the poem! The difference to me! She is in her grave [shift to present tense to reveal a speaker who is still alive to tell his story].
Yes, and not only that – he knew her by name: when Lucy ceased to be.
And he admired her from afar: he thought that she was “a violet”, “fair as a star”. When read for the first time, these visual comparisons sounded like the typical kind hyperbole that a ballad might use to describe someone who was beautiful (see above). But after the twist in the final stanza, they sound more like praise: they suggest that the speaker of the poem found her beautiful and admired her. The “star” now (you could argue) seems heavenly from his point of view, but distant and out of reach.
Perhaps… he even loved her: This isn’t made explicit either, but we’ve already shown (above) that he ‘admired’ her and we’ve said perhaps he loved her. That’s enough for now. After all, there’s a danger of getting distracted here: at the moment our priority is showing what the story is – not in-depth exploration of characterisation or style. That comes later.
But he never did anything about it, OR she rejected him: These are inferences we can make. What’s our evidence? Our evidence is the gap in the story. “She lived unknown,” and then in the next line she “ceased to be.” In other words, there was this lovely but lonely girl; he liked her; and now she’s dead and he’s sad. Can you see the gap there? We want to ask, “Well, did he ever tell her about his feelings? What did she say?” We don’t know. What we do know is that there is no strong indication that his admiration for this girl was ever returned or requited – at least not in a lasting or meaningful way. So either he never ‘made a move’, or he did and was rejected.
And now she’s gone! And he is heartbroken: Without going deep into characterisation (remember, our focus is currently just on the story) It is fair to suggest that the ‘difference’ in “Oh, the difference to me!” is a euphemism for ‘heartbreak’. We’ll shore up that point later on when we look more closely at characterisation – but it’ll do for now.
Maybe he could have saved her? And now perhaps he too is doomed to loneliness? This is more of a projection or speculation. It’s a nice little ‘extra’ in the story rather than a certainty. Most of the poem is about how isolated the girl was, until we realise the heartbreaking implications for the speaker. And heartbreak can leave you feeling isolated and alone… so isn’t this projection a neat way of tying up the story?
Recognising the narrative and the speaker behind it
Before we move on from the first part of our response to this poem, we need to take a step back again and recognise another ‘obvious’ thing.
The first obvious thing was the poem tells a story.
The second obvious thing is this story has a narrator. Now…
… that’s not something that is true of all stories. Sometimes they just contain narrative – without a distinct person or character behind it. And in that case, we can cautiously refer to the ‘speaker’ behind the poem. But this one does have a narrator. And it’s worth recognising that.
And not just any narrator – a narrator who knew the ‘Maid’ that his narrative contains (as shown above).
That’s important, because:
It means that we can go beyond saying that ‘the poem tells a story’.
Rather, we can say that:
(1) The poem tells a story
(2) through the voice of a lover-narrator
(3) whose life has been affected by the events of the story.
That statement is a bit vague and general at the moment, but the point is this:
Recognising these ‘obvious’ but essential working parts of the poem (even in a general way like this) is a powerful thing to do.
So what have we learnt? What do we write in an essay?
We’ve been working on what ‘binds the poem together’ – in this case, a story. It’s the gist, the substance, the essence of the poem.
Tying together everything we have established so far – in our own words – we could argue the following:
(1) The poem tells a story…
(2) through the voice of a lover-narrator of…
(3) the life and death of a girl whom…
(4) he appears to have loved, but who…
(5) did not return his love. We might add that…
(6) it is left ambiguous as to whether she had the chance to return his love or not.
Do I need to repeat myself here?
You can’t just state the above as fact.
You have to earn it.
You have to show your working. I’ve tried to show you how you can do that: feel free to rewind and have another look.
Are we done now?
No – we’re done with the first phase of a meaningful response to the poem: getting the story straight.
Here are some things we haven’t even got started with:
- We’ve done no analysis of language or style
- We haven’t explored the ballad form
- Nor have we looked in depth at any of the characters or settings identified so far
And let me be honest here:
Question: What would be the point of doing any of those things (in the list above) unless you first recognised and understood the story?
Answer: there would be no point.
Question: Who cares about enjambment or imagery or ballad form if they are just empty technical features?
Answer: no one cares.
Nope. You have to get the gist of the poem first.
And OK, I get it:
This can be a high-wire act. Because, for example, if you’re being examined on a poem like this, and you know that you’re expected to write about how the writer uses ‘language, structure, and form’ to create meaning and effects, it’s tempting to make a dive for those technical features, right? Start ticking those boxes?
But this is, frankly, a silly way of reading and writing about poetry – and it’s unnecessary.
Spend a paragraph establishing what the poem offers and what the poem is about. Just make sure…
… you evidence it properly.
I’m not telling you to spend a paragraph spouting general waffle about the poem without any evidence or support.
Quite the opposite:
Do it whilst providing plenty of short, accurate quotations to support your ideas (as I’ve done above) and you won’t sound like a mug – you will sound like…
… a pro.
THEN – you can dive into the setting and the characterisation (which we deal with below) which offer lots of opportunities for discussing how language, structure, and form help to shape meaning and create effects. It’s just that your discussion will be more meaningful and purposeful because of the groundwork you did in that first main paragraph, getting the story straight.
Don’t believe me?
I’ll show you.
But first, there’s another nettle we need to grasp:
The Form [consider writing later and inserting]
Looking at the form of a poem in isolation from its content (just as with language and structure) is a pointless exercise.
Which is why it was so important that we started out by establishing (a) that the poem contains a story, and (b) what that story is about.
But hooray! We’ve done that now.
We’ve looked roughly through the contents. Now let’s look at the container – or decide when we’re going to do that, OR decide not to do it at all.
Deciding when to write your paragraph on poetic form
Talking convincingly about poetic form is (I think) one of the most challenging things that literature students face.
So you may want to work on some other, easier parts of your essay first. For most students, setting and characterisation are easier to access and allow faster opportunities to make some headway and feel as if you’re making some progress with your essay. Running into a brick wall by trying to grapple with the form – when you’ve still got 2000 words to write – can be frustrating and unhelpful. Some may prefer to get into the ‘safe zone’ before attempting this.
And we’ll work through some ideas about how you can do it.
That said, I do recommend that your ‘form’ paragraph comes early in the essay. It’s worth considering writing it later and then inserting it.
Why? you ask me….
Because: as with the plot / conceit / scenario paragraph, your findings as to the significance and effect of poetic form have implications for the poem as a whole and for the rest of the essay.
To me, it just seems a bit odd to nearly finish analysing a poem, only to say:
Oh, and by the way, it’s a sonnet! I guess that seems like a pretty good choice of poetic form, given everything I’ve already said!Why you shouldn’t bring in form at the end of your essay
By contrast if you place the form paragraph early, you will keep getting good value from it as the essay progresses.
The key to coming up with high quality ideas about the role played by form is having good questions:
Having the right questions ready
- What is special about this form? What special character and characteristics does this particular form have?
- In what ways does this form seem appropriate to the content?
- In what ways is this is a surprising, innovative, or unconventional choice of form?
In just a minute I’m going to give you some examples of how you can answer these questions when they are applied to the ballad form and to this poem.
But in the essay we first need to establish, as concisely as we can, what the form is.
Identifying and demonstrating the form
This is danger territory.
You’re not going to pick up marks simply for showing that ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’ is a ballad. Because that’s actually quite easy to do.
BUT it’s something we need to be able to do if we’re then going to offer intelligent discussion on how the form is appropriate to the story.
Otherwise we get this:
Exam candidate: [writes] … the poem is a ballad …
Examiner: [thinks] Uh-huh. You’ve written that because it’s something you read on the internet. But you don’t actually know what it means….
Yes, it’s a ballad
This poem is a ballad. It looks like a ballad, and it sounds like a ballad. But we need to be able to explain why:
It’s written in quatrains
That means four lines per stanza. This is so self-evident that you don’t need to quote an entire stanza to show that it’s true. You can say that there are four lines per stanza – it is very easy for anyone reading your essay to fact-check that if they have any doubts.
It’s written in common metre
‘Common metre’ is shorthand for saying:
- Alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimiter
- With either an ABAB or ABCB rhyme scheme.
Here, I’ve highlighted in green the syllables that are likely to receive a natural stress when we read the poem aloud.
She dwelt | among | the untrod | den ways [4 iambic feet]
Beside | the springs | of Dove, [3 iambic feet]
A Maid | whom there | were none | to praise [4 iambic feet]
And ve | ry few | to love: [3 iambic feet]
That’s it. That’s common meter. And anything written in quatrains and in common meter is written in ballad form.
The fact that the poem is in ballad form is of no importance unless we can form some ideas about how it shapes the poem. That means…
Making suggestions about how the form might be appropriate
Merely establishing the form of a poem – on its own – is about as useful as pointing out a bit of imagery or a simile and then heading home. In other words…
… it’s pointless.
You have to generate some ideas about why this form is of any consequence or importance. Now…
A way to generate ideas on the appropriateness of the form
A good way of doing this is by…
… considering your answers to the questions I asked you to ‘get ready’ above!
And here is something else to try:
I find that a useful trick is to try and imagine the text in a different form. And then have a stab at articulating in your own words how it would feel different.
You can then take the best bits from your stream of consciousness and turn them into something that will sound good in an essay.
Look – I’ll show you:
Question: If it’s a ballad, how would it work if it were a sonnet?
Hmm, well… sonnets tend to be quite…
… serious… heavy…. They often have a bit more…
… gravitas?… is that the right word?…
… than ballads. Poets tend to use them to… reflect?… on big abstract topics like love and death and time. In fact…
… ‘reflect’ isn’t really the right word: sonnets tend to be more…
… intense?… than that?
So is the ballad form maybe less ‘intense’ than the sonnet form? Very broadly speaking? What’s the opposite of intense?Ballad form vs Sonnet form: an internal monologue
How about ‘light’? How does this sound:
‘The ballad form helps to give a lightness to Wordsworth’s poem.’
Does that sound plausible? Could I defend that?
Hmm… I guess she dies at the end… that’s not very ‘light’, is it? But…
Maybe there’s a tension there… a tension between the lightness of the form and the grave, morbid ending? How about this:
‘The ballad form helps to give a lightness to Wordsworth’s poem – in tension with its grave ending.’ That sounds fair. That might fly. Let’s see if I can support that…
Question: If it were written in blank verse – a long chain of unrhymed iambic pentameter (Wordsworth used blank verse in his great work The Prelude)?
Question: How would it work if it were just written in prose – as a prose poem, or even as a diary entry?
In each of these scenarios, the poem would somehow feel different. If you can find some ways of articulating how it would feel different, then…
… you’re well on your way to exploring and offering good ideas about the role of form.
Now, in just a second I’m going share with you my general ideas about the role of ballad from in ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’, PLUS my supporting justification and evidence.
You can borrow these ideas (preferably citing me or my website as your source – if we’re really doing this properly), or you can come up with better ones. Better still, you can do both – and better even than that, you can adapt this way of thinking to a different poem.
You might just want to remind yourself of my disclaimer: Discussing form is tricky, and usually it is enough to put forward arguments which are plausible rather than conclusive. I don’t offer any of these as ‘fact’, and you are very welcome to disagree and offer your own amendment.
Here we go:
Some examples of how you can discuss the relationship between form and content
The ballad represents a humble, modest form – appropriate for humble, modest content
First, the ballad form helps this poem to acquire its humble, modest character – a character that is appropriate to the humble, modest material in the story.
After all, as far as we can see, the story is about an ordinary country girl (who the speaker happened to find very beautiful and special) who lives and dies in obscurity. And accordingly, the poem is not ostentatious or ‘showy’.
Now, those are both BIG statements that require breaking down and demonstrating.
So here’s the first claim that I made:
the ballad form helps this poem to acquire its humble, modest characterMe, 30 seconds ago
BOOM! This is a huge statement: it’s subjective, debatable, and not everyone will agree with it. But:
I believe you can support it in more objective terms. And I’ll show you how.
Question: How can you argue that the poem – the whole poem – has a humble, modest character?
Answer: Through the neat, contained lines and stanzas which are the hallmark of ballad form.
Even that statement above is highly subjective. You can’t just say that and expect it to stand up. We’re going to have to demonstrate it.
This is where I often see students mess up. They say to themselves:
Oh great. My teacher told me that the lines and stanzas are neat and contained. So it must be true. That’s now a fact which I can repeat and get credit for.Innocent and complacent student
No. You have to show your working – and if you don’t you get nil points. Again, I’ll show you how:
Question: How can you show that the lines and stanzas are ‘neat’ and ‘contained’?
Answer: By looking closely at how they are structured. By showing that the poem is written in ballad form.
If you can demonstrate that Wordsworth’s poem is structured as a ballad then you’ve basically done most of the job of showing that the stanzas and lines are ‘neat’ and ‘contained’.
Here are some facts about the structure of the poem:
- Written in quatrains
- Alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter
- Alternating rhyme scheme (ABAB)
Those are classic ingredients of ballad form, and (I would argue) if followed consistently the tend to make for poetry that one could describe as ‘neat’ and ‘contained’.
We could add the following observations:
- There is always punctuation at the end of lines 2 and 4
- There is always enjambment at the end of lines 1 and 3 (except in the last stanza).
You could also point out that each stanza is punctuated at the end – the sense never spills over into the next stanza.
Coming back to my point about ‘modest and humble’, Wordsworth could have chosen a form that was more expansive and ornate, or he could have gone for a form associated with deep introspection or conceptual complexity: a sonnet, a villanelle, perhaps?
But he didn’t.
He went with a form associated with folk culture and the lives of ordinary people.
This is all appropriate to a story about a ‘Maid’ (not a ‘maiden’, still less a lady or a princess) and her apparently humble, unexotic origins amongst the ‘untrodden ways’. Her name is ‘Lucy’, not Lucetta or Lucasta or Lucrecia. And although we know nothing about the speaker behind the poem, there seems to be nothing special about him either.
So the ballad form is appropriate for the story that Wordsworth wants to tell.
The ballad is a respectful, reverent form – appropriate for tragic content
You can also argue that Wordsworth’s successful fulfilment of the ballad form makes for respectful treatment of what is ultimately a tragically premature death. Perhaps you could go further and say that it is reverent or worshipful – perhaps.
Why respectful? Because this poem is neatly finished and well-crafted – like a song. It shows care, attention, and revision – like a song.
You can use pretty much the same analysis as that provided above (neatly packaged quatrains etc) to justify this.
The ballad is a form that can make the speaker (and the content) sound fictitious or distanced from reality
Because the ballad form is so tightly controlled and stylised, and because of a long tradition of ballads telling traditional stories, the form kind of carries the implication that its contents are fictitious – made up.
Of course… if you wanted to write a poem about things that had happened to you in real life… perhaps a love you developed for someone who didn’t return it… then choosing the ballad form might be a good way of distancing your story from reality. More on this later.
The ballad lends itself to control and neatness – which is perhaps surprising for a story of personal bereavement
Although I suggested above that there is something ‘respectful’ about the ballad form, you could query this:
You could argue that the story calls for treatment that is a little more than just ‘respectful’ – if it is a story told by a lover who lost the woman he loved.
After all, bereavement – losing someone you love – is a seismic event in someone’s life.
Everyone experiences bereavement in their own way, but…
… it is probably fair to say that not many people start writing neatly-turned ballads. Poetry, maybe. Eventually. But ballads? Songs?
(OK, so Alfred Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam – written for a beloved friend who died young – is written in something quite close to ballad form. But amongst other things, it’s 623 stanzas long….)
For some people suffering bereavement, it is like a wound, a tear, a dismemberment. They are missing part of themselves. There is nothing ‘neat’ about it.
So isn’t the ballad form a bit too measured? Too neat? Packaged up?
Do those short little rhyming lines and quatrains really enable you to explore and express your feelings? The closing lines of the poem would suggest not:
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
It’s not exactly expansive, is it?
Some people might even describe the overall ‘feel’ of a ballad as quaint, trite, or pat.
So what do we say? That it’s an inappropriate choice of poetic form that jars with the subject matter?
No, I don’t think so.
Perhaps it is fairer to say that the poetic form creates a sense of distance and detachment between the mood and the subject matter. Rather than attempting to give full expression to the emotions of the speaker. Rather than accommodating melodrama or expansiveness, it and restricts and controls emotion – hinting at more and allowing our imaginations to fill the void.
Perhaps ‘less is more’?
Setting and Situation
At first glance, there isn’t a huge amount of setting in this poem. But there’s quite a bit about the maid’s situation. So let’s deal with it effectively and concisely – and see where it takes us.
The Maid’s situation
In terms of physical location, the maid in question lived (and stayed – ‘dwell’ means both):
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A ‘way’ is a route, or path. Maybe a road – but not in the way that we would think about roads today. An ‘untrodden’ way is… can you guess?…
… a road or path that doesn’t get ‘trodden’ (walked on) very much (and so perhaps gets overgrown, falls into poor condition, or gets lost entirely – making people even less likely to use it).
Main point 1: She lived somewhere rustic, wild and isolated where people didn’t – and couldn’t – pass by very often.
Let’s see if there’s anywhere else to develop this idea of rusticity, wildness, and isolation:
A violet by a mossy stone Half hidden from the eye! —Fair as a star, when only one Is shining in the sky.
This seems to support the idea that she lived somewhere rustic, wild, and ‘untrodden’ or out of the way – because:
If she’s the “violet” (commonly a wild flower), then the “mossy stone” is the wild green countryside all around her (maybe – more on this later). After all, moss likes to grow on stone – including tombstones (a bit of foreshadowing of her fate, there?) – and on ‘untrodden ways’. So we’ve got a little more development of this setting – a setting that embodies wildness and isolation.
Oh, and by the way, “violet by a mossy stone” is a metaphor -because she’s not actually a violet is she? She’s just being implicitly compared to one. Notice how we can start working more language analysis into our discussion now that we’ve done the groundwork in Paragraph 1 and got the story straight. And here we could say that the metaphor lightly reinforces the themes of wildness and the isolation that are first introduced by the expression ‘among the untrodden ways’.
Now, let’s see… can we develop this theme of wildness and isolation even further? Let’s turn to the next line which offers us some setting:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, A Maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love:
The springs of Dove
On the surface of things, this doesn’t do that much to develop the themes of rusticity, wildness, and isolation (although we do at least expect to find springs in rustic surroundings – perhaps in the hills and away from large settlements).
But this is clearly a line which helps to establish the setting.
So let’s have a look at it in detail and see what we can pull out.
Don’t fret about which River Dove it is
Let’s pretend that we know enough about poetry to know that Wordsworth means ‘the springs of the River Dove’ here.
(Wordsworth has personified the River by dropping the ‘the’, which some readers might find confusing – we’ll come back to that later.)
But let’s also pretend (for now) that you don’t know anything about the River Dove – or where it is. There are two reasons for that:
- There are three well-known rivers in England called Dove. We don’t know which one Wordsworth ‘meant’ – if indeed he even meant any of them. Wordsworth was widely travelled and fascinated with the English landscape: he seems to have known all three rivers.
- You don’t need to know about the rivers to make sense of the poem.
So we won’t worry about the ‘real’ River Dove. The way I see it, it would be a great pity of you needed an entire Geography lesson simply to understand this very short but nicely turned poem. Also it’s a ballad, and a ballad is a song. They’re supposed to be sung, learnt by heart, and enjoyed by ordinary people – they don’t want you to feel you have to rush to Wikipedia.
Let’s just pretend that we don’t know anything about any Rivers Dove and work with what we perhaps do know.
First of all…
Associations and connotations of ‘Dove’
It’s called the Dove. That sounds rather lovely, doesn’t it?
To modern speakers and readers, the associations with dove – the bird – are unavoidable. And they were surely unavoidable for Wordsworth too. It’s an attractive name for a river.
Now, do you know what a dove looks and sounds like?
Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. And you might not know all of the things below – but if you have the faintest idea that doves tend to be popular and attractive birds from a human standpoint, then you have something useful:
Because you have ready-made associations that you can draw out of the line ‘the springs of Dove’. For example, here are some things which you may or may not know:
- They’re often depicted as pure white (although most species are not).
- They make a mellow cooing sound associated with spring and summer.
- Doves often find their way into literature as symbols of peace and of love. Also art: Picasso loved them.
- Some species of dove mate for life (e.g. collared dove).
- They are famously alluded to in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament (“the voice of the turtle [i.e. turtle dove] is heard in our land”) as a sign that spring has arrived. The Song of Songs is a lyrical and erotically charged love song.
Oh, and ‘Dove’ also rhymes with ‘love’ – something of which Wordsworth takes full advantage when he gets to the fourth line of his poem.
She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, A Maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love:
So… I put it to you that we can’t help but feel that the springs of a river called ‘Dove’ are going to make for a beautiful and peaceful place charged with romance.
So we have some new ideas, thanks to the setting:
And we can add these ideas to the wildness and isolation we identified earlier.
But just in case you’re not convinced, let me just emphasise the point:
Imagine if Wordsworth had gone for the River ‘Ouse’ (pronounced ‘ooze’) or Dart, or Stour, or Derwent. It just wouldn’t sound as lovely, would it? Here are some alternatives – I’ve changed the fourth line to show you that Wordsworth was looking for more than just a river that would rhyme!
She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dart, A Maid whom there were none to praise And few to touch her heart:
Or how about:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Stour, A Maid whom there were none to praise Or love that gentle flower:
Hopefully, my (awful) versions above – even though they still rhyme – help to show you that the ‘Dove’ carries more attractive associations.
So even without knowing anything about the actual River Dove (whichever one of the 3 Rivers Dove Wordsworth actually meant) you could argue that, thanks to the line ‘Beside the springs of Dove’:
Main point 2: the setting is imbued with connotations of beauty, grace, peace, and love (in addition to the wildness and isolation that we identified earlier).
Notice above that phrase you could argue that. It’s not a fact which I’m telling you and which you can now go and merrily repeat in your essay. You have to be able to argue it in your own words.
Now here’s another question.
Why has Wordsworth written “of Dove” rather than “of the Dove” or “of the River Dove”?
The power of personification
Student: Sir, if he’d written ‘Beside the springs of the Dove’ or ‘Beside the springs of the River Dove‘ the line would contain too many syllables. It wouldn’t fit. It would affect the rhythm.
Well… that’s maybe true. But poets often do slip in an extra syllable here or there – it’s not against the law. Oh look –
the very first line of the poem has an extra syllable:
She dwelt amongst the untrodden ways.
Why it’s not just about ‘saving a syllable’
So I’m not sure ‘poetic neatness’ necessarily or wholly explains the absence of the ‘the’ in “springs of Dove”….
I grant you, though, that in the rest of the poem Wordsworth keeps things pretty neat in terms of the syllable count: all the remaining lines have the ‘right’ number of syllables. So maybe neatness was a factor in his choice to drop the ‘the’ and write ‘Beside the springs of Dove’.
Writing poetry doesn’t work as simply as that.
You try things.
You try other things.
You compare them.
You cross out words.
You add other words.
You change your mind and cross them out too.
You tear the whole thing up and start again.
Whatever happened – and for whatever initial reason – Wordsworth ended up with ‘Beside the springs of Dove’ (with no ‘the’). And…
… he approved it!
When he reread it, he thought “yep, that sounds good” – or something like that. It felt right to him.
So if it felt right to the poet Wordsworth, why? What’s the effect of this device?
The effects of personification
Well, first up –
Wordsworth ends up personifying the river. He calls it by name, like a person, rather than identifying it as geographical feature. This has two implications:
(a) It hints at a more intimate relationship between the speaker and the landscape.
(b) The river immediately acquires an identity and a character of its own – a somewhat magical and mystical character because in Geography lessons we don’t tend to talk about rivers as people or characters.
Further supporting the point: it happens elsewhere in the poetry of the Romantics
Personifying ‘the River Dove’ into ‘Dove’ is a common thing to do: ballad-writers and Romantic poets (such as Wordsworth) often personify natural features like rivers and mountains, and it helps to shape the character of the landscape they are describing – as experienced, remembered, or imagined from their point of view.
Here is Wordsworth doing the same thing with Esthwaite Water (a lake in the Lake District) in The Prelude:
The leaves were fading when to Esthwaite's banks And the simplicities of cottage life I bade farewell The Prelude (1850 version) Book Sixth, William Wordsworth
And here again – this time actually talking to the river.
Swift Rhone! thou wert the wings on which we cut A winding passage with majestic ease Between thy lofty rocks. The Prelude (1850 version) Book Sixth, William Wordsworth
So Wordsworth knew what he was doing when he wrote ‘Beside the springs of Dove.’
In this case (as I said above) you could say that, because of this personification:
Main Point 3: the River Dove takes on a faintly mystical or magical quality.
After all, humanity has quite a long history of thinking about rivers in this way – it isn’t just Wordsworth.
Fair enough – I’d certainly want some more ammunition if I were to try and make this ‘mystery’ point in an essay.
Well, how about this:
Further supporting the point – why the effects of the personification fit in with the rest of the poem
Wouldn’t this point (that the River Dove takes on a faintly mystical or magical quality, thanks to the personification) be consistent with the air of mystery around those wild ‘untrodden ways’ and the ‘Maid’ who goes unnamed until the last stanza?
Oh, and what about the ambiguity over how she ‘ceased to be’ and what the ‘difference to me’ was?
Isn’t there plenty of mystery to the poem as a whole?
And the personification of ‘Dove’ slots right into that.
Important thing to notice here:
Notice how it is easier to shore up this point because of the groundwork we did earlier when we were getting the story straight. Because we’re still making a point about the setting – but we’re using some other details from the story to show that our point is plausible.
We’ve got different parts of our analysis working in partnership – so that our analysis feels like a cohesive structure instead of a long string of points.
So, coming back to the point about rhythm (writing ‘Beside the springs of
the Dove’ because it fits better rhythmically) yes – it’s relevant, BUT it’s far from the whole story. And it’s worthy of the extra attention we’ve given it.
Wow, we’ve been focusing on this one line for a long time, right?
Beside the springs of Dove,
Well there’s still more to say. Can you believe it?
Associations and ambiguities in ‘the springs of Dove’
This is what good essay-writers do when they’re writing literature essays:
They wring lots of possibilities out of carefully selected material.
As it happens in this case, selecting material is a bit easier because our poem is only 12 lines long.
The associations of springs
Carrying on then – first, we have the symbolism of ‘springs’ which (you could argue) carry associations of youth. After all, as we’ve already established, this is a story about a girl who dies tragically young – and here we have the setting arguably doubling or echoing that youth.
But let’s look more closely at the language here – because there are some interesting quirks:
For example, why has Wordsworth written “Beside the springs of Dove” – ‘the springs’ plural? Why not “a spring” or “the spring” of Dove? Wouldn’t that be easier to visualise literally?
Ambiguity – multiple ‘springs’
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus asked whether it is possible to swim in the same river twice. But let’s think about this really literally for a moment, for the sake of argument:
Can you live beside more than one spring?
Can you live beside all of the springs of a major river (I say ‘all’ because it says ‘the springs’ not ‘some springs’)?
That would seem like a pretty difficult feat to achieve – wouldn’t you agree? That is, if we’re being really literal about it.
It’s kind of hard to visualise Wordsworth’s ‘Maid’ living beside ‘the springs’ of Dove… isn’t it?
Isn’t it easier to visualise her living beside one spring? And Wordsworth could easily have written “Beside a spring of Dove” or “the spring of Dove” couldn’t he?
That would have been easy: no change to the rhythm at all… practically the same language… and perhaps it makes more literal sense.
So again, why?
Wordsworth has made a choice – perhaps based on his sense of the effect of ‘the springs’ as opposed to ‘a spring’. All we can do is try to establish our sense of that effect.
Option 1: We continue to think about the literal meaning. So for example, I guess it would be easier to live ‘beside the springs of Dove’ if… you moved around and had a chance to live ‘beside’ each one at different times. That might mean that the maid didn’t really have a fixed or defined abode or dwelling place. After all “She dwelt amongst the untrodden ways” (plural) – so maybe the implication is that she moved around the region, living a nomadic life like a shepherdess or a gypsy? After all, Wordsworth has written other poems about both. Might that have something to do with why the narrator of the story appears never to have ‘made his move’? We can only speculate. But if we provide close evidence for our speculations (as we have just done) then we should get rewarded in an essay!
Option 2: We take a less literal approach, and say that ‘beside the springs of Dove’ offers a vaguer, more fluid, more impressionistic, more abstract image. And we say that that is consistent with the ambiguous, magical, or mystical elements of the poem, and that it is in harmony with the ballad form which is often associated with folklore and magic (have a look at John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci). And let’s not forget that springs are often regarded as holy or magical places.
Of course, the nice thing is that we can use both Option 1 and Option 2. We can accept both as plausible at the same time.
And I suspect plenty of readers of this blog post will be able to add their own explanations – perhaps in favour of the ones provided here.
… look how much we have achieved without recourse to Wikipedia and finding out extra information about the River Dove (remember, there are three of them!) – as if that somehow held the key to the poem. It doesn’t!
And all of this is going to have implications for the character of the story. I’ll show you why:
Some conclusions on setting: how does the setting influence the overall feel and character of the story?
We worked hard to establish what the story is – a tragic tale of premature death and unrequited love. But:
How would the story respond to a more realist setting?
You could place the same story in a more realist setting – in an inner-city slum, for example – and the story would still work, would it not?
Yes – the story would work perfectly well.
It would just feel different. It would feel grim. Gritty. It might feel as if it had social and political resonance: “she died because of poverty! something must be done!”
But we don’t get that if we’re sitting beside the springs of Dove.
We get something else. What is it?
So what does the story gain from the setting Wordsworth actually offers?
Does the story take on a sort of grace or purity – removed from noise of the problems of the real world? Does the story take on a ‘charm’ or evoke a sense of wonder that might be missing if the setting was dirty buildings and crisp packets blowing across the pavements? Or is there greater harmony between (a) the story and (b) the ballad form – because ballads are rooted in folk culture and the lore of the land and a lost and more innocent world?
I can’t offer you categorical answers here – only suggestions. This is one of those moments when you need to decide for yourself!
Main Point 4: the setting has… grace? purity? charm? detachment? the setting is in harmony with the ballad form?
And that’s it for setting. Which leaves one central plank of our essay remaining….
Wow – we found an awful lot to say about the setting – even though it only really features in about three lines!
In fact, we’ve spent time thinking about how the setting is characterised. And we thought about how the poem as a whole is characterised – through its form. So really…
We’ve been thinking about ‘characterisation’ throughout.
But now we’ll turn our attention now to the actual people in the poem.
And there are only two:
- The Maid (Lucy)
- The speaker or voice of the poem
But before we try to ‘analyse’ either of these characters, let’s recognise something:
Why it’s worth considering the characters as potentially complex AND simple or two-dimensional
(1) This is not (in my humble opinion) a lyric poem of the sort that builds up a developed portrait of the individual described (such as Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess‘ or Seamus Heaney’s ‘Follower‘).
It’s just not that sort of poem:
It’s a ballad, and as I suggested above, ballads don’t tend to do that.
So although yes – we are allowed to imagine these characters as real people…
and although yes – we are allowed to carry out a ‘realist’ exploration of their characterisation…
(and we will do that)
We should also be willing to recognise them (Lucy and the speaker of the poem) as two-dimensional ‘stock’ characters – which is not necessarily a bad thing.
i.e. Characters who are light and unobtrusive.
i.e. Characters who leave space for the story to be told with a pleasing brevity, simplicity, purity, and musicality.
Or, in other words…
… characters who help the poem fulfil its purpose of being a ballad!
Let’s get started!
The ‘Maid’ (Lucy)
Because as I said earlier, that’s not really what ballads are ‘for’. It’s not what they do.
Instead, she is introduced in generic terms: she is “a Maid” – not a milkmaid… not a peasant girl… not Lucy Dean the Miller’s daughter.
Within this framework, though, there are some things that we can probably say about how she is characterised:
The speaker makes her:
A common country girl
Let’s look at the evidence. As discussed earlier, she is a ‘Maid’ (an unmarried young girl) who lives in obscurity (“among the untrodden ways” etc).
And her name is “Lucy”….
Now, don’t ignore names!
There’s a little bit of characterisation – right there. I’ll explain:
Wordsworth has chosen something more vernacular and down-to-earth.
… the overall implication seems to be that she was of common, ordinary social status.
(And you may remember that that’s arguably in keeping with the ballad form.)
Dignity and status
The personification of ‘Maid’ (with a capital ‘M’) grants some status to her role in the story.
Look also at that word ‘dwelt’. Notice how it’s kind of an old-fashioned word? It’s funny though…
… students tend to know immediately what it means – so they just accept it as part of the scenery… and don’t stop to question it.
But we have a term for this kind of word:
The word “dwelt” is an archaism. And it’s worth stopping to consider whether the archaism has an effect.
So compare it with “She lived among the untrodden ways.” If you ask me, the choice of the archaism “dwelt” gives an extra sort of respectability to the maid’s life (amongst other things).
So much for her life – now look at the way her death is treated:
She “ceased to be” and is now “in her grave”. Those are both euphemisms: they mean “she died” or “she is dead”, but they find a softer, less blunt, perhaps more respectful way of putting it. You could say that they ‘finesse’ or dignify the fact of her death.
So… there are a few little ways that Wordsworth’s speaker finds to add some status and dignity to the maid – even though she seems to come from lowly origins.
And he goes even further….
Elevation and mystery
Wordsworth finds ways of conferring mystery on this girl in two ways:
1. By holding back and gradually revealing information about her
2. By associating her with things that are wild and heavenly
Holding back and gradually revealing information about her
Lucy’s identity is only gradually revealed. First, she is introduced anonymously as ‘She’ in the first line. Dear Reader:
Don’t ignore this fact!
Because so many students miss this kind of thing – that the poem just begins with “She” rather than identifying who ‘she’ is. It’s so obvious that it’s hiding in plain sight.
But the fact is…
… when you’re writing a story, the instinctive thing to do is to directly introduce your character – before any of the action happens. Look at the beginning of the Story of Little Red Cap (i.e. Little Red Riding Hood) by the Brothers Grimm.
Once upon a time there was a sweet little girl. Everyone who saw her liked her, but most of all her grandmother, who did not know what to give the child next. Once she gave her a little cap made of red velvet. Because it suited her so well, and she wanted to wear it all the time, she came to be known as Little Red Cap.
One day[i.e. the story begins here] [….]The Story of Little Red Cap (the Brothers Grimm): Source
Or look at the first stanza of the ballad Barbara Allen:
In Scarlet town, where I was born, There was a fair maid dwellin’, Made every youth cry Well-a-way! Her name was Barbara Allen.
And it would have been easy for Wordsworth to do the same:
A Maid called Lucy once did dwell Beside the springs of Dove My horrible altered version which immediately introduces the character!
See what I mean?
But Wordsworth didn’t do that – he kept some of the information back.
So then, it is only in the third line that Wordsworth gives us a little more information and identifies her as ‘a Maid’.
And finally, in a surprise twist, she is given a name (‘Lucy’) in the third stanza.
Associating her with things that are wild and heavenly
In addition to the dignity and mystery already conferred on her, the maid is elevated further through comparison to a star (a simile): “fair as a star”. And the added imagery (“shining in the sky”) helps to draw out the heavenly associations of the star-simile.
And she is also (you could argue) beautiful in a wild sort of way (“a violet by a mossy stone”).
Isolation and loneliness
Yes, in spite of all of the admirable characteristics above, the information that we are given in the poem surely characterises her as isolated.
Do I need to spell out the evidence for this? Surely not – we covered a lot of it when we were getting the story straight.
Does that make her lonely? We can’t say for sure, because the poem never offers us a window on her thoughts and feelings.
But perhaps you can argue that loneliness is a fair inference – especially as she ends up dying. After all, as I suggested earlier, the juxtaposition between the theme of solitariness and Lucy’s death at the end of the poem invites us to make a connection between the two.
Why the (limited) characterisation of Lucy is important
I have already suggested some reasons you can offer for the relatively thin characterisation of Lucy. You can turn this to your advantage – by first saying that it is appropriate to the ballad form. After all, ballads often feature stock characters who only get outlined or ‘sketched out’ rather than receiving detailed portraits. I mean, look at the light characterisation in the ballad ‘Barbara Allen’.
And believe it or not…
… that adds to their charm – the same charm this poem also picks up from the setting.
Secondly, though, there are potential advantages to the ballad’s low-entry requirements for characterisation. I mean, look at it this way…
Imagine you were an 18th-century gentleman or lady, with wealth, education, and status – and a reputation to protect.
Let’s say that there was a particular girl or young man that you had taken a fancy to – but:
you felt that a love between the two of you could never be.
Perhaps there was a social barrier:
She was a barmaid / He was a stable lad.
He/she was already married, or you were already married.
… you just saw him/her briefly in the street, and liked them, but you couldn’t pluck up the courage to say anything, and you knew that you would never see him/her again – because you were on a walking holiday.
All of these things are possible.
And if you wanted to put this into poetry – without going into specifics or making that person identifiable? Well, then…
… what more appropriate literary form could there be than the ballad?
Think about it:
- No obligation to provide much detail
- No specific place names or dates
- Only a thin sketch of your character required – as a ‘maid’ or a ‘lad’.
- For dramatic effect, you could get them to die at the end of the poem – when in fact she just blushed and told you that she was very sorry but she already had a boyfriend?
Wouldn’t that be a good way of cleverly expressing your feelings without exposing yourself to hurt, ridicule, embarrassment, or reputational damage?
For example, imagine this (fictitious) conversation between Wordsworth and his good friend Charles Lamb.
Charles: OK William, so who’s this ‘Lucy’ then? Juicy Lucy! Come on, now: who did you get the hots for whilst you were out on your travels, eh? I know you and your wicked ways…
Wordsworth: Oh, I just made her up.
Charles: Oh come now, William! I know you better than that, my dear! You wrote a whole poem about her – 5 poems in fact. You must have had somebody in mind….
Wordsworth: No, I invented her. Sometimes when I get bored I write ballads. It’s a nice little exercise. Some people like drawing and sketching. I write poems. And a ballad has to have some sort of maid or shepherdess in, doesn’t it? Those are just the rules. The fun with a ballad is in making it as polished and well-formed as it can possibly be.
Charles: [rolling his eyes] OK, William… if you say so…A conversation between William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb which never took place (but could have done)
Hopefully you get the idea by now:
The ballad is useful because it is so controlled and restricted as a form. You can take the people and the dramas in your real life and transpose them into the innocent peasant folk and the rural idylls from a bygone age.
Now, there is one other reason the characterisation of Lucy is important:
It helps to characterise the other character in the poem….
The voice / speaker of the poem
Whether studying poetry or prose, this is the character that students tend to forget: the voice behind the text.
And because the whole poem is voiced by the speaker, we have more opportunity to consider his character than that of Lucy.
As I’ve argued above, we still need to be prepared for the possibility that even the speaker is a stock character – the Romeo, the broken-hearted lover.
Who is the speaker?
The identity of the speaker is undetermined or ambiguous. There is a clear ‘me’ in the poem – a ‘me’ capable of sighing and uttering exclamations like ‘oh’. But in fact even that only becomes clear in the last lines and the final word of the poem:
But she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference to me!
Student: Isn’t the speaker Wordsworth?
No. We can’t just assume that the speaker is Wordsworth – simply because he wrote the poem. Because for as long as humans have been writing and reading poetry (i.e. thousands of years) we have been using the medium to explore different voices.
Instead, you have to work with what’s in the poem.
So with that in mind, let’s have a quick recap on the speaker’s identity. From the work we did way back at the beginning, we can be reasonably confident that:
- The speaker is a lover
- The speaker came to know this girl (perhaps from a distance) and to love her
- The speaker was left heartbroken by her death
(Also, I’ve been working on the basis that the speaker is a ‘he’ – but even this is not essential.)
Now let’s look at the evidence in front of us, build on what we’ve done so far, and see what we can establish:
Observation: The speaker is expressing himself through a ballad
I know that we’ve talked about ballad form a lot already, but hear me out here. Because there are at least two further points we can make:
The ballad form suggests something about the speaker’s attitude
The beautiful craftsmanship with which this particular ballad is finished would seem to suggest…
… that this girl Lucy meant a lot to the speaker, would it not?
… that he was devoted to her?
… that he wanted to express himself in a way that was worthy of just how wonderful she was?
… why go to all the trouble?
Also, it’s a ballad, and a ballad is a song (another clue). And songs about lovers often express devotion (“Ain’t no mountain high enough”, “I say a little prayer for you” etc etc).
We could also add that perhaps not only was he devoted to her in life, but that now he is devoted to her memory – having memorialised her through this ballad (arguably the ballad acts as a sort of elegy).
Main Point 1: He is full of devotion, both to her and to her memory, as evidenced by the very form of the poem.
The ballad form has at least one other implication for the characterisation of the speaker, though…
The ballad form suggests something about the speaker’s state of mind and his engagement
To write a ballad requires composure.
An outpouring of grief is unlikely to produce a ballad (as I argued earlier).
So you could argue that the ballad form helps to create the impression of a speaker who has somehow put emotional distance or detachment from what he is describing.
Does that mean that he doesn’t care?
Surely not. But we could identify a dreamy detachment, vacancy, vagueness or wistfulness in his tone, partly brought about by the form.
Here are three ideas that we could use to explain this:
(1) Perhaps a long time has passed since the events described – so that the feelings have softened and matured and the “difference” has taken shape?
(2) Perhaps it is consistent with the magical and mystical associations of the poem – and we’re not really supposed to conceive of the speaker as a three-dimensional character.
(3) Perhaps this is just the aloof Romantic persona that Wordsworth felt like creating.
But whatever explanation you want to give, remember:
There is a difference between
(a) working through a problem (what we’ve just done)
(b) presenting your findings (what you want to do in your essay).
When you’re writing your essay, don’t take your reader on a Magical Mystery Tour in which you finally reveal your main point (“He is full of devotion!”) at the end.
Make that point at the beginning of your paragraph – and then provide the supporting argument.
… we’ll go back to looking at the evidence – to see if there are some other main points we could make about the characterisation of the speaker.
Let’s see if we can tease some more out of the poem! You’ll like this next bit – it’s easy point-scoring:
Observation: The speaker characterises Lucy (see above)
We looked at the characterisation of Lucy earlier.
We can get more mileage out of the work we’ve already done.
Remember – all of this characterisation is carried out by…
… the speaker of the poem!
(1) If Lucy is characterised in a dignified way, it is fair to infer that the speaker feels respectful, or even reverent towards her – because he made her seem dignified. (We also discussed earlier that there is arguably something respectful about the ballad form.)
(2) If Lucy is made to seem beautiful, a fair inference would be that the speaker admired her – because he made her seem beautiful.
(3) If Lucy is made to seem mysterious, it would seem fair to suggest that the speaker is fascinated by her – because he made her seem mysterious.
(4) If Lucy appears lonely, then perhaps the speaker feels pity and compassion for her – because he made her seem lonely.
He’s the one who is doing all of this characterisation – so it shows us at least as much about him, the speaker, as about Lucy!
Main point 2: He is full of respect and admiration for her.
Main point 3: He is full of fascination for her.
Main point 4: He is full of pity for her.
Observation: The speaker refers to the maid as ‘Lucy’
He refers to her (eventually) by her first name “Lucy” and only her first name. This is easy to take for granted – but he didn’t have to do this, and indeed he avoids it until the last stanza. He could have:
(a) left her anonymous or
(b) referred to her as “Lucy Jacobs” or “Miss Dean” or “the Miller’s daughter” (or whatever).
But of course, it is more intimate to refer to somebody by their first name, isn’t it?
So perhaps we could argue that this feature (referring to Lucy by her first name – or Christian name, as it would have been known in Wordsworth’s day) would seem to suggest a desired intimacy in the speaker.
Main point 5: He is charged with the desire for intimacy with the subject of the poem.
Observation: “Oh, the difference to me!”
The “difference” appears to be another euphemism or understatement: it’s a word that carries a softer impact than what he actually means. (Surely he means something like “heartbreak” or “devastation”?)
But why did Wordsworth use a euphemism here? Why not choose a stronger word and get the speaker to vent his true feelings?
Well, perhaps he felt that it would be more effective to hint at strong feelings which lie outside the bounds of this neat, contained little ballad? To leave them to the imagination of the reader? Perhaps he felt that doing justice to these feelings – within the narrow confines of the ballad form – would be awkward? Better to issue an obvious understatement and let readers do the rest of the work?
Or maybe he never told her how he felt, and he feels awkward and regretful that he never took his chance?
Main point 6: He feels devastated and heartbroken that she is dead.
Such a euphemism suggests control – the same control, perhaps, as that required to channel grief into neatly arranged common metre. By contrast, though…
… the exclamation and punctuation (“Oh […] !”) suggests the opposite of control – an emotional outburst or outpouring. So…
… we arguably have a conflict or tension between:
(a) the artistic need for emotional control, and
(b) the personal need to express emotion.
Main point 7: The speaker is torn between his desire to (a) express and (b) control his feelings.
We have finished with the following observations about the speaker:
(1) He was full of devotion to Lucy when she was alive, and is devoted now to her memory.
(2) He admired and respected her because he found her beautiful and dignified.
(3) He was fascinated and awe-struck by her – because he found her mysterious and heavenly.
(4) He felt pity for her – because she died
(5) He desired, and felt deprived of, intimacy with her
(6) He is bereft or heartbroken (possibly regretful?) now that she is dead
(7) He feels conflicted between his desire to (a) express and (b) control his feelings.
Now – time for (8) a wildcard:
It is tempting to add that perhaps the speaker fears that, now that Lucy is dead…
… he will suffer similar loneliness!
We can only speculate here.
What support can we offer?
Well, we’ve got a little evidence to go on:
(1) The theme of loneliness that seems to run through the poem.
(2) The ambiguous word ‘difference’. If ‘difference’ means ‘implications’ (i.e. “her death has big implications for my life”) then it may be that one of those ‘implications’ is that he left lonely and isolated himself.
(3) The shape of the story: there is a pleasing sort of symmetry to the story if we think about it in this way: it ends with the speaker experiencing the same loneliness as the girl he begins by describing.
Again, this is only a speculative, wildcard point. The best we can do is make it plausible.
And if you try and lead with this point, it’s going to sound like a bluff. It will only work as ‘the cherry on the cake’.
What I mean by that is – it will only be convincing if it is sitting on top of more solid, convincing, and evidence-rich analysis (such as that provided above). The kind of analysis that gets examiners nodding and saying:
Hmm… I’m not sure about that one… but it’s an imaginative idea… and the rest of your argument is so convincing that you deserve the benefit of the doubt.Examiner who reads your wildcard speculative idea – when it follows
Wildcard point (8): The speaker is perhaps characterised as being fearful of also being condemned to loneliness
It’s nice to finish with a wildcard point – and finish we will.
Conclusion to the essay
The purpose of this tutorial was to show you how to approach, structure, and substantiate an essay on a poem – in particular, how to analyse a ballad.
Concluding essays is a fine art – and I’m not going to attempt to model it here. Amongst other things, it depends on the question you are answering.
But in sum, you need to find a way of synthesising everything you have argued above into something pithy, imaginative, and stylish.
You made it to the end? You’re a hero: it’s going to be a hell of an essay.
A warning about plagiarism, and a disclaimer
A couple of things:
I don’t claim a monopoly on these ideas I’ve offered here. But:
As I said earlier, if you found ideas here and you want to borrow them, you really ought to cite your source in your essay. You should still get credit if you can explain and justify them in your own words. You’ll get more credit if you can adapt them and make something new out of them.
Although I keep my analysis as objective as I can here, the premise of many of the ideas that I’ve offered is inevitably quite subjective. It’s not fact. And you’re welcome to disagree. Your teacher is welcome to disagree.