A commentary on one of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems
‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ is one of William Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems, which he first published in the 1800 reprint of his landmark volume Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge). In three quatrains, Wordsworth summarises the life, beauty, and death of Lucy, a ‘Maid’ who lived and died among Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District. Before we offer a few words of analysis of this poem, here’s a reminder of it.
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!
For the critic Geoffrey Durrant, the three stanzas of ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ represent ‘Lucy’s growth, perfection, and death’. The first stanza talks of ‘springs’ and Lucy as a ‘Maid’, implying youth (‘springs’ suggest not only small rivers and pools but also the idea of something springing into life), while the second stanza raises her beauty to the heights of a star in the night sky; the third stanza then reveals that Lucy has died. Of course, ‘Maid’ doesn’t just mean ‘young woman’ but ‘unmarried woman’, which is also relevant in relation to Lucy’s life. (‘Dove’ refers to the River Dove, after which Wordsworth’s Lake District home, Dove Cottage, was named.)
Wordsworth praises the ‘Maid’ Lucy for being ‘fair’ or beautiful, but observes that she lived in an obscure part of England where there were few people to admire her beauty. This is a bit like Thomas Gray’s ‘flower born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air’: Lucy lived out her life in obscurity, so her beauty, which would have been feted in a big city or town, was unnoticed. But Wordsworth noticed it.
Violets are often found in places where nobody goes, so it makes sense that Lucy should be compared to a violet in the poem’s middle stanza: she who ‘dwelt among the untrodden ways’ where there were none to admire her. Yet the comparison between Lucy and the ‘star’ is harder to fit into such an analysis. Stars are pretty visible, especially if a particular star is the only one that can be seen in the night sky – hardly the same as the violet blooming where nobody can see it. Wordsworth’s intention may have been to uncover the latent pun on light (stars are bright, and Lucy means ‘light’, from the Latin lux), but nevertheless, the simile doesn’t seem to work. What are we missing?
If there is only one star shining in the sky, then this implies not a star at all but the planet Venus, which has poetically been known as ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Evening Star’ for centuries. It shines brighter than other stars in the night sky and so, even when bona fide stars aren’t visible, Venus will be. Venus, of course, is named in honour of the Roman goddess of love – making the comparison doubly valid, since the implication in ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ is that the poet is in love with Lucy. (The other reason for its validity is the light-connection mentioned above.) But this still doesn’t solve the central issue – that Venus is a public and highly visible ‘star’ in the night sky, yet Lucy is apparently unvalued because she dwells ‘among the untrodden ways’. But this is a minor blemish in an otherwise tender poem, which serves as a celebration of Lucy’s beauty but also a quiet lament for her death.
‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ is written using the ballad form, rhymed abab – Wordsworth may have been inspired to use this form when he read Thomas Percy’s collection of British folk ballads, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). It’s largely thanks to this anthology that we have ballads such as ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Ballad of Chevy Chase’ preserved for future generations; without these poems, English vernacular literature – indeed, English literature in general, would be much the poorer. The Lyrical Ballads would probably never have been written without Percy’s anthology.
If you found this analysis of ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’ helpful, you might also enjoy our discussion of Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’.