Literature

A Short Analysis of William Wordsworth’s ‘I travelled among unknown men’

‘I travelled among unknown men’ is one of the ‘Lucy’ poems written by William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Written in the quatrain form roughly resembling the ballad metre, linking these poems to the vernacular tradition of Border Ballads, ‘I travelled among unknown men’ is one of Wordsworth’s most accessible famous poems. Yet it is not without its difficulties. What follows is the poem, along with some notes towards an analysis of it.

I travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.

’Tis past, that melancholy dream!
Nor will I quit thy shore
A second time; for still I seem
To love thee more and more.

Among thy mountains did I feel
The joy of my desire;
And she I cherished turned her wheel
Beside an English fire.

Thy mornings showed, thy nights concealed,
The bowers where Lucy played;
And thine too is the last green field
That Lucy’s eyes surveyed.

This short poem was written in 1801, a short while after Wordsworth wrote the other ‘Lucy’ poems (who Lucy was, and whether she represents a real beloved of Wordsworth’s, are questions that have had Wordsworth biographers and critics scratching their heads ever since). Wordsworth had indeed ‘travelled among unknown men’, having spent time in Germany shortly before he wrote this poem.

In summary, of course, ‘I travelled among unknown men’ is about realising how much one love’s one’s home country when one is away from it: compare Wordsworth’s poem with Robert Browning’s famous sigh for his native country, beginning ‘Oh, to be in England’. Wordsworth tells us that he will not leave England again, now he has realised how dear his native land is to him.

In the second half of the poem, Wordsworth’s love for England becomes combined with his love for Lucy, ‘she [whom] I cherished turned her wheel / Beside an English fire’. (Presumably Lucy is engaged in the act of spinning or sewing, using a spinning wheel, in the domestic space of the hearth: even the fire is ‘English’.) But in the final stanza, the use of the past tense and the reference to ‘the last green field / That Lucy’s eyes surveyed’ reveal that Lucy has died. Wordsworth is pining for an England he left behind, and for a girl who is no more.

The tone of this little poem is thus melancholic – or, perhaps more accurately, bittersweet. Lucy is gone, but the poet’s appreciation for the land that bore her, and himself, has sprung up anew, and his love of the land has been partly been inspired by his love for the lost Lucy, since land and Lucy become inextricably linked at the end of the poem.

If you found this analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘I travelled among unknown men’ helpful, you might also enjoy our analysis of ‘Strange fits of passion have I known’, ‘She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways’, and ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’.

3 Comments

  1. Love Wordsworth :-) .

  2. A great poem indeed, I really didn´t know tha t in 1800 they rhymed, it might sound dumb but in so many ways I read that similar type of structure in modern times in WordPress, so it seems the rhyming poetry has been around for some time…….ofcourse! It´s obvious, it was very interesting to read this piece and learn how little I know about poetry.

  3. isabellacatolica

    Lucy poems: now you have done all four!
    It is amazing how consistently Wordsworth keeps to the strict iambic foot of the ballad metre. In these 4 Lucy poems I can find only two lines which do not scan as having perfect iambs – one of which is the opening line of this poem. And yet there is no hint of sing-song, or monotony in the sound of these poems; and the tone of all four seems very consistent. “An elegy haunting in its simplicity” (as you say of “A slumber did my spirit seal”) could be applied to the whole sequence.