By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘We Are Seven’ is one of the most famous poems by William Wordsworth to appear in the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, the book which he co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Indeed, after ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, ‘We Are Seven’ is probably Wordsworth’s most widely known and best-loved poem in the collection.
Although it appears to be a fairly simple poem involving a conversation between the poet and a little girl, ‘We Are Seven’ is worthy of closer analysis, because Wordsworth includes a number of clever and subtle details. The best way to analyse the poem is probably to go through it, stanza by stanza, offering a kind of summary as we go. So, here goes:
We Are Seven
———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
Wordsworth immediately begins ‘We Are Seven’ with an odd detail: a foreshortened first line. Every other stanza of ‘We Are Seven’ (except for the closing stanza, which is longer) contains four lines, so is a quatrain, rhymed abab. So, as we’ll see in the following stanza, ‘Girl’ rhymes with ‘curl’ and ‘said’ with ‘head’. In terms of metre, Wordsworth uses the ballad metre: alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, so the first and third lines of each stanza contain four ‘iambs’: we discuss this in more detail at the end of this analysis.
But you’ll see that in this first stanza, the first line is shorter: ‘A simple Child’ is half the length of every other odd line in the poem (i.e. the first and third lines of each stanza). The long dash (———) points to an omission. What did he take out? And why doesn’t ‘Child’ rhyme with ‘limb’ in the third line?
Wordsworth originally wrote, at Coleridge’s suggestion, the opening line, ‘A little child, dear brother Jem’, with ‘Jem’ chiming with ‘limb’. ‘Jem’ was a nod to James Tobin, a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge who was known as ‘Jem’. However, Wordsworth went off the idea of addressing ‘Jem’ in the first line, on the basis that ‘Jem’ was, in Wordsworth’s word, a ‘ludicrous’ rhyme for ‘limb’. So he got rid of these words, altered ‘little’ to ‘simple’, and decided to open the poem with a shorter line. It certainly gets our attention.
Beyond this detail, the meaning of this opening stanza is fairly straightforward: in Romantic poetry, especially the poetry of Wordsworth, childhood is a time of innocence and good-natured ignorance. What should a young child know of death? Can they comprehend what it really means? How often have adults told small children who have lost someone dear to them, such as a family member, that that person has ‘gone away’, rather than presenting them with the cold, hard truth?
This attitude of sweet innocence, where death is only partially grasped by the child, is central to ‘We Are Seven’.
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
Wordsworth here draws on a real-life encounter with an anonymous girl: he met her in 1793 during a walking tour, when Wordsworth followed the river Wye up from Bristol and all the way up to north Wales. This walking tour is the one he recalls at the beginning of ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) when he refers to five years having passed since he was last there.
Wordsworth walked a lot. Indeed, Thomas De Quincey once estimated that Wordsworth walked up to 180,000 miles in his whole life, which is around 2,500 miles every year of his adult life, or around seven miles every day!
When Wordsworth was ‘within the area of Goodrich Castle’, in Herefordshire, in 1793, he met the girl who inspired the poem. Wordsworth depicts the girl in the poem as part of a simple rustic world, clothed ‘wildly’ as if she doesn’t fully belong to the civilised society of the towns and cities. However, she is ‘fair’ and beautiful.
‘Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?’
‘How many? Seven in all,’ she said,
And wondering looked at me.
‘And where are they? I pray you tell.’
She answered, ‘Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
‘Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.’
Wordsworth asks the little girl about her family. How many of them are there in her family? The girl replies that there are seven of them ‘in all’, i.e. in total.
But when Wordsworth asks for more details (which is rather nosy of him – one wonders what a child would do these days if a strange man started expressing such an interest in her life), she answers that two ‘dwell’ or live ‘at Conway’, i.e. Conwy, in north Wales, and two have gone away to sea, presumably as sailors. And two others, the girl’s brother and sister, are in the churchyard, so are dead. The girl lives with her mother in the cottage of the churchyard.
‘You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.’
Perhaps less than diplomatically, Wordsworth probes this information further, questioning the girl’s logic. If two of their family of seven live away from them, at Conwy (which is quite a distance from Herefordshire), and two other have gone away to sea, how can she say ‘we are seven’? Surely they’re three, if four members of their family have moved away and don’t live with them any more?
Then did the little Maid reply,
‘Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.’
‘You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.’
Again, Wordsworth shows little tact and drives home his line of questioning. ‘What about those two siblings of yours you mentioned who lie dead in the churchyard? You can’t count them among your number, so you’re really five, not seven.’ As if to prove his point, he points out to her that she runs about the place and is clearly alive, but her unfortunate siblings in the churchyard are not.
‘Their graves are green, they may be seen,’
The little Maid replied,
‘Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
But the girl is having none of it. The graves of her dead brother and sister are ‘green’, implying they are fresh and her siblings have only recently died. It’s worth remembering that life in rural communities was tough in the eighteenth century, with no welfare state and a system of poor relief which was patchy at best.
And there were plenty of diseases, from smallpox to cholera to tuberculosis, which could carry off children before they even reached adulthood. It’s hardly surprising that, of her six siblings, two of them have perished. Such infant or child mortality was a sad reality in this period.
And what’s more, the girl can see her brother and sister’s graves from the cottage where she lives. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’, the old proverb has it; but they are not out of sight, and so remain in the girl’s thoughts. As far as she’s concerned, they’re still part of the family.
‘My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
‘And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
The girl tells Wordsworth that she often sings a song to her dead siblings, as she knits stockings and hems handkerchiefs over their graves. She even eats her supper there at their graveside.
‘The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
‘So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
‘And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.’
The girl tells Wordsworth that her sister, Jane, was the first to die (of some unspecified illness). The girl and her brother John played around their sister’s grave, as if poor Jane were still playing with them. The girl’s reference to ‘God’ releasing Jane ‘of her pain’ indicates a strong belief in Christianity, which helps to explain her outlook: if God took Jane (and then John) into heaven, they are both still ‘with’ their sister, in spirit form. Playing by Jane’s grave was her and John’s way of keeping their sister part of the family.
‘How many are you, then,’ said I,
‘If they two are in heaven?’
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
‘O Master! we are seven.’
Like a bad maths teacher trying to get a pupil to solve an arithmetical problem, Wordsworth presses his question once more. If John and Jane are in heaven, how many are you, really? But the girl replies, consistently, ‘we are seven.’
‘But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!’
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’
Wordsworth throws up his hands in frustration: if they’re dead – this is the first time he’s actually used this word – then how can she continue to number these two lost siblings among the family? But the girl stands her ground: ‘Nay, we are seven!’
‘We Are Seven’ stages a conversation between the poet and a little girl who is too innocent to understand the true nature of death: that it represents a separation between us who remain in the land of the living and those who have passed on and gone to ‘heaven’.
Yet at the same time, given Wordsworth’s views expressed elsewhere about the superior vision of childhood innocence over the jaded pragmatism of adulthood, there’s a sense in which Wordsworth is inviting us to mock him as the speaker of his poem, for his blinkered and rather uncharitable refusal to see the girl’s point of view.
It may be true that the little girl or ‘Maid’ has insufficient understand of the true nature of death, and that she hasn’t thought deeply enough about it, or had enough life experience, to grasp its finality and horror.
Yet at the same time, hers is a view consistent with the teachings of Christianity, which most people in Britain believed in the late eighteenth century (i.e. when loved ones die they may continue to ‘watch over’ us from heaven, and thus the connection between us and them is not severed entirely).
What’s more, the little girl’s outlook means that she doesn’t stop considering siblings as part of her family when they move away (as the two at Conwy and the two at sea have done) or when they die (as Jane and John have done). If Wordsworth’s view strikes us as a more realist and no-nonsense one, it also comes across as too coldly rational in that it allows for no possibility that the dead are still part of our lives. At least the little girl has been keeping the memory of her brother and sister alive through sitting by their graves.
‘We Are Seven’ is written in the ballad metre, albeit with a slightly different rhyme from that we find in common ballads, where only the even lines rhyme with each other. (That is, true ballads tend to rhyme abcb, but Wordsworth’s quatrains rhyme abab.)
The metre of ‘We Are Seven’ is iambic tetrameter (in the odd lines, i.e. the first and third lines of each stanza) and iambic trimeter (in the even lines, i.e. the second and fourth lines). We can see this iambic metre in action in the second stanza of the poem:
I MET a LIT-tle COT-tage GIRL:
She was EIGHT years OLD, she SAID;
Her HAIR was THICK with MAN-y a CURL
That CLUS-tered ROUND her HEAD.
This iambic metre, with its simple ‘ti-TUM, ti-TUM, ti-TUM’ rhythm, is ideal for a poem conveying ordinary speech through the poet’s conversation with the girl. It is also in keeping with the democratic ‘ballad’ form (essentially, songs originally performed with accompanying dancing), which Lyrical Ballads as a whole seeks to reflect, as part of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s attempts to represent ordinary people in ordinary language.
You’ll notice that at a couple of points in the above stanza (i.e. ‘She was EIGHT’, ‘MAN-y a CURL’), the usual iambic metre is disrupted by having an extra unstressed syllable between the stressed syllables. This is known as an anapaestic substitution, the anapaest being like an iamb (ti-TUM) but with an extra unstressed syllable before the stressed (ti-ti-TUM). These variations help to make the form of ‘We Are Seven’ more naturally rhythmic, rather than sticking rigidly to the metre throughout without any deviation.
About William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the leading poets of English Romanticism, and, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, is regarded as one of the ‘Lake Poets’: poets so named because of their associations with the Lake District in Cumbria in northern England.
Wordsworth’s themes are nature and the English countryside, the place of the individual within the world, and memory: especially childhood memory. One of his most famous statements is ‘the child is father of the man’, which asserts that our childhood years are so formative that they determine the adult we become. Wordsworth is often looking back to his childhood, and nowhere more so than in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805; revised 1850).