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Michael, a Pastoral Poem was Wordsworth’s most important addition to the second—1800—edition of Lyrical Ballads. He placed it just after Poems on the Naming of Places, the section of Lyrical Ballads most obviously concerned with affections for rural places. One of those poems, “III. There is an Eminence”, meditates on Stone Arthur, which rises to the left (north) of Greenhead Gill, the narrow mountain valley above Grasmere village in which Michael is mostly set; Stone Arthur also sits above the likely location, on the floor of Greenhead Gill, of the “straggling heap of unhewn stones” that is central to the story of Michael.
Michael comes not only after Poems on the Naming of Places, but also at the end of Lyrical Ballads. Appropriate to its placement, the poem is about strong affections for places—and endings. It is the story, loosely based on actual tales known to Wordsworth from boyhood, of the disappearance of a kind of person and way of life from the modern Western world: Michael is a shepherd who has tended flocks on a small plot inherited from his ancestors, and has thus over time nourished deep affection for this land, even as his family and his story have become a center of significance in the small local community of Grasmere. Wordsworth labels Michael a Pastoral Poem. Yet it is starkly different from traditional pastorals. Wordsworth departs from the old practice, stretching back to ancient Greece, of urban poets writing about simple singing shepherds living in idyllic retreat from the corrupting influences of town life. Wordsworth’s pastoral is not escapist. It is tragic. Rather than peeking into a secure pastoral retreat, readers learn that hard-laboring Michael’s secluded rural life can be ripped apart by the unpredictable financial markets in commercially driven Britain (217-230), and that the cottage and land long cultivated by Michael and his forefathers can—within three years—be bought and plowed over by “Stranger[s]” (484). Michael and his story are passing away, and so is his way of life.
The aging Michael’s hopes for his land, family, and their livelihood become focused on the “straggling heap of unhewn stones” mentioned in the opening passage excerpted below. Later in the poem, Michael must send away Luke, his only beloved son born to him late in life, to work in the city to pay off a kinsman’s debts. Before sending Luke, Michael takes him to a “heap of stones” (337) that he has gathered by the brook running down Greenhead Gill (“gill” is a north-English word for a deep narrow valley). Michael has kept these stones to build a sheepfold, and he asks Luke to lay the corner stone as a sign that he will return to finish the fold with his father. Luke, however, soon falls into “evil courses” in the city and never returns (454). Michael knows his hopes for the future of his family and their way of life are dashed. Disconsolate, he often comes to Greenhead Gill to finish the fold on his own, but can never summon the will.
Below we reproduce the opening of the poem in which Wordsworth guides the reader to Greenhead Gill and the “straggling heap of unhewn stones,” together with videos, photo spheres, and photographs that will help you “follow” Wordsworth’s instructions and “find” the heap of stones. The identity—even the existence—of the unfinished sheepfold that inspired Wordsworth’s imagination is uncertain and debated. Yet in his 1803 notebook Coleridge records “sitting on the very Sheepfold dear William read to me his divine Poem, Michael,” and some stones portrayed in our images below might correspond with those Dorothy described in a journal entry about her walk with Wordsworth on October 11, 1800, around the time he began writing Michael: they “walked up Greenhead Gill in search of a sheepfold” and found one “falling away” and “built nearly in the form of a heart unequally divided.”1
1from Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800 in The Cornell Wordsworth, eds. James Butler and Karen Green (1992).
“Michael, A Pastoral Poem”
If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral Mountains front you, face to face.
Play video to follow the opening lines of the poem
But, courage! For beside that boisterous Brook
The mountains have all open’d out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.
Play video to experience the hidden valley
No habitation there is seen; but such
As journey thither find themselves alone 10
With a few sheep, with rock and stones, and kites
That overhead are sailing in the sky.
It is in truth an utter solitude,
Nor should I have made mention of this Dell
But for one object which you might pass by,
Might see and notice not. Beside the brook
There is a straggling heap of unhewn stones!
And to that place a story appertains,
Which, though it be ungarnish’d with events,
Is not unfit, I deem, for the fire-side, 20
Or for the summer shade.