A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.
The epigraph to Silas Marner is an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem Michael, which tells the story of a shepherd who is blessed with a son in his old age. Michael loves his son, Luke, but is forced to send him off to the city to repay an unexpected debt which will otherwise leave Luke disinherited. Despite heartfelt promises to come home again to his father, we learn in the final lines of the poem that the son is forced to flee the country after committing an unnamed crime, never to take his father’s place, to trod the mountainsides, or to finish building the sheepfold that was to commemorate his return. Even without the epigraph, Eliot draws upon associations with the poem in the first line of the novel: “In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses” (3) immediately takes the reader back to the setting predominant in the poem, defined by the continuous whir of the shepherd’s industrious wife at her spinning wheel. The poem was widely-known enough that George Eliot might safely have trusted many of her readers to recognize the associations. And yet, it would be easy to forget them as the reader progressed through the novel. Silas is a very different sort of man than Wordsworth’s shepherd. One traverses mountainsides full of rustic praise for the beauty of the earth while the other grows shriveled and nearsighted over a loom in the confines of a single room. One begins in the warmth of family life while the other begins in desolation. But Silas’s narrative gradually forms an interesting reversal of Michael’s. Rather than surrendering a child to prevent the loss of his earthly goods, Silas gains a child in place of his fortune. Even the novel’s ending forms a strange reversal of the poem’s; while Michael’s sheepfold remains an unfinished pile of rocks long after his death, Eppie extends their home into a completed garden “fenced with stones on two sides” (161). Both fathers love their children uniquely as providential gifts come long after they’d lost all hope for such comfort, but only Silas’s hope in Eppie bears fruit.
Despite the narrative parallels, in some ways it’s strange that Eliot chose to use Wordsworth’s poem as an orienting text. The underlying significance of the poem is that the rustic shepherd life which had once defined the pastoral English countryside was now irrecoverably and devastatingly lost. The novel, on the other hand, isn’t explicitly concerned with the loss attendant on encroaching industrialization. Though both are set in the age of spinning wheels, their settings are otherwise quite different—and the significance of Wordsworth’s poem is directly tied to its setting. Michael is the figure of a lost age, and his son is a symbol of what lies on the other side of that loss. While the story of Silas Marner is distinctly parabolic in many ways, the characters in the novel are clearly more than symbols. And insofar as they are navigating broader themes, those seem more related to belonging and virtue than anything like the loss of the pastoral age.
Perhaps the unexplored disparity is actually related to virtue. After all, Wordsworth’s claims about the loss of pastoral livelihoods has weight because it is assumed that there is virtue in a certain kind of poverty—so that the loss of a certain kind of “poor” livelihood is a loss worth mourning. But Eliot has to prove that this is true. The workhouse is mentioned several times in reference to Eppie and her mother, and it’s a recurring reminder that these characters are directly affected by the institutionalization of poverty which solidified a prejudice against certain kinds of poor people (“the undeserving poor”) in this period. In other words, Eliot’s characters are a very different kind of poor than Wordsworth’s. She has to either show that they are the deserving sort or undermine the premise that makes that a question at all.
The question is addressed over and over in the narrative, most often by contrasting the poor with the rich. By keeping Eppie from leaving her adopted father for a wealthy inheritance, Eliot suggests that the life of the poor can offer far more substantial happiness than that of the wealthy. Furthermore, Eppie’s poverty is ultimately more fertile than Godfrey and Nancy’s wealth, emphasized by the contrast between the young squire’s barren home and the “four united people” outside Eppie’s garden at the close of the novel. Though Nancy is admirably principled, her principles occasionally lead her to heartless convictions, painfully illustrated in the scene when she tells Eppie that leaving the father she loves for the father she barely knows is an act of “duty.” Alternately, Silas seems to have lost all principles at the beginning of the narrative, but his unexamined impulse to care for Eppie forms the foundation of a deeply Christian love that gradually extends to his whole neighborhood. The wealth and comfort of the squire’s home not only fails to keep it from being a place of moral vagary, it produces a family burdened by underdeveloped consciences. The weaver’s home, by contrast, is a place of sincerity, gratitude, and restoration. It is after Silas loses his wealth that he is able to receive Eppie as a providential gift. To determine whether this is an undermining of Victorian prejudices against the poor or simply an identification of Silas as one of the “deserving” sort might require a broader look at the other disadvantaged characters in the novel—or perhaps in Eliot’s novels as a whole.