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English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Wordsworth

372. Michael

A Pastoral Poem

IF from the public way you turn your steps

Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,

You will suppose that with an upright path

Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent

The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.

But, courage! for around that boisterous brook

The mountains have all opened out themselves,

And made a hidden valley of their own.

No habitation can be seen; but they

Who journey thither find themselves alone

With a few sheep, with rocks 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

Appears a struggling heap of unhewn stones!

And to that simple object appertains

A story—unenriched with strange events,

Yet not unfit, I deem, for the fireside,

Or for the summer shade. It was the first

Of those domestic tales that spake to me

Of shepherds, dwellers in the valleys, men

Whom I already loved;—not verily

For their own sakes, but for the fields and hills

Where was their occupation and abode.

And hence this Tale, while I was yet a Boy

Careless of books, yet having felt the power

Of Nature, by the gentle agency

Of natural objects, led me on to feel

For passions that were not my own, and think

(At random and imperfectly indeed)

On man, the heart of man, and human life.

Therefore, although it be a history

Homely and rude, I will relate the same

For the delight of a few natural hearts;

And, with yet fonder feeling, for the sake

Of youthful Poets, who among these hills

Will be my second self when I am gone.

Upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale

There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name;

An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.

His bodily frame had been from youth to age

Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen,

Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,

And in his shepherd’s calling he was prompt

And watchful more than ordinary men.

Hence had he learned the meaning of all winds,

Of blasts of every tone; and, oftentimes,

When others heeded not, he heard the South

Make subterraneous music, like the noise

Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills.

The Shepherd, at such warning, of his flock

Bethought him, and he to himself would say,

‘The winds are now devising work for me!’

And, truly, at all times, the storm, that drives

The traveller to a shelter, summoned him

Up to the mountains: he had been alone

Amid the heart of many thousand mists,

That came to him, and left him, on the heights.

So lived he till his eightieth year was past.

And grossly that man errs, who should suppose

That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,

Were things indifferent to the Shepherd’s thoughts.

Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed

The common air; hills, which with vigorous step

He had so often climbed; which had impressed

So many incidents upon his mind

Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;

Which, like a book, preserved the memory

Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,

Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts

The certainty of honourable gain;

Those fields, those hills—what could they less? had laid

Strong hold on his affections, were to him

A pleasurable feeling of blind love,

The pleasure which there is in life itself.

His days had not been passed in singleness.

His Helpmate was a comely matron, old—

Though younger than himself full twenty years.

She was a woman of a stirring life,

Whose heart was in her house; two wheels she had

Of antique form; this large, for spinning wool;

That small, for flax; and if one wheel had rest

It was because the other was at work.

The Pair had but one inmate in their house,

An only Child, who had been born to them

When Michael, telling o’er his years, began

To deem that he was old,—in shepherd’s phrase,

With one foot in the grave. This only Son,

With two brave sheep-dogs tried in many a storm,

The one of an inestimable worth,

Made all their household. I may truly say,

That they were as a proverb in the vale

For endless industry. When day was gone,

And from their occupations out of doors

The Son and Father were come home, even then,

Their labour did not cease; unless when all

Turned to the cleanly supper-board, and there,

Each with a mess of pottage and skimmed milk,

Sat round the basket piled with oaten cakes,

And their plain home-made cheese. Yet when the meal

Was ended, Luke (for so the son was named)

And his old Father both betook themselves

To such convenient work as might employ

Their hands by the fireside; perhaps to card

Wool for the Housewife’s spindle, or repair

Some injury done to sickle, flail, or scythe,

Or other implement of house or field.

Down from the ceiling, by the chimney’s edge,

That in our ancient uncouth country style

With huge and black projection overbrowed

Large space beneath, as duly as the light

Of day grew dim the Housewife hung a lamp;

An aged utensil, which had performed

Service beyond all others of its kind.

Early at evening did it burn—and late,

Surviving comrade of uncounted hours,

Which, going by from year to year, had found,

And left, the couple neither gay perhaps

Nor cheerful, yet with objects and with hopes,

Living a life of eager industry.

And now, when Luke had reached his eighteenth year,

There by the light of this old lamp they sate,

Father and Son, while far into the night

The Housewife plied her own peculiar work,

Making the cottage through the silent hours

Murmur as with the sound of summer flies.

This light was famous in its neighbourhood,

And was a public symbol of the life

That thrifty Pair had lived. For, as it chanced,

Their cottage on a plot of rising ground

Stood single, with large prospect, north and south,

High into Easedale, up to Dunmail-Raise,

And westward to the village near the lake;

And from this constant light, so regular

And so far seen, the House itself, by all

Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,

Both old and young, was named THE EVENING STAR.

Thus living on through such a length of years,

The Shepherd, if he loved himself, must needs

Have loved his Helpmate; but to Michael’s heart

This son of his old age was yet more dear—

Less from instinctive tenderness, the same

Fond spirit that blindly works in the blood of all—

Than that a child, more than all other gifts

That earth can offer to declining man,

Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts,

And stirrings of inquietude, when they

By tendency of nature needs must fail.

Exceeding was the love he bare to him,

His heart and his heart’s joy! For oftentimes

Old Michael, while he was a babe in arms,

Had done him female service, not alone

For pastime and delight, as is the use

Of fathers, but with patient mind enforced

To acts of tenderness; and he had rocked

His cradle, as with a woman’s gentle hand.

And, in a later time, ere yet the Boy

Had put on boy’s attire, did Michael love,

Albeit of a stern unbending mind,

To have the young-one in his sight, when he

Wrought in the field, or on his shepherd’s stool

Sate with a fettered sheep before him stretched

Under the large old oak, that near his door

Stood single, and, from matchless depth of shade,

Chosen for the Shearer’s covert from the sun,

Thence in our rustic dialect was called

The CLIPPING TREE, a name which yet it bears.

There, while they two were sitting in the shade,

With others round them, earnest all and blithe,

Would Michael exercise his heart with looks

Of fond correction and reproof bestowed

Upon the Child, if he disturbed the sheep

By catching at their legs, or with his shouts

Scared them, while they lay still beneath the shears.

And when by Heaven’s good grace the boy grew up

A healthy Lad, and carried in his cheek

Two steady roses that were five years old;

Then Michael from a winter coppice cut

With his own hand a sapling, which he hooped

With iron, making it throughout in all

Due requisites a perfect shepherd’s staff,

And gave it to the Boy; wherewith equipt

He as a watchman oftentimes was placed

At gate or gap, to stem or turn the flock;

And, to his office prematurely called,

There stood the urchin, as you will divine,

Something between a hindrance and a help;

And for this cause not always, I believe,

Receiving from his Father hire of praise;

Though nought was left undone which staff, or voice,

Or looks, or threatening gestures, could perform.

But soon as Luke, full ten years old, could stand

Against the mountain blasts; and to the heights,

Not fearing toil, nor length of weary ways,

He with his Father daily went, and they

Were as companions, why should I relate

That objects which the Shepherd loved before

Were dearer now? that from the Boy there came

Feelings and emanations—things which were

Light to the sun and music to the wind;

And that the old Man’s heart seemed born again?

Thus in his Father’s sight the Boy grew up:

And now, when he had reached his eighteenth year,

He was his comfort and his daily hope.

While in this sort the simple household lived

From day to day, to Michael’s ear there came

Distressful tidings. Long before the time

Of which I speak, the Shepherd had been bound

In surety for his brother’s son, a man

Of an industrious life, and ample means;

But unforeseen misfortunes suddenly

Had prest upon him; and old Michael now

Was summoned to discharge the forfeiture,

A grievous penalty, but little less

Than half his substance. This unlooked-for claim,

At the first hearing, for a moment took

More hope out of his life than he supposed

That any old man ever could have lost.

As soon as he had armed himself with strength

To look his troubles in the face, it seemed

The Shepherd’s sole resource to sell at once

A portion of his patrimonial fields.

Such was his first resolve; he thought again,

And his heart failed him. ‘Isabel,’ said he,

Two evenings after he had heard the news,

‘I have been toiling more than seventy years,

And in the open sunshine of God’s love

Have we all lived; yet if these fields of ours

Should pass into a stranger’s hand, I think

That I could not lie quiet in my grave.

Our lot is a hard lot; the sun himself

Has scarcely been more diligent than I;

And I have lived to be a fool at last

To my own family. An evil man

That was, and made an evil choice, if he

Were false to us; and if he were not false,

There are ten thousand to whom loss like this

Had been no sorrow. I forgive him;—but

’Twere better to be dumb than to talk thus.

When I began, my purpose was to speak

Of remedies and of a cheerful hope.

Our Luke shall leave us, Isabel; the land

Shall not go from us, and it shall be free;

He shall possess it, free as is the wind

That passes over it. We have, thou know’st,

Another kinsman—he will be our friend

In this distress. He is a prosperous man,

Thriving in trade—and Luke to him shall go,

And with his kinsman’s help and his own thrift

He quickly will repair this loss, and then

He may return to us. If here he stay,

What can be done? Where every one is poor,

What can be gained?

At this the old Man paused,

And Isabel sat silent, for her mind

Was busy, looking back into past times.

There’s Richard Bateman, thought she to herself,

He was a parish boy—at the church-door

They made a gathering for him, shillings, pence

And halfpennies, wherewith the neighbours bought

A basket, which they filled with pedlar’s wares;

And, with this basket on his arm, the lad

Went up to London, found a master there,

Who, out of many, chose the trusty boy

To go and overlook his merchandise

Beyond the seas; where he grew wondrous rich,

And left estates and monies to the poor,

And, at his birthplace, built a chapel floored

With marble which he sent from foreign lands.

These thoughts, and many others of like sort,

Passed quickly through the mind of Isabel,

And her face brightened. The old Man was glad,

And thus resumed:—‘Well, Isabel! this scheme

These two days, has been meat and drink to me.

Far more than we have lost is left us yet.

—We have enough—I wish indeed that I

Were younger;—but this hope is a good hope.

—Make ready Luke’s best garments, of the best

Buy for him more, and let us send him forth

To-morrow, or the next day, or to-night:

—If he could go, the Boy should go to-night.’

Here Michael ceased, and to the fields went forth

With a light heart. The Housewife for five days

Was restless morn and night, and all day long

Wrought on with her best fingers to prepare

Things needful for the journey of her son.

But Isabel was glad when Sunday came

To stop her in her work: for, when she lay

By Michael’s side, she through the last two nights

Heard him, how he was troubled in his sleep:

And when they rose at morning she could see

That all his hopes were gone. That day at noon

She said to Luke, while they two by themselves

Were sitting at the door, ‘Thou must not go:

We have no other Child but thee to lose,

None to remember—do not go away,

For if thou leave thy Father he will die.’

The Youth made answer with a jocund voice;

And Isabel, when she had told her fears,

Recovered heart. That evening her best fare

Did she bring forth, and all together sat

Like happy people round a Christmas fire.

With daylight Isabel resumed her work;

And all the ensuing week the house appeared

As cheerful as a grove in Spring: at length

The expected letter from their kinsman came,

With kind assurances that he would do

His utmost for the welfare of the Boy;

To which, requests were added, that forthwith

He might be sent to him. Ten times or more

The letter was read over; Isabel

Went forth to show it to the neighbours round;

Nor was there at that time on English land

A prouder heart than Luke’s. When Isabel

Had to her house returned, the old Man said,

‘He shall depart to-morrow.’ To this word

The Housewife answered, talking much of things

Which, if at such short notice he should go,

Would surely be forgotten. But at length

She gave consent, and Michael was at ease.

Near the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,

In that deep valley, Michael had designed

To build a Sheepfold; and, before he heard

The tidings of his melancholy loss,

For this same purpose he had gathered up

A heap of stones, which by the streamlet’s edge

Lay thrown together, ready for the work.

With Luke that evening thitherward he walked;

And soon as they had reached the place he stopped.

And thus the old Man spake to him:—‘My Son,

To-morrow thou wilt leave me: with full heart

I look upon thee, for thou art the same

That wert a promise to me ere thy birth,

And all thy life hast been my daily joy.

I will relate to thee some little part

Of our two histories; ’twill do thee good

When thou art from me, even if I should touch

On things thou canst not know of.—After thou

First cam’st into the world—as oft befalls

To new-born infants—thou didst sleep away

Two days, and blessings from thy Father’s tongue

Then fell upon thee. Day by day passed on,

And still I loved thee with increasing love.

Never to living ear came sweeter sounds

Than when I heard thee by our own fireside

First uttering, without words, a natural tune:

While thou, a feeding babe, didst in thy joy

Sing at thy Mother’s breast. Month followed month,

And in the open fields my life was passed

And on the mountains; else I think that thou

Hadst been brought up upon thy Father’s knees.

But we were playmates, Luke: among these hills,

As well thou knowest, in us the old and young

Have played together, nor with me didst thou

Lack any pleasure which a boy can know.’

Luke had a manly heart; but at these words

He sobbed aloud. The old Man grasped his hand,

And said, ‘Nay, do not take it so—I see

That these are things of which I need not speak.

—Even to the utmost I have been to thee

A kind and a good Father: and herein

I but repay a gift which I myself

Received at others’ hand; for, though now old

Beyond the common life of man, I still

Remember them who loved me in my youth.

Both of them sleep together; here they lived,

As all their Forefathers had done; and when

At length their time was come, they were not loth

To give their bodies to the family mould.

I wished that thou shouldst live the life they lived:

But, ’tis a long time to look back, my Son

And see so little gained from threescore years.

These fields were burthened when they came to me;

Till I was forty years of age, not more

Than half of my inheritance was mine.

I toiled and toiled; God blessed me in my work,

And till these three weeks past the land was free.

—It looks as if it never could endure

Another Master. Heaven forgive me, Luke,

If I judge ill for thee, but it seems good

That thou shouldst go.’

At this the old Man paused;

Then, pointing to the stones near which they stood,

Thus, after a short silence, he resumed:

‘This was a work for us; and now, my Son,

It is a work for me. But, lay one stone—

Here, lay it for me, Luke, with thine own hands.

Nay, Boy, be of good hope;—we both may live

To see a better day. At eighty-four

I still am strong and hale;—do thou thy part;

I will do mine.—I will begin again

With many tasks that were resigned to thee:

Up to the heights, and in among the storms,

Will I without thee go again, and do

All works which I was wont to do alone,

Before I knew thy face.—Heaven bless thee, Boy!

Thy heart these two weeks has been beating fast

With many hopes; it should be so—yes—yes—

I knew that thou couldst never have a wish

To leave me, Luke: thou hast been bound to me

Only by links of love: when thou art gone,

What will be left to us!—But, I forget

My purposes: Lay now the corner-stone,

As I requested; and hereafter, Luke,

When thou art gone away, should evil men

Be thy companions, think of me, my Son,

And of this moment; hither turn thy thoughts,

And God will strengthen thee: amid all fear

And all temptations, Luke, I pray that thou

May’st bear in mind the life thy Fathers lived,

Who, being innocent, did for that cause

Bestir them in good deeds. Now, fare thee well—

When thou return’st, thou in this place wilt see

A work which is not here: a covenant

’Twill be between us; but, whatever fate

Befall thee, I shall love thee to the last,

And bear thy memory with me to the grave.’

The Shepherd ended here; and Luke stooped down,

And, as his Father had requested, laid

The first stone of the Sheepfold. At the sight

The old Man’s grief broke from him; to his heart

He pressed his Son, he kissed him and wept;

And to the house together they returned.

—Hushed was that House in peace, or seeming peace,

Ere the Night fell:—with morrow’s dawn the Boy

Began his journey, and when he had reached

The public way, he put on a bold face;

And all the neighbours, as he passed their doors,

Came forth with wishes and with farewell prayers,

That followed him till he was out of sight.

A good report did from their kinsman come,

Of Luke and his well-doing: and the Boy

Wrote loving letters, full of wondrous news,

Which, as the Housewife phrased it, were throughout

‘The prettiest letters that were ever seen.’

Both parents read them with rejoicing hearts.

So, many months passed on: and once again

The Shepherd went about his daily work

With confident and cheerful thoughts; and now

Sometimes when he could find a leisure hour

He to that valley took his way, and there

Wrought at the Sheepfold. Meantime Luke began

To slacken in his duty; and, at length,

He in the dissolute city gave himself

To evil courses: ignominy and shame

Fell on him, so that he was driven at last

To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.

There is a comfort in the strength of love;

’Twill make a thing endurable, which else

Would overset the brain, or break the heart:

I have conversed with more than one who well

Remember the old Man, and what he was

Years after he had heard this heavy news.

His bodily frame had been from youth to age

Of an unusual strength. Among the rocks

He went, and still looked up to sun and cloud,

And listened to the wind; and, as before,

Performed all kinds of labour for his sheep,

And for the land, his small inheritance.

And to that hollow dell from time to time

Did he repair, to build the Fold of which

His flock had need. ’Tis not forgotten yet

The pity which was then in every heart

For the old Man—and ’tis believed by all

That many and many a day he thither went,

And never lifted up a single stone.

There, by the Sheepfold, sometimes was he seen

Sitting alone, or with his faithful Dog,

Then old, beside him, lying at his feet.

The length of full seven years, from time to time,

He at the building of this Sheepfold wrought,

And left the work unfinished when he died.

Three years, or little more, did Isabel

Survive her Husband: at her death the estate

Was sold, and went into a stranger’s hand.

The Cottage which was named THE EVENING STAR

Is gone—the ploughshare has been through the ground

On which it stood; great changes have been wrought

In all the neighbourhood:—yet the oak is left

That grew beside their door; and the remains

Of the unfinished Sheepfold may be seen

Beside the boisterous brook of Greenhead Ghyll.