William Wordsworth's "Michael"
Reading of Wordsworth's "Michael"
In the foreword to the long poem, the poet informs his readers about the purpose of the poem and how it came to be. Wordsworth had been residing in a house at Town-end, Grasmere, the location of his characters in the poem. It was around 1800, around the same time he composed "The Brothers."
In this poem, the name of the home is "Evening Star," a name that in reality applied to a house located north of the property. The "sheepfold" functions as an important artifact in the poem. Wordsworth explains that the "ruins of [the sheepfold]" still exist. He wants his readers to understand how important that feature is to the story narrated in the poem.
Overview of the Story
This long, narrative poem, "Michael," features a pastoral poem that heaps praise on the rural way of living, close to nature, away from the busy clamor of the city.
Three characters populate the narrative: eighty-year-old Michael, a shepherd, his sixty-year-old wife, and their son Luke. For many years, Michael and Isabel had resided on land that Michael had inherited. Michael is an energetic, dedicated worker, who knows the meaning of each change in the sound of the wind.
Isabel is also very industrious: she keeps their home running smoothly. She spins wool and flax. Their son Luke is an exceptional son, assisting his parents in their difficult but gratifying life. Michael, Isabel, and Luke represent the essential qualities of living the moral life, which leads to happiness.
The beginning of the poem depicts the landscape on which the family of three has lived and resisted the elements. Their rustic farm was located in a valley. The speaker has traveled on foot, and he describes the difficulty of negotiating the desolate, difficult terrain.
The plot of the story is quite simple: the family living a rustic relatively quiet life has been happy and functioning well for many years. As their son Luke turns eighteen, the family becomes burdened with a debt that came with Michael’s signing of a paper making him responsible to the debt of his brother’s son. Michael decides that instead selling off part his land to cover the debt, he will have Luke go to work for a rich merchant to earn enough money to satisfy the debt.
As a good son, Luke easily complies with his father’s wishes and goes to work to earn the money to repay the debt. The family finds this decision difficult, but they all believe it offers the best alternative. The day before Luke leaves, his father takes him to a location on the side of a mountain, where Michael had long planned to build a sheepfold. Michael and his son experience a deeply personal talk. Michael instructs Luke to put in place the cornerstone of the sheepfold, and he says he will continue and complete the sheepfold while Luke is gone from home.
Michael also gives his son advice intended to maintain the purity of character of the lad:
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.
After Luke ventures forth, he does indeed in the beginning prosper. He sends home letters of glowing success. Then the unthinkable happens. He commits crimes and has to flee prosecution "beyond the seas." Mourning the loss of his son, Michael is never able to finish the sheepfold, and he travels there daily to mourn his loss. Michael mourns for seven years and then dies. And Isabel dies three years later.
The Romantics placed belief the rustic life above all else. They encouraged the pastoral, living-close-to-nature way of existing on this earth. Wordsworth is the quintessential "Romantic." Thus his little story makes clear the supposition that such a pastoral life would result in purity, morality, and ultimately happiness for those who truly live such.
The reader takes from the narrative the notion that if only Luke had continued to live the rustic life of his parents, he would have saved himself the ignominy of living the life of a criminal on the run, and he would have spared his parents the heartache that they experienced in their later years.
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes