William Wordsworth

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Michael, A Pastoral Poem

from

Lyrical Ballads (Volume II, 1800)

  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
5   The pastoral Mountains front you, face to face.
  But, courage! for beside that boisterous Brook
  The mountains have all open'd out themselves,
  And made a hidden valley of their own.
 
  No habitation there is seen; but such
10   As 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
15   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,
20   Is not unfit, I deem, for the fire-side,
  Or for the summer shade. It was the first,
  The earliest of those tales that spake to me
  Of Shepherds, dwellers in the vallies, men
  Whom I already lov'd, not verily
25   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
30   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
35   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.
 
40   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
45   Intense and frugal, apt for all affairs,
  And in his Shepherd's calling he was prompt
  And watchful more than ordinary men.
  Hence he had learn'd the meaning of all winds,
  Of blasts of every tone, and often-times
50   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
55   The winds are now devising work for me!
  And truly at all times the storm, that drives
  The Traveller to a shelter, summon'd him
  Up to the mountains: he had been alone
  Amid the heart of many thousand mists
60   That came to him and left him on the heights.
  So liv'd he till his eightieth year was pass'd.
 
  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.
65   Fields, where with chearful spirits he had breath'd
  The common air; the hills, which he so oft
  Had climb'd with vigorous steps; which had impress'd
  So many incidents upon his mind
  Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
70   Which like a book preserv'd the memory
  Of the dumb animals, whom he had sav'd,
  Had fed or shelter'd, linking to such acts,
  So grateful in themselves, the certainty
  Of honorable gains; these fields, these hills
75   Which were his living Being, even more
  Than his own Blood - 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.
80   He had not passed his days in singleness.
  He had a Wife, 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
85   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
90   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,
95   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,
100   Their labour did not cease, unless when all
  Turn'd to their cleanly supper-board, and there
  Each with a mess of pottage and skimm'd milk,
  Sate round their basket pil'd with oaten cakes,
  And their plain home-made cheese. Yet when their meal
105   Was ended, LUKE (for so the Son was nam'd)
  And his old Father, both betook themselves
  To such convenient work, as might employ
  Their hands by the fire-side; perhaps to card
  Wool for the House-wife's spindle, or repair
110   Some injury done to sickle, flail, or scythe,
  Or other implement of house or field.
 
  Down from the cicling by the chimney's edge,
  Which in our ancient uncouth country style
  Did with a huge projection overbrow
115   Large space beneath, as duly as the light
  Of day grew dim, the House-wife hung a lamp;
  An aged utensil, which had perform'd
  Service beyond all others of its kind.
  Early at evening did it burn and late,
120   Surviving Comrade of uncounted Hours
  Which going by from year to year had found
  And left the Couple neither gay perhaps
  Nor chearful, yet with objects and with hopes
  Living a life of eager industry.
 
125   And now, when LUKE was in his eighteenth year,
  There by the light of this old lamp they sate,
  Father and Son, while late into the night
  The House-wife plied her own peculiar work,
  Making the cottage thro' the silent hours
130   Murmur as with the sound of summer flies.
  Not with a waste of words, but for the sake
  Of pleasure, which I know that I shall give
  To many living now, I of this Lamp
  Speak thus minutely: for there are no few
135   Whose memories will bear witness to my tale,
  The Light was famous in its neighbourhood,
  And was a public Symbol of the life,
  The thrifty Pair had liv'd. For, as it chanc'd,
  Their Cottage on a plot of rising ground
140   Stood single, with large prospect North and South,
  High into Easedale, up to Dunmal-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
145   Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
  Both old and young, was nam'd The Evening Star.
 
  Thus living on through such a length of years,
  The Shepherd, if he lov'd himself, must needs
  Have lov'd his Help-mate; but to Michael's heart
150   This Son of his old age was yet more dear -
  Effect which might perhaps have been produc'd
  By that instinctive tenderness, the same
  Blind Spirit, which is in the blood of all,
  Or that a child, more than all other gifts,
155   Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts,
  And stirrings of inquietude, when they
  By tendency of nature needs must fail.
  From such, and other causes, to the thoughts
  Of the old Man his only Son was now
160   The dearest object that he knew on earth.
  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
165   For dalliance and delight, as is the use
  Of Fathers, but with patient mind enforc'd
  To acts of tenderness; and he had rock'd
  His cradle with a woman's gentle hand.
 
  And in a later time, ere yet the Boy
170   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
  Had work by his own door, or when he sate
  With sheep before him on his Shepherd's stool,
175   Beneath that large old Oak, which near their door
  Stood, and from it's enormous breadth of shade
  Chosen for the Shearer's covert from the sun,
  Thence in our rustic dialect was call'd
  The CLIPPING TREE, 1 a name which yet it bears.
180   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 bestow'd
  Upon the child, if he dislurb'd the sheep
185   By catching at their legs, or with his shouts
  Scar'd 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,
190   Then Michael from a winter coppice cut
  With his own hand a sapling, which he hoop'd
  With iron, making it throughout in all
  Due requisites a perfect Shepherd's Staff,
  And gave it to the Boy; wherewith equipp'd
195   He as a Watchman oftentimes was plac'd
  At gate or gap, to stem or turn the flock,
  And to his office prematurely call'd
  There stood the urchin, as you will divine,
  Something between a hindrance and a help,
200   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 Luke, full ten years old, could stand
205   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 Shepherd loved before
210   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 agai.
  Thus in his Father's sight the Boy grew up:
215   And nowwhen he had reached his eighteenth year,
  He was his comfort and his daily hope.
  While this good household thus were living on
  From day to day, to Michael's ear there came
  Distressful tidings. Long before, the time
220   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 press'd upon him, and old Michael now
225   Was summon'd to discharge the forfeiture,
  A grievous penalty, but little less
  Than half his substance. This un-look'd-for claim
  At the first hearing, for a moment took
  More hope out of his life than he supposed
230   That any old man ever could have lost.
  As soon as he had gather'd so much strength
  That he could look his trouble in the face,
  It seem'd that his sole refuge was to sell
  A portion of his patrimonial fields.
235   Such was his first resolve; he thought again,
  And his heart fail'd him. Isabel, said he,
  Two evenings after he had heard the news,
  I have been toiling more than seventy years,
  And in the open sun-shine of God's love
240   Have we all liv'd, 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 itself
  Has scarcely been more diligent than I,
245   And I have liv'd 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
250   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 chearful hope.
  Our Luke shall leave us, Isabel; the land
255   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 knowest,
  Another Kinsman, he will be our friend
  In this distress. He is a prosperous man,
260   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
  May come again to us. If here he stay,
  What can be done? Where every one is poor
265   What can be gain'd? At this, the old man paus'd,
  And Isabel sate 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
270   They made a gathering for him, shillings, pence,
  And halfpennies, wherewith the Neighbours bought
  A Basket, which they fill'd with Pedlar's wares,
  And with this Basket on his arm, the Lad
  Went up to London, found a Master there,
275   Who out of many chose the trusty Boy
  To go and overlook his merchandise
  Beyond the seas, where he grew wond'rous rich,
  And left estates and monies to the poor,
  And at his birth-place built a Chapel, floor'd
280   With Marble, which he sent from foreign lands.
  These thoughts, and many others of like sort,
  Pass'd quickly thro' the mind of Isabel,
  And her face brighten'd. The Old Man was glad.
  And thus resum'd. Well I Isabel, this scheme
285   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
290   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 ceas'd, and to the fields went forth
  With a light heart. The House-wife for five days
295   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
300   By Michael's side, she for the two last 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
305   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 Lad made answer with a jocund voice,
310   And Isabel, when she had told her fears,
  Recover'd heart. That evening her best fare
  Did she bring forth, and all together sate
  Like happy people round a Christmas fire.
 
  Next morning Isabel resum'd her work,
315   And all the ensuing week the house appear'd
  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,
320   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 shew it to the neighbours round:
  Nor was there at that time on English Land
325   A prouder heart than Luke's. When Isabel
  Had to her house return'd, the Old Man said,
  He shall depart to-morrow. To this word
  The House - wife answered, talking much of things
  Which, if at such, short notice he should go,
330   Would surely be forgotten. But at length
  She gave consent, and Michael was at ease.
 
  Near the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill,
  In that deep Valley, Michael had design'd
  To build a Sheep-fold, and, before he heard
335   The tidings of his melancholy loss,
  For this same purpose he had gathered up
  A heap of stones, which close to the brook side
  Lay thrown together, ready for the work.
  With Luke that evening thitherward he walk'd;
340   And soon as they had reach'd the place he stopp'd,
  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,
345   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 speak
  Of things thou caust not know of. - After thou
350   First cam'st into the world, as it 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 pass'd on,
  And still I lov'd thee with encreasing love.
355   Never to living ear came sweeter sounds
  Than when I heard thee by our own fire-side
  First uttering without words a natural tune,
  When thou, a feeding babe, didst in thy joy
  Sing at thy Mother's breast. Month follow'd month,
360   And in the open fields my life was pass'd
  And in 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 know'st, in us the old and young
365   Have play'd together, nor with me didst thou
  Lack any pleasure which a boy can know.
 
  Luke had a manly heart; but at these words
  He sobb'd aloud; the Old Man grasp'd his hand,
  And said, Nay do not take it so - I see
370   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
  Receiv'd at others' hands, for, though now old
375   Beyond the common life of man, I still
  Remember them who lov'd me in my youth.
  Both of them sleep together: here they liv'd
  As all their Forefathers had done, and when
  At length their time was come, they were not loth
380   To give their bodies to the family mold.
  I wish'd that thou should'st live the life they liv'd.
  But 'tis a long time to look back, my Son,
  And see so little gain from sixty years.
  These fields were burthen'd when they came to me;
385   'Till I was forty years of age, not more
  Than half of my inheritance was mine.
  I toil'd and toil'd; God bless'd me in my work,
  And 'till these three weeks past the land was free.
  - It looks as if it never could endure
390   Another Master. Heaven forgive me, Luke,
  If I judge ill for thee, but it seems good
  That thou should'st go. At this the Old Man paus'd,
  Then, pointing to the Stones near which they stood,
  Thus, after a short silence, he resum'd:
395   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.
  I for the purpose brought thee to this place.
  Nay, Boy, be of good hope: - we both may live
400   To see a better day. At eighty-four
  I still am strong and stout; - do thou thy part,
  I will do mine. - I will begin again
  With many tasks that were resign'd to thee;
  Up to the heights, and in among the storms,
405   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 -
410   I knew that thou could'st 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,
415   As I requested, and hereafter, Luke,
  When thou art gone away, should evil men
  Be thy companions, let this Sheep-fold be
  Thy anchor and thy shield; amid all fear
  And all temptation, let it be to thee
420   An emblem of the life thy Fathers liv'd,
  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
425   '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 stoop'd down,
  And as his Father had requested, laid
430   The first stone of the Sheep-fold; at the sight
  The Old Man's grief broke from him, to his heart
  He press'd his Son, he kissed him and wept;
  And to the House together they return'd.
 
  Next morning, as had been resolv'd, the Boy
435   Began his journey, and when he had reach'd
  The public Way, he put on a bold face;
  And all the Neighbours as he pass'd their doors
  Came forth, with wishes and with farewell pray'rs,
  That follow'd him 'till he was out of sight.
 
440   A good report did from their Kinsman come,
  Of Luke and his well-doing; and the Boy
  Wrote loving letters, full of wond'rous news,
  Which, as the House-wife phrased it, were throughout
  The prettiest letters that were ever seen.
 
445   Both parents read them with rejoicing hearts.
  So, many months pass'd 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
450   He to that valley took his way, and there
  Wrought at the Sheep-fold. Meantime Luke began
  To slacken in his duty, and at length
  He in the dissolute city gave himself
  To evil courses: ignominy and shame
455   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 break the heart: - Old Michael found it so.
460   I have convers'd 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
465   He went, and still look'd up upon the sun.
  And listen'd to the wind; and as before
  Perform'd all kinds of labour for his Sheep,
  And for the land his small inheritance.
 
  And to that hollow Dell from time to time
470   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 - ands 'tis believ'd by all
  That many and many a day he thither went,
475   And never lifted up a single stone.
 
  There, by the Sheep-fold, sometimes was he seen
  Sitting alone, with that his faithful Dog,
  Then old, beside him, lying at his feet.
  The length of full seven years from time to time
480   He at the building of this Sheep-fold 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.
485   The Cottage which was nam'd 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
490   Of the unfinished Sheep-fold may be seen
  Beside the boisterous brook of Green-head Gill.
 
  1 Clipping is the word used in the North of England for shearing.

First published 1800.

Contributed by Robert Clark.