WE ARE SEVEN
Written at Alfoxden in the spring of 1798, under
circumstances somewhat remarkable. The little girl who is the
heroine I met within the area of Goodrich Castle in the year 1793.
Having left the Isle of Wight and crossed Salisbury Plain, as
mentioned in the preface to "Guilt and Sorrow," I proceeded by
Bristol up the Wye, and so on to North Wales, to the Vale of Clwydd,
where I spent my summer under the roof of the father of my friend,
Robert Jones. In reference to this Poem I will here mention one
of the most remarkable facts in my own poetic history and that
of Mr. Coleridge. In the spring of the year 1798, he, my Sister,
and myself, started from Alfoxden, pretty late in the afternoon,
with a view to visit Lenton and the valley of Stones near it;
and as our united funds were very small, we agreed to defray the
expense of the tour by writing a poem, to be sent to the New Monthly
Magazine set up by Phillips the bookseller, and edited by Dr.
Aikin. Accordingly we set off and proceeded along the Quantock
Hills towards Watchet, and in the course of this walk was planned
the poem of the "Ancient Mariner," founded on a dream, as Mr.
Coleridge said, of his friend, Mr. Cruikshank. Much the greatest
part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's invention; but certain parts
I myself suggested:--for example, some crime was to be committed
which should bring upon the old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards
delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence
of that crime, and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvock's
Voyages a day or two before that while doubling Cape Horn they
frequently saw Albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort
of sea-fowl, some extending their wings twelve or fifteen feet.
"Suppose," said I, "you represent him as having killed one of
these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary Spirits
of those regions take upon them to avenge the crime." The incident
was thought fit for the purpose and adopted accordingly. I also
suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead men, but do not
recollect that I had anything more to do with the scheme of the
poem. The Gloss with which it was subsequently accompanied was
not thought of by either of us at the time; at least, not a hint
of it was given to me, and I have no doubt it was a gratuitous
afterthought We began the composition together on that, to me,
memorable evening. I furnished two or three lines at the beginning
of the poem, in particular:--
"And listened like a three years' child;
The Mariner had his will."
These trifling contributions, all but one (which Mr. C. has with
unnecessary scrupulosity recorded) slipt out of his mind as they
well might. As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly (I speak of
the same evening) our respective manners proved so widely different
that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything
but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have
been a clog. We returned after a few days from a delightful tour,
of which I have many pleasant, and some of them droll- enough,
recollections. We returned by Dulverton to Alfoxden. The "Ancient
Mariner" grew and grew till it became too important for our first
object, which was limited to our expectation of five pounds, and
we began to talk of a Volume, which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge
has told the world, of poems chiefly on supernatural subjects
taken from common life, but looked at, as much as might be, through
an imaginative medium. Accordingly I wrote "The Idiot Boy," "Her
eyes are wild," etc., "We are seven," "The Thorn," and some others.
To return to "We are seven," the piece that called forth this
note, I composed it while walking in the grove at Alfoxden. My
friends will not deem it too trifling to relate that while walking
to and fro I composed the last stanza first, having begun with
the last line. When it was all but finished, I came in and recited
it to Mr. Coleridge and my Sister, and said, "A prefatory stanza
must be added, and I should sit down to our little tea-meal with
greater pleasure if my task were finished." I mentioned in substance
what I wished to be expressed, and Coleridge immediately threw
off the stanza thus:--
"A little child, dear brother Jem,"--
I objected to the rhyme, "dear brother Jem," as being ludicrous,
but we all enjoyed the joke of hitching-in our friend, James T----'s
name, who was familiarly called Jem. He was the brother of the
dramatist, and this reminds me of an anecdote which it may be
worth while here to notice. The said Jem got a sight of the Lyrical
Ballads as it was going through the press at Bristol, during which
time I was residing in that city. One evening he came to me with
a grave face, and said, "Wordsworth, I have seen the volume that
Coleridge and you are about to publish. There is one poem in it
which I earnestly entreat you will cancel, for, if published,
it will make you everlastingly ridiculous." I answered that I
felt much obliged by the interest he took in my good name as a
writer, and begged to know what was the unfortunate piece he alluded
to. He said, "It is called 'We are seven.'" Nay! said I, that
shall take its chance, however, and he left me in despair. I have
only to add that in the spring of 1841 I revisited Goodrich Castle,
not having seen that part of the Wye since I met the little Girl
there in 1793. It would have given me greater pleasure to have
found in the neighbouring hamlet traces of one who had interested
me so much; but that was impossible, as unfortunately I did not
even know her name. The ruin, from its position and features,
is a most impressive object. I could not but deeply regret that
its solemnity was impaired by a fantastic new Castle set up on
a projection of the same ridge, as if to show how far modern art
can go in surpassing all that could be done by antiquity and nature
with their united graces, remembrances, and associations.
--------A SIMPLE Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
--Her beauty made me glad.
"Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?"
"How many? Seven in all," she said
And wondering looked at me.
"And where are they? I pray you tell."
She answered, "Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
"Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother."
"You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven!--I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be."
Then did the little Maid reply,
"Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree."
"You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."
"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
The little Maid replied,
"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
And they are side by side.
"My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
"And often after sunset, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
"The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
"So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
"And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side."
"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."
"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"