The University of Toronto at Scarborough
ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)
Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane
Wordsworth subtitles this poem "A Pastoral." There's a very brief definition of "pastoral" in the Glossary to the Norton Anthology: "poems set in idealized, often artificial, rural surroundings" (2518). How has Wordsworth altered this traditional form of pastoral in a way that accords with the principles he sets out in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads"? Remember he said he decided to describe "incidents and situation from common life" in "language really used by men." Another important characteristic of pastoral poetry is that it uses contrasts between the country and the city as a way of commenting, usually critically, on the ways of city life. How does Wordsworth rely of the convention of contrasting the two ways of life, but how does his focus differ?
Does country life in this poem represent the "world of innocence"? Is the child here "innocent"? What characteristics of the lives of Michael and his family indicate a "better" life without going so far as to make it an "ideal" or "idealized" life?
1) What "story" have the people in the community made up about Michael and his family? What part does their lamp play in this story? 2) What story does Michael tell his son? 3) To whom is the poet telling the story of Michael? Think about the ways in which story-telling makes a chain here--sometimes a broken chain, but sometimes a chain that stretches across a great divide. Just as the lamp in the cottage becomes a symbol to the community, what symbol does the poet use to represent the story of Michael to the reader? What is implied about "objects" and "associations"?
The contrast between country and city related to contrasting views of the land. Read lines 61-77 and think about the closeness of Michael to the land, the way the land records the story of his life, the love he feels for the land, his sense of unity with nature. But then the land becomes an object of economic exchange in the capitalistic world of loans, credit, and debt. What happens to the notions of "industry" and "honorable gain" in this world of usury? Has capitalism corrupted Michael's relation to the land?
Inheritance is a central theme in this poem, but again not one that is treated simplistically. Note how Michael's sense of responsibility to his land derives from the fact that it is an inheritance from his family (ll. 361-82). Does his desire to pass this inheritance on to Luke, as a sacred trust, have positive or negative implications? Then think about the alternative idea of inheritance that revolves around the idea of story-telling. Who are the poet's "heirs"? What kind of inheritance is passed on when we tell someone else a story? And, again, remembering "The Prelude," what role does memory play in establishing these bonds?
This story is about Michael's loss of his son, and in larger terms about the loss of a way of life as England moved more and more into the industrial capitalistic age. What role does literature play in the recovery of the past, of a more innocent way of life?
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