She Dwelt Among The Untrodden Ways
Wordsworth appears to have written the group of ‘Lucy’ poems when he was in Germany in the winter of 1799. They were first printed in the Lyrical Ballads collection in 1800. This poem appeared second in a group of three, with ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ the third of the group. The poems have an elegiac quality in that they lament the death of someone. However, the traditional elegy usually laments the passing of a notable person, such as a great poet or military hero. Wordsworth seems to deliberately emphasise how unknown Lucy was in order to highlight the fact that her importance came from her effect on him. Similarly, there is a sense of mystery in each of these poems not usually found in the traditional elegiac form. Wordsworth avoids the standard approach of detailing facts about the deceased in order to heighten the sense of loss. Instead, he simply suggests certain qualities while placing most of the emphasis on how he was affected by the death.
Summary of the poem
In the first stanza, Wordsworth introduces three important ideas in connection with the deceased Lucy: (a) she lived closely with Nature; (b) she had a delicate, gentle quality; (c) she lived away from the company of people. Lucy lived ‘among the untrodden ways’, suggesting an isolated and unspoiled countryside. This sense of unspoiled Nature is reinforced by the ‘springs of Dove’.Modern advertising still uses the idea of ‘natural spring water’ to represent purity and untouched Nature. The connecting of Lucy with a spring called ‘Dove’ signifies a gentleness about her; this is certainly not a raging waterfall. There is the feeling that Nature in its extreme form would have been too overwhelming for Lucy. She found her home in a quiet and protective natural environment.
Wordsworth emphasises the lack of human relationships in Lucy’s world by using the words ‘none’ and ‘few’. Lucy did not experience the positive side of human interaction, where ‘love’ and ‘praise’ support the individual. However, there is no real sense that she missed this – rather it appears that she accepted her condition; perhaps there is even the feeling that she neither knew nor cared about such things.
In the second stanza, Wordsworth reinforces these ideas with the images that he uses in connection with Lucy. By using the metaphor of the violet that is ‘half hidden’, Wordsworth implies a shy delicacy. There is the suggestion that the violet is content to remain hidden by the stone, just as Lucy was content to remain ‘among the untrodden ways’. The fact that the stone is ‘mossy’ conveys a more comfortable image than if it had been simply cold rock. It also indicates a sheltered environment, one where the delicate ‘violet’, and by implication Lucy, would be protected. The simile of the star is used similarly. Lucy is as ‘Fair as a star’ in that she is undoubtedly beautiful. The star image also conveys a sense that Lucy is somehow not of this world. She is set apart not simply by her physical isolation, but also because she is from a different physical environment. Man can observe the star from the earth, but he cannot come into contact with it because it is physically impossible for him to travel the vast distance that lies between him and the star, nor can he survive in the star’s environment of space. So Wordsworth implies that although he was one of the few to have seen Lucy, there was, even for him, something unattainable about her. The idea that the star is the ‘only one’ shining also reinforces the sense of Lucy’s isolation from normal human life.
In the third stanza, Wordsworth repeats the idea that Lucy was unknown in the general world of men. His use of the phrase ‘few could know’ suggests that to know Lucy was a privileged or special experience – that he was lucky to have witnessed her existence.
When it comes to communicating Lucy’s death, Wordsworth does so in an undramatic way; Lucy simply ‘ceased to be’. The very sound of the word ‘ceased’ reinforces the gentle, almost natural quality of her passing. There is no feeling of a violent separation caused by death. Wordsworth has carefully structured the poem so that this moment appears with a quiet inevitability. Lucy’s existence is written about in the past tense. She is portrayed as having a delicacy and gentleness that almost melts away. Her close connection with the quiet things of nature implies that the manner of her death was simply an extension of the manner of her living. There is an acceptance of the fact of Lucy’s passing in the phrase ‘she is in her grave’. Wordsworth does not shy away from the reality of the situation, but the ‘grave’ image is not a very frightening one. After all, Lucy spent her life ‘half hidden’ by the natural world – it was not a great change for her to become completely hidden.
Wordsworth ends the poem with a clear statement that Lucy’s death had a significant emotional impact on him. However, he does not express exactly what he felt. This serves to highlight his avoidance of any specific details about his relationship with Lucy. There is a haunting air of mystery about his connection with her and, indeed, about Lucy herself.
Style and Theme
A mysterious death, often of a young and beautiful person, was a popular theme among the Romantic poets, not only in England but also in Germany and France. There was the sense that death was simply Nature reasserting its power over the person in a magical and inescapable way.
Wordsworth takes this theme and uses it in an original way to communicate the emotional and psychological effects caused in him by the death. In a similar way, the simple rhyme scheme of the poem and the use of such words as ‘dwelt’, ‘untrodden’ and ‘maid’ give the poem a historical, fairy-tale atmosphere, customary in this type of poem. However, Wordsworth was not content simply to relate the incident. For him, an incident gained impact by his meditating on it (‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’), so that he was able not only to recreate the original incident but to weave into it the emotional and psychological depths that he had developed in his meditations. It is not really important for us to know exactly what effect Lucy’s death had on Wordsworth; what is important is that we understand that it did affect him in a profound and lasting way.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the nineteenth-century artist and poet, commented that Wordsworth was ‘good, you know, but unbearable’. Perhaps Wordsworth is ‘unbearable’ in the way that he portrays Lucy as being perfectly happy with her rather limited life. She is the ideal fantasy girl dreamed up by Wordsworth. Their relationship is obviously unreal and not very well expressed. He could be regarded as even more ‘unbearable’ in the way that he is more worried about his own reaction than about Lucy’s death. He simply uses the idea of Lucy as an excuse to write about his ‘unbearable’ concern with his own ‘unbearable’ feelings!
Questions and Answers
Q. What does she dwelt among the untrodden ways mean?
Ans. The poem’s title and opening line—“She dwelt among the untrodden ways”—set up a context of anonymity and remoteness. Lucy’s “ways,” or the place she lived, were “untrodden,” meaning very few people walked over them. And she “dwelt” there, implying she rarely left her base.
Q. What is the symbolic significance of Lucy’s untrodden ways?
Ans. Lucy’s “untrodden ways” are symbolic of both her physical isolation and the unknown details of her thoughts and life as well as her sense of mystery. The third quatrain is written with an economy intended to capture the simplicity the narrator sees in Lucy. Her femininity is described in girlish terms.