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‘Michael’ and Place

In this video Professors Simon Bainbridge and Sally Bushell discuss Wordsworth's longer poem, 'Michael'.
Welcome to week three of our online course, “Wordsworth– Poetry, people, and place.” This week, we’re going to be looking at Wordsworth’s poem “Michael,” which is an excellent example of the value of place, and it’s also a poem that Wordsworth wrote in a specific place. We’ve come to Greenhead Gill, and I’m joined by my colleague Sally Bushell, who’s going to talk to us about the poem. So Sally, who is Michael? Michael is a shepherd and a hill farmer here in the Lake District, and he’s the owner of his own land that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Wordsworth calls Michael and others like him “small independent proprietors of land,” here called “statesmen.”
So if we think back to week one and the principles that Wordsworth laid out there in his preface about poetry, would Michael be a good example of that sort of choice of subject matter? Absolutely. Michael is exemplifying that. By choosing him as his hero, Wordsworth is making a kind of statement there, that an ordinary man can be the hero of poetry. He’s also writing the poem in iambic pentameter, which is a traditional high form, form of epic, but he’s using that in an unusual way, with very plain, simple, direct language. And he’s telling the tale on behalf of others, for those who cannot speak for themselves. So all of those are absolutely the core principles of the lyrical ballads.
So in choosing a shepherd as the hero of his poem, do you think that’s political on Wordsworth’s part? It is, and we know that because when Wordsworth had published the poem, he sends it with a letter to Charles James Fox, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, and he wants Fox to actually act upon what he’s saying in the poem. And there are three things that Wordsworth communicates very clearly in that letter. Firstly, he’s anxious that small farmers like Michael are going to be just bought out by the rich and that way of life is going to be lost forever. Secondly, he, in quite an interesting way, anticipates industrialisation.
And he’s worried about the breakup of the family that will happen if children start looking for work in the city, which indeed does happen. And thirdly, he makes the point directly to Fox that men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply. And again, he’s challenging the middle classes or the rich, and saying, actually, don’t assume you have ownership of emotion and sentiment and feeling. Ordinary men feel strongly too. So you brought us to a very specific place to think about Michael. We’re what, about half a mile away from Wordsworth’s house? What is the link between the poem and this place? We’re here by Greenhead Gill in a valley that’s also sometimes called Michael’s Fold.
And the hills and slopes around us are the land which is represented in the poem as Michael’s land. What Wordsworth also does at the opening of the poem is to invite us as readers to come to this place and think about the poem being set in this place and being written in this place. So I’ll read those opening lines now. If from the public way you turn your steps up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Gill, you will suppose that with an upright path your feet must struggle in such bold ascent the pastoral mountains front you face to face. But courage. For beside that boisterous brook, the mountains have all opened out themselves and made a hidden valley of their own.
No habitation there is seen, but such 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 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. So it’s very interesting reading this passage in this location, isn’t it? Wordsworth’s very specific about where we’re standing. The tumultuous brook of Greenhead Gill, this sense of the upright nature of the paths, how you feel like you’ve got a very steep climb ahead of you.
It’s very place-specific, isn’t it? We have a very clear idea now of where the poem’s set. But what’s it about? What’s the story? Well, the poem is very much about Michael’s relationship to the land and his love of it. Wordsworth describes these fields, these hills, which were a living being even more than his own blood. It’s almost as if Michael is a human embodiment of the landscape. So that’s a core theme for the poem. But Michael and his wife Isabel also have a son in old age, Luke. And the poem is also very much about his relationship with his son. That’s very movingly and poignantly depicted.
And we see Michael teaching Luke his values and teaching him a traditional way of life amongst the hills. As the poem unfolds, however, an incident occurs which disrupts that life. Michael is brought into debt through no fault of his own. And he has a choice. He can either sell a portion of his land or choose to send Luke, his son, away to the city to try and earn the money. And Michael decides to send Luke away.
Before he goes, Michael brings Luke here to this valley, to a sheepfold further up the valley, and tries to ensure his safe return by a moving speech, moves his son to tears to try and make him feel the value and importance of coming back to this place. Luke heads off, but unfortunately, when he finds himself in the city, he’s corrupted by it. Ashamed, he never returns home. Michael dies of a broken heart. And when Isabel, his wife, dies shortly afterwards, the land is sold, Wordsworth tells us, into a stranger’s hand. And the cottage itself is razed to the ground. So nothing remains except this poem which tells us the story. Well, thank you very much for that summary.
Let’s go and walk up the valley and see if we can find the sheepfold.

In this video Professors Simon Bainbridge and Sally Bushell discuss Wordsworth’s longer poem, ‘Michael’, first published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, 1800.

Simon and Sally go to a particular site in the Lake District, Greenhead Gill (a gill or ghyll is a mountain stream). This site provides both the setting and inspiration for the poem as well as the place in which it is written. They consider the ways in which Wordsworth builds a sense of place into the poem ‘Michael’.

As you watch the video think about the ways in which we, as individuals, connect to the place in which we live, or the place in which we were brought up, and how this shapes our identities.

Hopefully you will have a better understanding of the new tagging feature in this course now. In this week try to re-use tags which relate to something interesting or emergent, to help others focus on relevant themes – #sociallearning #commentdiscovery #cooperativelearning

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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