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The Sheepfold in ‘Michael’
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The Sheepfold in ‘Michael’

Professors Simon Bainbridge and Sally Bushell walk up the valley of Greenhead Gill to find a sheepfold of significance to Wordsworth's "Michael".
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So we’ve had a fairly vigorous walk up Greenhead Gill now. It’s taken us about 30 minutes or so. And we’ve come to a pile of stones, which is the nearest we’ve found to a sheep fold. As I understand what a sheep fold is, this was a sort of stone house without a roof. That’s how Wordsworth describes it. It was often in more than one chamber. And the idea was that sheep could be herded into it and then taken out individually to be washed or to be sheared. Quite often, they were located next to rivers because of the ease with which you could take the sheep down there. Is that right, Sally? Is that what a sheepfold would be for? Yes.
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It’s a practical, working structure. But of course, in the poem, it acquires all kinds of other meanings. So is this the actual sheepfold in “Michael”? Almost certainly not. Obviously, in the poem, it isn’t built in any case. We do know though that Wordsworth walked out to his sheepfold Dorothy tells us that in the journals– to write the poem. So there was one here in the Romantic period. This is probably a Victorian or a 20th century descendant. It may be on the same site or not. It certainly has the same proximity to the river. So a sheepfold, or at least the idea of a sheepfold, becomes central to the poem. It becomes a symbol. Can you tell us what that means?
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Well, Wordsworth often takes ordinary, everyday objects that we might take for granted and loads them with human meaning and emotion and significance. So a key, a stone, a tree. Things that we would overlook. And he says that at the start of “Michael” about the sheepfold, one object that we might pass by. You might see, but notice not. And obviously part of the point of the poem is it makes you notice it. It makes you think about it, an ordinary thing. So loading that ordinary object with meaning is making it stand for something greater than itself. And in that sense, it becomes a symbol. So what meanings or emotions get loaded onto the sheepfold?
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In Michael– Michael himself within the poem, the character of Michael– uses the sheepfold symbolically. So he deliberately, very self consciously brings Luke here, before he’s about to go away. And he describes the sheepfold as an anchor. Thy anchor and thy shield he wants it to be for Luke. And if we stop and think about that, we say what’s an anchor for? An anchor is there to tether you safely to a particular place and to keep you safe whatever storms may come around you. And a shield, more obviously, is a form of protection. So Michael wants somehow the sheepfold to function for Luke as this link to the land– to bring him back, to keep him safe when he goes away.
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So it’s functioning at one level deliberately within the poem. We might also say that the sheepfold is a symbol for, it stands for, the relationship between Michael and Luke. And once Luke is gone, for Luke himself. So what happens to the meaning, the symbol of the sheepfold, when Luke fails to return? Well, that’s a good question. Because the symbolic meanings change. At that point then, you realise that Michael has been projecting onto this object his hopes and wishes. He’s wanted it to stand as a symbol of unity. And ideally, Luke’s laid the cornerstone. Perhaps he’s imagining him coming back and helping Michael finish the structure. However, of course that doesn’t happen.
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And when that doesn’t happen, what we’re left with instead– the fragments, the unbuilt structure which now has a totally different meaning. It stands for loss, of what Michael has lost. And again, the poem tells us, “many and many a day he thither came and never lifted up a single stone.” So it’s still a very powerful site for Michael, but now it stands for what he’s lost.

In this video, Professors Simon Bainbridge and Sally Bushell walk further up the valley of Greenhead Gill to find a sheepfold. They discuss the significance of the sheepfold as a symbol for the poem ‘Michael’.

Think about the following ideas as you watch the video and Sally discusses the use of symbols in the poem.

A symbol is something that stands for something else (e.g. a map symbol represents the object found in that place such as a church).

  • Why does poetry use language in a symbolic way?
  • How do poetic symbols work?
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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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