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The Sheepfold in ‘Michael’: Reading

Professor Keith Hanley reads from Wordsworth's "Michael" to illustrate the use of the sheepfold as a symbol in poetry.
Near the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Gill, in that deep valley, Michael had designed to build a sheep-fold, and before he heard the tidings of his melancholy loss, for this same purpose he had gathered up a heap of stones, which close to the brook side lay thrown together ready for the work. With Luke that evening thitherward he walked. And soon as they had reached the place, he stopped. And thus the old man spake to him. My son, tomorrow thou wilt leave me.
The old man paused. Then, pointing to the stones near which they stood, thus, after a short silence, he resumed. This was a work for us, and now, my son, it is a work for me. But lay one stone, here, lay it for me, Luke, with thine own hands. I for the purpose brought thee to this place. Luke, thou hast been bound to me only by links of love. When thou art gone, what will be left to us? But I forget my purposes. Lay now the cornerstone, as I requested, and hereafter, Luke, when thou art gone away, should evil men be thy companions, let this sheep-fold be thy anchor and thy shield.
Amid all fear and all temptation, let it be to thee an emblem of the life thy fathers lived. Who, being innocent, did for that cause bestir them in good deeds. Now, fare thee well. When thou returns, thou in this place wilt see a work which is not here, a covenant ‘twill be between us. But whatever fate befall thee, I shall love thee to the last, and bear thy memory with me to the grave.
The shepherd ended here, and Luke stooped down, and, as his father had requested, laid the first stone of the sheep-fold. At the sight, the old man’s grief broke from him. To his heart he pressed his son. He kissed him and wept, and to the house together they returned.
There is a comfort in the strength of love. ‘Twill make a thing endurable which else would break the heart. Old Michael found it so. I have conversed with more than one who well remember the old man and what he was years after he had heard this heavy news. His bodily frame had been from youth to age of an unusual strength. Among the rocks he went, and still looked up upon the sun, and listened to the wind, and as before performed all kinds of labour for his sheep and for the land, his small inheritance. And to that hollow Dell from time to time did he repair, to build the fold of which his flock had need.
‘Tis not forgotten yet the pity which was then in every heart for the old man. And ‘tis believed by all that many and many a day he thither went, and never lifted up a single stone. There, by the sheep-fold, sometimes he was seen sitting alone, with that his faithful dog, then old, beside him, lying at his feet. The length of full seven years from time to time he at the building of this sheep-fold wrought, and left the work unfinished when he died.

In the previous video you have learnt a little about the use of symbols in poetry, particularly in relation to the central object/image of the sheepfold.

Now listen to Professor Keith Hanley’s reading of some core passages in which the sheepfold is used in this way. Listen carefully and think about what the sheepfold stands for, or how its symbolic meaning changes.

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William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

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