Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Wordsworth at the Sheepfold

In this video, Professor Sally Bushell describes how Wordsworth liked to write outside and discusses his difficulty in writing "Michael".
So Sally, we’ve been talking about the significance of the sheepfold in Wordsworth’s poem, “Michael.” Remember, sheepfold in the poem doesn’t actually get built. But you were saying that when Wordsworth was here during his own lifetime that there was a sheepfold. How do we know that? Well, we know that from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals– William Wordsworth’s sister– and they provide us with a wonderful context for his writing and for their life together. And Dorothy explicitly says that they set off, up Greenhead Gill, in search of a sheepfold when Wordsworth decides to write the poem. And actually she gives a wonderful description of the sheepfold. And she says, the sheepfold is falling away. It is in the form of a heart, unequally divided.
And this image has always struck me because she’s writing that well before he’s actually written the poem. And yet, the image she gives could be one that stood for Michael himself, that Michael’s own heart is divided between his love of the land and his love of his son. So it’s quite extraordinary in a way. The other thing that’s interesting is the working title of the poem is the sheepfold. So again, that emphasises the importance of it as a symbol at the heart of the poem’s meaning. But also it creates some confusion.
So when Dorothy in the journal will have an entry that says, William working at the sheepfold, it’s not absolutely clear whether he’s come up here to the valley, or if he’s sitting at home working at the text of the sheepfold. Wow, so sometimes you think he would actually come up here and write his poem. He would write, write outside on location where we are now. Absolutely, and Wordsworth unusual– and many poets write sometimes outside– but Wordsworth is unusual in doing that habitually. So he chooses various sites in and around Grasmere that are popular for him to go to, to write, and he would go there regularly to write poems.
Sometimes, as with “Michael,” he links the writing of the poem in that place to the representation of place in the poem, and that creates multiple layers of meaning, which is what I’m really interested in. So what are the practicalities of writing outside in Wordsworth’s time? Well, Wordsworth, usually, if he’s writing outside, he’ll take a pencil– he’ll write in pencil– and actually, most first drafts for Wordsworth is often in pencil. And he’ll have a smaller notebook that he’ll fit in a pocket or in a waistcoat pocket to take with him. He doesn’t just wander about aimlessly or roam the hills.
He does have very specific sites, as I said, and also he likes to walk up and down, sort of pace up and down, and various critics have made the point that the rhythm of the poetry that he’s writing is then sort of matched to the rhythm of his walking. So Wordsworth makes the long journey up the valley. He comes to the sheepfold. He writes bits of “Michael.” It obviously takes him a number of visits, but is that it, does he just eventually go home one day with a complete poem? Ideally he would, and he might even want us to believe that that’s what he did. But we know, again, from Dorothy’s journals that that’s not the case at all.
And in fact, if I read you some of the entries here, we can see that he actually has a lot of difficulty writing this poem. And so she tells us, October, Saturday 18th of October, a very fine October morning, William worked all the morning at the sheepfold, but in vain. And this continues. Wednesday morning the 22nd she says, William composed without much success at the sheepfold. Thursday the 23rd, William was not successful in composition in the evening, and right through to the end of October, 28th of October, William could not compose, much fatigued himself with altering. This goes on and on and on.
He keeps trying to write the poem, and finally, on Sunday the 9th of November, he says, we have the entry, William burnt the sheepfold, a rainy night. This sort of dramatic moment where he’s had enough. He rips it up. That’s it. Starts again. So were there no manuscripts of “Michael” left? Well, luckily that was just the first version, which obviously was destroyed, but Wordsworth then goes back to it and manages to write the rest of the poem under pressure because he’s trying to produce it for publication. And of course, those manuscripts then do survive at the Jerwood Centre. So are those interesting manuscripts, can we learn things from Wordsworth’s process of writing by looking at those? Absolutely. Yes.
It’d be great. I’ll have to take you back there and show you. Well, let’s do that. We’ve got a long walk back down the valley then.

In this video Professors Simon Bainbridge and Sally Bushell talk about the context for the writing of ‘Michael’. Sally describes Wordsworth’s difficulty in writing it as well as the way in which Wordsworth was a poet who liked to write outside.

How important is setting and context for writing or working well?

Can you think of examples in your own life of working better in one place than another, or of needing certain things around you or having particular rituals before settling to write?

This article is from the free online

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now