The Challenge of Simple Things

She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love;
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye! –
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be, 
But she is in her grave, and, oh! 
The difference to me!

(William Wordsworth, She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways)

When I am most alive I can read this poem, which means that I often can’t read it at all. All that is left then is the memory of what it was like to understand it, a memory with no sense of what the poem really was. Then the ‘blank misgivings’ come and the poem seems to have nothing in it. This poem is representative of something that I have often come across in my own reading and in other readers of literature too, and that is the difficulty of reading what seems a simple poem. The obvious, particularly when given in a regular rhythm and rhyme, is often insurmountable. You either get it, or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, the apparent simplicity of the poems convinces you that there is nothing there. You stop reading and move on in search of more immediate complexity. 

This is what I do remember of the poem. 

At the heart of it (beginning in the second stanza but more strongly in the third) there is a big upheaval of meaning. It comes as the poet suddenly understands what it is that he is saying or where his meaning has brought him. It is the unpremeditated nature of this discovery of feeling for Wordsworth which gives the poem its centre and pivot. Of course when he started, he knew he was writing about Lucy and her death, but in the process of writing something else happened. He began with the relative importance of Lucy to him and other men; he ends with the absolute importance of Lucy for him, and this banishes all thought of comparison. The very status of the words changes so that at the end they are no longer collected or relative, instead they work unguardedly and plainly, in trust.

It is something to do with margins, a moment of transformation like that which happens in Magic Eye pictures when the eye just begins to catch the picture behind the surface patterns. A fracturing line, always a little out of view, starts before the wholesale visualisation, at a time when the attempt could go either way – at the point when you could see (say) an eagle driving from the sky, or else fall back into the patterns of wallpaper. There is no critical method because the parts will not lead to the whole. You have to get the whole, wholly, first of all, or there will be nothing. 

This is what happens in stanza 2: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye!’ At first you read ‘A violet by a mossy stone’ and see the flower in contrast, over-weighted by the larger stone. The stone is a marker, a mnemonic. So the poet looking for the violet on another day might find it sooner if he looks first for the stone. But the next line pulls away this sense of locating (‘by’) and turns it into concealment: ‘By a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye’. The stone is both evidence and concealment. And it gets worse. You read the stone as concealing the violet and this is the stronger meaning, but maybe it is the stone itself which is half-hidden from the eye, so the mnemonic itself is partially occluded. 

The impulse here belongs not with the separate elements or the distinct phases of their arrangement, but rather with the reorientations of view: this is the Magic Eye effect. The internal rhyme of ‘by’ – ‘Half-hidden from the eye’ gives an odd feeling of purpose, as if the inward act of recognition were being performed by the elements depicted as external. 

I can’t say if I’ve said what I mean, and even now it looks at once too complicated and yet not agile enough to say what has happened. The lines momentarily draw to a depth beyond the immediate, and in so doing they involve the reader in the mechanism of the poetic effect. This is the odd thing, that the poem which is markedly static (to do with place and memory) has most effect in movement, an effect that happens, unanticipated, suggesting a liveliness, a quality of change and force where none had been expected. This makes it poignant when we later find that ‘she is in her grave’. Then the marker stone gains a more sombre bearing, bringing to mind a headstone. 

The first stanza is the hardest to read because it offers so little difficulty. It opens like a ballad, telling the tale of a lost love. ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways / Beside the springs of Dove’. ‘She’ is familiar, as if it could be no other she, despite the disuse of ‘untrodden ways’. ‘Ways’ too is a deeply familiar word, speaking of habit. This shows up clearly through thinking of the alternatives. He could have written ‘untrodden wastes’ and kept the rhyme nearly intact, or ‘untrodden hills’ or ‘paths’. ‘Paths’ would indeed be the closest semantic replacement, but had he written ‘paths’ something would have been lost. A path has physical presence (it is the track across the hill), but a ‘way’ is less than that physically – a possible or remembered route, a trace of the going. ‘Untrodden ways’ is a phrase which describes the poet’s memory as much as an actual landscape. Another word that is odd is ‘among’: ‘She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways’. It is striking in the midst of these untrodden ways. The paths are falling into neglect, and out of thought, so that it is deft and disturbing that Wordsworth seeks to clarify the ground between them. ‘Between’ would have had a different effect again, would make the reader more aware of the paths as defining lines. But ‘among’ is more than a situating word – it places her at the same time as admitting she could be busy or idle anywhere round here. This is where the first faintest flash of the poem comes, as the poet makes us realise the integrity and intimacy of a life beyond trace. 

Nevertheless it is the isolation of the girl that dominates the next lines. ‘A Maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love.’ That he puts it this way around is strange. Love, the greater and the deeper state is surprisingly more often achieved than the lesser ‘praise’. Remoteness has deprived the girl of all but a few admirers but tacitly Wordsworth approves the priorities of isolation, its seriousness and its slowness. The distance between ‘none to praise’ and ‘very few to love’ opens up like the momentary flash of ‘among’ to suggest the nature of life for Lucy. 

The second stanza is confident: ‘A violet by a mossy stone / Half-hidden from the eye! – / Fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’. It focuses on single elements, ‘a violet’, ‘a mossy stone’, ‘the eye’, ‘a star’, offering a crisp sense of definition and place. It is striking that in this brief poem there is so much topographical detail suggesting that a primary purpose of the poem is to guide. (Who? Where?) The violet by the stone and the star are signals set in a context of vacancy or hiddenness, so that the deprivation of view is part of their impact. 

Wordsworth risks misinterpretation. In each case the fragile, fleeting quality that the markers represent (beauty, shyness, isolation) is rivalled by the bare persistence of the signal. The apparent backhandedness of the compliment, ‘fair as a star when only one / Is shining in the sky’ does not mean that the star could not survive comparison. Rather the poet says ‘one / Is shining’; it shines like a beacon when all the others have failed to appear. Even though it is the only one, it is the finest of them all. This indomitability is evident too in the way that the whole scene inverts and shifts in stanza 2, moving from ground to sky, and from night to day while concentrating on the one individuality. The whole scene rotates about the point in an upheaval that the poem conveys with an extraordinary calm. The particularity of the terms within each context is thus thrown across a wider canvas, where the arrangements of violet and stone, or the chance of timing (‘when only one / Is shining…’) are correspondingly minute. Yet together they span a vast swirl of the horizon. The simple words and the offered sense of guidance are thus oddly queasy in effect. It is as if the poetry were naming the price of such security and the price is recklessly great. The price of security is turmoil. 

So there is a brief glimpse of the poem’s significance in the second stanza but it is in the third that it comes most strongly. The tone is more sober, more thoughtful, as if the poet is trying to make something plain to himself, ‘She lived unknown, and few could know…’ with a wondering cumbersomeness that contrasts with the stark chaos-daring confidence of the second stanza. But it is what comes next that changes everything:

She lived unknown, and few could know 
When Lucy ceased to be,  
But she is in her grave, and, oh!  
The difference to me!

It is a fundamental transformation. At first the poet concerned himself with external things (the violet, the star, the girl), but finally he is only aware of his own being. Suddenly, the poem gets an inward shock as though the death of Lucy (the poet’s sudden sharp sense of it) shocks him into presence. In stanza 1 he was there by implication only, in ‘untrodden’, ‘few’. He was barely more evident in the second stanza, glimpsed through his perceptions: ‘Half-hidden from the eye’. It is only in the final lines that he turns up in person. All the others fall away leaving only Lucy (named for the first time) and ‘me’. 

The balance of perspective, the pivot of the poem, is suddenly changed. ‘Oh’ becomes like the violet or the star before a new steady point at the centre of the universe, the absorbing, unshiftable idea around which all else will turn. It is more than the shift between day and night, ground and sky; between those two phases the sense of upheaval was left unremarked. Here the sense of disturbance is rife. Look at the word ‘difference’. How are we to compare that with the earlier words that gave expression to Lucy’s influence on those around her: to ‘know’, to ‘praise’, to ‘love’? Difference is too new perhaps to have a better name. 

What, if pressed to be explicit, would Wordsworth have said he meant by ‘difference’ – grief, loss, anguish, confusion, blankness, shock…? Yes, probably it would be a selection of these with a few additions. And when in time the emotion had grown older the varying states and waves of feeling would become more clear. But now, whatever it is, he can only call it (strongly, inadequately) ‘difference’. The word is as unwritten as ‘oh!’ and barely more developed. The thing that it is important to grasp here is that ‘difference’ does not describe a new balance or status quo established in the place of the old certainty. Rather it describes the active effect of change, the wholesale reorientation. The early sprig-like prettiness of the poem gives way to an absolute usurpation of idea, as the poem of sentiment turns to the issue of a man’s soul and his place in the universe. 

It troubles me when I can’t read this poem or persuade anyone to agree that there is greatness in it. But why should it matter? If it presents a simple face and nothing more, what is lost? In part the answer for me is personal. If there appears to be nothing in it then I have forgotten what I cannot recall. But the question is connected as well to the general question of how we read. An event must take place in the reader if the reading is to have effect. Without this event there is only the effort to untangle words and meanings, wondering all the time ‘why bother?’ If the event does take place then the poem starts to give itself. This is true (in the ideal) of all books and poems but it is most true of Wordsworth’s poetry, it seems to me, where the wholesale effect of recognition is vital, to convert words on the page from relative importance to full idea or feeling. 

On the face of it this is bleak. If a poem remains blank before your attention, then there is no arguing your way into it. You cannot by any effort of your own make that recognition happen. But I want to argue (plead) that it is possible to instil the mood or prepare the conditions in which that recognition is more likely to come. In proportion as they are great, poets write in trust, and this too is the way to read – with an open mind, vulnerably. In the Lucy poem, when the thought of her death breaks on him for real, that moment has the strongest effect: ‘But she is in her grave, and oh! / The difference to me!’ The tender and small word ‘her grave’ is the one that betrays him. This is ‘her’ place now. She no longer dwells among th’ untrodden ways.