Michael: Poem by William Wordsworth - Summary & Analysis

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      In the autumn and early winter of 1800, Wordsworth wrote Michael at Dove Cottage Townend, Grasmere. It was published at the end of the year. It is within the category of “Poems founded on the Affections.” The poet himself writes:

      “Written at Townend, Grasmere, about the same time as The Brothers....The character and circumstances of Luke were taken from a family to whom had belonged, many years before, the house we lived in at Townend, along with some fields and woodlands on the eastern shore of Grasmere. The name of The Evening Star was not, in fact, given to this house but to another on the same side of the valley, more to the north”.


      There is a valley amidst the tall mountains, by the side of the noisy brook of Greenhead Ghyll. The spot is solitary. Beside the brook, lies a heap of uncut stones. Michael’s story relates to these stones. Michael had collected these stones to build a sheepfold (shelter for the sheep). This story contains no thrills or breathe-taking incidents. It is homely and crude, and would delight families sitting round the fire at home, or in the summer shade.

      In Grasmere Vale, lived a shepherd, Michael, by name. His age was 80, yet he was strong and stalwart. He tended sheep on the top of the mountain. He knew the meaning of the winds. When the south wind blew, he understood that a storm was coming, and so he hurried to the mountain top to bring his sheep to safety. He had faced many such storms. Many incidents had remained stamped on his memory. The hills were a book, in which he could read many of his past experiences in the company of sheep. He felt a blind love for the rocks and fields.

      His wife Isabel was twenty years junior to him. Her heart was in her house. She had two spinning wheels, one for spinning wool and the other for spinning flax. She was always playing one of the two wheels.

      In old age, the couple had their only child, a son named Luke. He was born when Michael was very old, with one foot in the grave. Michael, his wife and son and the two sheep dogs were busy in domestic affairs.

      This family became a proverb for hard work in the village. When the sun sets and they returned home from work of the shepherd and farmer, their labor did not finish. Except when they sat at a very economical dinner, Michael and Luke remained busy, repairing plough or sickle or cleaning wool for Isabel. Isabel worked at the spinning wheel and at night, its sound seemed like the humming of the summer bees.

      Their cottage stood on the raised ground. As soon as evening fell, the house-wife (Isabel) lighted a lamp. This lamp was an old utensil hung from the ceiling. It had been their companion for uncounted hours. The lamp was a signal of their industry. This lamp shone in the evening like the evening star, so the cottage itself came to be known in the neighborhood by the name of the “Evening Star.”

      Michael loved his wife dearly, but more than everything else in the world, he loved his son. It was not merely the instinct of a father for a son that he felt for the boy. In him was centered all his hopes about the future. When Luke was a baby the old man had tended him like his mother. When Luke was still a child, his father used to have him by wherever he was working, in the field, at home or under the shady oak-tree in front of the cottage which was called the clipping tree as the sheep were shorn under it. There Michael would try to keep the boy in check if he disturbed the sheep in any way. When Luke was only a boy, he was given a little shepherd’s hook by his father and assisted as best as he could, in guiding the flock. He did his best, although his work was at times in the nature of a hindrance than help. Since Luke was ten, his father used to take him up with him to the mountains to look after the sheep. The boy grew up healthy and strong and attained the age of eighteen.

      Suddenly one day misfortune overtook the household. Michael had many years ago, stood surety for a nephew who was a prosperous businessman. But the man’s business failed and Michael was now required to pay a huge sum, amounting to half the worth of his property. The old man was crushed by the blow. After thinking it over he told his wife that he would try to save the land for Luke, and the debt could be paid off by Luke who could go to the town and be employed by a kinsman of theirs. Isabel turned the proposal over in her mind. She remembered how one Richard Bateman, a poor village lad, had prospered in London, and agreed to send Luke there. So Michael asked her to get ready Luke’s best clothes.

      For five days after this, Isabel worked very hard to prepare things which Luke would need for the journey. For some-time she was afraid that the departure of the boy would break Michael’s heart. But the boy spoke cheerfully and the mother was reassured. Then the letter from the kinsman came promising all help and the parents were very proud. It was decided that Luke would leave the next day.

      Michael had wanted to build a sheepfold near the brook in the valley. He took Luke that evening to that place where a heap of stones had been collected. He explained to the boy how deeply he had loved him ever since he was born, how he had done all he could for him. He further said that his parents too had lived on that land and died there when he was forty. He had inherited the land which was then encumbered and by sheer industry had only just then freed it. Now Luke was to do the same. He asked the lad to lay one stone for the sheepfold and he himself, though old, would work with his own hands at it. Whatever happened, he was sure Luke would remember the sheepfold. He must also know that Michael would love him to the last. Luke laid a stone as desired by his father and together they returned home. Next morning he left.

      After sometime a good report about Luke came from the kinsman and Luke himself wrote fine letters. The parents were reassured. Michael worked at the sheepfold whenever he had leisure. In the meantime, Luke began to slacken in his duty and took to evil courses. At last, he was driven to seek a hiding place in a foreign country.

      Michael could bear this blow because of the strong love he cherished for his son. He was physically still very strong, went on working and occasionally even worked at the sheepfold. But there were days when his heavy heart would not let him life up a single stone. He was at times found there accompanied by his dog. He died seven years after this and Isabel died after another three years. Then the estate was sold, the cottage was pulled down and now only the oak-tree survives.


      Lines. 18-21: And to that.....Summer shade: Wordsworth, in the introductory part of his poem, says that if the reader goes up the tumultuous brook of “Greenhead Ghyll”, he will come to a valley where by the side of the river lies a straggling heap of unhewn stones. There is a tale associated with that apparently insignificant pile of stones. The story is not strange and romantic, but the poet believes that it is fit enough to be narrated to people gathered round the fireside at night, or to a group collected round the shade of a tree during a hot summer day.

      Unenriched with strange events: Not embellished with romantic incidents. It was Wordsworth’s belief that stories of ordinary life reveal feelings of man much better than thrilling romances. In all his works, we do not find a single story containing any far-fetched or impossible event. In his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he protests against the prevalent taste for “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies and deluge of idle and extravagant stories in verse”. He believed firmly that the feeling developed in a story must give importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling, as in the case of the silly romances, which he condemned.

      Lines. 27-33: And hence this Tale.....and human life: These lines have been taken from Wordsworth’s Michael-Wordsworth is here introducing his story. In order to make it attractive for us, he tells us the qualities which impressed him. In his opinion, the story is fit to be told by the fire-side in winter and in the shade of a tree in summer. It told him much about the simple shepherds whom he loves not for their own sake, but for that of natural surroundings in which they lived.

      In these lines, Wordsworth is striking an autobiographical note. It was in his boyhood, which is the most impressionable period of a man’s life, that he came across this story. At that time Wordsworth took little interest in his study of books. Study of Nature instead occupied much of his time. He had felt the influences of Nature through natural objects like hills, lakes, fields, forests and rivulets etc. Because a favorable background was already formed in his mind, this story which talked of shepherds living in the midst of Nature was very welcome to him. It inspired in him feelings and emotions over which he had no check. It made him sympathize with the hard lot of the shepherds. He was compelled by the story to think and ponder over the great problems of man, the heart of man and human life. Wordsworth’s thoughts on these things were, however, neither comprehensive nor properly arranged. It was the life of such shepherds as Michael which converted Wordsworth into a French revolutionary and made him love humble life which was also human. Wordsworth in this passage, wants to say that the story of Michael creates a question mark in the minds of its readers. It makes them ask themselves questions. What is man? What is the heart of man? What is human life?

      Lines. 143-150: This son of.....must fail: These lines have been taken from Wordsworth’s Michael. The poet is describing the love which Michael bore for his only son Luke. He tells us that though Michael loved his wife deeply, yet his love for Luke was deeper.

      Michael loved Luke, who was his only son and had been born to him in his old age more than his wife Isabel who had shared his griefs and gaieties throughout her married life. Michael’s depth of love for Luke was not due to paternal affection which a father naturally feels for his son. It was not that indiscriminate tenderness which is usually found in all fathers. Michael, on the other hand, loved his son so deeply because he was to him in his old age and because the greatest gift which a child thus born gives to his father, is hope and prospective thoughts. Naturally, all old men are bound to grow weak and decline in energy. They develop sobriety, and quietude with age. The birth of the only son in the declining years quickens their energies once more. It stimulates them to vigorous action. Hopes of future advancement with the aid of their sons disturb their quietude and calmness. Michael’s affection for Luke was composed more of hope (which he roused in his father) and less of natural tenderness. That is why he loved his son more than his wife.

      Lines. 295-298: “Thou must not go.....he will die.”: After having decided that the best course was to send away the boy to the rich kinsman, Michael went about attending to his work, while Isabel carefully prepared all the necessary articles for Luke’s journey to the city. At the end of week, on Sun clay, Isabel felt happy. During the two nights previous, she had observed her husband tossing restlessly in bed. She was so much attached to the boy that she did not like to send him away. So when she and Luke were sitting alone near the door of their cottage, she told the boy that he should not go away, since he was their only child, and since she felt that Michael would die broken-hearted if the boy left them. The speech is quite characteristic of the loving mother, who obviously was deeply grieved at the prospect of separation from the boy. But as soon as she had told her fears about her husband to Luke, her heart became lightened and she felt that she would have the courage to send away the boy.

      Lines. 474-482. At her death the estate.....head Ghyll: These lines have been extracted from Wordsworth’s Michael. Isabel lived for little more than three years after Michael’s death. Many changes took place in the country-side after her death. The present passage makes a mention of all these.

      After Isabel’s death, Michael’s lands were sold out. Some strangers purchased them. Michael regarded these lands as sacred because these has descended to him from his ancestors. But they passed out of the family hands because Luke, who was the last of them turned out to be a worthless rogue. The cottage which was known as The Evening Star because of the light under which the shepherd family worked from early in the evening till late in the night was also demolished. The site on which it stood was brought under cultivation. In short, no sign of the existence of the cottage could be seen. Many changes have since taken place in the whole countryside. The oak which was known as the Clipping Tree still stands there. The sheep fold which Michael had wished to complete, still lies unfinished on the edge of the noisy Green-head Ghyll.


A Pastoral Poem

      A pastoral is a poem, treating of shepherds rustic life. Theocritus of ancient Greece, and Bion and Mosclrus, sang of the love of shepherds and nymphs. Virgil was the greatest of all the Latin poets who followed the convention. The word ‘pastoral’ is now a days used in a more liberal sense. It means any poem that deals with rural people and setting. Michael is a pastoral in the modern sense of the term, and not in its ancient conventional sense.

      Michael relates the tale of a shepherd of Cumberland. Its setting is every inch pastoral. The poem is free from the artificial conventions of a pastoral as prescribed by the ancient pastoral poets like Theocritus and Virgil. A new element, viz., that of realism, is introduced by Wordsworth in pastoral poetry. The appeal of Michael is simple and straightforward. It treats everyday life of the shepherd with his elemental joys and aspirations. Even the pathos of the poem is drawn from the landscape. Subjective brooding is conspicuous by its absence in the poem.

      Again, there is no suggestion in Michael of the “grand passion”. The shepherds of the poem do not became philosophic. What we find in it is only an aged shepherd who laments the loss of a dear son and of some ancestral lands. The mind, of the readers is filled with a feeling of real pity and sympathy.

Theme of the Poem

      In Michael, the poet deals with man, the heart of man and human life. He also indicates the relationship between man and nature. Here Wordsworth shows how Nature influences the character of a man and makes him innocent and affectionate.

Michael as a Narrative Poem

      Michael is a story in verse. It tells us about the life of a frugal, simple and contented shepherd who loves his only son, born to him in his old age, immensely. All of his hopes are dashed to the ground because of his son’s failure in life. Love for his son, gives some comfort to the broken-hearted father.

Michael: A Pathetic Poem

      The poem Michael, shows the tragic end, which Michael who was perfectly innocent and tender-hearted, met. It is the magnitude of Michael s morality which helps us in feeling the depths of pathos, contained in the tragic end of his life, ambitions and passions. The essence of Michael’s life was his love for his son. The moral failure of his son broke his heart and in spite of his love for him, convinced him that the name of his family was doomed forever. The ancestral lands of which he never wanted to part with, were sold after his death. The cottage which was popularly knows as The Evening Star, because of the light under which the family worked hard, was also demolished and it was brought under cultivation. The sheep-fold which he had so much aspired to finish remained, unfinished. Thus, no consolation is left for Michael’s soul. If there is any feeling in a man lying in his grave, surely Michael does not sleep peacefully. This tragedy of his life, though realistic, is very alarming.

Michael an Objective Poem

      Here the poet does not look into his own heart as he did in Three Years She Grew, The Daffodils or The Cloud. He does not paint his own moods and emotions. Wordsworth is here seen ‘projecting himself into life,’ it is there that he seeks his motives and objects. While doing so he gives us, ‘the least possible admixture of his individuality’.

Moral of Michael

      The greater portion of Wordsworth’s poetry is ethical i.e., it teaches moral lessons. Wordsworth himself said “I want to be considered as a teacher or nothing else”. Michael, too, teaches us a moral. It is the expression of Wordsworth’s belief that Nature is the best guide: guardian, nurse of man and the soul of his moral being. The company of Nature has an ennobling and uplifting influence on Man’s character. Michael, who lives in the lap of Nature, is good, noble, sympathetic, generous, and pure-minded. Luke, too, is good, like his parents as long as he is in contact with Nature. But when he goes to London and is cut off from the objects of Nature like fields, mountains, and streams, he falls a prey to evil habits and vicious pursuits and becomes a part of the dissolute life of the city. Nature is thus a great teacher.


      Michael is a pastoral poem and was written in 1800. The poem narrates in unadorned blank verse, the tragedy of a shepherd’s shattered hopes. Michael is a masterpiece of serious simplicity and quiet pathos. It is one of the best narrative poems written by Wordsworth.

      In this poem, the poet in his own words, “attempted to give a picture of a man (Michael) of strong mind and lively sensibility, agitated by two of the most powerful affections, (feelings) of the human heart—the parental affection (i.e., love of a father for his son) and love of property including the feelings of inheritance, home, and personal and family independence”.

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