Michael: A Pastoral Poem

Original Text: 
William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with other poems, 2nd edn. (London: Longman and Rees, 1800). 2 vols. No. 5. Victoria College Library (Toronto).
3You will suppose that with an upright path
4Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
5The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
6But, courage! for around that boisterous brook
7The mountains have all opened out themselves,
8And made a hidden valley of their own.
9No habitation can be seen; but they
10Who journey thither find themselves alone
11With a few sheep, with rocks and stones, and kites
12That overhead are sailing in the sky.
13It is in truth an utter solitude;
14Nor should I have made mention of this Dell
15But for one object which you might pass by,
16Might see and notice not. Beside the brook
17Appears a straggling heap of unhewn stones!
18And to that simple object appertains
19A story--unenriched with strange events,
20Yet not unfit, I deem, for the fireside,
21Or for the summer shade. It was the first
22Of those domestic tales that spake to me
23Of Shepherds, dwellers in the valleys, men
24Whom I already loved;--not verily
25For their own sakes, but for the fields and hills
26Where was their occupation and abode.
27And hence this Tale, while I was yet a Boy
28Careless of books, yet having felt the power
29Of Nature, by the gentle agency
30Of natural objects, led me on to feel
31For passions that were not my own, and think
32(At random and imperfectly indeed)
33On man, the heart of man, and human life.
34Therefore, although it be a history
35Homely and rude, I will relate the same
36For the delight of a few natural hearts;
37And, with yet fonder feeling, for the sake
38Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
39Will be my second self when I am gone.
40     Upon the forest-side in Grasmere Vale
41There dwelt a Shepherd, Michael was his name;
42An old man, stout of heart, and strong of limb.
43His bodily frame had been from youth to age
44Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen,
45Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,
46And in his shepherd's calling he was prompt
47And watchful more than ordinary men.
48Hence had he learned the meaning of all winds,
49Of blasts of every tone; and oftentimes,
50When others heeded not, he heard the South
51Make subterraneous music, like the noise
52Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills.
53The Shepherd, at such warning, of his flock
54Bethought him, and he to himself would say,
55"The winds are now devising work for me!"
56And, truly, at all times, the storm, that drives
57The traveller to a shelter, summoned him
58Up to the mountains: he had been alone
59Amid the heart of many thousand mists,
60That came to him, and left him, on the heights.
61So lived he till his eightieth year was past.
62And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
63That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,
64Were things indifferent to the Shepherd's thoughts.
65Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
66The common air; hills, which with vigorous step
67He had so often climbed; which had impressed
68So many incidents upon his mind
69Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
70Which, like a book, preserved the memory
71Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
72Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts
73The certainty of honourable gain;
74Those fields, those hills--what could they less? had laid
75Strong hold on his affections, were to him
76A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
77The pleasure which there is in life itself .
78     His days had not been passed in singleness.
79His Helpmate was a comely matron, old--
80Though younger than himself full twenty years.
81She was a woman of a stirring life,
82Whose heart was in her house: two wheels she had
83Of antique form; this large, for spinning wool;
84That small, for flax; and, if one wheel had rest,
85It was because the other was at work.
86The Pair had but one inmate in their house,
87An only Child, who had been born to them
88When Michael, telling o'er his years, began
89To deem that he was old,--in shepherd's phrase,
90With one foot in the grave. This only Son,
91With two brave sheep-dogs tried in many a storm,
92The one of an inestimable worth,
93Made all their household. I may truly say,
94That they were as a proverb in the vale
95For endless industry. When day was gone,
96And from their occupations out of doors
97The Son and Father were come home, even then,
98Their labour did not cease; unless when all
99Turned to the cleanly supper-board, and there,
100Each with a mess of pottage and skimmed milk,
101Sat round the basket piled with oaten cakes,
102And their plain home-made cheese. Yet when the meal
103Was ended, Luke (for so the Son was named)
104And his old Father both betook themselves
105To such convenient work as might employ
106Their hands by the fireside; perhaps to card
107Wool for the Housewife's spindle, or repair
108Some injury done to sickle, flail, or scythe,
109Or other implement of house or field.
110     Down from the ceiling, by the chimney's edge,
111That in our ancient uncouth country style
112With huge and black projection overbrowed
113Large space beneath, as duly as the light
114Of day grew dim the Housewife hung a lamp,
116Service beyond all others of its kind.
117Early at evening did it burn--and late,
118Surviving comrade of uncounted hours,
119Which, going by from year to year, had found,
120And left the couple neither gay perhaps
121Nor cheerful, yet with objects and with hopes,
122Living a life of eager industry.
123And now, when Luke had reached his eighteenth year,
124There by the light of this old lamp they sate,
125Father and Son, while far into the night
126The Housewife plied her own peculiar work,
127Making the cottage through the silent hours
128Murmur as with the sound of summer flies.
129This light was famous in its neighbourhood,
130And was a public symbol of the life
131That thrifty Pair had lived. For, as it chanced,
132Their cottage on a plot of rising ground
133Stood single, with large prospect, north and south,
135And westward to the village near the lake;
136And from this constant light, so regular
137And so far seen, the House itself, by all
138Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
139Both old and young, was named The Evening Star.
140     Thus living on through such a length of years,
141The Shepherd, if he loved himself, must needs
142Have loved his Helpmate; but to Michael's heart
143This son of his old age was yet more dear--
144Less from instinctive tenderness, the same
145Fond spirit that blindly works in the blood of all--
146Than that a child, more than all other gifts
147That earth can offer to declining man,
148Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts,
149And stirrings of inquietude, when they
150By tendency of nature needs must fail.
151Exceeding was the love he bare to him,
152His heart and his heart's joy! For oftentimes
153Old Michael, while he was a babe in arms,
154Had done him female service, not alone
155For pastime and delight, as is the use
156Of fathers, but with patient mind enforced
157To acts of tenderness; and he had rocked
158His cradle, as with a woman's gentle hand.
159     And, in a later time, ere yet the Boy
160Had put on boy's attire, did Michael love,
161Albeit of a stern unbending mind,
162To have the Young-one in his sight, when he
163Wrought in the field, or on his shepherd's stool
164Sate with a fettered sheep before him stretched
165Under the large old oak, that near his door
166Stood single, and, from matchless depth of shade,
167Chosen for the Shearer's covert from the sun,
168Thence in our rustic dialect was called
169The Clipping Tree, a name which yet it bears.
170There, while they two were sitting in the shade,
171With others round them, earnest all and blithe,
172Would Michael exercise his heart with looks
173Of fond correction and reproof bestowed
174Upon the Child, if he disturbed the sheep
175By catching at their legs, or with his shouts
176Scared them, while they lay still beneath the shears.
177     And when by Heaven's good grace the boy grew up
178A healthy Lad, and carried in his cheek
179Two steady roses that were five years old;
180Then Michael from a winter coppice cut
181With his own hand a sapling, which he hooped
182With iron, making it throughout in all
183Due requisites a perfect shepherd's staff,
184And gave it to the Boy; wherewith equipt
185He as a watchman oftentimes was placed
186At gate or gap, to stem or turn the flock;
187And, to his office prematurely called,
188There stood the urchin, as you will divine,
189Something between a hindrance and a help,
190And for this cause not always, I believe,
191Receiving from his Father hire of praise;
192Though nought was left undone which staff, or voice,
193Or looks, or threatening gestures, could perform.
194     But soon as Luke, full ten years old, could stand
195Against the mountain blasts; and to the heights,
196Not fearing toil, nor length of weary ways,
197He with his Father daily went, and they
198Were as companions, why should I relate
199That objects which the Shepherd loved before
200Were dearer now? that from the Boy there came
201Feelings and emanations--things which were
202Light to the sun and music to the wind;
203And that the old Man's heart seemed born again?
204     Thus in his Father's sight the Boy grew up:
205And now, when he had reached his eighteenth year,
206He was his comfort and his daily hope.
207     While in this sort the simple household lived
208From day to day, to Michael's ear there came
209Distressful tidings. Long before the time
210Of which I speak, the Shepherd had been bound
211In surety for his brother's son, a man
212Of an industrious life, and ample means;
213But unforeseen misfortunes suddenly
214Had prest upon him; and old Michael now
215Was summoned to discharge the forfeiture,
216A grievous penalty, but little less
217Than half his substance. This unlooked-for claim
218At the first hearing, for a moment took
219More hope out of his life than he supposed
220That any old man ever could have lost.
221As soon as he had armed himself with strength
222To look his trouble in the face, it seemed
223The Shepherd's sole resource to sell at once
224A portion of his patrimonial fields.
225Such was his first resolve; he thought again,
226And his heart failed him. "Isabel," said he,
227Two evenings after he had heard the news,
228"I have been toiling more than seventy years,
229And in the open sunshine of God's love
230Have we all lived; yet, if these fields of ours
231Should pass into a stranger's hand, I think
232That I could not lie quiet in my grave.
233Our lot is a hard lot; the sun himself
234Has scarcely been more diligent than I;
235And I have lived to be a fool at last
236To my own family. An evil man
237That was, and made an evil choice, if he
238Were false to us; and, if he were not false,
239There are ten thousand to whom loss like this
240Had been no sorrow. I forgive him;--but
241'Twere better to be dumb than to talk thus.
242     "When I began, my purpose was to speak
243Of remedies and of a cheerful hope.
244Our Luke shall leave us, Isabel; the land
245Shall not go from us, and it shall be free;
246He shall possess it, free as is the wind
247That passes over it. We have, thou know'st,
248Another kinsman--he will be our friend
249In this distress. He is a prosperous man,
250Thriving in trade and Luke to him shall go,
251And with his kinsman's help and his own thrift
252He quickly will repair this loss, and then
253He may return to us. If here he stay,
254What can be done? Where every one is poor,
255What can be gained?"
256                                          At this the old Man paused,
257And Isabel sat silent, for her mind
258Was busy, looking back into past times.
260He was a parish-boy--at the church-door
261They made a gathering for him, shillings, pence,
262And halfpennies, wherewith the neighbours bought
263A basket, which they filled with pedlar's wares;
264And, with this basket on his arm, the lad
265Went up to London, found a master there,
266Who, out of many, chose the trusty boy
267To go and overlook his merchandise
268Beyond the seas; where he grew wondrous rich,
269And left estates and monies to the poor,
270And, at his birth-place, built a chapel floored
271With marble, which he sent from foreign lands.
272These thoughts, and many others of like sort,
273Passed quickly through the mind of Isabel,
274And her face brightened. The old Man was glad,
275And thus resumed:--"Well, Isabel! this scheme
276These two days has been meat and drink to me.
277Far more than we have lost is left us yet.
278--We have enough--I wish indeed that I
279Were younger;--but this hope is a good hope.
280Make ready Luke's best garments, of the best
281Buy for him more, and let us send him forth
282To-morrow, or the next day, or to-night:
283--If he could go, the boy should go to-night."
284     Here Michael ceased, and to the fields went forth
285With a light heart. The Housewife for five days
286Was restless morn and night, and all day long
287Wrought on with her best fingers to prepare.
288Things needful for the journey of her Son.
289But Isabel was glad when Sunday came
290To stop her in her work: for, when she lay
291By Michael's side, she through the last two nights
292Heard him, how he was troubled in his sleep:
293And when they rose at morning she could see
294That all his hopes were gone. That day at noon
295She said to Luke, while they two by themselves
296Were sitting at the door, "Thou must not go:
297We have no other Child but thee to lose,
298None to remember--do not go away,
299For if thou leave thy Father he will die."
300The Youth made answer with a jocund voice;
301And Isabel, when she had told her fears,
302Recovered heart. That evening her best fare
303Did she bring forth, and all together sat
304Like happy people round a Christmas fire.
305     With daylight Isabel resumed her work;
306And all the ensuing week the house appeared
307As cheerful as a grove in Spring: at length
308The expected letter from their kinsman came,
309With kind assurances that he would do
310His utmost for the welfare of the Boy;
311To which requests were added, that forthwith
312He might be sent to him. Ten times or more
313The letter was read over, Isabel
314Went forth to show it to the neighbours round;
315Nor was there at that time on English land
316A prouder heart than Luke's. When Isabel
317Had to her house returned, the old man said,
318"He shall depart to-morrow." To this word
319The Housewife answered, talking much of things
320Which, if at such short notice he should go,
321Would surely be forgotten. But at length
322She gave consent, and Michael was at ease.
323     Near the tumultuous brook of Green-head Ghyll,
324In that deep valley, Michael had designed
325To build a Sheep-fold; and, before he heard
326The tidings of his melancholy loss,
327For this same purpose he had gathered up
328A heap of stones, which by the streamlet's edge
329Lay thrown together, ready for the work.
330With Luke that evening thitherward he walked:
331And soon as they had reached the place he stopped,
332And thus the old Man spake to him:--"My Son,
333To-morrow thou wilt leave me: with full heart
334I look upon thee, for thou art the same
335That wert a promise to me ere thy birth,
336And all thy life hast been my daily joy.
337I will relate to thee some little part
338Of our two histories; 'twill do thee good
339When thou art from me, even if I should touch
340On things thou canst not know of.--After thou
341First cam'st into the world--as oft befalls
342To new-born infants--thou didst sleep away
343Two days, and blessings from thy Father's tongue
344Then fell upon thee. Day by day passed on,
345And still I loved thee with increasing love.
346Never to living ear came sweeter sounds
347Than when I heard thee by our own fireside
348First uttering, without words, a natural tune;
349While thou, a feeding babe, didst in thy joy
350Sing at thy Mother's breast. Month followed month,
351And in the open fields my life was passed,
352And on the mountains; else I think that thou
353Hadst been brought up upon thy Father's knees.
354But we were playmates, Luke: among these hills,
355As well thou knowest, in us the old and young
356Have played together, nor with me didst thou
357Lack any pleasure which a boy can know."
358Luke had a manly heart; but at these words
359He sobbed aloud. The old Man grasped his hand,
360And said, "Nay, do not take it so--I see
361That these are things of which I need not speak.
362--Even to the utmost I have been to thee
363A kind and a good Father: and herein
364I but repay a gift which I myself
365Received at others' hands; for, though now old
366Beyond the common life of man, I still
367Remember them who loved me in my youth.
368Both of them sleep together: here they lived,
369As all their Forefathers had done; and, when
370At length their time was come, they were not loth
371To give their bodies to the family mould.
372I wished that thou should'st live the life they lived:
373But, 'tis a long time to look back, my Son,
374And see so little gain from threescore years.
375These fields were burthened when they came to me;
376Till I was forty years of age, not more
377Than half of my inheritance was mine.
378I toiled and toiled; God blessed me in my work,
379And till these three weeks past the land was free.
380--It looks as if it never could endure
381Another Master. Heaven forgive me, Luke,
382If I judge ill for thee, but it seems good
383That thou should'st go."
384                                          At this the old Man paused;
385Then, pointing to the stones near which they stood,
386Thus, after a short silence, he resumed:
387"This was a work for us; and now, my Son,
388It is a work for me. But, lay one stone--
389Here, lay it for me, Luke, with thine own hands.
390Nay, Boy, be of good hope;--we both may live
391To see a better day. At eighty-four
392I still am strong and hale;--do thou thy part;
393I will do mine.--I will begin again
394With many tasks that were resigned to thee:
395Up to the heights, and in among the storms,
396Will I without thee go again, and do
397All works which I was wont to do alone,
398Before I knew thy face.--Heaven bless thee, Boy!
399Thy heart these two weeks has been beating fast
400With many hopes; it should be so--yes--yes--
401I knew that thou could'st never have a wish
402To leave me, Luke: thou hast been bound to me
403Only by links of love: when thou art gone,
404What will be left to us!--But, I forget
405My purposes. Lay now the corner-stone,
406As I requested; and hereafter, Luke,
407When thou art gone away, should evil men
408Be thy companions, think of me, my Son,
409And of this moment; hither turn thy thoughts,
410And God will strengthen thee: amid all fear
411And all temptation, Luke, I pray that thou
412May'st bear in mind the life thy Fathers lived,
413Who, being innocent, did for that cause
414Bestir them in good deeds. Now, fare thee well--
415When thou return'st, thou in this place wilt see
416A work which is not here: a covenant
417'Twill be between us; but, whatever fate
418Befall thee, I shall love thee to the last,
419And bear thy memory with me to the grave."
420     The Shepherd ended here; and Luke stooped down,
421And, as his Father had requested, laid
422The first stone of the Sheep-fold. At the sight
423The old Man's grief broke from him; to his heart
424He pressed his Son, he kissed him and wept;
425And to the house together they returned.
426--Hushed was that House in peace, or seeming peace,
427Ere the night fell:--with morrow's dawn the Boy
428Began his journey, and, when he had reached
429The public way, he put on a bold face;
430And all the neighbours, as he passed their doors,
431Came forth with wishes and with farewell prayers,
432That followed him till he was out of sight.
433A good report did from their Kinsman come,
434Of Luke and his well-doing; and the Boy
435Wrote loving letters, full of wondrous news,
436Which, as the Housewife phrased it, were throughout
437"The prettiest letters that were ever seen."
438Both parents read them with rejoicing hearts.
439So, many months passed on: and once again
440The Shepherd went about his daily work
441With confident and cheerful thoughts; and now
442Sometimes when he could find a leisure hour
443He to that valley took his way, and there
444Wrought at the Sheep-fold. Meantime Luke began
445To slacken in his duty; and, at length,
446He in the dissolute city gave himself
447To evil courses: ignominy and shame
448Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
449To seek a hiding-place beyond the seas.
450     There is a comfort in the strength of love;
451'Twill make a thing endurable, which else
452Would overset the brain, or break the heart:
453I have conversed with more than one who well
454Remember the old Man, and what he was
455Years after he had heard this heavy news.
456His bodily frame had been from youth to age
457Of an unusual strength. Among the rocks
458He went, and still looked up to sun and cloud,
459And listened to the wind; and, as before,
460Performed all kinds of labour for his sheep,
461And for the land, his small inheritance.
462And to that hollow dell from time to time
463Did he repair, to build the Fold of which
464His flock had need. 'Tis not forgotten yet
465The pity which was then in every heart
466For the old Man--and 'tis believed by all
467That many and many a day he thither went,
468And never lifted up a single stone.
469     There, by the Sheep-fold, sometimes was he seen
470Sitting alone, or with his faithful Dog,
471Then old, beside him, lying at his feet.
472The length of full seven years, from time to time,
473He at the building of this Sheep-fold wrought,
474And left the work unfinished when he died.
475Three years, or little more, did Isabel
476Survive her Husband: at her death the estate
477Was sold, and went into a stranger's hand.
478The Cottage which was named The Evening Star
479Is gone--the ploughshare has been through the ground
480On which it stood; great changes have been wrought
481In all the neighbourhood:--yet the oak is left
482That grew beside their door; and the remains
483Of the unfinished Sheep-fold may be seen
484Beside the boisterous brook of Green-head Ghyll.


1] Concerning the poem Wordsworth says: "Michael was founded on the son of an old couple having become dissolute, and run away from his parents; and on an old shepherd having been seven years in building up a sheepfold in a solitary valley." Again, "I have attempted to give a picture of a man of strong mind and lively sensibility, agitated by two of the most powerful affections of the human heart,--parental affection and the love of property, landed property, including the feelings of inheritance, home, and personal and family independence." To Charles James Fox he wrote: "In the two poems, The Brothers and Michael, I have attempted to draw a picture of the domestic affections, as I know they exist among a class of men who are now almost confined to the north of England. They are small independent proprietors of land, here called 'states-men,' men of respectable education, who daily labour on their own little properties. The domestic affections will always be strong amongst men who live in a country not crowded with population; if these men are placed above poverty. But, if they are proprietors of small estates which have descended to them from their ancestors, the power which these affections will acquire amongst such men, is inconceivable by those who have only had an opportunity of observing hired labourers, farmers and the manufacturing poor. Their little tract of land serves as a kind of permanent rallying point for their domestic feelings, as a tablet on which they are written, which makes them objects of memory in a thousand instances, when they would otherwise be forgotten.... The two poems that I have mentioned were written with a view to show that men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply." In Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal, Oct. 11, 1800: "After dinner we walked up Greenhead Gill in search of a sheepfold." She described the ruined sheepfold, and on several occasions that autumn mentioned that her brother had gone there to work at his poem. Back to Line
2] Ghyll. In Westmoreland and Cumberland, this word signifies a steep and narrow valley with a stream running through it. Greenhead Ghyll rises eastward from the village of Grasmere. Back to Line
115] utensil. Wordsworth puts the stress on the first syllable. Back to Line
134] Dunmail-Raise: the pass from Grasmere to Keswick. Back to Line
259] Richard Bateman was a real person; a chapel at Ings between Kendal and Ambleside, was rebuilt by him in 1743. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
J. R. MacGillivray
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.356.