Wordsworth’s poem ‘Lucy Gray’ (1799) is one of his best known. Reading it recently with my daughter–who is fascinated with the idea of ghosts and not at all scared [so far – Ed.]–it struck me that apart from the obvious subject of the loss of a child, there is a very modern sort of guilt expressed here. For me the real horror in this poem is in the father going back to his work while the child goes out into the storm. Wordsworth’s rural poor no doubt had starvation nagging them should they slack off from work, where modern parents have mortgages and car payments, but Lucy Gray is there wherever there is an adult too busy to pay her enough attention.
Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray:
And, when I crossed the wild,
I chanced to see at break of day
The solitary child.
No mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wide moor,
–The sweetest thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!
You yet may spy the fawn at play,
The hare upon the green;
But the sweet face of Lucy Gray
Will never more be seen.
"To-night will be a stormy night–
You to the town must go;
And take a lantern, Child, to light
Your mother through the snow."
"That, Father! will I gladly do:
‘Tis scarcely afternoon–
The minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the moon!"
At this the Father raised his hook,
And snapped a faggot-band;
He plied his work;–and Lucy took
The lantern in her hand.
Not blither is the mountain roe:
With many a wanton stroke
Her feet disperse the powdery snow,
That rises up like smoke.
The storm came on before its time:
She wandered up and down;
And many a hill did Lucy climb:
But never reached the town.
The wretched parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.
At day-break on a hill they stood
That overlooked the moor;
And thence they saw the bridge of wood,
A furlong from their door.
They wept–and, turning homeward, cried,
"In heaven we all shall meet;"
–When in the snow the mother spied
The print of Lucy’s feet.
Then downwards from the steep hill’s edge
They tracked the footmarks small;
And through the broken hawthorn hedge,
And by the long stone-wall;
And then an open field they crossed:
The marks were still the same;
They tracked them on, nor ever lost;
And to the bridge they came.
They followed from the snowy bank
Those footmarks, one by one,
Into the middle of the plank;
And further there were none!
–Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.
O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.