On First Looking into…The Lucy Poems

By Gabriela Minden

Upon delving into the second edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1800) for the first time, I was struck by the disparity between the Lucy poems and the rest of the collection. The Lucy poems are elegiac, written about a mysterious female figure whose nature seems to change from poem to poem, and they seem to constitute their own corpus that does not quite mesh with the other poems in the collection. In hopes of clarification, I turned to Coleridge’s explanation of his and Wordsworth’s artistic goals in composing Lyrical Ballads.

In his Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge retrospectively states that in Lyrical Ballads his goal was to write poetry that concerns the supernatural, while Wordsworth’s goal was to write poetry that would “excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural” despite its ordinary subject matter. While many of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads seem to fit, if not perfectly at least reasonably, into Coleridge’s later representation of the project, I had misgivings about whether Wordsworth succeeded in imbuing the Lucy poems with that supernatural feeling—and about whether this really was Wordsworth’s goal in composing them.

So, in hopes of further clarification, I turned to Wordsworth’s 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, in which he states that his “principal object … was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them … the primary laws of our nature, chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”

With these differing suggestions in mind, I took a more thorough look at the Lucy poems to see whether they fulfilled either—or both—of the poets’ proposed stylistic goals for Wordsworth’s contribution to the collection.

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While on the surface the Lucy poems deal more with the natural world than the supernatural, it seems that Lucy herself is the element that lends the works a supernatural feeling, in keeping with Coleridge’s outline of Wordsworth’s aesthetic project. This is particularly evident when the poems are read together. Because Lucy is, as far as we know, a figment of Wordsworth’s imagination, she changes in each poem to fit Wordsworth’s needs. In “Strange fits of passion” she is a lover, in “Three years she grew” she is a child, and in the others it is hard to pinpoint exactly what she is and whether the love the narrator feels for her is romantic, platonic, or fatherly love. Because she is so mutable and indefinite, Lucy seems to occupy the supernatural realm.

Even within single poems Lucy seems a supernatural spirit. In “A slumber did my spirit seal,” Lucy seems to the narrator “a thing that could not feel / The touch of earthly years.” Because Lucy seems a being unaffected by time, the narrator views her as unable to die. However, if Lucy is incapable of death, the necessary corollary is that she is incapable of life. As someone seemingly unaffected by “human fears” or “earthly years,” Lucy seems a being of another realm, a realm without terrestrial laws. Thus, in several ways, she confirms Coleridge’s account of Wordsworth’s inclusion of a supernatural feeling in his tales of ordinary life.

Since Wordsworth’s own description of his project is more complex,  it is harder to ascertain whether he succeeded in achieving his goal of finding deep human passions in everyday events. However, since the loss of a loved one is an “incident of common life” and as the Lucy poems do trace the inner workings of the narrator’s mind as he feels the intense loss of Lucy—as lover, child, or otherwise—it appears that the poems fit into Wordsworth’s ideal for his distinctive brand of poetic composition.

Wordsworth also states in his “Preface” that poetry takes its origin from “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Because the mutable Lucy is consistent only in her absence, this recollected emotion concerns the concept of the loss of a Lucy more than the loss of a specific Lucy. Absence is the distinguishing characteristic of Lucy, so she facilitates a tranquil lamentation in the present of the past person she possibly never was. In typical Wordsworthian style, Lucy is more effective in her absence than she could be in her presence.

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Despite my original misgivings, the Lucy poems seem to fulfill both Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s proposed goals for Wordsworth’s artistic contribution to Lyrical Ballads. Furthermore, as there seems something supernatural about the way in which human minds react in moments of intense emotion, Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s goals proved more similar than I originally believed. Is there not something supernatural about the way in which the idea of loss can cause the creation of Lucy, and engender an emotional recollection of someone who never was?

It was perhaps Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s abilities to view poetry in these dissimilar yet complementary ways that enabled their qualitatively productive collaboration.

Gabriela Minden is an undergraduate student at Columbia University. This post appears as part of the series “On First Looking into…”