The speaker begins this poem by asking what a simple child who is full of life could know about death. He then meets "a little cottage Girl" who is eight years old and has thick curly hair. She is rustic and woodsy, but very beautiful, and she makes the speaker happy. He asks her how many siblings she has, to which she replies that there are seven including her:
The speaker then asks the child where her brothers and sisters are. She replies "Seven are we," and tells him that two are in a town called Conway, two are at sea, and two lie in the church-yard. She and her mother live near the graves
The speaker is confused and asks her how they can be seven, if two are in Conway and two gone to sea. To this, the little girl simply replies, "Seven boys and girls are we; / Two of us in the churchyard lie, / Beneath the churchyard tree." The speaker says that if two are dead, then there are only five left, but the little girl tells him that their green graves are nearby, and that she often goes to sew or eat supper there while singing to her deceased siblings:
The little girl then explains that first her sister Jane died from sickness. She and her brother John would play around her grave until he also died. Now he lies next to Jane:
The man again asks how many siblings she has now that two are dead. She replies quickly, "O Master! we are seven." The man tries to convince her saying, "But they are dead," but he realizes that his words are wasted. The poem ends with the little girl saying, "Nay, we are seven!"
The poem "We are Seven" by William Wordsworth was inspired by a girl he had met six years before composing the poem. Wordsworth and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge were planning to publish a collection of poems. Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" centered around supernatural themes. Wordsworth's specialty was writing on nature, not the supernatural. Soon after the composition of "Ancyent Marinere" was finished, in 1798, Wordsworth composed a few poems that touch upon the supernatural, including "We are Seven". Later that same year the collection entitled Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously. "We are Seven" was sandwiched by two other poems with themes of youth and innocence that are more about nature. When comparing "We are Seven" with "Anecdote for Fathers" and "Lines Written in Early Spring" the reader notices a slow regression from the innocence of childhood from poem to poem. The poems point to the cause of this regression as coming from the ignorant person who no longer understands innocence. Wordsworth sees that innocence cannot survive in this world because mankind ruins it.
"We are Seven": Publication History
The poem was first written in spring of 1798. Wordsworth composed it while walking in a grove at Alfoxden, where he was staying with his sister, Dorothy, and also Coleridge. He decided to write the poem shortly after Coleridge had finished "Ancyent Marinere". The idea of the poem came to Wordsworth upon the recollection of a girl he had met in the area of Goodrich Castle back in 1793. He wrote the poem by composing the last stanza first and he even began with the very last line of the poem (Bartleby). When he returned from his walk Wordsworth knew that he needed an opening stanza so he recited the poem to Dorothy and Coleridge and the three of them created the opening stanza. Coleridge was able to offer the first line of the poem to Wordsworth. "I mentioned in substance what I wished to be expressed, and Coleridge immediately threw off the stanza thus: 'A little child, dear brother Jem'"(Bartleby) Jem was the nickname of a friend of both Coleridge and Wordsworth, James Tobin. Wordsworth decided he didn't like the rhyme, but changed Jem to Jim and little child to simple child, and that's how the first line was published.
James Tobin would go on to have an even more integral part in the possible publication of the poem. He was able to glance through Lyrical Ballads as it was going through the printing press. He came to Wordsworth and gave his opinion that one poem must be omitted from the collection. That one poem that Tobin was speaking of was "We are Seven". Tobin felt that if this poem was published in the collection it would "make you [Wordsworth] everlastingly ridiculous."(Bartleby) Wordsworth decided not to take his friend's advice and left the poem in the collection to "take its chance."(Bartleby)
At the time of publication Tobin's foresight seemed to ring true. Right after its publication "We are Seven" was a "much ridiculed poem"(Patton, 155) mainly because of the heroine's supernatural beliefs that her dead siblings still exist somewhere. Critics argued that such a little girl could not have the intellectual capacities to have a concrete understanding and opinion about death and the afterlife. It would appear that the poem's popularity has grown since its initial release. "Wordsworth was bold enough to suggest that an eight-year-old child possesses (or may possess) a sure instinct of immortality." (Patton, 155). This interpretation of Wordsworth's boldness was written in 1966 and gives us a more modern view of the importance of this poem. "We are Seven" has remained in Wordsworth's collections, and in the Norton Anthology of English Literature; Volume 2 the poem is one of 6 Wordsworth poems from Lyrical Ballads to represent the 19 pieces that he wrote for the collection. Wordsworth published the piece 7 times, each time with revisions. (Poems of Lyrical Ballads) He never changed the thematic content. The fact that Wordsworth revised the poem so often tells us that he wasn't willing to give up on it despite its initial failure with the critics.
"We are Seven": In the context of Lyrical Ballads
The first addition of Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously in 1798. "We are Seven" was written by Wordsworth, along with "The Idiot Boy" and "The Thorn" to supplement Coleridge's supernatural poem the "Ancient Mariner". These three poems all touch lightly upon supernatural themes, yet they were separated in the collection. Instead of being placed alongside other poems that touched upon the supernatural "We are Seven" was put between two other Wordsworth poems, "Anecdote for Fathers" and "Lines Written in Early Spring".
In "Anecdote for Fathers" the reader sees how the relationship between adult and child should be. A father asks his boy, of two particular places which is his favorite? The boy gives a simple answer to his father, who asks for an explanation. An innocent child is content with a simple fact, while someone else needs an explanation. The father asks numerous times throughout three stanzas for an explanation. So finally the little boy gives his father what he wants, a simple explanation, he doesn't like the weathercock at one place so he chose the other. The father is touched by the simplicity of the child's answer. An adult would overlook the weathercock and give a much more complex reason to back up his choice. The child's simplicity represents his innocence. Oh dearest, dearest boy! my heart For better lore would seldom yearn, Could I but teach the hundredth part Of what from thee I learn. (57-60) The father desires to be simple-minded, like his son. However, as we see on line 59, the father knows that he cannot teach what his son has taught him. Why can't the father teach it? We can't teach something that we cannot fully understand. I may be able to learn from a poem, but my ability to understand the poem will hinder on how well I can teach it, or express my thoughts about it in a clear and coherent way. The father cannot fully understand the innocence of his son because he cannot explain it.
In our feature poem "We are Seven" we see the narrator asking a girl about her siblings. The girl says that there are seven of them, including two that are dead. The narrator of the poem tries in vain to persuade the little girl that her two deceased siblings cannot be counted among them because they are no longer alive. However, this little girl insists that these two be included. 'But they are dead- those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!' 'Twas throwing words away, for still The little maid would have her will And said, 'Nay, we are seven!' (65-69) Nobody can know for sure what happens to us when we die. The narrator has very natural beliefs that the two deceased children are gone. However, the little girl believes that they still exist around her, maybe not in a physical presence, but she still feels that she can sense them. "'Their graves are green, they may be seen'," (37). The livery of the plants sprouting from her siblings graves offer proof to the little girl that they still exist. The girl is innocent and simple-minded. She will not let go of her beliefs. Whether the narrator is aware of it or not he is trying to change this little girl's perceptions. He feels that it is a waste that she won't listen to him, "'Twas throwing words away". Unlike in "Anecdote for Fathers", the narrator of this poem doesn't try to learn from the young one, instead he tries to force his conceptions on her. Why can't he let her have her beliefs and not try to force her out of them? Once one loses an understanding of innocence that person can't help but corrupt innocent people.
The poem following "We are Seven" is "Lines Written in Early Spring". The poem has a sad tone. Wordsworth is in a beautiful setting and writing a poem of lamentation. What does he have to lament? And much it grieved my heart to think What man has made of man. (7 and 8) Wordsworth is grieved by "what man has made of man." What does Wordsworth mean by this? Building on what we've learned from the last two poems, we see that man takes innocence away from man. The child loses its innocence by allowing itself to be molded by others. Someone is constantly trying to force conceptions on the child. It is an endless cycle. Wordsworth wishes to go back to the innocent days of his youth, but he cannot achieve that dream. Once innocence is lost it is lost for good. This is what Wordsworth is grieved of. Childhood represents the innocence that Wordsworth misses. The heroine of "We are Seven" embodies the innocence that Wordsworth misses. In 1841 he returned to Goodrich Castle with vain hopes of find this embodiment of innocence, but she was gone without a trace.(Bartleby)
Bartleby.com. 4 February. 2000
Patton, Cornelius Howard. The Rediscovery of Wordsworth. New York: Gordon Press, Inc. 1966.
The Poems of Lyrical Ballads. Bruce Graver and Ronald Tetreault. September 3, 1999.