One of Wordsworth’s most haunting ballads of childhood, “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” describes the death of a young girl who went out one evening into a storm and was never found again.
Written while Wordsworth was in Goslar, Germany, it was founded on a true circumstance told to him by his sister, Dorothy, of a little girl who was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her could be traced. Her body was later found in the canal.
Noteworthy in this poem is Wordsworth’s use of the bridge. Lucy’s parents follow her footsteps to the middle of the bridge (a connection of two sides) and then they disappear. The fact that she disappears in the center of two opposing sides poetically launches Lucy into another realm of existence altogether.
Lucy becomes the symbol of the interface between life/death, body/spirit, this life/the next, realism/imagination, civilization/nature (an interplay of opposites reminiscent of 17th century poet, John Donne).
Wordsworth’s description of Lucy’s spirit singing a solitary song “That whistles in the wind” connects her to nature and makes her evolve out of and pass back into the landscape; just as she passes in and out of this world and the next.
Lucy Gray, or Solitude by William Wordsworth
Oft I had heard of Lucy Gray,
And when I cross’d the Wild,
I chanc’d to see at break of day
The solitary Child.
No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew;
She dwelt on a wild 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 thro’ 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 rais’d his hook
And snapp’d 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 powd’ry snow
That rises up like smoke.
The storm came on before its time,
She wander’d up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach’d 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 overlook’d the Moor;
And thence they saw the Bridge of Wood
A furlong from their door.
And now they homeward turn’d, and cry’d
“In Heaven we all shall meet!”
When in the snow the Mother spied
The print of Lucy’s feet.
Then downward from the steep hill’s edge
They track’d the footmarks small;
And through the broken hawthorn-hedge,
And by the long stone-wall;
And then an open field they cross’d,
The marks were still the same;
They track’d them on, nor ever lost,
And to the Bridge they came.
They follow’d from the snowy bank
The 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.
While “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” was written in 1789 and published in Lyrical Ballads, it is not one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems. It is excluded from the series because the traditional “Lucy” poems are uncertain about the age of Lucy and her actual relationship with the poet; Lucy Gray provides exact details on both.
As a contrast to “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” Lucy Gray is not idealized in death through the Romantic notion of love; her loss is quiet obvious in the poem to those who loved her. Rather, Wordsworth uses this poem to provide an “escape of spirit” for a lost child through the interplay of realism and imagination.