William Wordsworth – We Are Seven (Summary)

William Wordsworth wrote “We Are Seven” on a walk from Alfoxden to Lenton, one late spring afternoon in 1798. He was accompanied by his sister Dorothy and his good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge; on his pilgrimage he also composed part of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“, as well as other poems in “Lyrical Ballads“. “We Are Seven” was inspired by a little girl he met in the area of Goodrich Castle (Wordsworth on Wordsworth’s notes).

William Wordworth - We Are Seven | Poems, Japanese poem, Best poems

Wordsworth had originally written the last line of this stanza first. As he describes, in his journey at the grove of Alfoxden, he worked his way backwards to the beginning of the poem (Wordsworth on Wordsworth’s Notes). When the poem was almost finished, he asked Coleridge to help him form an introductory stanza. And so Coleridge proposed, according to Wordsworth:

A little child, dear brother Jem,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

(Coleridge, published Wordsworth in Wordsworth’s notes; 111-. Version 1798-1805)

Wordsworth found this first stanza humorous but inappropriate, for “Jem” is their friend James T…… and the use of his name in the stanza may have made Jem feel awkward. Coleridge felt that the use of “Jem” would be appropriate, for James’ sister, a dramatist, resembled the little girl at the cottage. However, Wordsworth replaced “Jim” for “Jem” (Wordsworth on Wordsworth’s Notes):

A simple child, dear brother Jim,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

(Wordsworth, version: 1805)

This was the original stanza, although “dear brother Jim” is often omitted in the later editions of the poem (Graver and Tetraut).

If we take a look at the rest of the poem before analyzing the first stanza, it would help us understand what brought Coleridge to create this stanza. The earlier version of the second and third stanzas introduces the girl whom he met that day:

I met a little cottage girl,
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That cluster’d round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad;
Her eyes were fair, and very fair,
–Her beauty made me glad

The little girl is described as very simple, natural being; someone for whom Wordsworth feels a kind of empathy.

The fifth and sixth stanzas describe the interaction between Wordsworth’s character’s approach and interaction with the little “cottage girl.” The little girl’s character is consistent with her fresh appearance, and her responses reveal her to be a fresh thinker:

Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they, I pray you tell?”
She answered, “Seven are we,
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.”

“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother,
And in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”

The little girl replies as if her siblings have been and are always there. It is a noteworthy detail that on the same day Wordsworth wrote this poem he was also writing parts of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some thoughts are shared by both works, such as men at sea and the concept of death. As an anti-deist, Wordsworth found inspiration in the superior power of nature.

His thoughts were also inspired by the supernatural theme and by Shelvock’s Voyage which he was reading that day. The little girl assures him that there is still life in her dead siblings. The character questioning the girl implies that just as there is in life in her limbs, she finds that same life in her siblings:

A little child, dear brother Jem,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

To verify the narrator’s analysis of the girl’s perspective on the subject of life after death, she confirms her outlook by commenting that the grass on top of her siblings’ graves is still green:

“You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,’
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.”

The little girl’s reply assures the reader that her siblings, even though dead, are still alive!

The element of mystery can be perceived with the last stanza, the same stanza from which the rest of the poem develops, for the last stanza was written first. The little girl denies that her brother and sister are dead and that their spirits are in heaven:

“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!”

This last stanza covers perfectly the spirit of Wordsworth’s afternoon walk. The theme of the day is the supernatural. The girl’s belief that her siblings still play a part in her life, and are perhaps themselves alive, strongly reinforces the supernatural by emphasizing the possibility of physical life after death.

It is easy to understand the rapidity with which Coleridge composed the first stanza. His ideas are clearly indicated in the following two stanzas, the main subject of which is life after death:

“You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.”

Clearly the little girl believes her siblings’ limbs are as alive as her own; and the nature of her replies is strong, natural and self-ensured. Now we can return to the initial part of the poem, Coleridge’s first stanza, and understand how he came upon the last two lines.

A little child, dear brother Jem,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

Satisfied with his friend’s creative work, Wordsworth included it in his poem, and used the better introduction.

It is difficult to read the poet’s mind, to analyze his thoughts and understand his interpretation of the poem. Thanks to the author’s notes, we are not only able to find deeper meanings within the poem, such as the theme of the supernatural, but also to understand some of the author’s intentions. When writing this poem, Wordsworth’s imagination was focused on the supernatural, thus explaining the little girl’s brothers being both dead and alive. The usage of the sea, death, and mariners, concepts found in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, were also thoughts Wordsworth carefully composed and used in the poem We Are Seven.

It is important to note, as previously mentioned, that the main character of the poem was an actual little girl Wordsworth met on his journey that late spring afternoon.

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