William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge published a collection of works titled Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Two years later the second edition to Lyrical Ballads, a sequel of sorts, was published that included new poems as well as the originals. It is in the second volume that we find the poem “Lucy Gray.” It is important to note that this poem is not included in Wordsworth’s “Lucy poems” even though it talks about a girl named Lucy. In the poem’s footnote we learn that Wordsworth wrote the poem while he was in Germany and that the poem is based on a true account of a young girl that drowned (qtd. in Greenblatt 8: 227). The poem is written in a traditional ballad theme with a rhyme scheme of a, b, a, b.
The poem centers on a young girl who went out into a storm one night and was never found again. The opening stanza sets up the poem, introduces the title character, and foreshadows saying, “I chanced to see at break of day/The solitary child” (3-4). In the second stanza we learn about Lucy, “no mate, no comrade…the sweetest this that ever grew” (5, 7). Lucy is a sweet, young, loner of sorts who lives in the moor with her family. In the third stanza we learn the Lucy is no longer alive, “But the sweet face of Lucy Gray/Will never more be seen” (11-12).
The fourth stanza starts telling the story of Lucy’s disappearance. Her father had her go to town one night during a storm and carry a lantern to “light/Your mother through the snow” (15-16). It is not clear whether she was going to town to pick up her mother or not, but we can infer the former because lines 33 and 34 say, “The wretched parents all that night/Went shouting far and wide” (33-34). She obliged and took her lantern with her as her father got more fuel for the fire. Lucy is the epitome of a sweet, innocent girl. Wordsworth says about the girl, “Not blither is the mountain roe/With many a wanton stroke…” (25-26). He is saying she was happier than any deer trudging through the snow that night. However, as she is out that night the storm came on early than it was supposed to “and many a hill did Lucy climb: But never reached the town” (31-32).
Line 33 of the poem is when the reader’s mood changes, “The wretched parents all that night/Went shouting far and wide…” (33-34). Her parents searched for her in the dark but there was no sound or sight to help them with their search. They cry out, “in heaven we all shall meet” knowing that they will never find her. But wait, footsteps, Lucy’s footsteps in the snow. They follow the foot prints in the snow down a hill, through a hedge, down a stone-wall, across a field, and over to a bridge. They then followed the footmarks across the bridge then “further there were none” (56). It is clear, even though it is not said in the poem, that the sweet, little girl had fallen off the bridge into the frigid waters below. Line 56 killed any hopes of finding Lucy Gray that line 43 had given the reader.
The reader can find solace in the next to last stanza, “Yet some maintain that to this day she is a living child; that you may see sweet Lucy Gray upon the lonesome wild” (57-60). Wordsworth is saying that even though she is physically dead, she lives on in spirit. She might even be seen on the moors trudging along singing her sweet song.
“Lucy Gray” shares a similar theme as “We Are Seven” which was in the first publication of Lyrical Ballads. The two poems share the idea that even though people are no longer physically in the world, they are with us spiritually. In “We Are Seven” the little girl the speaker talks to seemingly cannot completely understand death saying in the last line, “…Nay, we are seven” (69). However, another way to look at the concepts is that maybe children understand spirituality more than adults do because they have not been corrupted by the world yet. We see the idea of innocence in "Lucy Gray" when she is out in the storm plowing through happier than any mountain deer.
It is also important to note the solidarity of Lucy Gray. In early lines of the poem we are told that she does not have any friends, but she is the happiest, sweetest girl. In a way she is not connected to the human community. She only knows the company of her parents. It is almost a fitting end to her life that she goes out alone. She was able to find joy in nature without the influence of society.
On a deeper level, the bridge where she vanished has a symbolic meaning. Since her footprints did not go all the way across the bridge this means that point is not an end. She does not look back as she has made the transition to “the other side.” She is now fittingly part of nature, “…and sings a solitary song/That whistles through the wind” (63-64). There is not a stress on her death; rather, one can take that she has been unified with nature as she was a great lover of it.
He might not have known that people 200 years later would still be reading the poem, but he probably hoped she would forever live on in our readings and debates. Whether you like the poem or not you will never forget the poem or the story associated with it. Things like this happen every day, and we often forget the name of the children who have passed before their time, but all shall remember the name Lucy Gray.
Greenblatt, Stephen, et. al. 8th Edition, Volume D: The Norton Anthology of English Literature.. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 227.
Wordsworth, William. “Lucy Gray.” 8th Edition, Volume D: The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 227-229.
“We Are Seven.” 8th Edition, Volume D: The Norton Anthology of English Literature.. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 248-249.