In Lucy Gray and ‘There was a boy’ Wordsworth examines childhood in similar ways bringing out his views of this time in people’s lives. Lucy Gray is about a young girl who gets lost on the “Wild” who died in a snowstorm. ‘There was a boy’ is about a boy imitating owls and the oppressive nature of the silence he encounters when they leave as well as his possibly metaphorical and literal death at the end of the poem.
Wordsworth discusses the ephemerality of life in these poems with the idea of “spots of time”, the innocence lost and the experience gained in these poems through the use of images of death and examines the relationship that the children have with nature. Throughout these poems he creates tensions of time, expression and emotions with the structure of the poems aiding the way he portrays the boy and Lucy in the poems. In the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth is obsessed with the ephemeral nature of human life juxtaposed with his portrayal of the natural world as something timeless.
Wordsworth uses edges in the natural landscape to mirror human ephemerality in the everlasting natural world the “Cliffs”, “edges of hills” and the idea of things “setting” suggests this poem is interested in the edges and boundaries of human knowledge juxtaposed with natural world which Wordsworth depicts as timeless as all-knowing. In ‘There was a boy’ the natural world is depicted as steady and timeless in the first lines of the poem especially through the image of “when the stars had just begun/ To move”.
The stars are a recurring image in his poetry and symbolise timelessness and constancy in the natural world. They also represent a form of distant beauty creating spirituality in the natural world which the children often revere. In Lucy Gray “the Moon” is depicted in a similar way to the stars but is also used to indicate the season is winter as “the Minster-clock has just struck two” emphasising the danger of nature at this time of year, the danger of the dark and changing weather.
Wordsworth never depicts a clear picture of Lucy for the reader to see; she is blurred as though, like the time of day in which the poem is set, she is always depicted in a half light as “Her feet disperse the powd’ry snow/ That rises up like smoke”. The image of Lucy is distorted, the reader never sees the girl entirely even when she is alive, to the reader she is fading already. Wordsworth intentionally portrays her as a transient being as she is only glimpsed like she is a ghost on the “Wild”. These spots of time are sensitively and poignantly portrayed in Lucy Gray and ‘There was a boy’ as Lucy and the boy both die.
In Lucy she just disappears as “further there were none [of her footprints]” suggesting she has been taken by the river and the storm as if nature has taken her back. Wordsworth makes her ephemeral and timeless as although she dies she becomes this symbol of innocence as she never grows up as “you may see sweet Lucy Gray/ Upon the lonesome Wild”. On the other hand in ‘There was a boy’ the boy “died when he was ten years old”, this death is somewhat ambiguous in the poem it could be argued that this is the literal death of the boy due to the “silence” and the dark, bleak images created in his mind from this.
Or it is also argued that this is the depiction of the death of Wordsworth’s own childhood and the gaining of experience. Wordsworth’s poems about children often focus around events that allow them to gain experience and lose their childish innocence which Wordsworth places a great value on in the Lyrical Ballads. In ‘There was a boy’ the poem progresses from the hubristic qualities combined later on in the poem with regret and surprise through the loss of innocence whereas Lucy Gray retains her innocence.
The “mimic hootings” that the boy creates are a disguise as though he believes his skill is so great that he can do this can cause chaos in nature. However, the verbs describing the noises the owls depicts the apparent calamity the boy has caused as there are “quivering peals”, “long halloos”, “screams” and “echoes”. This creates a very eerie scene as the onomatopoeic sounds suggest that the boy has let the situation get out of control. The verbs suggest the terror felt in the moment by the owls and also by the boy.
This contrasts to the “pauses of deep silence [that] mock’d his skill” which suggests although he this skill he is not using it to the greatest effect and not truly communicating with nature. This is combined with a sense of regret and surprise as the “mountain torrents”, “the visible scene” and “all its solemn imagery” “enter unawares into his mind”, at this moment of the poem Wordsworth shows that the boy has learnt that his deeds have consequences if he uses his skills without realising their consequences.
In Lucy Gray the girls maintains her innocence as nature has taken her as its own, immortalised in her natural landscape of the “Wild”. Wordsworth states that there could be a ghost of the child “Yet some maintain that to this day/ She is a living child”. She is also depicted alone in the natural world as if she has the greatest communion with nature because she is in this state. In the final stanza Wordsworth depicts her as she “never looks behind”, making her guide across the moor.
The final lines “And sings a solitary song/ That whistles in the wind” makes her voice intertwined with nature, this is emphasized by the consonance of the “w” sounds along with the sibilance. It further establishes the idea that Lucy is still alive, by the use of the present tense in the final stanza, unlike the rest of the poem which is in the past tense. Throughout much of his poetry in the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth is interested in the differing relationships that children have with the natural world.
In “There was a Boy” this relationship is one of a teacher which differs to the communion Lucy has with nature in Lucy Gray. At the start of “There was a Boy” Wordsworth is addressing the natural world rather than the reader: “There was a Boy, ye knew him well, ye Cliffs/ And Islands of Winnander”. This also shows the boy is alone within the natural world something Wordsworth saw as being necessary if any communion with nature was going to be effective. There is some form of spiritual connection with nature in the nature as the boys hands are “palm to palm” as if he is praying.
The word “peals” to describe the “hootings” has connotations of spiritualty as it is usually used to describe the ringing of church bells. The idea of an “uncertain heaven” gives nature a threatening side, as if it decides how strong a person’s faith is and that it overall decides what happens to a person. The imagery at the end of the poem has images which give the poem a degree of ambiguity about what happened to the boy. The words “hung”, “grave” and the phrase “into the bosom of the steady lake” evokes images of death and the afterlife.
However, only the final line “for he died when he was ten years old. ” is end-stopped so gives the poem finality and is assumed to be the death of this Boy but it is also argued that this can be seen as the death of Wordsworth’s childhood too. In Lucy Gray Wordsworth describes her as an integral part of the landscape – as if there is no difference between the two. The images of “the Fawn”, “the Hare upon the Green”, “the mountain roe” makes Lucy as delicate and “sweet” as these animals and things – which are everyday parts of Wordsworth’s natural landscape.
For Lucy nature is something she is part of especially as “she is a living Child” remaining even in death in the landscape. Wordsworth uses the natural world as a teacher for children and something that shows the ephemerality of childhood. In the two poems examined he wants to exhibit the innocence lost and experience gained as well as showing how a child can be in an everlasting state of innocence if they die in the natural landscape. The natural landscape is a determining force in Wordsworth’s poetry. Throughout the two poems he suggests that our interaction with the natural landscape makes us who we are, shaping us entirely.