We Are Seven – William Wordsworth

We Are Seven

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

I met a little cottage girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered 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.

“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 churchyard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the churchyard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the churchyard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

“You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the churchyard 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.

“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

“And often after sunset, sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

“The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

“So in the churchyard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little maid’s reply,
“O master! we are seven.”

“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!”

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

This is a conversation ballad between and adult and an eight year old child on the response of the living after close family members die.

Out of interest the adult asks the little girl how many are in her family and then a difference on the understanding of death is clearly seen. The eight year old has lost a sister and a brother but she has four other siblings still alive two living at home (Conway) and two away. Clearly it is a very close family and when asked the number of family members she is adamant to include her departed members. They are still very much alive to her to the extent she goes to the graveyard and sits with them singing to them and having her supper with them.

The adult has a different perspective taking the traditional view of the dead going to heaven in spirit form. And distancing them from daily life for they are dead and should not now be counted as family. This is not a very comforting view of the departed and the dear little child is adamant that they are still very much alive in her daily life and cannot comprehend the strange view taken by the adult. We are seven is the title of the poem and the last line ends with that emphatic statement from the child – we are seven!

This poem poses thoughts on the extent to which the dead continue to live-on in those still alive.

This poem was written in 1798 at a time when there were many children in a family and many deaths of young children, and of course, the child-birth death of a mother was a common cause of death. Children frequently experienced the death of their mother and the death of siblings. How they coped with this is a very personal affair.

This poem highlights the impact of the departed on the living and to what extent the dead live-on. As people age they reflect more and more on those that have been important to them in their lives. Sometimes to the extend that they might be labelled as ‘living in the past’. But on the other hand you could say past lives live-on anew in the lives of the living. Whether such living is healthy and an aid to living or unhealthy and detrimental is another matter.

And a related question, to what extent do we remove ‘death’ from children and from daily life. In many Asian countries the dead are remembered within the community by having shrines and memorials within close contact to family life.

A Wikipedia link to Wordsworth – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wordsworth

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