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Helen Darbishire and Ernest De Selincourt (eds), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 1: Poems Written in Youth; Poems Referring to the Period of Childhood (Second Edition)

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Editor’s NoteEditor’s NoteXWE ARE SEVEN

[Composed 1798.—Published 1800.]

  • Critical Apparatus1——A simple Child,
  • 2That lightly draws its breath,
  • 3And feels its life in every limb,
  • 4What should it know of death?
  • 5I met a little cottage Girl:
  • 6She was eight years old, she said;
  • 7Her hair was thick with many a curl
  • 8That clustered round her head.
  • 9She had a rustic, woodland air,
  • 10And she was wildly clad:
  • 11Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
  • 12—Her beauty made me glad.
  • 13"Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
  • 14How many may you be?"
  • 15"How many? Seven in all," she said,
  • 16And wondering looked at me.
  • pg 23717"And where are they? I pray you tell."
  • 18She answered, "Seven are we;
  • 19And two of us at Conway dwell,
  • 20And two are gone to sea.
  • 21"Two of us in the church-yard lie,
  • 22My sister and my brother;
  • 23And, in the church-yard cottage, I
  • 24Dwell near them with my mother."
  • 25"You say that two at Conway dwell,
  • 26And two are gone to sea,
  • 27Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
  • 28Sweet Maid, how this may be."
  • 29Then did the little Maid reply,
  • 30"Seven boys and girls are we;
  • 31Two of us in the church-yard lie,
  • 32Beneath the church-yard tree."
  • 33"You run about, my little Maid,
  • 34Your limbs they are alive;
  • 35If two are in the church-yard laid,
  • 36Then ye are only five."
  • 37"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
  • 38The little Maid replied,
  • 39"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
  • 40And they are side by side.
  • 41"My stockings there I often knit,
  • 42My kerchief there I hem;
  • 43And there upon the ground I sit,
  • Critical Apparatus44And sing a song to them.
  • 45"And often after sun-set, Sir,
  • 46When it is light and fair,
  • 47I take my little porringer,
  • 48And eat my supper there.
  • Critical Apparatus49"The first that died was sister Jane;
  • 50In bed she moaning lay,
  • 51Till God released her of her pain;
  • 52And then she went away.
  • pg 23853"So in the church-yard she was laid;
  • Critical Apparatus54And, when the grass was dry,
  • 55Together round her grave we played,
  • 56My brother John and I.
  • 57"And when the ground was white with snow,
  • 58And I could run and slide,
  • 59My brother John was forced to go,
  • 60And he lies by her side."
  • 61"How many are you, then," said I,
  • 62"If they two are in heaven?"
  • Critical Apparatus63Quick was the little Maid's reply,
  • 64"O Master! we are seven."
  • 65"But they are dead; those two are dead!
  • 66Their spirits are in heaven!"
  • 67'Twas throwing words away; for still
  • 68The little Maid would have her will,
  • 69And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

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Editor’s Note
p. 236. X. We are seven: "Written at Alfoxden in the spring of 1798, under circumstances somewhat remarkable. The little girl who is the heroine I met within the area of Goodrich Castle in the year 1793. Having left the Isle of Wight and crossed Salisbury Plain, as mentioned in the preface to Guilt and Sorrow, I proceeded by Bristol up the Wye, and so on to N. Wales, to the Vale of Clwydd, where I spent my summer under the roof of the father of my friend, Robert Jones. In reference to this Poem I will here mention one of the most remarkable facts in my own poetic history and that of Mr. Coleridge. In the spring of the year 1798, he, my Sister, and myself, started from Alfoxden, pretty late in the afternoon, with a view to visit Linton and the valley of Stones near it; and as our united funds were very small, we agreed to defray the expense of the tour by writing a Poem, to be sent to the New Monthly Magazine set up by Phillips the bookseller, and edited by Dr. Aikin. Accordingly we set off and proceeded along the Quantock Hills, towards Watchet, and in the course of this walk was planned the Poem of The Ancient Mariner, founded on a dream, as Mr. Coleridge said, of his friend, Mr. Cruikshank. Much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's invention; but certain parts I myself suggested, for example, some crime was to be committed which should bring upon the Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime, and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvock's Voyages a day or two before that while doubling Cape Horn they frequently saw Albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings 12 or 13 feet. 'Suppose,' said I, 'you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary Spirits of those regions take upon them to avenge the crime.' The incident was thought fit for the purpose and adopted accordingly. I also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead men, but do not recollect that I had anything more to do with the scheme of the poem. The Gloss with which it was subsequently accompanied was not thought of by either of us at the time; at least, not a hint of it was given to me, and I have no doubt it was a gratuitous after-thought. We began the composition together on that, to me, memorable evening. I furnished two or three lines at the beginning of the poem, in particular:
  • 'And listened like a three years' child;
  • The Mariner had his will.'
These trifling contributions, all but one (which Mr. C. has with unnecessary scrupulosity recorded) slipt out of his mind as they well might. As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly (I speak of the same evening) our respective manners proved so widely different that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog. We returned after a few days from a delightful tour, of which I have many pleasant, and some of them droll-enough, recollections. We returned by Dulverton to Alfoxden. The Ancient Mariner grew and grew till it became too important for our first object, which was limited to our expectation of five pounds, and we began to talk of a Volume, which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge has told the world, of Poems chiefly on natural subjects taken from common life, but looked at, as much as might be, through an imaginative medium. Accordingly I wrote The Idiot Boy, Her eyes are wild, etc., We are seven, The Thorn, and some others. To return to We are seven, the piece that called forth this note, I composed it while walking in the grove at Alfoxden. My friends will not deem it too trifling to relate that while walking to and fro I composed the last stanza first, having begun with the last line. When it was all but finished, I came in and recited it to Mr. Coleridge and my Sister, and said, 'A prefatory stanza must be added, and I should sit down to our little tea-meal with greater pleasure if my task were finished.' I mentioned in substance what I wished to be expressed, and Coleridge immediately threw off the stanza thus:
'A little child, dear brother Jem,'—
I objected to the rhyme, 'dear brother Jem,' as being ludicrous, but we all enjoyed the joke of hitching-in our friend, James Tobin's name, who was familiarly called Jem. He was the brother of the dramatist, and this reminds me of an anecdote which it may be worth while here to notice. The said Jem got a sight of the Lyrical Ballads as it was going through the press at Bristol, during which time I was residing in that city. One evening he came to me with a grave face, and said, 'Wordsworth, I have seen the volume that Coleridge and you are about to publish. There is one poem in it, which I earnestly entreat you will cancel, for, if published, it will make you everlastingly ridiculous.' I answered that I felt much obliged by the interest he took in my good name as a writer, and begged to know what was the unfortunate piece he alluded to. He said, 'It is called "We are seven."' Nay! said I, that shall take its chance, however, and he left me in despair. I have only to add that in the spring of 1841 I revisited Goodrich Castle, not having seen that part of the Wye since I met the little Girl there in 1793. It would have given me greater pleasure to have found in the neighbouring hamlet traces of one who had interested me so much; but that was impossible, as, unfortunately, I did not even know her name. The ruin, from its position and features, is a most impressive object. I could not but deeply regret that its solemnity was impaired by a fantastic new Castle set up on a projection of the same ridge, as if to show how far modern art can go in surpassing all that could be done by antiquity and nature with their united graces, remembrances, and associations. I could have almost wished for power, so much the contrast vexed me, to blow away Sir —— Meyrick's impertinent structure and all the fopperies it contains."—I. F.
Critical Apparatus
1 so 1815: A simple child, dear brother Jim, 1798–1805
Critical Apparatus
44 so 1836: I sit and sing to them 1798–32
Critical Apparatus
49 sister 1836: little 1798–1832
Critical Apparatus
54 so 1827: And all the summer dry 1798–1820
Critical Apparatus
63 so 1836: The little Maiden did reply, 1798–1832
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