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Interpretation of "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways"


William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet -- meaning that his poetry dealt with nature, the heart and the emotions. However, Yale Professor Harold Bloom says that Wordsworth's work "fights nature on nature's ground," while Geoffrey Hartman called him the creator of poetic modernism -- a poetic style that is much less emotional. If you want to interpret his poem "She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways," you should realize that it lies between these two schools of thought. It isn't quite an elegy -- an emotional poem praising a departed one -- and it isn't completely unemotional, either. It's both romantic and modernist.

Isolated and Bleak

"She Dwelt" is a simple poem: it begins with images of the now-dead woman when she was living, lonely and isolated. She frequents "untrodden ways," meaning she frequents roads no one walks. She dwells "beside the springs of Dove," which is in the Lake District, the rugged terrain in northwestern England where Wordsworth spent time. It was not a well-populated spot, and Wordsworth reinforces her bleak life when he says she had "none to praise" her and "very few to love" her. In this quatrain, you can interpret that her physical isolation in an "untrodden" place mirrors her emotional loneliness.

Anonymous Life and Death

In the second quatrain, the images suggest the woman was anonymous and lacked identity. The "maiden" is a "violet by a mossy stone/half-hidden." You can interpret that few looked at her, since she is only noticeable when alone: "Fair as a star, when only one is shining." Wordsworth reinforces her anonymous nature when he adds the realistic details that she "lived alone" and "few could know when Lucy ceased to be." The idea of her lonely death with few mourners adds poignancy to the woman's isolated, unknown life. Still, notice that Wordsworth does not get over emotional.

Wordsworth Avoids Emotion

Wordsworth avoids feelings -- even in the closing lines -- when he says, "she is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me!" Interpreting that exclamation point is key: it is the only emotion he reveals. He will not say if losing her was a blessing or a curse. This incomplete expression of affect is very modernist, like the poem's structure. It is iambic tetrameter with four beats, not the Romantic five, to the line. This stunted meter symbolically cuts feelings short. Shakespeare might have immortalized Lucy in iambic pentameter, but Wordsworth fights his emotional nature on nature's ground.

The "Lucy" Poems

"She Dwelt" is one of five Wordsworth poems about "Lucy," an anonymous woman who may have been Wordsworth's beloved. The poem is evenly matched between Romantic and Modernist styles. It praises nature in star-and-mossy-rock imagery, but makes no attempt to praise or romanticize Lucy herself. Although Wordsworth was a leading poet in Romanticism, his poem is closer to Realism. You could interpret the poem as the words of a lover refusing to mourn his love, and looking only to nature for healing and comfort.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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