Michael’s Sheepfold

On the tourist trail although not many Wordsworth devotees make it this far up Greenhead Gill. The gill is the setting for Wordsworth poem ‘Michael’ about a hill farmer building a sheepfold. Michael owns his land but has got himself into debt. His options are to sell part of the farm or to send his son, Luke, to the city to earn enough money to pay the debt. Luke is sent away but before he goes Michael brings Luke to his half finished sheepfold to make him feel the value of this place and way of life. But Luke is corrupted by the city and never returns. Michael dies of a broken heart and his land is sold. A way of life lost. Wordsworth and the Romantics were concerned about “traditional values” just as much as we are now.

Of course Michael’s fold only existed in Wordsworth’s imagination. This ruin could well have been the place which gave him the inspiration. There is no other candidate. He would certainly have explored the valley, being just half a mile from his house. His sister Dorothy writes as much in her diaries.

Here are some extracts from Michael. I must admit it’s a bit heavy going for me.

Near the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill,  

In that deep Valley, Michael had design’d  

To build a Sheep-fold, and, before he heard  

The tidings of his melancholy loss,  

For this same purpose he had gathered up  

A heap of stones, which close to the brook side  

Lay thrown together, ready for the work.  

With Luke that evening thitherward he walk’d;  

And soon as they had reached the place he stopp’d  

And thus the Old Man spake to him. ‘My Son,  

To-morrow thou wilt leave me’…  ———————————————————————————   

   … the Old Man paus’d,  

Then, pointing to the Stones near which they stood,  

Thus, after a short silence, he resum’d:  

‘This was a work for us, and now, my Son,  

It is a work for me. But, lay one Stone—  

Here, lay it for me, Luke, with thine own hands.  

I for the purpose brought thee to this place…

 … Luke, thou hast been bound to me  

Only by links of love, when thou art gone  

What will be left to us!—But, I forget  

My purposes. Lay now the corner-stone,  

As I requested, and hereafter, Luke,  

When thou art gone away, should evil men  

Be thy companions, let this Sheep-fold be  

Thy anchor and thy shield; amid all fear  

And all temptation, let it be to thee  

An emblem of the life thy Fathers liv’d,  

Who, being innocent, did for that cause  

Bestir them in good deeds. Now, fare thee well—  

When thou return’st, thou in this place wilt see  

A work which is not here, a covenant  

’Twill be between us—but whatever fate  

Befall thee, I shall love thee to the last,  

And bear thy memory with me to the grave.’

 

The Shepherd ended here; and Luke stoop’d down,  

And as his Father had requested, laid  

The first stone of the Sheep-fold; at the sight  

The Old Man’s grief broke from him, to his heart

He press’d his Son, he kissed him and wept;  

And to the House together they return’d.  ———————————————————————————   

There is a comfort in the strength of love;   

’Twill make a thing endurable, which else   

Would break the heart:—Old Michael found it so.  

I have convers’d with more than one who well  

Remember the Old Man, and what he was  

Years after he had heard this heavy news.  

His bodily frame had been from youth to age  

Of an unusual strength. Among the rocks  

He went, and still look’d up upon the sun,  

And listen’d to the wind; and as before  

Perform’d all kinds of labour for his Sheep,  

And for the land his small inheritance.  

And to that hollow Dell from time to time  

Did he repair, to build the Fold of which  

His flock had need. ’Tis not forgotten yet  

The pity which was then in every heart  

For the Old Man—and ’tis believ’d by all  

That many and many a day he thither went,  

And never lifted up a single stone.  

There, by the Sheep-fold, sometimes was he seen  

Sitting alone, with that his faithful Dog,  

Then old, beside him, lying at his feet.  

The length of full seven years from time to time  

He at the building of this Sheep-fold wrought,  

And left the work unfinished when he died. 

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