A Child’s Connection with the Dead

Alexei Harlamoff, "Peasant Girl on a Footbridge"

Alexei Harlamoff, “Peasant Girl on a Footbridge”

Fourteen years ago on this day I lost my oldest son Justin in a drowning accident. A freak current in a normally safe swimming spot turned our world upside down, and for months we were in shock. I’ve always been struck by my youngest son’s response and how he would later turn to a Wordsworth poem to articulate it.

Toby was 16 at the time and very close to Justin. He regularly visited the shoreline where Justin died and said that he often had a palpable sense that Justin was present. Although the weather was warm, he would sometimes break out in goose pimples.

I thought of that story a few years later when Toby was writing about Wordsworth. He fell in love with “We Are Seven,” and you can see why as you read it. Here it is:

We Are Seven

By William Wordsworth

———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 church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard 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 church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
 
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard 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 dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
 
“So in the church-yard 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!” 

I never thought much about the poem until Toby’s love for it prompted a second look. Although simple enough at first glance, it has taken on special power for me as I associate it with Toby’s relationship with Justin.

On the one hand, it suggests that, for children, the barrier between the dead and the living is far more porous than adults feel it to be. To be sure, Toby was no longer a child when he visited the shore and the graveyard that abuts it. And yet, adult reality hadn’t altogether sunk in either. Once he had slid in the snow with Justin and now he was with him in a different way.

Toby also notes that the poem hit home because much of his identity was tied up in being the youngest of three boys. For years after, whenever he was asked about siblings he would say that he had two brothers. He wouldn’t have disputed Wordsworth’s calculation—he was old enough for that—but viscerally it felt more accurate not to distinguish between those on earth and those in heaven.

I imagine Toby first coming across this poem in a survey class and experiencing a shock of recognition. How miraculous it is, how poetry gives voice to our secret sorrows.

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  • Estera

    It really is an enigma how poetry suddenly acquires such a personal meaning, welcomes with intimacy and comfort … “Poem in October” by Dylan Thomas was one of such poems for me and I continue to find new meaning. Your article reminded me of it and these lines found its way back to you:

    These were the woods the river and sea
    Where a boy
    In the listening
    Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
    To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
    And the mystery
    Sang alive
    Still in the water and singingbirds.
    (53–60)

  • Patrick Logan

    My father was better at calligraphy than writing poetry, but when the brutality of WWII Italy began to overwhelm him, he would find a quiet spot and practice both. The happiness he felt after he made his way home was tempered by the thought that thousands of young men had not made that return journey, one man in particular. Going through my father’s papers after his death, I discovered only one poem by another poet, Edgar Guest’s, “To All Parents.” Guest was no Wordsworth, but as my father carefully penned each letter, the words no doubt comforted him and perhaps he thought of Private Johnny Garris. .

    To All Parents

    “I’ll lend you for a while a child of mine,” He said.
    “For you to love the while he lives and mourn for when he’s dead.
    It may be six or seven years, or twenty-two or three,
    But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me?
    He’ll bring his charms to gladden you, and should his stay be brief,
    You’ll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief.”

    “I cannot promise he will stay; since all from earth return,
    But there are lessons taught down there I want this child to learn.
    I’ve looked the wide world over in My search for teachers true
    And from the throngs that crowd life’s lanes I have chosen you.

    Now will you give him all your love, not think the labor vain,
    Nor hate Me when I come to call to take him back again?”
    “I fancied that I heard them say, “Dear Lord, Thy will be done!
    For all the joy Thy child shall bring, the risk of grief we run.

    We’ll shelter him with tenderness, we’ll love him while we may,
    And for the happiness we’ve known, forever grateful stay;
    But should the angels call for him much sooner than we’ve planned,
    We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes and try to understand.”

  • HMM. Sometimes when I’m working with couples expecting a baby, I think of this mixture of joy and sorrow; the initiation into the courage of parenthood, being brave enough to totally love in the face of the possibility of total loss.


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