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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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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