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Picture a stereotypical poet. Got it? Okay. Now, we have an idea of who you're picturing: a long-limbed, middle-aged dude, strolling the English countryside, thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life and death, nature, and humankind. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? He ponders until night falls.
Actually, this poet is not just a figment of your imagination. This poet is William Wordsworth (1770-1850), a British Romantic poet (note that capital "R"). Wordsworth's poems—along with his very idea of what poems should be like—have largely defined what poetry means to us today. Wordsworth was a heavy-hitter, and he was into asking all the big questions, especially the questions about the meaning of life and death. "We Are Seven" is one of his most well-known poems, and it delves right into these tough questions.
"We Are Seven" was first published in 1798 as part of the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads. This book, which included poems by Wordsworth and his good pal Samuel Coleridge (you might remember him from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") was a total game-changer. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth sets out a new theory of poetry, which emphasized clear, direct language (instead of the fussy, complex language favored by poets like Alexander Pope) that the common man and woman could enjoy. Wordsworth wanted to penetrate right into our hearts and feelings; he wanted poems to be pleasurable; he wanted to reach what he called "the naked and native dignity of man."
In our humble, Shmoopy opinion, "We Are Seven" does just that. The poem tells the story of a man talking to a young girl about her family. Though two of her siblings are dead, and only four are alive, she insists (over the protests of the man) that she and her brothers and sisters "are seven" in total. The man, however, thinks that they are only five. He thinks that the dead just don't count. Through this dialogue, we come to understand that the girl and the man think about death differently. And as we read, we begin to wonder if, in fact, the child is way smarter than the old dude talking to her. Children just might understand the meaning of death way better than we grown-ups do.
"We Are Seven" is the ultimate Wordsworthian poem. It's written in ballad form, its language is unpretentious and straightforward, it asks the big questions about life and death. What more could you want from a poem?
They say that there are only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. And let's face it: taxes make for pretty dull poetry subject matter. So, a ton of poets take on that other certainty: death.
While death is certain in all of our lives, how we think about death is not; there are probably as many ways to think about death as there are ways to die. "We Are Seven" introduces different perspectives on mortality, and asks all kinds of deep questions. The cool thing about the poem is that it focuses not so much on what happens to us when we die, but on how death affects those who are still living. How should we think about our lost loved ones? What kind of presence do they have in our lives after death?
If you've ever come close to asking those questions yourself, you're in luck. Our man William Wordsworth's "We Are Seven" will take you on a journey through these tough questions out there. And who knows? Along the way, you may just find some answers.
William Wordsworth: A Very Intellectual Bio
Check out this great resource by our pals at the Poetry Foundation.
Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads
This preface helped to define how we think about poetry today.
Kids Playing Kids
Here's a cute video interpretation of the poem
Goofy? Insightful? We'd say a bit of both…
Wordsworth, the Documentary
Get started here with Part 1 of a video exploration of his life.
"We Are Seven"
Here's one dramatic reading.
Deep and Rich
Tom O'Bedlam has the voice for this kind of stuff.
We love your bangs, William!
William in his later years (sadly, sans bangs).
Seamus Heaney on Wordsworth
Here's one of our favorite poets writing about another of our favorite poets—score.
This has pals Wordsworth and Coleridge at their best.
William Wordsworth: A Life
Check out the definitive bio by Stephen Gill.
The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge
W.W. + S.C. = BFF's.
Dig this BBC Miniseries on our favorite Romantic poets