——A simple Child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death? (1-4)
The poem begins by asking an abstract question: what can a "simple" child know about death? How can someone so young and so alive understand something so big and horrible?
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. (5-12)
The speaker describes the little girl as beautiful. She has curly hair and fair skin. She's the very picture of innocence. Or is she? Is Wordsworth about to undo our expectations?
"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." (13-24)
These stanzas let us in on the truth about the little girl: she's not that innocent, though not in the Britney Spears kinda way. This girl is not that innocent because she's already experienced great trauma in her young life: the death of two of her siblings.
"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." (25-36)
The speaker and the little girl count differently. For the speaker, the only children that count are the live ones, while for the girl, all of her siblings, alive and dead, count as her brothers and sisters. For the little girl, death doesn't break off her relationships. Is this wise? Or naïve? It's a tough call.
"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 sun-set, Sir, When it is light and fair, I take my little porringer, And eat my supper there. (37-48)
Here, the little girl provides a rationale for why she counts her siblings as her siblings. Even though they're dead, they are just a few steps from her door, and she still hangs with them. She eats snacks at their graves and does her knitting and hemming there. She sings to them. These siblings are even more a part of her daily life than the ones who are at sea or off in Conway.
"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!" (65-69)
In the very last stanza of the poem, the girl and the speaker are still arguing. Neither has been able to change the mind of the other. So, now it's up to you: does the little girl's "we are seven" sounds silly to you? Does it sound wise? Is it possible that the girl understands something deep about life and death that the speaker does not?