The Daily

The Poem Stuck in My Head

William Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways”

September 10, 2013 | by

roxbury

One recent evening, my father and I were sharing a bottle of wine when our conversation turned, as if often does, to his father. We like to call my paternal grandfather “the Judge,” and we use this moniker in a spirit of camaraderie. My grandfather, who died eighteen years ago, was a forceful sort of person. The discipline that he exercised on my father, his eldest son, bordered on tyranny, but in my life, this seasoned toughness was inspiring, fun, and a recognizable expression of love. My grandfather, Frank J. Murray, was a self-made man. Born in 1904, he grew up in the rough Dorchester neighborhood of Boston and played football at Commerce High, a school for clever, working-class kids. A field goal in the final game of his high-school career caught the attention of a Dartmouth College scout, but he was saved from the Protestants—at his mother’s insistence—by a priest, who secured a place for him at the Catholic Georgetown University. At Georgetown, he was quarterback, although he had no depth perception, due to a childhood accident that had left him blind in one eye. He went on to Georgetown Law, during which period he himself scouted for the Georgetown football team, and—in a series of successes—became a well-respected Boston lawyer, married my grandmother (who came from better circumstances), had three sons, bought a house in the solidly middle-class West Roxbury, sent his kids to the prestigious Roxbury Latin for high school, ascended to the Bench—Massachusetts Superior Court—and, some time in there, was appointed a federal district judge. When my father and I talk about this man, there certainly is a lot to cover, but on this particular evening, we were thinking of the Judge’s love of poetry.

My grandfather did not have an innate sense of good taste, but he could recognize it, and, as one might assume from his career successes, he was a quick study. As an adult, he wore nothing but Brooks Brothers suits, playing it safe; his one fashion adventure, a salmon-colored sports coat, also came from Brooks Brothers. He had a learned poise, and even his accent, which was an acceptable Back Bay Boston, was an acquired thing—the Dorchester snarl packaged away, placed securely in the past. This need to acquire the accoutrements of privilege gave my grandfather the passion of a convert. He wanted you to appreciate the fine wine, the prime rib, the Royal Brougham—but more than all of that, he wanted you to appreciate the great gift of his education, which was not law, but poetry.

As a law student at Georgetown, he had taught both poetry and math to the freshman. For the math, as is part of the legend, he cowrote his own textbook, but for the poetry, he used the standard reference of the time, The Golden English Treasury, edited by Francis T. Palgrave, commonly referred to as Palgrave’s. I remember the Judge—at this point reluctantly retired—bringing this book out on evenings, when I stayed at his house in Cohasset, on Boston’s south shore. Mostly, when I visited him, it was just two of us. We would go out for lobster, then return for tea, and if the Celtics, Red Sox, or Patriots weren’t playing, we’d continue to sit at the dining room table, each with a glass of Gewürztraminer, and he’d read me poems. I remember the Judge admiring Emily Dickinson, although she wasn’t in Palgrave’s; he had the Belle of Amherst in a separate volume. As for his contemporaries, the Judge knew his Robert Frost, although the chilly New England aesthetic seemed to inspire more amusement (good fences do make good neighbors) than awe. Poetry brought out the teacher in my grandfather, and he would pounce upon me, demanding that I supply the inspiration for Wordsworth’s “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” and “the still, sad music of humanity,” although—as with all riddles—these challenged only once. The Judge knew many poems by heart. He could recite, for example, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” but there was only one poem that he asked me to memorize, and that was Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways.” I have a very clear memory of my grandfather coming upon me in the kitchen, where I was putting ice cream into bowls, and coaxing my recitation by providing the opening line, which is the title of the poem. My job was to respond, “Beside the springs of Dove,” and we would trade lines like this until the ballad was spent.

Here it is in its entirety:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
          Beside the springs of Dove;
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
          And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
          Half-hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
          Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
          When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
          The difference to me!

At first, I didn’t find it particularly noteworthy that my grandfather wanted me to memorize this poem. The Judge would also spring algebra problems on me at breakfast, problems that started: “If a train departs Boston for New York at nine o’clock in the morning traveling at forty miles per hour, and a train departs from New York to Boston at the same time, traveling twenty miles per hour …” He would also read out Latin selections from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and see if I could translate them. A lot of this was just my grandfather wanting me to do things. But as time passed, I could see that this Wordsworth poem meant something more to him—although what that was, who could say? The poem was certainly not about my grandmother, who was a gorgeous flapper-era socialite, only “half-hidden from the eye” if she happened to be entering or exiting a room. And although my grandmother would die before my grandfather, it was after a long and eventful life; this poem was something that the Judge had carried with him since his college days.

During this recent evening, as my father and I chatted in a quiet house, a couple of glasses in to a rather good bottle of sauvingnon blanc, I thought back to Wordsworth’s poem, and was surprised to find that I still had most of it committed to memory.

“I have his Palgrave’s,” said my dad. “It’s in my study.” And he went for the book.

The Judge’s Palgrave’s was not in good shape. Its worn, green-cloth covers were flaking on the spine, and there was some Scotch-tape enforcement, something I felt that my grandfather—due to the yellow brittleness of the tape—had applied himself during the seventies or eighties. The corners were blunted, the edges worn, and some pencil scribbling on the cover—even a faded column of figures—marred the book’s condition. But anyone could see that whoever had owned this book had loved it, and as I held it in my hands, I had the odd sensation of seeing through my grandfather’s own perspective as I inhabited his view upon the much-studied pages. On flipping the book open, I was presented with a portrait of Tennyson, on to whom someone—surely the Judge—had drawn, in emphatic pencil, a pair of spectacles. Tennyson’s poetry was not included, as the cut-off date was 1830, but he had, apparently, helped in its editing. As I turned the pages, the book guided me, opening to those poems remembered in the binding, the pages that my grandfather had spent his time with. The book soon brought me to Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways.”

My father did not know the poem well, so I read it to him, using my grandfather’s scansion—the iambs and dactyls penciled above the lines—to reinforce the old music. I was wondering again, as I’d thought before, why he had loved this poem so much, but as I drew to the final stanza, I realized—with some surprise—that I’d figured it out.

“Dad,” I said, “it’s Alice.”

“Oh yes,” my father replied. “It is Alice. It must be.”

My grandfather never spoke of Alice. In fact, my father never mentioned her in my childhood, and I first learned of her existence as a thirteen-year-old visiting my grandparents in Cohasset during my school break. My family lived in Manila then, my summer holiday started in March, and my cousins were still in school; initially, my grandmother had been worried that I would be bored, but I was helpful and found plenty to entertain myself. My grandmother was surprised at how the Judge took to me, at how quickly we found our way as friends, even though I had always lived at great distance—in Australia before the Philippines—and hadn’t seen him since I was eight. It was my grandmother who told me about Alice, my grandfather’s sister, who had died of tuberculosis at the age of thirteen, while he was away, a freshman at Georgetown. My grandmother had some theories as to why he never mentioned her, and they all seemed valid. There was the guilt that he had at leaving home, and leaving Alice, to make his way in the world. There was the shame that Alice had received no treatment for her illness at a time when the less poor had several ways to the battle the disease. But most of all, there was his grief that he could not touch because it was deep and wide and painful, and tough men, like my grandfather, did not traffic in grief.

My grandfather, the Judge, had taught me the poem, because to see me reciting it was a comfort to him. It eased his grief to have a young woman moving through his house, embarking on misadventures, and education, and career. My grandfather gave the poem to me and I gave it back to him. It was a way of remembering Alice and also offered a variety of solace.

At my father’s request, I read over the last stanza again.

She lived unknown, and few could know
          When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
          The difference to me!

Wordsworth’s antiquated lines—lines that had felt so distant and mannered and quaint—now felt somehow alive, and in that moment, my father and I felt my grandfather’s grief as viscerally and as acutely as if the Judge had stood before us weeping.

Sabina Murray is the author of three novels and two story collections—the recent Tales of the New World, and The Caprices, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. She teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

 

6 COMMENTS

4 Comments

  1. Wade | September 10, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    That’s lovely, Sabina.

  2. Luisa A Igloria | September 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    We all have an “Alice” – we write to her, of her, carry her secret through years and years and years, speak only of her, or not at all; which is the same thing, really… Thanks, Sabina.

  3. Swelt | September 10, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    So lovely and profound. What a wonderful read and so well written. . . no surprise considering the source of the source!

  4. leslie | September 11, 2013 at 3:31 am

    save this kind of stuff for father’s day…….

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