One summer, while vacationing in New Brunswick, Canada, I took a ferry from the mainland to Deer Island, a small island in the Bay of Fundy. While searching for a picnic spot, I passed a bookshop advertising old books for sale. I decided to stop. Browsing the shop’s shelves, I came across a book, which I purchased, titled The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. I was trying to write poetry at the time and finding it an almost impossible struggle. I determined that what I needed to do was to spend more time reading poetry, primarily works by classic poets.
I had not read much Wordsworth, previously, only a handful of his poems, perhaps. But that summer years ago spent reading Wordsworth taught me the truth of an observation, which I discovered long afterward, made by the late American literary critic Harold Bloom in his book, The Best Poems of the English Language [Harper Perennial, 2004]. Bloom writes of Wordsworth:
Six generations have passed since Wordsworth experienced his Great Decade (1797-1807), and still the attentive and dedicated reader can learn to find in him the human art he teaches better than any poet before or since…The art is simply what Keats, Shelley, Arnold, Emerson, and others called it: how to feel.Harold Bloom, p. 323.
The art of how to feel!
The book I bought on Deer Island was published in 1928 by Oxford University Press. There were an Introduction and Notes by Thomas Hutchinson, M.A, the volume’s editor. A former owner’s name and the town Fairville, N.B. was written in blue ink on the flyleaf in a beautiful cursive hand. Below were these words: “Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.”
In the Preface, Mr. Hutchinson tells us the book contains “every piece of original verse which we know to have been published by the poet himself, or of which he can be shown to have authorised the posthumous publication.” The editor grouped the poems in a way that, to me, at least, was confusing. Some groupings were chronological, simple enough, for example, “Poems Written in Youth,” “Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803,” and “Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1814.” Other categories had names for which I couldn’t quite understand the distinction being made. For instance, there was a classification titled “Poems of the Fancy,” and another called “Poems of the Imagination.”
A poet who lives a long life, as Wordsworth did, covers a lot of poetic ground. I didn’t envy the editor his task. Soon, I despaired of attempting to understand the reasoning behind the various classifications, and just opted to read the poems in sequence, starting from the beginning. I didn’t have to read long to find one touching my feelings. Early on, I found the poem, “We Are Seven.”
In the poem, an unnamed narrator is conversing with an eight-year-old “little cottage Girl,” as he calls her. At one point in their discussion, he asks the girl how many brothers and sisters she has—a common enough question, I think. She replied, that including herself, “seven.” Asked where all of them are, the child answers:
“… two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
The man is surprised by the girl’s inclusion in her count of the two lying in the church-yard. He tries to clarify how many children there are—two at Conway, he says, two at sea, and the young girl at home with her mother. He tells her, “ye are only five.”
The child is not persuaded to modify her count. She says to the man, speaking of her brother and sister in the graveyard, “their graves are green,” the two of them “are side by side.” She tells him that she knits her stockings and hems her kerchief sitting on the ground beside them and often, after sunset, eats her supper there.
The man asks his question yet again, this time drawing attention to the fact that two of her siblings are in heaven: “How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” Without missing a beat, the girl replies, “O Master! we are seven.” The man gives up, feeling that he was only “throwing words away.”
Wordsworth composed “We Are Seven” in 1798 and published it in 1800, that is, during his “Great Decade.” He was in his late twenties when he wrote it; I was in my late twenties when I read it. If you would like to read the entire poem, and I would encourage your doing so, you can find it here.
In my synagogue, the section of the Pentateuch read this past Sabbath (December 28, 2019) was from the story of Joseph. His brothers find themselves standing before him, believing he is an Egyptian official. They are seeking to buy food for their families. A famine has ravaged Canaan, where they live with their father, Jacob.
Joseph recognizes his brothers. However, they do not recognize him. It has been several years since last they saw him. He is wearing Egyptian clothes and speaks to the brothers in Egyptian through an interpreter. Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies, not, as they say they are, seekers of food. They deny this, of course, and attempt to explain who they are:
“Twelve brothers your servants are, we are the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and, look, the youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.”Genesis 42:13. Translated by Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses
Something is akilter. Ten men are standing before Joseph; two are missing. Of the two missing brothers, Benjamin, the youngest, is at home with his father, and the brothers believe that the other one, Joseph, is dead. Even so, they say, “Twelve brothers your servants are…”
I find this fascinating! The men standing before Joseph include in their count two of their brothers who are not with them at the time. Their claim “twelve brothers,”—the first two words in the Hebrew sentence—is as simple, potent, and meaningful as the eight-year-old cottage girl’s response to the narrator in Wordsworth’s poem, “O Master! we are seven.” As she counts seven, so these brothers count twelve.
There is something so incredibly powerful about our families that when we think of them, we include everyone—living or dead, present or absent—in our thinking, and even in our speaking. The young girl in Wordsworth’s poem had nothing to do with the deaths of her sister and brother. Joseph’s ten brothers, on the other hand, believe that they had everything to do with the death of their brother. But even thinking this, when speaking to someone they suppose is outside their family, they say, “Twelve brothers are we.”
This time of year, we often spend time with our families. As we sit together and remember those who are no longer with us, we realize that no family member ever really leaves us. They are always in our memory; they are still “our family.” They still count.
All the best to you, and yours,