Simon Lee the Old Huntsman is a poem that occurs in Lyrical Ballads and was written in 1798, belonging, thus, temporally to the Romantic period (1780-1830). Romantic writing is commonly identified with some key elements, which concern imagination, nature, symbolism, and myth (although there have been writers of this period who were not as ‘mainstream’). William Wordsworth has been characterized as a canonical author of Romantic Poetry in that his work is highly attached to the notion of Nature and plenty of references are made to it.
Approaching a piece of literary work, however, from this perspective is very restraining, therefore, in this essay, we will attempt a ‘social’ or ‘historical’ kind of approach. We shall try to ‘read’ the idealistic language found in the poem as social or historical discourse through the poetic techniques employed by the writer. In other words, we will analyze the way various elements of poetic form and language combine to create meaning and effects. Simon Lee is about an old huntsman who, while was once strong and active, now strives to fight his declined health and strength.
The poem recounts an actual encounter of the poet with this old man. It seems to be a hybrid of lyric and narrative (a lyrical ballad). Lyric in that we have a first-person expression of emotion and concentration upon the actions and feelings of an individual at a particular moment, while narrative since there are a narrator and another character, whom the former encounters and, later, describes. There are 12 stanzas of eight lines each with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDED that causes the lines to flow smoothly.
The first stanza of the poem introduces us to Simon and sets the scene: ‘In the sweet shire of Cardigan’. It is obvious from the beginning that Wordsworth is dealing with a matter from common life since every reader is familiar with and can picture a sweet shire, the same way the notion of ‘pleasant’ is easy to grasp. Furthermore, a series of modest, plain adjectives that evoke sadness is used to describe Simon: ‘old man’, ‘a little man’, who ‘once was tall’ making it clear that the ‘hero’ of the poem is just a humble, ordinary old man.
Nature, Wordsworth argued, can save people from the alienation, frustration, and triviality of contemporary urban life. It seems to me that by choosing to start the poem placing the readers in a rural area away from urban life, he seeks to evoke feelings opposed to the ones mentioned above, those that are for him connected with away-from-nature settings. The second stanza is, I consider, somewhat tragic, since two totally contradictory adjectives- ‘poor’ and ‘merry’- are used to describe this same person only in two different periods of his life: in the past and present.
In this way, the winding down of Simon’s life over the years becomes even more intense to the reader. The rhyming couple ‘has he/ see’ in Lines 1 and 3 of the second stanza is known as poetic inversion. Wordsworth has inverted the word order for the sake of the sound sense of the verse as well as of the rhythm, both of which would have been different if he had used ‘he has’. Perhaps any other choice would have made the rhyme pattern less unfussy than it is now, and complication is what he has tried to avoid throughout the whole poem.
The easy rhymes ‘merry/cherry’, ‘sound/round’, ‘sick/thick’, ‘door/poor’ are also justified by this theory. The metaphor ‘like a cherry’ is directly derived from the ‘diction’ of Nature and can be easily comprehended and pictured by the majority of the common population-especially in rural areas. In the fourth stanza, the retrospection stops and Simon is no longer in the prime of his life. He is no longer healthy, rather he is ‘poor old Simon Lee’ again, who ‘has no son’, ‘has no child’, he only has ‘an aged woman’ and they both live ‘upon the village common’.
Simon Lee is again transformed into the old man that was presented to us in the first stanza and the poetic inversion of ‘village common’ functions to leave an echo of the commonness of everything that surrounds this man, for once more. For the following four stanzas, this picture of his is highlighted through words such as ‘lean’, ‘sick’, ‘thin’, ‘dry’, ‘weak’, ‘the weakest in the village’ or the image of his ankles, which are ‘swollen and thick’. By these means, the reader is ‘forced’ to sympathize with the hero, who is totally helpless.
Even more, the repetition (which could also be characterized as alliteration) of the phrase ‘he has no’ in Line 5 of the fourth stanza reinforces the sense of loneliness and misery that is created. The same effect is also achieved by the alliteration that occurs between the words ‘sole’ -survivor’ in Line 8 of the third stanza. What is strikingly noticeable is that there is a pause at the end of almost every line, either a comma, a semi-colon, a full-stop, or an exclamation mark, with occasional exceptions in some lines in an inconsistent pattern.
This stylistic device, known as ‘enjambment’, suggests that these exceptional lines actually run on; however, on account of the actual line ending itself (with no punctuation mark), the reader is made to pause for a while and think. In other words, he can read each line slowly. This works to relieve any sense of suspense or tension within the poem. Or we can say that the writer initially aims at reproducing classical qualities of balance, harmony, and proportion, while the variations noticed may function to indicate the disturbance that has occurred to the above.
Suddenly, in the ninth octave, Wordsworth writes directly to the reader –‘My gentle reader’- and asks him to expect no action; the poem is not climactic and the poet is addressing this fact (‘It is no tale’). Through the phrase ‘I perceive’ he reveals his insight into the reader’s reactions (‘I’m afraid that you expect Some tale will be related’) and he establishes that there is no resolution or climax to be expected. He is also implying the reader’s blindness of the ‘tale’ already told by Simon’s aging body: the fact that he is humbled while he realizes that struggling against a decaying organism is hopeless.
At this point, it might be useful to think of the readers whom this poem was originally created to address. On the one hand, Wordsworth has chosen to include the common people of rural life in his range of audience and therefore is using their own language. In the ‘Preface’ to his Lyrical Ballads of 1802, he argues that the language of poetry ought to be ‘language of men’. As he says, this is because the rural poor ‘convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions’ (Wu, Romanticism,1994 p. 252). Their habits do not change as they are not affected by fashion, so their language is more sincere.
On the other hand, by the phrase ‘my gentle reader’, we could also say that he is addressing the readers belonging to the upper-class of society; the educated people who would expect a more elaborated language and this poem to actually be far less profound than it really is. To those people who cannot see that it functions to be symbolic, but who only see the words and the events without the meaning lying below these. Wordsworth had lived through the Revolutionary period and was against the early ideas, which is why he had the reputation of a radical.
He was influenced by the democratic ideals of the period. It seems that through this poem he seeks to change the social circumstances of the time. He seeks a more democratic state and he attempts to pass this notion through the use of simple, unelaborated language, which is considered as ‘uncorrupted’. Let’s not forget that it was written in a period of remarkable social and political change. Therefore, in one sense, he conducted his own ‘social revolution’, influenced by the social context within which he created poetry.
He was against the received idea of poetic language being as refined and eloquent as to be available only to those with an education. We might, thus, say that by addressing his reader in these two stanzas he is being ironic towards this class of society. At the conclusion of the poem, where the only action so far has been the decay of life, this ‘single blow’ in the twelfth stanza seems to be releasing a sense of freedom from this natural law and the writer’s tone suggests this victory over aging and decay.
Simon’s response to this comes with ‘The tears into his eyes’ and ‘thanks and praises’, conveying a shift from negative to positive; from pity to admiration, since attention now passes from Simon’s outward decay to the endless ‘activity’ and openness of his heart. The writer is overwhelmed by this gratitude expressed towards him and suggests that kindness within one’s heart may overcome any physical decay that comes with aging and bring about this spiritual survival that equals physical vigor of youthful.