This poem mourns the loss of a beloved, evoking her beauty and intimacy and suggesting a futility and wastefulness in her sudden death. Nature is described simultaneously as the inspiration and mirror of her beauty – through which Wordsworth explores competing conceptions of femininity – and as a rival lover, jealously snatching ‘Lucy’ away before the speaker can have her. The poem concludes in a state of ambivalence regarding nature’s effect on life – imparting both beauty and impermanence.
Nature’s promise in stanza 1 to make Lucy ‘A Lady of my own’. introduces the poem’s discourse on perfect femininity. The rich pastoral imagery of Nature’s speech clearly reflects Wordsworth’s emphasis of naturalness and spontaneity over artifice and ceremony as favourable qualities. The third stanza particularly shows this, celebrating the girl’s freedom and turning ‘wild’ into a verb to suggest an ongoing process of ‘wilding’, offering the girl choice and agency. Yet as indicated by antithesis in ‘kindle and restrain’, the poem also presents a more rigid expectation of female behaviour. Nature promises, ‘hers shall be the silence and the calm / Of mute insensate things’. There is an element of subjection here: likening Lucy to rocks and trees – ‘insensate things’ seems to demote and devalue her as an individual. The lines could be read as darkly prophetic, reminding us of Lucy’s grave in the ‘insensate’ earth. More positively they reflect the elegiac nature of the poem – which evokes an individual of whom ‘silence’ and ‘calm’ may have been character traits without the need for them to be imposed as a model for femininity. Any affirmation of ‘silence’ in women is further countered in stanza 4 where the ‘Storm’ reminds us that Nature, the ultimate expression of Lucy’s persona, in capable of violence and passion as well as calm. If these are features of Lucy’s character too, then they are carried, one might think paradoxically, in ‘Grace’, and communicated in ‘silent sympathy’.
The poem celebrates Nature’s inspiration of human growth and development. More than anything else I feel that this poem expresses wonder and admiration for the flourishing of beauty and personality under the influence of Nature, albeit tempered by an awareness of temporality. A sense of the speaker’s awe, as well as the incredible fecundity of nature, is given in the lines ‘The Girl, in rock and plain, / In earth and heaven, in glade and bower, / Shall feel an overseeing power.’ The accumulating pairs build upon one another and swell like a hymn to Nature, racing towards the rhyme on ‘power’ to suggest exultation (a very Wordsworthian word) and worship. At the same time, the sense of building and accumulation created by the syntax echoes the development and maturing of Lucy described throughout the poem, culminating in the sensuous adoration of ‘Her virgin bosom swell’. One could argue that the girl is objectified and sexualized here, portrayed as a ripening fruit. The tragedy of the end would then be deflated to the frustration of a man’s desire to consume unsatisfied. However this clear delight in the sensual and sexual is only a part of the picture of Lucy developed. She is an intellectual being, whose ‘stately height’ – suggesting nobility but not of the aristocratic kind – is reached by ‘thoughts’. The emphasis of the poem is very much on her agency, ‘hers shall be the breathing balm’, and learning ‘she shall lean her ear / In many a secret place’. The speaker’s wonder is at the profundity, complexity and balance of the sensual and the intellectual in a developing individual.
A tension exists throughout the poem in the speaker’s relation to personified Nature. As the inspiration and legislator of the girl’s development, Nature is in one sense an adopted father. Yet towards the end of the poem the role of Nature seems to be that of the rival suitor, ‘While she and I together live / Here in this happy dull’. The lines carry a suggestive echo of Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Lover, implying in some sense that Lucy’s death is a seduction – the earth that raised her has won her back. This is a fascinating conceit at the heart of the poem – the speaker’s ambivalence towards Nature as both provider and rival reflects the role of Nature in a person’s development as both inspiration – the definition of beauty for W. – but also temporality – the force that imposes mortality. It gives a desperate complexity to the haunting line, ‘This heath, this calm and quiet scene’ where all the previously celebrated qualities seem to turn upon the speaker. The heath is both desolate and beautiful, a reflection of the speaker’s inner state. Nature which previously defined beauty is also the image of the rival that won Lucy from him – consequently it retains its beauty but becomes as inhospitable as a ‘heath’. The poem’s final lines remind me of Marvell’s Mower to the Glowworms, another pastoral poem by a rejected lover, ‘she my mind hath so displaced / That I shall never find my home’. Both speakers suggest a desperate rejection of Nature as the frame of a Pastoral poem, finding themselves displaced by a new-found ambivalence to the governing deity of the genre in which they are conceived.
Wordsworth’s Three Years She Grew takes an ambivalent perspective on nature as at once the provider and destroyer of beauty and individuality. The dominant note of the poem, however, is an elegiac awe and ecstatic appreciation of a complex and beautiful individual. It voices a profound affirmation of the way a person’s character can flourish and mature.