‘Simon Lee, The Old Huntsman, With an incident in which he was concerned’ is a poem by William Wordsworth. Written in 1798 (Anthology p420), ‘Simon Lee’ was one of the poems included by Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads. The purpose or meaning of this poem is debatable, but in his own Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth says that he wishes to ‘follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature’ in the case of Simon Lee, ‘by placing my reader in the way of receiving from ordinary moral sensations another and more salutary impression than we are accustomed to receive from them’ (Anthology, p85, l122 & 133). Wordsworth uses a variety of poetic techniques to ensure that his reader receives these ‘moral sensations’ and to aid them in understanding his purpose when writing Simon Lee. The poem is about an old huntsman, Simon Lee, he is aged, disabled and struggles through life with his wife Ruth. Once, Simon ‘all the country could outrun’ (‘Simon Lee’ l41), and he was known ‘four counties round’ (19). Now, they are the ‘poorest of the poor’ (60), their ‘hut of clay’ (57) has a small piece of land which they must toil on every day to try and survive, even though there is ‘very little, all Which they can do between them’ (55).
The speaker in the poem one day happens across Simon struggling to cut through a tree root, he helps Simon and is then saddened by the deep gratitude that he is shown in return. Wordsworth wanted to display rustic or country life in his poems; he believed that there was honesty in the hearts of the poor that the more educated classes could learn from. To this end he employs ‘language really being used by men’ (Anthology p84 l66). Rustic terms are littered throughout the poem ‘shire’ (1), ‘husbandry’, ’tillage’ (38), ‘mattock’ (85), this lends the speaker a real sense of authenticity, the reader can truly believe that somewhere there lives a man like Simon Lee, and the person telling us of him has lived in the same environment. The poem ‘Simon Lee’ is made up of thirteen stanzas, it is written in a variant form of the traditional ballad. Conventionally a ballad is formed of quatrains, the second and fourth lines rhyming, the lines are iambic, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, with four stresses on the first and third lines and three on the second and fourth lines. The stanzas in Simon Lee are eight lines long, or octets, however there is a distinction within each stanza splitting them into two quatrains.
The first set of four lines in each is written in rhyming couplets, the first three lines in iambic tetrameter, and the fourth cut short in iambic trimeter. The natural pause created by the missing foot at the end of the fourth line, separates this first quatrain from the second set of four lines within the stanza. These are written in the more conventional ballad rhyming form CDEDABCB. Again they are written using iambic verse though with some exceptions, the first and third lines have 8 syllables but the rhyming lines have seven each, iambic trimeter with an additional syllable at the end of the line. This complicated and intricate framework, which is carried throughout the poem, has many effects on the way a reader moves through the verse. The first four lines of each stanza flow easily, the natural rhythm of the iambs and the relatively short length of the lines, lend them a sing-song quality. This is partnered with the rhyming scheme to create a sense of simplicity, like a children’s song or nursery rhyme. After the pause created by the end of the fourth line, the second section of each stanza seems to have a more solemn and sedate air.
The ABCB scheme does not perpetuate the sing song quality of the rhyming couplets, and the missing syllable at the end of the sixth and eighth lines creates an unnatural pause. While the words at the end of these lines do not finish with such an impact, because there is no distinct stress on the last syllable, the pause creates an emphasis on the line before it causing the reader to consider these lines with greater thought. In general the final four lines of each stanza have a much more mournful air than the four preceding them. This duality of simplistic natural rhythm and a sombre ballad creates an interesting dichotomy which is mirrored in many other aspects of the poem. The first eight stanzas of the poem seem designed to invoke a wrenching, emotional reaction in the reader. Simon is ‘sick’ (33), he has ‘but one eye left’ (15), his master, and all other members of the hunt are dead, ‘he is the sole survivor’ (24). Clearly he is old and infirm and also he is poor. In two stanzas the final word of the fourth line is poor, this refrain is reinforced by the internal repetition ‘poorest of the poor’ (60).
However the tone of the poem is not as mournful as you would assume. Language like ‘thin and dry’ (36), ‘weakest’ (40), ‘few months of life’ (65) is balanced out by terms such as ‘merry’ (14), ‘pleasant Ivor-hall’ (2) and ‘dearly loves’ (48). Even the description of where they live, the ‘moss-grown hut of clay’ (57), ‘near the waterfall’ (31), is more appealingly phrased than you would normally ascribe to poverty. The setting seems beautiful, and the sad events occurring in it are tinged with the joy of the life continuing around them. The happier life that Simon led before as a ‘running huntsman merry’ (14) also contrasts sharply with his life now, struggling to work his land. Often Wordsworth uses the duality of his stanza form to highlight this. In the third stanza, the first four lines tell us of Simon’s prowess in yesteryear, ‘No man like him the horn could sound’ (17), the metre and rhyme make these lines seem lilting and joyful like their content. The fourth line, which finishes with the name ‘Simon Lee’ (20) returns us to the current time, the use of his name, instead of the anonymous ‘man’ (18, 19) in the previous lines, reminds us of the person we are discussing and that now he is but a shadow of this former self. The second half of the stanza, in the more sedate form, tells us that Simon’s colleagues and master are all dead and only he is still alive.
The repetition of ‘dead’ (21 23), reinforced the second time by ‘all’ (23), accentuates the air of melancholy. The first stanza of the poem is set out in a similar fashion, the first four lines seem happy and innocent with language like a fairy tale or children’s story, ‘little man’ (3), ‘once’ (4), ‘sweet shire’ (1). Whereas the second part slows down, and tells of the heavy burden of years on the man’s back. However sometimes the form of the poem does not seem to fit with the words or language used which creates a jarring and uncomfortable affect. In the fifth stanza, Wordsworth uses the first four lines to describe the physical state of his subject, ‘and he is lean and he is sick’ (33). The repeated use of ‘he’ and ‘his’, and also the many monosyllabic words make these lines run faster, and also help to accentuate the sing song rhythm. The language here deeply contrasts with the feel of the quatrain, while the words trip lightly off the reader’s tongue, the situation they are describing is unpleasant and would surely cause pause and pity in the reader. Half way through the eighth tenth stanza is the turning point of the poem, ‘My gentle reader’ (69). Here the speaker talks directly to the reader, he is laying down an introduction to the interaction between himself and Simon.
The speaker, and also poet, is aware that these events may not be considered noteworthy enough for concern by the intended reader, but he asks that in ‘silent thought’ (73) the emotions and feelings that this depiction has invoked are considered. In doing this the speaker hopes the reader will find ‘A tale in everything’ (76). Theses twelve lines create a break in the poem between the initial descriptions of Simon Lee and the events that follow, this helps to emphasise the importance of the everyday nature of these events and also gives the poet an opportunity to prepare the reader mentally for the ‘moral sensations’ (133) that will come with them. The sadness and uneasiness of age seems to be the underlying feature of this poem. The partnering of uplifting and mournful language, and the two contrasting forms, create a real sense of duality, the past with the present, the young with the old, the reader, speaker and Simon Lee. Wordsworth creates a powerful feeling of sympathy for and guilt towards his subject, Simon seems forgotten and outcast by society, especially at the close of the poem. The old man’s gratitude for so simple and effortless an act is intended to be as heart breaking for the reader as it is for the speaker. This pity, for one so forgotten, is perhaps the ‘salutary impression’ (133) Wordsworth wished us to receive.