From my window, I look over the canal to where North Dean Wood merges into the Copley Valley, and a hilly expanse once surveyed by an 18th Century wireworks. This corner of the Calder Valley once played a role in the work of William Wordsworth.
When Anne Wordsworth, mother of Dorothy and William, died in 1778, her daughter was sent to Halifax, to live with her Anne’s cousin Elizabeth Threlkeld, who owned a draper’s shop. Dorothy remained in Halifax for nine years, and often revisited in adult life, later staying with the Threlkeld family in the village of Triangle, where they had moved to live, several times for long sojourns.
Triangle is some miles west of Halifax, on the way to Ripponden, and in February 1794, William Wordsworth joined his sister at the Threlkeld’s for the first time.
They often walked around the Ryburn Valley, and it was here that Wordsworth heard the sad story of a local girl who went missing near Sterne bridge, Copley: “...a circumstance told me by my Sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered in a snow-storm. Her footsteps were traced by her parents to the middle of the lock of a canal, and no other vestige of her, backward or forward, could be traced. The body however was found in the canal.”
Not before five years had passed, with the poet now staying at Goslar, Germany, would the poem describing these events be written, but with it Wordsworth immortalized the solitary child in what his biographer Mary Moorman called the most haunting of all his ballads of childhood.
The local girl was entreated by her father to set out with a lantern, in advance of a forecast snowstorm, to light your mother through the snow from wherever she was, doing whatever a rural housewife would be doing on a winter’s afternoon. Perhaps the mother had been to market, or visiting friends, or labouring at some occupation too poorly paid to provide the fare for a vehicular return, yet for whatever reason the daughter was only too happy to oblige:
That, Father! will I gladly do;
'Tis scarcely afternoon—
The Minster-clock has just struck two,
And yonder is the Moon.
The storm came on before its time,
She wander'd up and down,
And many a hill did Lucy climb
But never reach'd the Town.
The wretched Parents all that night
Went shouting far and wide;
But there was neither sound nor sight
To serve them for a guide.
Such is the tragic tale of Lucy Gray, whose identity assumes, via the poet’s preoccupation with the ethereal, a kind of spiritual association with the lonesome wild: local superstition held that the surrounding moorland was haunted by the child’s ghost.
Lucy Gray appeared in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, in the year 1800, and at that time the bridge upon which the poor girl’s footsteps were imprinted on the snow was, according to Calderdale Council’s local history department, a rather slender wooden bridge - Wordsworth’s Bridge of Wood. As their website goes on to explain, the original bridge was dismantled in 1914, and sturdily rebuilt.
No Mate, no comrade Lucy knew; writes William Wordsworth in Lucy Gray,
She dwelt on a wild Moor,
The sweetest Thing that ever grew
Beside a human door!
It is worth reflecting that Wordsworth’s subtitle for the poem was Solitude. In Lucy Gray, as in the Ruth and (unconnected) Lucy poems, we find the distillation of a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme, a Pantheistic vision of mortality and the Human condition rendered incorporeal through the prism of a solitary spirit. The story of this child’s disappearance remained potent in the poet's memory for five long years, encompassing travels throughout Europe and the turbulent struggles of his personal relationships, so that as he wrote to quell homesickness in Goslar, during the coldest German winter of the Eighteenth Century, he would remember how:
…some maintain that to this day
She is a living Child,
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome Wild.
O'er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.