Song for the Spinning Wheel
Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!
Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;–
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.
Short-lived likings may be bred
By a glance from fickle eyes;
But true love is like the thread
Which the kindly wool supplies,
When the flocks are all at rest
Sleeping on the mountain’s breast.
Isn’t it beautiful? So evocative. It wasn’t his only poem to mention spinning wheels – there was also “Grief Thou Hast Lost” (Sonnet 19). The lady in the portrait is Isabella Fenwick. In 1843, Wordsworth sat down with Fenwick and dictated explanatory notes for a lot of his poetry to her. His note on “Grief Thou Hast Lost” goes a long way to helping us understand “Song For The Spinning Wheel”.
I could write a treatise of lamentation upon the changes brought about among the cottages of Westmoreland by the silence of the Spinning Wheel. During long winter nights and wet days, the wheel upon which wool was spun gave employment to a great part of a family. The old man, however infirm, was able to card the wool, as he sate in the corner by the fire-side; and often, when a boy, have I admired the sylinders of carded wool which were softly laid upon each other by his side. Two wheels were often at work on the same floor, and others of the family, chiefly the little children, were occupied in teasing and cleaning the wool to fit it for the hand of the carder. So that all except the smallest infants were contributing to mutual support Such was the employment that prevailed in the pastoral vales. Where wool was not at hand, in the small rural towns, the wheel for spinning flax was almost in constant use, if knitting was not preferred; which latter occupation had the advantage (in some cases disadvantage) that not being of necessity stationary, it allowed of gossipping about from house to house, which good housewives reckoned an idle thing.
FYI, this was the only note that he gave about “Song For The Spinning Wheel” itself:
The belief on which this is founded I have often heard expressed by an old neighbour of Grasmere.
In 1993, Jared Curtis edited Fenwick’s notes, and gave some opinions on the context of Wordsworth’s spinning wheel poems (this footnote is particularly on “Song For The Spinning Wheel”):
In editions from 1836 WW dated the poem 1812; in naming the source of the ‘belief’ in 1843 he may have associated the poem’s composition with the final year of his residence at Town End, where the ‘old neighbour’ very probably lived, perhaps Peggy Ashburner, his ‘next door’ neighbour. The text of the poem is closely associated with two sonnets, the earliest manuscripts for which do not predate 1814, ‘Grief, thou hast lost an ever ready friend’ and one he never published, ‘Through Cumbrian Wilds, in many a mountain cove.
Wondering about the text of that unpublished one? I couldn’t find a link to it online, so I copied it in here. Have at it…
Through Cumbrian wilds, in many a mountain cove
Through Cumbrian wilds, in many a mountain cove,
The pastoral Muse laments the Wheel – no more
Engaged, near blazing hearth on clean-swept floor,
In tasks which guardian Angels might approve;
Friendly the weight of leisure to remove,
And to beguile the lassitude of ease;
Gracious to all the dear dependences
Of house and field, – to plenty, peace, and love.
There, too, did Fancy prize the murmuring wheel;
For sympathies, inexplicably fine,
Instilled a confidence – how sweet to feel!
That ever in the night calm, when the Sheep
Upon their grassy beds lay couch’d in sleep,
The quickening spindle drew a trustier line.
Here’s a picture of the subject matter that was produced at more or less the same time as WW was writing. (Check out the whole Life in Yorkshire site, it’s very fabulous… The Costume of Yorkshire was put together by George Walker in 1814.)
Since this is an Irish textile history website, and not an English one, it would be lovely to tie these poems in, in some way, to Wordsworth’s ‘Grand Tour’ of Ireland during a six-week period in 1829. He came here, he wrote lots of letters home, he talked about it, and you can read all of his thoughts on early-nineteenth-century Ireland in Jim Cooke’s summary of the trip here – it’s JSTOR, so limited access though. I trawled through his letters, his mentions of unhandsome Irish women, his love for the lakes in Killarney, his boredom in Wexford, and his early rising hours which he did not like. I didn’t find anything that harked back to his earlier fascination with spinning wheels, spindles, sheepswool, and plying. Perhaps when he left Dove Cottage, he left the subject behind.
Here’s the first letter about Ireland though, for your eager consumption 😉
WW to William Rowan Hamilton
Rydal Mount, July 24, 1829.
…I wish to make a tour in Ireland, perhaps, along with my daughter; but I am ignorant of so many points, – as where to begin – whether it be safe at this rioting period – what is best worth seeing – what mod of traveling will furnish the greatest advantages at the least expense. Dublin, of course, the Wicklow Mountains, Killarney Lakes, and, I think, the ruins not far from Limerick would be among my objects, returning by the North…
Looking for a reply at your early convenience,
I remain, my dear sir,
Faithfully, your obliged