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On Literary Companions

Jill Reid

19 Reid photo Perhaps, I am flirting with literary sacrilege in confessing I am not a huge William Wordsworth fan. It’s a dark secret I keep from my students each time we traverse the timeline of the British Romantic movement. While I appreciate his massive and game-changing contributions to the canon, I prefer to make my way through the literary landscape of the 1800s deliciously horrified by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I mean, who can resist a text that incorporates the diversity of grave-robbing, romance, a “monster” who recites Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the line “by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open”?

Still, out of literary respect, I always make sure we spend a little time on Wordsworth. This year in my British literature class, we read “We Are Seven” from his famed collection of Lyrical Ballads. Sing-song and balladic, the poem is structured by short stanzas of dialogue between an adult and a child, and, in the dialogue, directly contrasts the adult and child’s differing views of what can be considered “real” and alive.

In the opening stanza, the speaker asks the reader: “A simple Child/what should it know of death?” (lines 1-4). This questioning of the child’s ability to distinguish the real from the non-real continues as the adult argues that the little girl cannot logically claim, “We are seven” when two of her siblings have died and two have moved away. But the adult cannot argue this child down. An imposition of a more logical and tangible reality will not overcome the intangible but very real understanding of her family identity:

“But they are dead; those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!” Twas throwing words away; for still The little Maid would have her will, And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

I admire Wordsworth’s little Maid. My grandmother would call her “hardheaded.” But I understand that stubbornness. Her brothers and sisters are alive unto her. The adult and all his logic cannot diminish their presence in her life.

In class, I often talk about “being human.” For me, one aspect of being human means being haunted. We are, knowingly or not, haunted by people—the family and friends who imprint so deeply into our lives that we are never truly separated from them—their influence and shadows, their words and DNA. But Wordsworth’s poem also prompts thinking about another kind of “haunting.” As readers, we are often haunted by the fictional. There is something about the companionship of characters, of literary characters, that can haunt on some level the way the dead can.

For passionate readers, how much of our “everyday lives” are saturated by the presence of characters? How often has the fictional become something more than fiction, a bond formed with companions that continue to exist influentially in our lives long after their book is clapped back on the shelf? It is a wonder that in a stifling crowd of people I sometimes find myself wondering about Scout Finch or having an inner dialogue with Anne Shirley or thinking about Shakespeare’s Viola or Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne so completely that each of them are as present and part of that moment as the noise and heat of the crowd pressing against me.

A good writer can make characters as real as the ham sandwich we packed for lunch, as tangible as Louisiana humidity in July. There is comfort in that realness. There is comfort in not giving into the rigidity of Wordsworth’s adult speaker and in choosing to let the imagined be “alive unto us,” in walking through our lives alongside our literary companions. In doing so, we find that there is community anywhere there are carefully written words. Surely, the dead have great influence over our lives, but perhaps, the imagined, in their own way, also haunt, in the best possible sense, the way we move through and perceive the world.