Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman
The object of “Simon Lee” seems to be to vindicate the instinctive character of the emotion of gratitude as against Godwin’s utilitarian rationalism. Godwin represented it (gratitude) as an unjust and degrading sentiment, having its origin in the unequal distribution of wealth, influence etc.
Wordsworth’s poem “Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman”, which occurs in Lyrical Ballads, recounts an actual encounter the poet had with the old huntsman.
Simon Lee lived in the shire of Cardigan, not far from pleasant Ivor-hall. This old huntsman was once strong and active. He ran as a merry huntsman for thirty-five years and no one could rival him in keeping the pace of the hunt. But now his health has declined and his feudal master has died. In his old age he is now bereft of his health, strength, friends and kindred. Impoverished and childless, his aged wife is his sole companion. He lives in a moss-grown hut of clay on a scrap of land.
On a summer day the poet found the feeble old man trying to sever a tree-root with a mattock, but in vain. The poet offers him help and with a single blow severs the tangled root. Moved by this kindly help the old man bursts into tears of gratitude and profusely thanks the poet.
Gratitude is a capacity that is at the heart of what is naturally human and humane. Cold rationalism would not find room for such a humble (however profound) emotion in the old man’s tearful thanks. The act of weeping manifests his integrity and also points to man’s general cold-heartedness. As the poet movingly comments
I’ve heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
With coldness still returning
Alas! The gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.
Here the poet-narrator ministers to the reader, conducting him through an experience of purgation. The pathos and the incongruity of old age is the underlying theme of the poem. The poem is drawn from humble and rustic life. The old huntsman is as close to the earth as the stubborn tree-root which he had vainly tried to uproot. And it has the simple language of simple people who have lived close to hills and streams.
Wordsworth here wants to direct our attention away from the incident to the feelings which, as he stated, give importance to the action. The feelings include not only those of Simon Lee, but also of the poet-narrator who also becomes emotionally affected.
The poem reveals that the humblest episodes of everyday life have a bearing on the human condition. It makes us think as well as feel, and this sensibility is truly educative.
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