Lyrical Ballads Vol I 1800

Poems founded on the affections

05. The Last of the Flock

In distant countries I have been,
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown,
Weep in the public roads alone.
But such a one, on English ground,
And in the broad high-way, I met;
Along the broad high-way he came,
His cheeks with tears were wet,
Sturdy he seemed, though he was sad;
And in his arms a lamb he had.

He saw me, and he turned aside,
As if he wished himself to hide;
Then with his coat he made essay
To wipe those briny tears away.
I follow'd him, and said "My friend
What ails you? wherefore weep you so?"
- "Shame on me, Sir! this lusty lamb,
He makes my tears to flow,
To-day I fetched him from the rock;
He is the last of all my flock.

"When I was young, a single man,
And after youthful follies ran,
Though little given to care and thought,
Yet, so it was, a ewe I bought;
And other sheep from her I raised,
As healthy sheep as you might see,
And then I married, and was rich
As I could wish to be;
Of sheep I numbered a full score,
And every year increas'd my store.

"Year after year my stock it grew,
And from this one, this single ewe,
Full fifty comely sheep I raised,
As sweet a flock as ever grazed!
Upon the mountain did they feed;
They throve, and we at home did thrive.
- This lusty lamb of all my store
Is all that is alive;
And now I care not if we die,
And perish all of poverty.

"Six children, Sir! had I to feed,
Hard labour in a time of need!
I of the parish ask'd relief.
They said I was a wealthy man;
My sheep upon the mountain fed,
And it was fit that thence I took
Whereof to buy us bread;
"Do this; how can we give to you,"
They cried, "what to the poor is due?"

"I sold a sheep as they had said,
And bought my little children bread,
And they were healthy with their food;
For me it never did me good.
A woeful time it was for me,
To see the end of all my gains,
The pretty flock which I had reared
With all my care and pains,
To see it melt like snow away!
For me it was a woeful day.

"Another still! and still another!
A little lamb, and then its mother!
It was a vein that never stopp'd,
Like blood-drops from my heart they dropp'd,
Till thirty were not left alive
They dwindled, dwindled, one by one,
And I may say that many a time
I wished they all were gone;
They dwindled one by one away;
For me it was a woeful day.

"To wicked deed I was inclin'd,
And wicked fancies crossed my mind,
And every man I chanc'd to see,
I thought he knew some ill of me.
No peace, no comfort could I find,
No ease, within doors or without,
And crazily, and wearily
I went my work about.
Oft-times I thought to run away;
For me it was a woeful day.

"Sir! 'twas a precious flock to me,
As dear as my own children be;
For daily with my growing store
I loved my children more and more.
Alas! it was an evil time;
God cursed me in my sore distress,
I prayed, yet every day I thought
I loved my children less;
And every week, and every day,
My flock, it seemed to melt away.

"They dwindled, Sir, sad sight to see!
From ten to five, from five to three,
A lamb, a weather, and a ewe;
And then at last, from three to two;
And of my fifty, yesterday
I had but only one,
And here it lies upon my arm,
Alas! and I have none;
To-day I fetched it from the rock;
It is the last of all my flock.

The Last of the Flock was apparently written after hearing a story recounted by Tom Poole, who encountered just such a man as this crying shepherd. As such it holds much in common with The Thorn (an imaginative construct built around a thorn tree seen in a storm), The Idiot Boy (an imaginative construct built around a phrase) and Goody Blake and Harry Gill (an imaginative construct built around a short story from the works of Erasmus Darwin). It is also related to Michael and The Brothers in its demonstration of the ill effects on society of the loss of independence of the poor when their means of subsistence is taken away.

 The initial accrual of sheep seems to occur without effort, and the reduction after a certain point without the possibility of changing the course of events. The man is trapped in an ineluctable process which encourages him to spawn his progeny of six children, after which he is tempted into evil ways and the rejection of God by the reduction of his flock. The economic model is simplistic in the extreme, as is the response of the individual to the events, and society at large is held to account for not wanting to distribute its poor aid to any but the poor.

The presentation of this scenario in such a simplistic form is in part explained by Wordsworth's stated objectives, expressed in his letter to Charles James Fox of January 14, 1801 on the publication of his second volume of poems: It appears to me that the most calamitous effect, which has followed the measures that have lately been pursued in this country, is a rapid decay of the domestic affections among the lower orders of society.... parents are separated from their children, and children from their parents; the wife no longer prepares with her own hands a meal for her husband, the produce of his labour; there is little doing in his house in which his affections can be interested, and but little left in it which he can love.....The domestic affections will always be strong amongst men who live in a country not crowded with population if these men are placed above poverty... the most sacred of all property is the property of the Poor; The poems are faithful copies from nature; and I hope whatever effect they may have upon you, you will at least be able to perceive that they may excite profitable sympathies in many kind and good hearts, and may in some small degree enlarge our feelings of reverence for our species, and our knowledge of human nature, by shewing that our best qualities are possessed by men whom we are too apt to consider, not with reference to the points in which they resemble us, but to those in which they manifestly differ from us. 

In the letter, he was writing about the two poems Michael and The Brothers, but clearly the same sentiments are at work in this poem. Wordsworth links the dwindling of the flock (ie the impoverishment of the shepherd) with a reduction of his love for his children, and a growing anti-religious sentiment (ie dissolving ties of family and weakening religious sentiment). The poem also conforms to Wordsworth's stated aim in the Preface, ie the presentation of simple emotions in simple language operating on simple people as being the most efficient way of showing the workings of the human heart.

Sir! 'twas a precious flock to me,
As dear as my own children be;
For daily with my growing store
I loved my children more and more.
Alas! it was an evil time;
God cursed me in my sore distress,
I prayed, yet every day I thought
I loved my children less;
And every week, and every day,
My flock, it seemed to melt away.


The poet biographies, criticism, maps, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott, all rights reserved