Trapping Woodcocks

Background Information

This is a piece of poetry about Wordsworth’s childhood. In the extract the young Wordsworth has set traps to catch woodcocks (birds rather like pheasants). However, when he returns to his traps he steals birds from those set by other people. His feelings of guilt cause him to imagine he is being chased.

The extract comes from the earliest manuscript of Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude, MS JJ.

Teacher Advice

Read the extract of poetry about Wordsworth trapping birds as a boy. Explain that bird trapping was common country pursuit then. Woodcocks are large birds that look rather like a pheasant that nest in long grass. Sometimes Wordsworth stole birds caught in traps laid by other people. "Springes": traps.

Ask the class to imagine how they would "see" it as a film, a video, or a sequence of pictures. After you have read it, ask them to discuss what they have "seen" with their partner. Discuss the results as a group. You might ask them to consider: what the landscape was like; what their viewpoint was; what the soundtrack was.

Give out copies of the extract (1 between 2). Ask each pair to circle 10 key words from the poem. Discuss the results as a group asking for reasons for choices made.

Ask the group to sum up what they think are the main themes explored in the passage (childhood, personal experiences, nature, imagination etc.)

Trapping Woodcocks

And afterwards, 'twas in a later day

Though early, when upon the mountain-slope

The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapped

The last autumnal crocus, 'twas my joy

To wander half the night among the cliffs

And the smooth hollows, where the woodcocks ran

Along the moonlight turf. In thought and wish,

That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,

I was a fell destroyer. Gentle Powers!

Who give us happiness and call it peace!

When running on from snare to snare I plied

My anxious visitation, hurrying on,

Still hurrying hurrying onward, how my heart

Panted; among the scattered yew-trees and the crags

That looked upon me, how my bosom beat

With expectation. Sometimes strong desire,

Resistless, overpowered me, and the bird

Which was the captive of another’s toils

Became my prey; and when the deed was done

I heard among the solitary hills

Low breathings coming after me, and sounds

Of undistinguishable motion, steps

Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

(Cornell Reading Text, lines 28-49)