Dorothy Wordsworth –“we journeyed side by side.”
William Wordsworth was the famous Romantic poet. His sister Dorothy was his quiet strength, support and inspiration. Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) devoted her life to her brother (1770-1850).
Intimate friends and close confidants, they shared an immense mutual dependence and were of extreme significance and value to each other. As William put it in his poem, “The Recluse,” as quoted in the title above, brother and sister journeyed not only to Grasmere, but through all of life, “side by side,” blown by the winds of life, “like two birds, companions in mid-air,/Parted and reunited by the blast (Clark 28).
Dorothy and William’s mother died in 1778. Dorothy, age six, was separated from all her brothers, including William, age eight, and raised by various relatives, while he lived at school. As young children William and Dorothy were very close, and it was perhaps this separation that contributed to their later need to be always together. When their father died a few years later, they were destined to remain apart, living in near poverty. It wasn’t until 1795 when William received a bequest of Â£900 from a close friend that he and Dorothy managed to set up housekeeping together, first living in Racedown, Dorsetshire, then in 1797 moving to Alfoxden, Somersetshire, near Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey. In 1798 -1799 William and Dorothy traveled to Germany with Coleridge. Returning to England in 1799, brother and sister settled at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Westmorland, in the Lake District. Their lives were constantly entertwined, as they lived together for the rest of their days, even after William’s marriage. Wordsworthian authority, de Selincourt, notes that William wrote the lovely poem “Among all lovely things my love had been” dedicated to Dorothy, on his return trip after becoming engaged (Clarke 14). Although William’s decision to marry her best friend, Mary Hutchinson, was emotionally traumatic for Dorothy, the devoted sister stayed on to keep house for the couple and to help with their children as the family grew. In 1813 they all moved to Rydal Mount, not from Dove Cottage, where, except for periods of travel, they spent the rest of their lives.
Colette Clark begins her introduction to Dorothy’s Home at Grasmore with these words:
Dorothy Wordworth was one of those sweet characters whose only life lies in their complete dedication to a man of genius. Without self-consciousness or self-congratulation she absorbed herself in her brothers life and work and starts the Journal ‘because I shall give William pleasure by it.’ This was the only way in which she could fulfil herself, and through it she became an artist in her own right. She is to us, as she was to William ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’. (Clarke 9)
Dorothy and her brother shared a spiritual harmony (Clarke 10). She was continually his go-between with nature. Her spontaneous observations, recorded in her journals, often became the precise words of his poems. Scholars speculate endlessly on exactly how much William relied on his sister’s descriptions and words. It was the habit of brother and sister to take long walks together daily during which the great poet shared whatever was on his mind with his beloved sister. She served very much as his sounding block.
Often when scholars discuss the bond between William and Dorothy Wordsworth they include a third intimate in the union, Samuel Colleridge. Brief discussion of this additional connection with Coleridge may serve to shed light on the bond between Dorothy and her brother. As Mallaby describes it: “Dorothy Wordsworth, had the distinction of being the indispensable sister for two men of genius.” Especially in the years from 1797 to 1802, Dorothy was sister to Coleridge as well as William. “In that golden period,” says Mallaby, these three persons were an undivided and indivisible trinity. When the triune spell was broken each of them failed — Coleridge fell into a self-deceiving idleness, morbid imaginings of jealousy and mistrust, an opiate confusion of mind and heart; Wordsworth, arming himself with the shield of a rather self-righteous duty, moved boldly but remorsefully away from “the vision splendid”; Dorothy, overburdened with household cares and perplexed with spiritual disappointments and dismay, surrendered to a senseless melancholy (Mallaby unpaged).
The bond between them was spiritual. They were — “three persons and one soul,” as Coleridge put it. For Coleridge and Wordsworth the bond was intellectual. Dorothy added the realm of feeling. When Dorothy was with them, the spirits of both men were enlarged in vision and in feeling. What she gave to her brother she gave also to Coleridge:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy (Mallaby unpaged).
Mallaby and many other scholars agree that Dorothy’s untrained mind offered the gift of natural description and spontaneity to the more intellectually disciplined males. As to whether there was any sexual energy between Dorothy and Coleridge, or even her brother, scholars are less in agreement. Most, however, argue that this was a “true spiritual union,” and poetic bond far beyond “shallow and vulgar” considerations. (Mallaby unpaged). Dorothy, though not “in love,” felt deep love for both Wordsworth and Coleridge. She identified with what they were trying to do. She was part of their poetic urge. Her sympathy with their needs was so intense that she understood that, “without her delicate perception, her sensitive and tender approach,” these males would lose themselves in “disputing, argument and theory.” Her sensitivity provided their muse. As Mallaby puts it: ” She saw for herself the moods in which they were happiest and most creative and she knew that it was her presence which induced these moods.” Her role was to provide support and sustenance, spiritual and physical (in the way of food and household comforts) to their poetic genius. Dorothy’s role of “sympathetic service” when extended to Coleridge, amplifies our understanding of how she saw herself in regard to her brother, as indispensable helpful muse whose job it was to nourish and “soften” that powerful imagination (Mallaby unpaged).
Among scholars much is written about Dorothy’s personal capabilities as poet and writer. Her journals are straightforward and simple, often eloquently poetic in descriptive phrases. Examples like the following abound: “The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow” (Wordsworth 75).
We had a very fine walk by the gloomy lake. There was a curious yellow reflection in the water, as of cornfields. There was no light in the clouds from which it appeared to come” (Wordsworth 64) “We walked out before dinner to our favourite field. The mists sailed along the mountains, and rested upon them, enclosing the whole vale (Wordsworth 85). The moon shone like herrings in the water” (Wordsworth 85). “The reeds and bullrushes or bullpipes of a tender soft green, making a plain whose surface moved with the wind” (Wordsworth 41). In his letters to Coleridge, William regularly quotes Dorothy’s manner of describing scenes from nature. He obviously admires her descriptive talents. What he himself saw as “rocks wrinkled over with masses of ice, white as snow,” Dorothy saw as “congealed froth” (Clarke 21).
Dorothy’s poems record, for the most part, personal experiences centering on her intense relationship with nature. There is almost no assertive ego or self-consciousness in her work except for honest expression of emotion. That Dorothy collaborated with William in the creation of his work goes without question. He read his/her works in progress, on walks, by the fireside, in drifting boats. He solicited her help in his “altering” of poems and she forever “copied” his work for him before sending it off to be read by others or published. In Home at Grasmere Dorothy speaks often of sitting before the fire with William and writing or correcting poems and preface for Lyrical Ballads. The descriptions and notes that Dorothy recorded in her journal were drawn upon heavily by her brother (Wordsworth 74-85). These incidents, carefully documented by scholars include Dorothy’s description of meeting with the tall woman and her children, recorded in Home at Grasmere, as closely relied upon in William’s “Beggars” (Wordsworth 43).
Sometimes their spirits were so closely intertwined that it is hard to tell who initiated a poetic line. For example, as Clark points out in her editing of Home at Grasmere a description of yellow broom being like veins of gold appears three times in the journal, once in quotes, as well as is in Willliam’s poem “Joanna” (Wordsworth 43). Dorothy’s description of a funeral finds its way into her brother’s poem “The Excursion.” (Wordsworth 70). “Michael” and other pastoral poems were no doubt influenced by descriptions from Dorothy’s journals such as the following:
The colours of the mountains soft and rich, with orange fern; the cattle pasturing upon the hill-tops; kites sailing in the sky above our heads; sheep bleating and in lines and chains and patterns scattered over the mountains. They come down and feed on the little green islands in the beds of the torrents, and so may be swept away. The sheepfold is falling away. It is built nearly in the form of a heart unequally divided. Look down the brook, and see the drops rise upwards and sparkle in the air at the little falls, the higher sparkles the tallest. (Wordworth 81).
That Wordsworth heavily relied upon his sister is evidenced in frequent mention in his poetry, such as the following from Poems on the Naming of Places, III:
And She who dwells with me, whom I have loved
With such communion, that no place on earth
Can ever be a solitude to me,
Hath to this lonely Summit given my Name’ (Wordsworth 60).
Soon after settling at Grasmere, William began the long, never finished poem “The Recluse,” in which he characterizes his intimate relationship with Dorothy:
Entrenched, say rather peacefully embowered,
Under yon orchard, in yon humble cot, younger Orphan of a home extinct,
The only Daughter of my Parents dwells…
Mine eyes did ne’er
Fix on a lovely object, nor my mind
Take pleasure in the midst of happy thoughts,
But either She whom now I have, who now Divides with me this loved abode, was there,
Or not far off. Where’er my footsteps turned,
Her voice was like a hidden Bird that sang.
The thought of her was like a flash of light,
Or an unseen companionship, a breath
Of fragrance independent of the Wind (Clark 26).
An eloquent poetic embodiment of Dorothy’s importance to William is seen in “On Nature’s Invitation Do I Come”:
Her voice was like a hidden bird that sang;
The thought of her was like a flash of light,
Or an unseen companionship; a breath
Of fragrance independent of the wind (Manley 59).
William includes another hymn of praise to his sister in The Prelude, revealing the characteristics which endeared Dorothy to him:
She welcomed what was given, and craved no more;
Whate’er the scene presented to her view
That was the best, to that she was attuned
By her benign simplicity of life,
And through a perfect happiness of soul,
Whose variegated feelings were in this Sisters, that they were each some new delight.
Birds in the bower. And lambs in the green field.
Could they have known her, would have loved; methought
Her very presence such a sweetness breathed,
That flowers, and trees, and even the silent hills,
And everything she looked on, should have had
An intimation how she bore herself
Towards them and to all creatures (Manley 83).
Thus her soulful sympathy and emotional involvement with all of nature and life, combined with her sweetness and simplicity to provide exactly what the great poet needed to compliment his own genius.
A fascinating aspect of the relationship between Wordsworth and his sister has been posed by both feminist critics and at least one male who made a study of what he called “romantic androgyny.” The scholar, James Holt McGavran argues that Wordsworth used Dorothy to provide the feminine portion of his androgynous whole. McGavran argues that Wordsworth bases “Tintern Abbey” on Dorothy’s “informally structured descriptive language” and that he derives from her the “soul” of all his “moral being,” as well as the sensual language of nature. Yet, McGavran points out, Dorothy’s “actual presence at (Wordsworth’s) side as living, speaking female “other” calls into question, almost crumbles into ruins, his assertion that as a mature man his mind must dominate his surroundings.”
In other words, Wordsworth’s belief that Dorothy represents a “lower, adolescent stage” of his creativity shows that William does not truly comprehend the depth of his debt to Dorothy. Dorothy, according to McGavran, is the “deep romantic chasm’ of the female ‘other’ ” asserting itself “against the masculine will.” For this critic, these opposing parts, needing to find “androgynous integration” if the poet is to achieve his creative identity, are what Dorothy and her brother represent to each other, as her feminine egolessness and his egotistical masculine will combine (McGavran 1-5).
As another scholar points out, Dorothy became for Wordsworth a symbol of his consciousness of his own poetic evolution, however incomplete or inaccurate it may have been. Wordsworth makes obvious reference to his sister as a past influence in “Tintern Abbey”:
in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! Yet a little while May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! (Thomson 1)
Then, in the Lucy poems and in “To Lycoris,” Dorothy is Wordsworth’s “beloved Friend,” his “sweet Friend,” his “Dearest Friend,” who serves as the poet’s attempt to integrate his own past with his present with his dependency of his sister, all of which he fails to bring to any conclusive unity, except to acknowledge that memory may not always be reliable and transmutations may make sport of the poetic imagination (Thomson 581-591).
Dorothy’s opinion of her own writing efforts demonstrate her selfless attitude of devotion to her brother’s genius. She describes even her letter writing as “full of blunders” (Alexander 196), and all her writings as “muttering to myself” (Alexander 197).
She laughs at those who “would persuade me that I am capable of writing poems…! (Alexander 197). This inability to see herself as a poet can be attributed to her being the female half of the sibling relationship. A fascinating comparison is made by one scholar of the obsession of both brother and sister with walking. For William, says Meena Alexander, his walks and pacings back and forth on the earth were his way of “pathbreaking” of covering ground, of “retrieval of emotion,” of conquering “actual imaginative territory.” For Dorothy, her incessant walking represented, not merely that she lacked a space she could acquire domination over, but that her own genius led her to an emptying out of self, a severance from Romantic centrality…Her frequent walks through the landscape then, far from returning her to a heightened sense of self, often seemed to function as escape routes, covert flights from the societal bonds set upon her domestic being (Meena Alexander 199-200).
For this scholar, Dorothy shows, through her poetry and her journal entries, her own “groundlessness” as a writer, a fate largely attributed to her femininity, while her brother, with sister’s help, becomes entirely “grounded” in his poetic creations. (Meena Alexander 195-208).
Dorothy’s own poetry, however “ungrounded,” reaches for no intellectual heights. Her most effective work is perhaps seen in the simplicity of a poem like “Address to a Child”:
What way does the wind come?
What way does he go?
He rides over the water, and over the snow,
Through wood, and through vale;
and, o’er rocky height
Which the goat cannot climb, takes his sounding flight;
He tosses about in every bare tree,
As, if you look up, you plainly may see;
But how he will come, and whither he goes
There’s never a scholar in England knows (Manly 171).
For the most part, Dorothy Wordsworth refuses to go beyond simple observation in her poetry. She does not offer speculations or wider connections. The poem “Floating Island” is representative of her typical style and limited feminine way observing the world. The assertive male mode of controlling and ordering his observed world iss not Dorothy’s way. Dorothy’s way iss to simply to paint a picture. She knows that her place in nature, like that of all mankind, is not domination. Nature has a power beyond human control to “undermine,” “loose,” and “dissever.” Nature, for Dorothy is simply to be observed. She paints the picture and allows the reader to draw the conclusions. Similarly, she offers her observations to her brother and allows him to make the assumptions.
The words that Dorothy wrote, whether in her journals or poetry, were written only for the pleasure of her beloved brother. They were intended for his eyes and no others. In her words William found inspiration and guidance. Dorothy’s love for William was the energy behind her journals and her poems. Virginia Woolf, as pointed out by critic Meena Alexander, describes Dorothy Wordsworth this way: “William and Nature and Dorothy herself, were they not one being? Did they not compose a trinity, self-contained and self sufficient…(Meena Alexander 200).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Wordsworth’s “exquisite Sister” in terms which make it evident that he was well aware of her worth:
She is a woman indeed!… her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature –and her taste a perfect electrometer — it bends, protrudes and draws in at subtlest beauties and most recondite faults (Caroline Alexander 15).
Dorothy’s description of daffodils observed on a walk in 1802 can be compared to her brothers much more famous poetic lines. Dorothy offered this observation:
never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind… (Caroline Alexander 15).
William, having observed the same scene and possibly after meditating on his sister’s observation wrote these famous lines:
wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, host, of golden daffodils’
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze (Caroline Alexander 15).
At question for posterity here is whether the male version of this scene deserves the huge adulation it has received as compared to relative obscurity of the female version.
Dorothy and William Wordsworth journeyed through their adult lives “side by side.” For much of her life Dorothy served as nurturer and muse for her brother to whom she was a significant source of inspiration as well as constant secretary. Her love for her brother was beyond measure. From 1829 onward Dorothy suffered from a progressive mental disturbance which may have been a form of what we now call Alzheimer’s disease. During the years of her decline the tables were reversed and William, now England’s poet laureate, and his wife Mary lovingly cared for Dorothy (Caroline Alexander 15). Theirs was an interdependent companionship that lasted a lifetime. The physical support and spiritual companionship of the sister, as acknowledged by the brother, had opened the way to his poetic fulfillment.
Alexander, Caroline. “The Other Wordsworth, In England’s Lake District.” New York Times 28 February 1999, sec. 6, p. 15, col 1.
Alexander, Meena. “Dorothy Wordsworth: the Grounds of Writing.” Women’s Studies. 1988 Vol. 14:195-210.
Clark, Colette. Introduction. Home At Grasmere. By Dorothy Wordsworth. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.
Mallaby, George. “Dorothy Wordsworth: The Perfect Sister.” The Atlantic Monthly. 1950 December. http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/50dec/mallaby.htm.(accessed 11-26-2002),
Manley, Seon. Dorothy and William Wordsworth: The Heart of a Circle of Friends. New York: Vanguard Press, Inc., 1974
McGavran Jr., James Holt. “Xanadu, Somersetshire, and the Banks of the Wye: A Study of Romantic Androgyny.” Papers on Language & Literature, 003111294, 1990 Summer, Vol. 26, Issue 3.
Thomson, Douglass H. “Sport of Transmutations’: The Evolution of Wordsworth’s ‘To Lycoris.'” Studies in English Literature 1987 Autumn, Vol. 27 Issue 4, p581, 13
Wordsworth, Dorothy. Home At Grasmere. Colette Clark, Ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.
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