We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Dorothy Wordsworth, private writer & poet · 22 April 07

Dear Anne,

I interrupt the reports from the ASECS meeting to provide some more private writing by women (as said earlier, sadly not much in evidence in the panel labelled private writing by women). My example is the poetry of Dorothy Wordsworth. I sent the following to Wompo this past Friday.

Foremother poet: Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)

Floating Island

Harmonious powers with nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake and sea;
Sunshine and cloud, whirlwind and breeze,
All in one duteous task agree.

Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold—how, no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind,

Might see it from the mossy shore
Dissevered, float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned,
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

Food, shelter, safety, there they find;
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives—and die:
A peopled world it is, in size a tiny room.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little island may survive,
But nature (though we mark her not)
Will take away, may cease to give.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn—the isle is passed away,

Buried beneath the glittering lake,
Its place no longer to be found.
Yet the lost fragments shall remain
To fertilize some other ground.

(1828-29; 1842)

Grasmere—a Fragment

Peaceful our valley, fair and green;
          And beautiful the cottages,
Each in its nook, its sheltered hold,
          Or underneath its tuft of trees.

Many and beautiful they are;
          But there is one that I love best.
A lowly roof in truth it is,
          A brother of the rest.

Yet when I sit on rock or hill
          Down-looking on the valley fair,
That cottage with its grove of trees
          Summons my heart; it settles there.

Others there are whose small domain
          Of fertile fields with hedgerows green
Might more seduce the traveler’s mind
          To wish that there his home had been.

Such wish be his! I blame him not;
          My fancies they, perchance, are wild:
I love that house because it is
          The very mountain’s child.

Fields hath it of its own, green fields,
          But they are craggy, steep, and bare;
Their fence is of the mountain stone,
          And moss and lichen flourish there.

And when the storm comes from the north,
          It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And piping through the mossy walls,
          It seems delighted with its lot.

And let it take its own delight,
          And let it range the pastures bare
Until it reach that grove of trees
          —It may not enter there!

A green unfading grove it is,
          Skirted with many a lesser tree,
Hazel and holly, beech and oak,
          A fair and flourishing company!

Precious the shelter of those trees!
          They screen the cottage that I love;
The sunshine pierces to the roof
          And the tall pine trees tower above.

When first I saw that dear abode
          It was a lovely winter’s day:
After a night of perilous storm
          The west wind ruled with gentle sway;

A day so mild, it might have been
          The first day of the gladsome spring;
The robins warbled; and I heard
          One solitary throstle sing.

A stranger in the neighborhood,
          All faces then to me unknown,
I left my sole companion-friend
          To wander out alone.

Lured by a little winding path,
          I quitted soon the public road;
A smooth and tempting path it was
          By sheep and shepherds trod.

Eastward, toward the mighty hills,
          This pathway led me on,
Until I reached a lofty rock
          With velvet moss o’ergrown.

With russet oak and tufts of fern
          Its top was richly garlanded;
Its sides adorned with eglantine
          Bedropped with hips of glossy red.

There too in many a sheltered chink
          The foxglove’s broad leaves flourished fair,
And silver birch, whose purple twigs
          Bend to the softest breathing air.

Beneath that rock my course I stayed
          And, looking to its summit high,
“Thou wear’st,” said I, “a splendid garb,
          Here winter keeps his revelry.

“I’ve been a dweller on the plains,
          Have sighed when summer days were gone;
No more I’ll sigh; for winter here
          Hath gladsome gardens of his own.

“What need of flowers? The splendid moss
          Is gayer than an April mead;
More rich its hues of various green,
          Orange and gold and glowing red.”

—Beside that gay and lovely rock
          There came with merry voice:
A foaming streamlet glancing by;
          It seemed to say “Rejoice!”

My youthful wishes all fulfilled
          Wishes matured by thoughtful choice,
I stood an inmate of this vale—
          How could I but rejoice?

(1805 / 1892)

After-recollection at Sight of the Same Cottage

When first I saw that dear abode
It was a lovely winter’s day;
After a night of perilous storm
The west wind ruled with gentle sway

A day so mild it might have been
The first day of the gladsome spring;
The robins warbled, and I heard
One solitary throstle sing.

(c. 1807-1826 / 1987)

“Bassenthwaite Lake” from Interesting Views of the Lakes (c. 1796) by James Bourne


I thought of choosing Mary Lamb (1764-1847) or Isabella di Morra (Renaissance, ca. 1520-1546/7) for our foremother day: Mary Lamb murdered her mother and though she was put into hospitals and asylums on and off, basically she was treated as not guilty by reason of insanity; Adriana Craciun is the first to have been courageous enough to treat the violence of Mary’s poetry openly and to tell parts of the story (the mother’s more than occasionally cruel behavior to this daughter) which help to explain what happened (“The subject of violence: Mary Lamb, Femme Fatale,” Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt). Isabella de Morra was murdered by her father & brothers when she displeased with her choice for a husband—the violence of men towards women in Italy in this period went on with impunity, especially when it came to the area of sexual possession and family aggrandizement; di Morra left some remarkable sonnets. However, I decided maybe better to do that another time, and instead provide a counter antidote to the stories of anguish and difficulty sometimes experienced in creative writing classes.

I’ve long liked Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals (what I read of them in a selection), and after reading Margaret Homans’s Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickenson, where Homans attempted to & partly succeeded in defining a particuliar woman’s kind of imagination and sensibility and type of poem different from (most) men’s, was convinced Dorothy was no knock-off William. (Homans’s book was by the way dissed in the New York Review of Book by that much beprized academic woman scholar, Helen Vendler [who says gender is unimportant but may well know better as she tends to discuss all male poets, plus the usual suspects, i.e., Emily Dickenson.)

I took the above three poems from British Women Poets of the 19th Century edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet. As my eye caught the name and I began to read, I felt better. I particularly like the last short lyric (“A day so mild it might have been …”); how beautiful must the thrush’s sound be: “O brave thrush” sings the Yorkshire poet (Basil Bunting). I’ve found often the selections of Dorothy Wordsworth’s poems in anthologies is not very good: the tendency is to choose these poems meant for children whose depth and reach is limited: perhaps these were the first printed by her and there’s a strong tendency for anthology makers to follow previous anthology makers in their choices of what to print. Only 5 of Dorothy Wordsworth’s poems were published in her lifetime, and those anonymously by her brother.

She was born Christmas Day, 1771, 3rd child and only daughter of Ann Cookson and John Wordsworth, attorney to Sir James Lowther. Upon her mother’s death, and at age six, Dorothy was sent to live with her mother’s cousin and 6 cousins in Halifax; Dorothy is said to have been a favorite there; there was a bookshop housed in the same building as the cousin’s haberdashery shop, and Dorothy read a lot—as well as learned to cook, sew, keep accounts, and manage a house (skills girls were taught).

When Dorothy’s father died (1783) without having made a will, and Lowther refused to pay the debts he owed the family, Dorothy lost her small income, and was sent to live with her mother’s parents where she was very unhappy; the grandmother was repressive and said to have found Dorothy “untractible and wild.” So Dorothy moved on to live for 6 years with an aunt, Dorothy Cowper, and uncle, William Cookson; she worked as a child-carer and housekeeper for them.

In 1795 William was able to rescue Dorothy from this (rescue is the right word), and they went to live at Racedown Lodge, Dorset; by 1797 she and William had established a close friendship with Coleridge. They moved to Alfoxendon House in Somerset and there began a period of great poetic creativity. I’m with A. S. Byatt (Unruly Times) and Molly Lefebure (A Bondage of Opium) and think William and Dorothy fell deeply in love (Lefebure suggests they were physical lovers for a time, particularly in the time they spent apart from all others in Germany). Dorothy does seem to have deferred utterly to William, worshipped him, and he did have a patronizing attitude towards women poets, and it seems to me obvious this damaged her identity, limited it, stymied her. William said of Felicia Hemans she was “ignorant of housewifery” (so much for her poems), and Dorothy praised Joanna Baillie for not simply being a poet but a person devoted to her house.

Writing and reading were nonetheless (as Paula Feldman says in her introduction to her selection of Dorothy’s poems in her anthology) “crucial” to Dorothy’s “self-definition:” she kept long notebooks, participated actively in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collaboration for Lyrical Ballads, and it’s said set up her poems in a format where they anticipate 20th century imagist poems.

By the bye one of their aunts, Aunt Rawson, thought the whole way of life “a very bad wild scheme”. Apparently some of the neighbors voiced their suspicions Dorothy & William’s relationship was incestuous, and of course the three were not making money by going out to work in the competitive capitalist world. Beyond that William had an illegitimate child, Caroline, by Annette Vallon, whom Dorothy and William visited in France in 1802. As part of the typical conspiracy of silence about women who had children out of wedlock and real sexuality, this visit went unrecorded (a month is missing in Dorothy’s journals). Not long afterwards William married Mary Wordsworth (their letters show they were intensely in love); Dorothy did not attend their wedding, and it’s said the night before lay in her bed with the ring William was about to give Mary on her own finger. How he got away with doing this her no one knows; what he said to coerce her into accepting this new woman to replace her is not written down anywhere. We know from her outward behavior as seen publicly she acquiesced into becoming a second housekeeper, servant, and aunt-mother to William and Mary’s chidren. What Mary understood and thought about it we apparently don’t know either. I wonder if they were always as repressed in life about their lives with William as his pair of woemn as they were in their writing.

1803 Dorothy made a tour of Scotland with William & Coleridge, & they met Walter Scott, and she wrote Tour book about this time which De Quincy described as “in very deed a monument to her power of catching & expressing all the hidden beauties of natural scenery with a felicity of diction, a truth, and strength, that far transcend Gilpin, or professional writers on those subjects … This book … is absolutely unique in its class.” I wonder if it resembles Ann Radcliffe’s marvelous A Journey Made in Summer of 1794, the last part of which is made up of journals of her time in the lake district. (This latter book is available as a facsimile from Elibron, and I got it for $9.)

1805 John Wordsworth, the brother, drowned in Weymouth Bay, and Dorothy was now very depressed, and began riding a pony regularly. When in 1808 two neighbors perished in a snowstorm, she wrote a narrative account of their deaths and the courage of their children in seeking money for relief; this circulated in ms and was first published in 1936.

Over the years Dorothy wrote many short poems in verse for the children in her household. These were the ones William chose to publish (altering names and titles to distance Dorothy’s world from his own); he even added stanzas to one which imposed an idea about social classes. It’s said Dorothy rigorously crossed out the added stanzas in a notebook she kept of her poetry.

So Dorothy gets to assert herself in private by crossing lines out. She writes through reversing William’s aggressive controlling act.

In 1810 came the falling out between Coleridge and William; 1811 Dorothy converts to Christianity, and 1813 the family move to Ridal Mount where they lived for the rest of their lives. Dorothy climbed Scafell Peak with a friend, and wrote of her experience; William stuck part of this in his much admired Guide to the Lakes (Radcliffe’s book is just as good) calling it “an extract from a friend.”

Between 1820 and 1822 Dorothy travelled several times, with William and Mary, with another couple, with Joanna Hutchinson; she went to France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy (the Alps), and wrote up these tours as Recollections, and it took a long time for these to be published too. In the later 1820s illnesses began, a gallstone attack, and her notebooks become sparse; in 1835 the first signs of “presenile dementia” emerged. It’s said William and Mary cared lovingly for her in the last 2 decades of her life. She was able to write short letters, and would recite long passages of verse and obsessively copy out her own poetry.

Bishops Court, a place Dorothy visited and described as “a great delight”

Much of the information above comes from Paula Feldman’s introduction in British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, but I’ve added thoughts of my own as I went along.

There were a number of very close brother-sister relationships we know about among the romantics: Charles and Mary Lamb (Charles supported her by job long-time drudgery job); Bryon & his beloved half-sister, Augusta, who had a daughter by him. I’d add Jane Austen and her brother, Frank—only I’ve no proof as the three packets of letters she wrote to him were destroyed by his granddaughter as soon as he died.

It was not atypical for women of this class to end up in such a close relationship as they were kept apart from non-biologically connected men who were of lower class status and didn’t have the money or connections to meet men of their own or higher class status. The one man they were encouraged to be comfortable with was the brother. You see the remnants of his in George Eliot’s really plangent sonnets to her relationship with her brother, Isaac, and to me at any rate there is a perverseness in her rejoicing over how he forgave her once she married (very late in life) John Cross; he would have destroyed her life by his norms if he could have, and is the brother Eliot has her heroine make a martyr of herself to in The Mill on the Floss.

It’s arguable that as William was Dorothy’s best friend so he had been her worst enemy in her life, for (besides what he made her into in life), the reason her diaries, Recollections & poetry do not attract attention is that (like Ann Radcliffe) she tells no truths about her private feelings, especially her sexual life. This is a story of private writing that shows resolute repression because it was done under the coercive eye of the brother. Dorothy Wordsworth does connect to Mary Lamb: she repressed her anger and violence; she connects to Isabella di Morra too: Dorothy had to rely on the forbearance, decency & kindness of her local family system.

There’s a standard biography by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton: Dorothy Wordsworth.


Posted by: Ellen

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