Dorothy Wordsworth

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Harper's New Monthly Magazine (review date December 1874)

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SOURCE: “Editor's Literary Record.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine 50 (December 1874): 137.

[In the following excerpted review, the anonymous author assesses Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, making special note of the preface written by the journal's editor.]

Not the least interesting part of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland, a.d. 1803 (G. P. Putnam's Sons) is the preface by the editor, Principal J. C. Shairp. Those readers who recall De Quincey's graphic and gossipy account of Wordsworth and his sister will read with peculiar zest, heightened by this glimpse of the poet's simple life, Principal Shairp's brief biographical sketch; and all who delight to visit personally and familiarly those whom they have learned to love in and through literature will only regret that the visit he permits us to make is so short. Of Dorothy's character we get a very pleasant picture, and rejoice to add her name to the great host of comparatively unknown women whose influence and aid have contributed so much to make the world's great men great. She seems to have kept house for her brother; she was his amanuensis, transcribing his manuscripts for the press; her poetic spirit often suggested the thoughts which he clothed in poetic forms. She lived in and for him, and his marriage did nothing to lessen the sympathy between them. The record of their tour through Scotland was not intended for publication, and needs to be read by loving, sympathetic hearts. To the cold critic it may seem diffuse and even tedious, but to all who have that love for Wordsworth that will make a ramble through Scotland with the poet and his sister delightful it will possess a peculiar fascination.

The Literary World (review date 19 February 1887)

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SOURCE: “Review of Dorothy Wordsworth.The Literary World (19 February 1887): 54-55.

[In the following review, the anonymous author praises Edmund Lee's biography of Dorothy Wordsworth for its unusually full appreciation of Wordsworth's intellect and personality.]


In the literary annals of later England the name of Dorothy Wordsworth holds an honored place, and yet to the majority of readers she who bore the name has been little more than a gracious satellite shining in the glory of her famous brother. Wordsworth himself spoke of her in no doubtful way, likening her to the spring that went before his steps and strewed his path with flowers. We find, too, affectionate tributes to her fine qualities of mind and heart in the pages of Coleridge and De Quincey. Principal Shairp, as late as 1874, edited passages from her journal recording the experiences of a tour in Scotland made with her brother and Coleridge in 1803, and to this work the editor prefixed a brief memorial of the author. And in the writings of many who have dealt with the so-called lake school and the lake country Dorothy Wordsworth is the subject of suggestive reflection and affectionate remembrance. It has remained for Mr. Edmund Lee, an ardent Wordsworthian, to gather up these scattered threads of biography and weave them together into an agreeable and valuable narrative. He has done his work with sympathy and good taste, and has amply justified the high esteem which he places upon the native talent of Miss Wordsworth, and her significant influence upon the development of Wordsworth's genius.

In this little volume, which is about the size of the monographs dedicated to the “English Men of Letters,” the life of Dorothy is effectively outlined. We see how indispensably her personality must be considered in forming an estimate of Wordsworth's intellectual development. It is not alone that she served...

(This entire section contains 762 words.)

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as a sympathetic stimulus, guiding the uncertain steps of her brother at the outset of his entrance upon the poet's career, but she was bound to him by a profound and enduring tie of absolute unity of purpose. They saw with the same eyes, experienced the same emotions, and their imaginations, different as they were in degree, answered to the same impressions and sought utterance in the same ideas. “Her journals are Wordsworth in prose, just as his poems are Dorothy in verse,” says a discerning critic; “the one soul kindled at the other.” Descriptions of this admirable woman vary. Coleridge found her “exquisite”—“a woman indeed”—“simple, ardent, impressive.” De Quincey enters more into detail. As he saw her she was small in stature, ungraceful in bearing, with a face of “Egyptian brown;” her eyes were “wild and startling,” her speech hurried and agitated, her manners quick and ungoverned, but “the subtle fire of impassioned intellect” burned within her and could not be restrained; intellectually, “she was a person of very remarkable endowments.” The most truthful and attractive portrait of her mental qualities is, however, to be found in her letters and journals, and these Mr. Lee quotes freely. They have a literary value which will preserve them from the ravages of envious time.

Mr. Lee has naturally much to say of the lake country, and although his material is mostly selected, his notes and remarks indicate only too clearly the changes which are fast taking place in that once-favored region. Near the head of Thirlmere, on the right-hand side of the road from Grasmere to Keswick, stands an upright block of stone, bearing the following letters:

W. W.

M. H.

D. W.

S. T. C.

J. W.

S. H.

It is hardly necessary to state [says Mr. Lee] that the initials are those of William Wordsworth, Mary Hutchinson (afterwards his wife), Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Wordsworth (the poet's brother), and Sarah Hutchinson (the sister of Mrs. Wordsworth). It is greatly to be regretted that on the completion of the projected reservoir of the Manchester Corporation, this rock, unless steps are taken for its preservation, will be submerged in its waters. Seldom did half-a-dozen more poetic and fervent natures meet and leave a more unique and attractive memorial. It is to be hoped that means will be adopted not only to have the rock removed to a place of safety, but also to preserve it from further mutilation. Although these initials have withstood the storms and blasts of more than four-score winters, they are yet perfectly distinct and legible, and their original character is preserved.


  1. Dorothy Wordsworth: The Story of a Sister's Love. By Edmund Lee. Dodd, Mead & Co. $1.25.

Robert Con Davis (essay date winter 1978)

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SOURCE: Davis, Robert Con. “The Structure of the Picturesque: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals.” The Wordsworth Circle 9, no. 1 (winter 1978): 45-49.

[In the following essay, Davis finds that Wordsworth's journals investigate some of the philosophical implications of the picturesque.]

Essentially an eighteenth-century aesthetic, the picturesque was eventually rejected by most Romantic poets. Relying heavily on the picturesque in the Alfoxden-Grasmere journals, Dorothy Wordsworth raised two important questions about its meaning. What does the picturesque say about man and nature, about the phenomenal world? And, why does it collide with Romantic sensibility? While praised for their descriptive power, her journals are regarded usually as embroidery with some small influence on William Wordsworth's poetry; whereas, as nature literature, the journals place man in nature, and in so doing show their own compositional integrity. It is, then, as literary texts in themselves that they probe the picturesque and reveal its structure.

For instance, in the first paragraph of the Alfoxden journal is a striking model of visual ordering in nature that will be repeated throughout both journals:

Alfoxden, 20th January 1798. The green paths down the hillsides are channels for streams. The young wheat is streaked by silver lines of water running between the ridges, the sheep are gathered together on the slopes. After the wet dark days, the country seems more populous. It peoples itself in the sunbeams. The garden, mimic of spring, is gay with flowers. The purple-starred hepatica spreads itself in the sun, and the clustering snow-drops put forth their white heads, at first upright, ribbed with green, and like a rosebud; when completely opened, hanging their heads downwards, but slowly lengthening their slender stems. The slanting woods of an unvarying brown, showing the light through the thin net-work of their upper boughs. Upon the highest ridge of that round hill covered with planted oaks, the shafts of the trees show in the light like the columns of a ruin.1

One is carried rapidly into the midst of the natural scene by the swift movement from the detail of “wheat … streaked by silver lines” to “the clustering snow-drops … hanging their heads downwards,” and finally to the grand view of “the highest ridge of that round hill covered with planted oaks [;] the shafts of the trees show in the light like the columns of a ruin.” One really cannot refer to Dorothy's descriptions without using the word “picture” to denote an approximation of full visual composition. The selection of details in the passage provides a pictorial center of wheat and flowers in the foreground. The suggestive shape of silhouetted trees on the horizon form the peripheral field, just as the generalized-and-vague landscape behind a subject in a picture provides the ground from which the figure emerges. Most importantly, the foreground-and-background organization establishes a fixed perspective and a principle; some things are out of focus and others in focus because the viewer has an unaltering position. The details of Dorothy's picture or any picture become a composition and an adequate representation of nature only if the limitations of the space created by the fixed perspective are familiar and otherwise acceptable to the viewer, the stationary position outside of the picture constituting the structural center through which details are pulled together into a composition and given meaning.

Not all the nature descriptions in the journals are arranged neatly in a movement from foreground to background, but most are. Compared to the first paragraph of the Alfoxden journal the following description may appear short and underdeveloped, but again it is organized by a foreground and a background:

Mary and I walked to the top of the hill and looked at Rydale. I was much affected when I stood upon the 2nd bar of Sara's Gate. The lake was perfectly still, the Sun shone on Hill and vale, the distant Birch trees looked like large golden Flowers. Nothing else in colour was distinct and separate but all the beautiful colours seemed to be melted into one another, and joined together in one mass so that there were no differences though an endless variety when one tried to find it out. The Fields were of one sober yellow brown.

(p. 162)

Shorter, less detailed and complex, this description is more impressionistic than the preceding one, but the appeal is still primarily visual. There is a background of “hill and vale,” and a foreground of “colours … melted into one another … in one mass.”

The imagery of Dorothy's journals imparts to nature a specialized shape, harmonizing the objects of the natural world into graphic compositional unity for a particular purpose: Dorothy uses landscape imagery to control nature through a highly rational method of comprehending the world. It was precisely this harmony and control that William Wordsworth rejected as “the cold rules” when he changed the name of a collection of poems from “Picturesque” to Descriptive Sketches. William's criticism of the picturesque aimed at the underlying realistic assumptions about light and shade attached to the nature that exists “out there” as a set of conventions. He rejected the picturesque as a poetic structure because it gave an “imperfect idea” of the emotional content he gathered when he “consulted nature and [his] feelings.”2 J. R. Watson, in his incisive Picturesque Landscape and English Romantic Poetry (1970), shows how William's rejection of picturesque techniques represents a crucial phase of his development as an artist, in a sense a severance from eighteenth-century aesthetics. Picturesque structure, by revealing in nature an aesthetic content that can be codified into rules and grasped rationally, brings meaning to experience. Watson judges the picturesque technique to be in fact very limited—“cold,” as William said—because it makes one “landscape … essentially something to be seen and then compared with others … the countryside in each is valued for its characteristics resembling an ideal form rather than for its local and individual uniqueness” (Watson, pp. 39-40). Watson demonstrates that rejection of the picturesque was for many Romantic poets a rite of passage into the nineteenth century.

Since many eighteenth-century theorists believed that the rational in art is the truth in nature, they could deny the often-made charge that the picturesque was a project for subduing nature. Recently, John R. Nabholtz persuasively argued against that charge by stating that the picturesque was simply one among other ways the Romantics looked at nature, still “another means of penetrating to the wondrous activities of nature, which were of such central importance to the Romantics.”3 Although Nabholtz is correct, as one looks behind the formal assumptions, as William Wordsworth did, picturesque innocence (like that of a spy glass held up to nature) is destroyed. Having a structure, the picturesque also has a structural intention, which, as Watson suggests, is found in formal repetition. By repeatedly imposing meaning, the picturesque is in a kind of battle with nature—the significance of which I will return to presently.

In the aesthetic model of the picturesque, the viewer's emotional involvement is in bondage to the principles of organization and harmony taken from landscape painting. The viewer stands in a fixed space outside of the natural scene and sorts the visual components into a graphic hierarchy of focused figures and unfocused background areas. With his back turned to the landscape, the viewer might raise an oval, tinted Claude glass, to see the view actually framed as a picture. Within such a model, techniques of shading and highlighting, blurring and sharpening, appear naturally. Experience can be subordinated so fully to picturesque description that landscape figures may appear and fade as they are needed for the composition, as in one hilltop description of the Alfoxden journal: “Went to the hill-top. Sat a considerable time overlooking the country towards the sea. The air blew pleasantly round us. The landscape mildly interesting. The Welsh hills capped by a huge range of tumultuous white clouds. The sea, spotted with white …” (p. 7). Who is “us”? Dorothy and Coleridge? Dorothy and William? Dorothy and the landscape? The question cannot be answered because experience in this passage is a response solely to the demands of landscape structure. In other words, people easily get lost in the foliage where human relationships are absent. Unable to form relationships, discrete human shadows move through Dorothy's landscape without meeting; accordingly, as Elizabeth Hardwick has noted, “there are no real people [in Dorothy's journals]—especially she and William are absent in the deepest sense.”4 Of course, this absence is interesting only because of what Dorothy does emphasize. It becomes clear that only in the nature descriptions does she engage herself fully as a writer, developing her subject complexly and at length, placing nature at the center of a canvas only minimally framed by the bothersome complexities of personal relationships.

Dorothy's journals, coming at the end of an eighteenth-century tradition of picturesque poetic and pictorial imagery, show a strain of a conventional time-and-eternity theme. In the foreground of a typical painting by, for example, Rosa or Lorrain,5 one may find a young girl drawing water, the ruin of a classical building, a decaying bridge, a young and vulnerable calf: figures that serve as a reminder of the passage of time. In the background is a timeless natural scene with mountains, billowy clouds, and immense verdure—the whole of the background often softened by the cover of a thick mist. Usually a great distance from the foreground, the background weighs heavily over the whole picture. When there is a ruin in the foreground it is commonly accompanied by a lustrous classical building in the background. As one focuses on the figures in the foreground, the background moves into one's field of vision, asserting its bulk and compositional dominance over the foreground figures. These figures in picturesque painting tell a story about the relationship of change and form somewhat as the icons of Botticelli's Allegory of Spring shape a narrative about the relationship of grace and secular love. The theme of the composite picturesque story is as follows: the life we see around us and the mutability that marks it are mere shadows of the enduring harmony and unity manifested in the picturesque form. The result is not a true reconciliation of time's lack and eternity's plenitude, but a willful yoking together of time and eternity into the confines of the picturesque gaze. While Dorothy's descriptions are not so stylized as to place a broken vase or a ruin in the foreground, they put specific natural objects like flowers or wheat stalks before vast natural panorama. As in the hillside description of the Alfoxden journal's first paragraph, the panorama serves as an emblem of a unity in nature as grand as individual flowers are vulnerable. Again, harmony is made to look as though it triumphs over time's destructiveness in the shackling together of time and eternity. Thus, the picturesque statement about man and nature is a response to the erosion of time.

In one passage it is especially evident that the need to maintain the objective validity of the natural world “out there” is the need to overcome a menacing awareness of death. Dorothy narrates at length her experience at a funeral (pp. 38-39), where, upon leaving John Dawson's house to accompany the coffin of an unnamed woman, she breaks into tears, then experiences an unexpected emotional reversal. After leaving the house she still weeps, but she weeps happily because the coffin is “going to a quiet spot.” What, we must wonder, comes between the first tearful experience of the funeral and the final joyful weeping? Why should it have such apparent significance that the coffin is “going to a quiet spot?” Let us go back.

The coffin emerging from the dark house, a poignant reminder of death, brings Dorothy to tears. After she comes out of the house and sees the landscape, she looks back to the churchyard and realizes that “the green fields [are] neighbors of the churchyard.” That is to say, the churchyard, which will receive the coffin, is part of the radiant landscape and thus also “allied to human life” (p. 38). Like the broken vase or ruin, reminders of time and mortality, the churchyard, and the coffin as it enters the churchyard, are touched by the enduring harmony of nature in the picturesque composition. Dorothy's awareness of the reality of death, subjective, dark, and threatening to her rational space, contains itself in diminished, displaced form by association with the “quiet spot” which has a proper place in the sunny landscape. Conversely, in such a scene most Romantic poets would allow a play of emotion beyond what is “realistic” in an attempt to open the gates of association and expression. The scene's curious narcissistic mixing of viewer (subject) and natural world (object) spatializes nature as a projection of feelings and renders its darker side, and the darker side of the “Dorothy” in the journals innocuous and manipulable. Spatialized nature in Dorothy's journals is not a movement into the world in time, but a frozen series of individual prospects, like slide projections in a darkened room. Throughout the Alfoxden-Grasmere journals, a model lights the screen and intrudes against the darkness a vision of nature in the image of picture-making rules. In this way, the picturesque passes over the subjective world in time to signify the world of “out there,” leaving emotions and death behind in the dark, like Dorothy's tears at the funeral.

Picturesque imagery in Dorothy's journals creates a kind of repetition that, in fusing emotions directly with an objectified landscape, excludes meaningful relationship between mind and nature in a denial of time. Quoting Coleridge, M. H. Abrams draws the conclusion that “absolute separation … is death-dealing—in Coleridge's words, it is ‘the philosophy of Death, and only of a dead nature can it hold good’—so that the separation of mind from nature leads inevitably to the conception of a dead world in which the estranged mind is doomed to lead a life-in-death.”6 Most Romantic writers attempted to relate subjective and objective experience according to an organic model, in what René Wellek calls “the great endeavor to overcome the split between subject and object, the self and the world.”7 Not in this sense a Romantic writer, Dorothy Wordsworth, as revealed through her nature imagery, backs away from the great endeavor to lose the self in a picture of nature.

The pictorial relation of subject and object is a statement of man's place in the phenomenal world, the articulation of which is the intention of the picturesque. Dorothy draws a trenchant emblem of picturesque intentionality when she tells of seeing in a landscape a “Stone man” (probably a man-shaped rock) who was looking out, it seemed, from his spot on the top of a hill (p. 62). Dorothy looks out upon the Stone man, the fixed perspective; the Stone man in turn looks out over the fixed form of picturesque nature. Dorothy concludes the passage as follows: “Every tooth and every edge of Rock was visible, and the Man stood like a Giant watching from the Roof of a lofty castle. The hill seemed perpendicular from the darkness below it. It was a sight that I could call to mind at any time it was so distinct.” The essence of the emblem is in the apparent, momentary mastery of a beauty which can be called up, repeated, whenever it is needed—at will. Against the darkness of time and oblivion, the picturesque rises like a lofty castle in a kind of triumph all the more poignant because it is fleeting and illusory. While the Romantic poets around her flee from the picturesque, Dorothy, the “exquisite sister” of William, hovers over her landscape like a ghost unable to abandon what was once safe.


  1. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Mary Moorman (1971), p. 1. Hereafter, all page citations in the text refer to this edition.

  2. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (1940-58), I, 62n.

  3. “Dorothy Wordsworth and the Picturesque,” SiR [Studies in Romanticism], 3 (1964), 128.

  4. Elizabeth Hardwick, “Amateurs: Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle,” New York Review of Books, 19 (November 30, 1972), 4.

  5. In Kenneth Clark's Landscape Into Art (1949), see Lorrain's “Temple of Apollo” (pl. 61) and “Landscape with the Flight into Egypt” (pl. 63).

  6. M. H. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” in Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (1970), p. 218.

  7. René Wellek, “Romanticism Re-Examined,” in Romanticism Reconsidered, ed. Northrop Frye (1963), p. 132.

Alan Liu (essay date spring 1984)

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SOURCE: Liu, Alan. “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals.Criticism 26, no. 2 (spring 1984): 115-37.

[In the following essay, Liu asserts that Wordsworth is a master at representing the self as part of its present occupation, a relationship he paraphrases as “I work therefore I am.”]

A genius of the journalistic is Dorothy Wordsworth, who in 1801 became the keeper of William's memorial genius. Writes Dorothy to Coleridge on May 22, 1801:

Poor William! his stomach is in bad plight. We have put aside all the manuscript poems and it is agreed between us that I am not to give them up to him even if he asks for them.1

After William's work on “Home at Grasmere” trailed off in early 1800, and after brother and sister finished sending Lyrical Ballads to the publisher at the end of that year, there was virtually no poetic composition by William until his renewed interest in “The Pedlar” in early 1802. No comparable period in the poet's early career, except those occupied by extensive trips or visits, was quite so empty.2 In this white space of suppressed manuscripts, the labors of poetic memory subsided back into the elemental, gut-comfort of day-by-day existence. And the regulatory muse of the day-by-day was Dorothy, whose Grasmere Journals spoke on throughout the period in a perpetual embroidery of the lived present.

But what can the present “be”? Worries Augustine:

In fact the only time that can be called present is an instant, if we can conceive of such, that cannot be divided even into the most minute fractions, and a point of time as small as this passes so rapidly from the future to the past that its duration is without length.3

As formalized in post-Cartesian temporal philosophy, this dilemma became the paradox of the instantaneous cogito, which knew itself as a point in successive time always desiring duration. In every instant, being stood on the brink of nothingness.

The substance of the lived present, it seems to me, can only reside in the “autobiographical present,” in an experience of the present that even at the moment of experience constitutes itself as a representation of presence. In the Augustinian “confession,” the seminal “I am” of the autobiographical present arose as a circumvention of temporal logic built into the speaking situation.4 Mortality represented itself to eternity, the literal to the anagogic, and in the space of “morality” thus opened between these two perspectives there was room for a sanctioned illogic of time: “sinfulness.” Poised perilously between somethingness and nothingness, the state of sinfulness projected the razor edge of the present: “I sin therefore I am.”5

In Cartesian “meditation” the earlier dialogic no longer applied. Cogito or “thought” was a voice that began talking in absolute isolation, and so had to invent—or, in Descartes' case, “prove”—the existence of a transcendental listener.6 Secular autobiography in the 18th century then relocated the transcendental listener in a “Reader” or “Public” implicitly surrounding the Boswellian self in every moment of its being. Stripped of ultimate authority, such an immanental listener could not tense itself against the self in a hierarchical relation susceptible of moral interpretation. “Sin” therefore had to be reinvented in some other form able to render the paradoxical somethingness/nothingness of the “now” with intuitive force. Sin became “sentiment,” an all-or-nothing representation of being formed in the communal, rather than hierarchical, gap between emotional writer and moved reader: “I feel therefore I am.” In the Wordsworthian reformulation, the sentiment of presence then arose from the representation of past sentiment to an implicit listener: “I felt therefore I am.”

Dorothy's Journals never fully command the disciplines of memory, confession, or meditation, yet nevertheless command presence: despite their seemingly undisciplined form they are always profoundly a representational or “autobiographical present.” If we were only to read what is “on the page,” however, the “undisciplined,” “primitive,” or “naive” form of the Journals would make them seem only a poorer sister of the established disciplines of presence and so belie what seems to me to be the sophistication of Dorothy's experience.7 The true idiom of Dorothy's autobiography lies not in the finished writing on the page so much as in the laborious motions of hand, body, and heart behind the writing—in writing, in other words, that is first of all part of a daily regimen of work. The Journals sketch what I will call a “complete and shared” structure of work, an outer form of presence, grounded upon an inner representation by which the working self throws itself into daily correspondence with being: “I work therefore I am.”


We can first observe that Dorothy's “now” appears in the Journals as a precisely delineated structure of completion and sharing. Take, for example, the pivotal date of December 21, 1801:

Monday 21st, being the shortest day. Mary walked to Ambleside for letters, it was a wearisome walk for the snow lay deep upon the Roads and it was beginning to thaw. I stayed at home and clapped the small linen. Wm sate beside me and read the Pedlar, he was in good spirits, and full of hope of what he should do with it. He went to meet Mary and they brought 4 letters, 2 from Coleridge, one from Sara and one from France. Coleridge's were very melancholy letters, he had been very ill in his bowels. We were made very unhappy. Wm wrote to him and directed the letter into Somersetshire. I finished it after tea. In the afternoon Mary and I ironed—afterwards she packed her clothes up and I mended Wm's stockings while he was reading the Pedlar. I then packed up for Mr Clarkson's—we carried the Boxes cross the Road to Fletcher's peat house, after Mary had written to Sara and Joanna.


Dorothy generally records four kinds of activity at Dove Cottage: (a) the inspiration or composition of William's poetry, (b) textual work (the writing and reading of letters, journals, revisions, and manuscripts, as well as the reading of literature), (c) housework, and (d) walking or gardening in Nature.9 (I include William's poetic composition here despite his lapse in 1801 partly because our lack of Dorothy's notebook for December 23, 1800, to October 9, 1801, hides much of the lapse, but more essentially—as I will argue—because her brother's poetic work is a necessary idea for Dorothy independent of actual composition.) All four kinds occur in the entry above, though with the complication that it is Mary Hutchinson who walks, and together constitute the entirety of existence. They distribute this entirety into what John Holloway, discussing Blake's Songs of Innocence, calls a “self-completing” universe,10 a structure that can be pictured most simply (though certainly not exclusively) as a sphere. I will name this sphere the “dome of labor”: Poetic Composition (William) stands at the north point; Housework (Dorothy) at the south; and Textual Work and Walking in Nature at the west and east, respectively, so as to define a horizontal line between the hemispheres of William and Dorothy.

The dome of labor is first of all a structure of interactive completion. Perhaps human beings can never know the present without first simplifying each day in this way to just a few activities whose reciprocity stays constantly in mind, as expectation, while the individual concentrates on a single task. Placing ourselves in Dorothy's hemisphere, we can imagine the fulfillment she experiences when housework, onerous by itself, “expects” walking in Nature, when walking in Nature expects its completion in letter- or journal-writing, and when textual labor then closes this hemisphere of action by expecting again the more active exertions of housework. Each action refers to the others for its meaning, and provides in turn the meaning of others.

More detail can be read in the dome when we realize that it is also a structure of intersubjective sharing. The dome's symmetry is marked by prohibitory division—the division of work at Dove Cottage—but such division does not impair any individual's trust in total communion. For purposes of analysis, I reduce the persons to just William and Dorothy, the permanent residents until William's marriage to Mary in October, 1802. We notice that each time William reads “The Pedlar” on December 21, and is inspired to plan future composition, Dorothy performs housework (“clapping,” “mending”) by his side. Poetic work and housework, frequently accompanying each other in the Journals,11 are somehow a matched set. They are matched because, by and large, they are the two unshared activities, and stand exactly opposite one another as each other's interdicted “vanishing point.” Arguing along the lines Margaret Homans develops, we might say that it is forbidden for Dorothy to experience “poetic inspiration” as such; she must imagine it as a Poetry at the vanishing point on her horizon.12 William, for his part, is blind to housework in this world—a blindness attested to in his own poetry, it might be noted, by the fact that mothers and wives are usually visible only when placed outside, not doing anything with the hands (The Prelude, 1805, IV, 207-21, for example, depicts Ann Tyson sleeping outside on Sunday). Housework is where Poetry, the acme of the “idleness” so worrisome to William and the 18th century generally, is forbidden to enter.13 Castled in indolence, or preoccupied by unworldly labor, William must imagine Dorothy's routine existence as the vanishing point on his horizon, as the domestic center of the labor he himself celebrates in “Home at Grasmere.”

Yet it is something gained—it is in truth
A mighty gain—that Labour here preserves
His rosy face, a Servant only here
Of the fire-side or of the open field. …(14)

Such labor, whether by the fireside or in the fields, can be likened to the contemplation-folded-into-labor of “silent poetry” that Wordsworth also cherished in the early Grasmere years. A first formulation: “silent poetry” is a faculty for imaging Nature's pure being in the immediate course of being, of wordless working and living. Like other counter-arts that artistic disciplines create for themselves, “silent poetry” is difficult to describe because it is solely a vanishing point. It seems important for an artist to court a secondary discipline whose effects he appreciates rapturously, but whose actual labor he understands not at all. Where a poet might say, “if I could only draw what I mean!”, a painter—Turner, for example, who persistently titled his works with verses from his phantom epic, “The Fallacies of Hope”—might say, “if I could only write what I mean!” In the early Grasmere years, when Wordsworth's recent flirtation with the picturesque still embarrassed the visual arts, he cast the idea of direct, sensuous imaging primarily in the mold of “silent poetry,” and used the phrase in 1800 specifically to describe his brother, John, whose imagination-in-activity was a vanishing point literally on the horizon at sea.15 But the phrase also applies in this period to Dorothy; the Pedlar, whose job is a sort of outdoor housework; and even the Leech-Gatherer, who, when he cons Nature's muddy water “As if he had been reading in a book” (stress mine), becomes a counter-poet, an artist-of-labor, leeching away the woes of verbalization proper through sheer persistence in activity. Second formulation: “silent poetry” is the vanishing point of poetry because it is composition's imago, a pure “reading.” John reads Nature together with Anderson's British Poets at sea,16 the Pedlar is “impressed” by Nature's printing press of forms (and secondarily by Milton), and Dorothy, as she sits laundering by William's side on December 21, is the quintessence of the reader or audience. As in the case of the Leech-Gatherer, who “finds them where he may,” the labor of the silent poet is not to make, but to “gather” Nature's messages.

While divided by a prohibitory gap in experience, then, poetic composition and “silent” housework, William and Dorothy are imagined in this world to reside in a symmetry allowing them to refer to each other as the image of their own wholeness. Brother and sister refer to each other through the intersubjective inflection of what I earlier called “expectation,” care,17 which communicates itself through actually shared activities. These mediating activities are textual work and walking or gardening in Nature. Half in the hemisphere of Poetry, and half in that of Silent Poetry (or “reading”), textual labor and recreation in Nature stand on the “horizon.” From Dorothy's vantage point, housework—laundering; baking tarts, giblet pies, bread, and cakes; binding carpets; making shoes; and all her other Grasmere cares—modulates on one side into the labor of love that is textual work, and on the other into the labor of love that is walking or gardening in Nature. These latter, twin cares, the hemispheric bounds of housework, then require for the universe to be “domed,” “domesticated,” or wholly shared, the imagined but proscribed labor of her brother's poetry, which binds text and Nature together. William is placed at a complementary vantage point: poetic composition modulates into the twin cares of textual production and natural recreation, which, like outstretched arms, wrap around and shelter an interdicted Silent Poetry, a muse of readership necessary to make his universe whole. By sheltering each other's portion of existence, the wilderness—which is the unexperienced—becomes enclosed. William himself approximates the splendid closure pictured in the Grasmere Journals when he watches the vanishing point or “unseen companionship” of his sister in “Home at Grasmere”:

                              Mine eyes did ne'er
Rest 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. …(18)

Such, then, is an initial map of the present at Grasmere. We might sum up by saying that the present recorded in the Journals is wholly “familiar.” The present is a family of actions, one action in which incomplete and unshared labors know each other, even in absence, as the strangely familiar segment of experience. I suggest an anthropological paradigm: the line of prohibition dividing the labors of “unseen companions” at Grasmere is the equivalent of the universal rule proscribing incest, the rule that in Claude Lévi-Strauss's generalization of the incest-problem creates the very possibility of a cosmos in which humans can domesticate the wild, or make the wilds cultured.19 If actions were completed and shared automatically or bodily—i.e., by “instinct”—they would be animal. But in the human present, actions are completed and shared despite the ban on direct communication or intercourse. The ban necessitates building a structure, the “family,” whose completion and sharing are premised upon a higher order of unification: “society.”


Suppose that the dome of labor so far mapped is a sentence with all terms in agreement. Then there must be a set of rules allowing the raw statement of daily existence to be transformed into the sentence. I suggest that the rules constituting the atomistic basis of completion and sharing in the dome of labor can be reduced to two complementary habits: repetition and representation. Repetition is an initial organization of experience created in the act of labor itself. The place to begin is with Dorothy's housework. Consider that housework and manual labor in general—as the songs of tribal and rustic cultures attest—is rhythm, the art of repetition. Ironing, mending, and packing, whether conceived at the stitch-by-stitch or chore-by-chore level, transform the raw continuum into a sustained binarism in which periods of automatic activity alternate with spaces of emotional subjectivity. Thus on December 21, between Dorothy's periods of labor, runs a quiet pulse of passions and sympathies: “it was a wearisome walk … he was in good spirits … Coleridge's were very melancholy letters … We were made very unhappy. …” From such repetitive flux between acts of hand and soul, matter-of-fact absorption within and occasional reflection upon the demands of life, arises the kind of steady attention we know as everyday identity.

But repetition by itself is deadly. Geometrically, repetition, or a line of events in time, is supposed to be a continuity of points, but if points are defined as units of uncompromised singleness, how can they join to create the truly continuous line of human identity? When the logic of the line becomes problematic in human thought, a characteristic solution is to shift the ground of proof by introducing another image of repetition by which to re-interpret, or represent, the line.20 Such an alternative image is the circle (which I have already privileged in the “dome” schema and will continue to highlight with the understanding that it is simply one of the clearest and most traditional models of continuity). By itself, of course, circularity is merely repetition.21 But when invoked from within the narrow viewpoint of straight-line logic, the circle becomes mythic: it represents linearity (the perimeter) as a continuous function hinging upon a point not on the line itself (the focus). The focus is the idealization of the otherwise repetitive, discontinuous “point”; it is the imagination of the point as pure continuity.

Application: we can predict that Dorothy's Journals must represent repetitious labor as participating in something like a round of actions and actors, in the profound “revolution” that is the present.

The geometrical analogy can also be expressed in terms of the line of “narrative.” Hayden White has argued that the representation needed to convert chronologies of open-ended repetition (the “annals” form in historiography) into “chronicle” (which for the first time is “about” some subject) and then history proper is “narrative,” and that narrative is cognate with the supposition of legal authority.22 Narrative constitutes by “law” a subject (e.g., a king or nation) that can have a line or curve of development liberated from mere repetition. All “law,” I would add, is the law of the other: it is the legitimization of the subject as a “self” who can see itself in bounded form only from the perspective of some higher authority, some “focal point” not on the self's line. In literary narrative, the law of the other is perspectival distance. In the basic Aristotelian situation, narrative is a “complete” action whose beginning, middle, and end—incomplete and unshared as they may seem to the characters in the line of action—are presumed by anticipation from the distance of the spectator to revolve organically into each other. Within narrative itself, such perspectival distance appears as the parallax of understanding signalled by the descent of the god.

We can thus predict in addition that Dorothy's Journals must be fundamentally narrative in their representation of repetition as a complete round, and that such narrative will depend on a crucial perspective shift felt not as metaphor but as authoritative law.

Here we reach an impasse. Whereas it is relatively easy to see that Dorothy's Journals are repetitive, it is not so easy to see that they are a sustained, narrative representation. The journal form, after all, contours itself along the jazz rhythms of improvisation and episode rather than the unified curve of Aristotelian tragedy. To speculate that a journal is thoroughly narrative means to argue as well that the basic circularity upon which the journalist improvises, the impersonal calendar furnishing the “plot,” must be individually imagined and invested with drama. Only so can there be a true representation of repetition upon which to construct the completed and shared present.


I propose to tell the story of laundry that occurs in the Journals literally in housework and figuratively in textual labor and Nature. The story of laundry is a repetitious tale that will at first seem only bad story because its true narrativity, and the moving vision at its heart, cannot appear until a perspectival shift occurs.

First there is the plot of literal washing, the most time-consuming part of Dorothy's housework. We can guess from the Journals that clothes and linen at Dove Cottage in the early years were neither plentiful nor more clean than necessary. Nevertheless, laundering occupied a frightening amount of time. In 1800, when we have a fairly sustained record for seven months from spring to winter (May 14 to December 22, excluding about a month in June and July and two weeks in September), and when old Molly Fisher from across the road helped Dorothy less than in later years, washing occurred at a frequency varying from about twice per month in the summer to once per month and even less often in the winter. This does not seem excessive until we realize that washing merely initiated a whole sequence of laundering spread out over several successive days: spreading, bleaching, drying, starching, ironing, and mending. Altogether, washing and its sequalia in 1800 occupied at least twenty-four days out of the recorded seven months (more if we assume that some laundry chores went unrecorded).23 A guess would be that a full year involved some forty days of laundering. Even forty days may not be worth comment if only small parts of each day were spent at the task, but in 1800, when Dorothy compressed washing-related activities almost exclusively into periods of rain, cold, heat, or other inclemency,24 laundering swelled to consume virtually the whole of the relevant entries, implying many hours of daily work—for example:

Wednesday [May 21st]. Went often to spread the linen which was bleaching—a rainy day and very wet night.

Thursday [22nd]. A very fine day with showers—dried the linen and starched. Drank tea at Mr Simpson's. Brought down Batchelor's Buttons (Rock Ranunculus) and other plants—went part of the way back. A showery, mild evening—all the peas up.

Friday 23rd. Ironing till tea time. So heavy a rain that I could not go for letters—put by the linen, mended stockings etc.


The plot of washing, of course, is thoroughly repetitive. In the history of women's narrative as figured in fabric work, Dorothy's tale of laundry would not be Ariadne's complete threading of the labyrinth but Penelope's constant ravelling and unravelling. Existence at Grasmere is an endless contest between dirt and purity. But to say that laundering is a “bad story” because it is repetitious is only part of the truth because unrelieved repetition—which is the way a machine handles laundry—is not “story” at all. For a human there is not just repetition but always also yearning for narrative. As anyone who has worked extensively in house or factory knows, humans in periods of sustained mechanical labor transform repetition into daydreaming desire for, yet frustration of, story. Sometimes such narrativistic impulse finds outlet in fully-formed stories (gossip or today's “soap operas”), but more basically, it expresses itself as a radical of narrative representation, a deep desire to make action purgative, tragic in Aristotle's sense. Laundering, of course, is the perfect icon of the narrative radical, or primitive “soap opera,” immersed in labor because it is literally a purification.

Proof that washing craves a purgative, even mythic dimension appears in a Journal entry such as that for September 3, 1800 (38-39). After accompanying William, John, and Coleridge part of the way to Helvellyn, Dorothy returns to spend the morning and early afternoon laundering: “A fine coolish morning. I ironed till 1/2 past three—now very hot.” Then she participates in a funeral for a woman who, wholly devoid of clan (“There were no near kindred, no children”), is an uncanny antonym of Dorothy, a spectre-self embodying Dorothy's worst fears. Staged like a tragedy complete with chorus, the rite of the spectre-self precipitates an enormous cleansing of emotion in Dorothy:

I was affected to tears while we stood in the house, the coffin lying before me. There were no near kindred, no children. When we got out of the dark house the sun was shining and the prospect looked so divinely beautiful as I never saw it. It seemed more sacred than I had ever seen it, and yet more allied to human life. The green fields, neighbours of the churchyard, were as green as possible and with the brightness of the sunshine looked quite gay. I thought she was going to a quiet spot and I could not help weeping very much. When we came to the bridge they began to sing again and stopped during 4 lines before they entered the churchyard. The priest met us—he did not look as a man ought to do on such an occasion—I had seen him half-drunk the day before in a pot-house. Before we came with the corpse one of the company observed he wondered what sort of cue “our Parson would be in.”

Dorothy then spends most of the remaining day laundering once more: “I had not finished ironing till 7 o'clock. The wind was now high and I did not walk—writing my journal now at 8 o'clock.” We recognize that on September 3 laundering brackets a passionate story of purgation, of immersion in a spectral “dark house,” emotional purification, and baptismal emergence into a same/other world of washed “green,” “brightness,” and “sunshine.” Yet, the story of purgation thus folded within laundering is never more than craving for complete narration. There is that half-drunk Parson—the first such “half” entity we will come upon—at the close of the purgative episode. Something dirty always spoils the wash in Dorothy's universe, necessitating the repetition of laundering.

Flanking the plot of literal laundering in Dorothy's world are two analogous plots equally repetitive and frustrated. First, it is fitting that Dorothy's evening hours of ironing on September 3 should be capped by an hour of writing in her Journal: laundering's regulation of emotions, or inner weather, corresponds with textual labor's regulation of days, its diurnal divisions ordering and purging identity. The incessant writing of letters and journals, perhaps, is only a daily composing—a washing, ironing, mending, and packing—of the soul. Secondly, household laundering corresponds with the incessant regulations and purgations of actual weather, with Nature's journal. Quite literally, as noticed previously, Dorothy's days of laundering occurred in near-perfect syncopation with bad weather. Nature in the Journals is God's housework, and her emotional disturbances—the peaks of beauty and storm spicing the delicate atmosphere of Dorothy's writing—require a grand washing, ironing, mending, and ordering of existence day by day.

The plot of purgation in Nature is especially important. Relevant is what Nature does with “dirt.” We notice that a complaint of “dirty roads,” “dirty snow,” “nasty miry lanes,” “dirty” streets, and “dirty” towns runs through the Journals like a litany,25 peaking once just after the period under consideration in July, 1802, when Dorothy washes Hull and then London out of her mind (“Dirty, brick housey tradesmanlike … place,” “Streets dirty”), and once before that on February 2, 1802, when she allies “dirt” suggestively to terror:

We walked into Easedale—were turned back in the open field by the sight of a cow. Every horned cow puts me in terror. We walked as far as we could having crossed the footbridge, but it was dirty, and we turned back. …


Like the “horned cow” capable of attacking people (a cow attacked Coleridge in 1802),26 dirt is a particle of terrifying disorder, of matter at home in the domestic world and yet also uncannily destructive of that world.27 Dorothy's dirt does not, however, prompt the terminal catharsis, or transcendence, of Burke's sublime, which is also a sort of gigantic “dirtiness” and animalism (black mountains and raging horses, for example). On a day-to-day basis, the story of Nature's housework in the Journals consists of nothing but an accumulation of dirt necessitating purgations that even in the act of washing merely deposit dirt elsewhere and so demand new purgations. Storms clean the sky, but muddy the fields; snow whitens the roads, but turns into sullied thaw. Sullying coexisting repetitively with washing, we might say, constitutes the “picturesque,” a category whose attraction for, and yet “scrubbed” withdrawal from, nature's ragged edges, twists, and intricacies of texture, and humanity's hovels, gypsies, and beggars, can be described as compulsive playing with dirt. The picturesque is never wholly able to cleanse the sublime from the face of beauty, and so compels the observer, once one postcard of the mind is complete, to move on to the next in search of a terminal experience.28 As in the case of household laundering, in sum, Nature's labor of cleansing always leans toward, but never accomplishes, complete story.

How can the three bad stories of housework, textual labor, and Nature wash away dirt, fulfill their urge toward complete story, and so represent repetition as presence? It is important to note that the three stories appear equally repetitious only when viewed as interchangeable from an “objective” viewpoint outside Grasmere. But if we enter into the picture and assume the viewpoint of housework itself, for example, we will recognize that textual labor and Nature are not just repetitious realms identical to mundane life but distanced repetitions capable of becoming representational. The redundancy folding the story of actual laundry between textual and natural cleansings is crucial because such redundancy is a mirror making possible perspectival distance: household laundering comes to see its own repetitive line represented within the more visibly formed story of the other. Laundering, in sum, uses the idiom of other lines of repetition (most importantly, Nature's), to tell of its own complete, rounded story of purification. And what the idiom of Nature—of work as “natural”—tells from its serene distance, it tells with the authority of law: “work, therefore shall you be.”

Dorothy tells the revolutionary fullness of daily activity when she sees its repetitiousness reflected, most serenely, in the repetitious patterns of Nature's sky—especially the evening sky, that distant palimpsest on which each day's repetitions are represented afresh within larger, authoritative patterns of sidereal and lunar turnings—for example:

[6 Dec., 1801] … It was a sober starlight evening, the stars not shining as it were with all their brightness when they were visible and sometimes hiding themselves behind small greyish clouds. …

[7 Dec.] … The first star at Nadel fell, but it was never dark.

[9 Dec.] … We had the Crescent Moon when we went out. …

[12 Dec.] … The moon shone upon the water below Silverhow, and above it hung, combining with Silver how on one side, a Bowl-shaped moon the curve downwards. …

[17 Dec.] … Jupiter was very glorious above the Ambleside hills and one large star hung over Coombe of the hills. …


Dorothy's astronomy is not precise (she seems to have called the brightest star in any sky “Jupiter,” for example),29 and so we need only look for the sky's representational meaning in its broad effects. Dorothy glories in evening-skies of exceptional purity, when stars, planets, and moon hang either in crystalline splendour or in relief against striations of clouds. The evening-sky, serving much the same function as Constable's cloud-scapes, mirrors the extent of the elapsed and coming days' purity. Yet it figures purity not just as a point in a repetitive line, but as part of the “story” of the completed month, of a full revolution from beginning to end regulated by the lunar phases. Dorothy is always looking to the moon—especially crescent moons representing most tragically the encroachment of darkness and foretelling most beautifully the purgation by which darkness can be redeemed. Specifically, crescent moons foretell the full moon, emblem of the transcendence of repetition. Gazing at the circle of the full moon on June 13, 1802, Dorothy together with William suddenly gains perspectival distance and, in an ascent parallel to the descent of the god, rises above dirty work into a purer realm: “The full moon (not quite full),” she says, “was among a company of steady island clouds, and the sky bluer about it than the natural sky blue. William observed that the full moon above a dark fir grove is a fine image of the descent of a superior being” (135).

Lunar revolution, however, is not the ultimate story glimpsed in Nature's repetitions. In narratives proper, the gathering of plot into chapters (or acts, cantos, and other units of moderate inclusion) provides the initial perspectival distance necessary to project from within the bounds of plot the shape of the whole book or poem. The chapter, in other words, is the representation of overall form visible from within the line of repetitive event.30 The lunar month is precisely such a chapter-structure. Its role in the Gregorian calendar is to serve as the mysterious sub-plot (associated with religious holidays) mediating between day-by-day existence and the grandest revolution or story of all, the solar year governing work. Seen as part of the solar year, daily labor is not simply repetitious but part of a complete story of seasons in which the repetitious travails of any one season (e.g., sowing) can achieve narrative meaningfulness by foretelling those of another (e.g., harvesting).

Only when Dorothy fully imagines the solar calendar in this way and then represents her personal day-by-day activity as participating in the calendar's universal story can the sense of the complete and shared present begin to emerge. Consider, once more, the entry for December 21, 1801, in which we can now notice that the solar cycle was implicit from the start. December 21 for Dorothy is not just any day but the “shortest day,” winter solstice. It is a telling index in the Journals of an actively imagined solar cycle of washing—an annual representation of daily chores that consoles the perspective bound to repetition by revealing that even days of greatest darkness, when the repetitive line of dirtying and washing is most intense, participate in a larger, wholesome revolution.

To dramatize the perspectival shift by which the “shortest day” enters into the washing cycle of the year, let me sketch Dorothy's progress from terrible repetition on December 21 and 22 to joyous representation on December 26. The idea of overall purgation on the 21st, the “shortest day,” is merely latent: the day is iconic for a dirty, disorderly world mandating repetitive washing. On December 21, a thaw of snow clogs motion, Coleridge's bowels are ill, stockings need to be mended, and the loose thread of Annette Vallon (who probably wrote the letter “from France”) needs fixing. The intensity of repetition at the solstitial season is then confirmed by the succeeding entry for December 22, one of the most uncannily repetitive entries in the Journals (71-73). The 22nd begins with an act of personal cleanliness (“I washed my head”) performed within a climate of dirt and untidiness (“The road was covered with dirty snow, rough and rather slippery”). The need to wash away literal dirt then acquires tragic urgency when yet another “melancholy” letter arrives from Coleridge detailing his illness. Such tragic urgency strengthens when the Journals mention “The Pedlar” (whose narrator is a spectator of tragedy in the original “Ruined Cottage”) as well as Charles Lamb's actual tragedy, John Woodvill.

Dirt plus tragedy, in Dorothy's logic, equals poverty. Thus it is fitting that the tragic spectre of Coleridge on the 22nd then adds itself to the image of a bird scratching dirtily in the road (“It was pecking the scattered Dung”) to generate the description of a beggared sailor (“As we came up the White Moss we met an old man, who I saw was a beggar …”). After once more mentioning her sadness for Coleridge, Dorothy then brings all the day's tragic percussions of dirt and poverty to their final repercussion: first a touch of dirt when she describes William's futile attempt to clear the snow blocking the outhouse (he “called me out to see it but before we got there a whole housetop full of snow had fallen from the roof upon the path and it echoed in the ground beneath like a dull beating upon it”), and then a personalization of poverty when she mentions their need to “borrow money of Luff.”

Imagine that the outhouse is the emblem of the day so far. How to unblock it to allow the rites of cleanliness? To begin with, Dorothy takes a half measure. Succeeding the episode of the outhouse is a curiously transitional image—inserted non sequitur—of the beggar's half-unhealthy nose: “Half the seaman's nose was reddish as if he had been in his youth somewhat used to drinking, though he was not injured by it.” We remember the “half-drunk” parson on September 3, 1800. The function of the beggar's nose, and of Dorothy's “half” entities in general, is to bridge dirt and purity. Where the half-drunk Parson signalled the metamorphosis of purity into dirt, the beggar's half-drunk nose now signals the reverse transmutation back into purity. Immediately after the nose, there is a dash of ambiguous connection, and then Dorothy attempts to sweep away all the day's dirt, poverty, and tragedy by imaging the pristine opposite of the outhouse, a “tempting” “Stone seat” also set amid snow:

—We stopped to look at the Stone seat at the top of the Hill. There was a white cushion upon it round at the edge like a cushion and the Rock behind looked soft as velvet, of a vivid green and so tempting! The snow too looked as soft as a down cushion. A young Foxglove, like a star in the Centre. There were a few green lichens about it and a few withered Brackens of Fern here and there and upon the ground near. All else was a thick snow—no foot mark to it, not the foot of a sheep.

For a just a moment, the repetitious dirt handled by the labor of household laundry—a labor heard in the insistent imagination of nature as a thing of fabric (“cushion … cushion … velvet … cushion”)—washes away. A dreamscape like a memory of naked flesh emerges in too-perfect whiteness, softness, and roundness. And at the center of the dream of cleanliness, we spot the engine of purification: the tremendously overdetermined “Foxglove” with its onanistic ability to regenerate, all by itself, the dirty world of laundry so that it becomes as pure as the sky. The need to specify “Foxglove” amid a galaxy of fabric whispers the world of laundry; but, by sleight-of-hand, the Foxglove becomes a “star in the Centre” pointing upwards.

Yet such immaculate purgation, untouched by the other, is ultimately sterile and must be repeated. After another mysterious dash, the whole tragic sweep of the day from squalor through purgation to pristineness repeats itself in an episode recalled, non sequitur, from three days ago. Dorothy reiterates the movement from outhouse to Stone seat in the succession of two women, the polluted “Queen of Patterdale” and Chaucer's pure Custance:

—When we were at Thomas Ashburner's on Sunday Peggy talked about the Queen of Patterdale. She had been brought to drinking by her husband's unkindness and avarice. She was formerly a very nice tidy woman. She had taken to drinking but that was better than if she had taken to something worse (by this I suppose she meant killing herself). She said that her husband used to be out all night with other women and she used to hear him come in in the morning for they never slept together—“Many a poor Body a wife like me, has had a working heart for her, as much stuff as she had.” We sate snugly round the fire. I read to them the Tale of Custance and the Syrian monarch, also some of the Prologues. It is the Man of Lawe's Tale. We went to bed early. It snowed and thawed.

Surely there is dreamwork here. A life whose repetitious cleanliness resembles Dorothy's own (“She was formerly a very nice tidy woman”) transforms into its uncanny opposite, a polluted life of addiction to drink. Elided here is any recognition that the world of addictive repetition could also be represented as regenerative fertility: the “something worse” that drinking leads to could just as well suggest sexual abandon if Dorothy did not so quickly interpose an equivalent for abandon: suicide. At the close of the entry, “It snowed and thawed”: what better conclusion to a day whose whole process is obsessive repetition of purgation—first the long sweep leading to the Stone seat, then the mental recapitulation of purification leading up to the mention of Custance.

On the days succeeding the 22nd, dirtiness continues to accumulate repetitiously:

[Dec. 23] A downright thaw but the snow not gone off the ground except on the steep hillsides—it was a thick black heavy air. …

[Dec. 24] Still a thaw … The Roads uncomfortable and slippery. …

[Dec. 25] Christmas day. A very bad day. We drank tea at John Fisher's—we were unable to walk … The roads very slippery. …


Yet, of course, sullying caused by thaw also indicates an improvement of weather. And as the weather becomes progressively more pure, a turning point is at last reached: from the 21st through Christmas, Dorothy's calendar fills increasingly with a sense of the full round of the year. Dorothy, in other words, suddenly experiences the expansion of perspective necessary to represent the dirty thaw at the solstitial season as part of a total, annual cycle of purgation. On Christmas eve, for example, the progress of the year as a whole enters all at once into her vision as she rereads her journal with satisfaction: “Thoughts of last year. I took out my old Journal” (73). By December 26, finally, the season of “shortest days” then becomes so imbued with a sense of calendrical wholeness that Dorothy glimpses what is essentially an eternal day, a season when repetitive dirtiness opens out fully into final purity and the complete and shared “story” of the present. Dawning upon a literal purgation (“… It came on very wet … The rain went off and we walked to Rydale”), the 26th matures into this vision of the washed world:

It was very pleasant—Grasmere Lake a beautiful image of stillness, clear as glass, reflecting all things. The wind was up and the waters sounding. The lake of a rich purple, the fields a soft yellow, the Island yellowish-green, the copses Red Brown the mountains purple. The Church and buildings, how quiet they were! Poor Coleridge, Sara, and dear little Derwent here last year at this time. After tea we sate by the fire comfortably. I read aloud—The Miller's Tale. Wrote to Coleridge. The Olliffs passed in chaise and gig. Wm wrote part of the poem to Coleridge.”


In a sense, all of Grasmere has now become a “Stone seat” or icon of purity. It has transformed into an orbicular representation of existence (“Grasmere Lake a beautiful image of stillness, clear as glass, reflecting all things”)—a crystal ball of interpretation into which Dorothy can look to see the repetitious travail of life transmuted into the global purity of the “present.” Though this passage glances toward what is normally called “past,” we should recognize that Dorothy really sees only the “now.” What more beautiful way to sketch the present than as an all-reflectiveness expanding centrifugally to incorporate every season of existence under its self-completing dome? In this season, all domiciles—whether houses or church—open through doors of mind to shelter Coleridge, Sara, and Derwent: the others from the past who are nevertheless represented here and “now.” Even the colors of this world form a domed or self-completing rainbow arcing around from purple to purple (“purple … yellow … yellowish-green … Red Brown … purple”). And in place of the tale of Custance, there is the Miller's tale with its purgative deluge restoring community and the springtime of things. It does not matter that the weather will turn dirty in the future and mandate further washings. The present has been found, and from its position here at year's end can function as Dorothy's version of a “spot of time” retaining “A vivifying Virtue.” The work of Grasmere, we now see, is Dorothy's Prelude. On this holiday or illud tempus embedded within the schedule of work, William writes “part of the poem to Coleridge” (The Prelude) on the way things were, and she writes a letter to Coleridge on the way things are.

A punctuation: perhaps there is no better way to close a study of Dorothy's autobiographical present than to phrase the purgation-story one last way, as the cure of illness. I believe that it is possible, and genuinely interpretive, to glimpse Dorothy's menstrual cycle in the Journals. Dorothy is not at all shy about specifying such actual afflictions as the “piles,” “rheumatism,” “fever,” or “cold,” and we can thus guess that periods of intense “illness” described only vaguely as “headache” and “feeling unwell” often cloak menstrual pains. Such a guess gains support when we find that there are periodic three- to four-day stretches of incapacitating “headaches,” often sending Dorothy to bed, which occur at roughly twenty-five to thirty day intervals. In the period from the winter of 1801 to the spring of 1802, for example, there are lingering headaches or other fits of unspecified illness on December 2-5; December 26 and 28; February 4, 9; February 22, 26; March 6, 8, and 9; March 26, 28, 29, and 31; April 21, 25, 28, 29; May 12, 18; May 23, 24, 26, 27, 30; and so on.31 Supposing that Dorothy was regular, not all these dates can be relevant, but the general point, I think, is clear: there are at least several sets of entries in the Journals that record Dorothy's attention to her own bodily “month.” Such an inquiry becomes interpretive rather than reductive when we realize that Dorothy's quasi-monthly cycles of “illness” trace the pattern not only of her own sickness, but of the world as a tribe of sickness. In the entry for November 23, 1801, for example, contagion is community:

A beautiful frosty morning. Mary was making William's woollen waistcoat. Wm unwell and did not walk. Mary and I sate in our cloaks upon the Bench in the Orchard. After dinner I went to bed unwell. Mary had a head-ach at night. We all went to bed soon.


The Journals are full of such attention to the rhythms of communal contagion—especially to the cycles of William's and Coleridge's sicknesses.32 As if acting in unison, all these contagions tend to become most intense at the mid-winter season—Coleridge, for example, was bedridden for two weeks at Christmas in 1800—and all await the same rite of purification at New Year. Contagion is another “dirt” in repetitive existence that can only be purged by representing the self's travail in a completed and shared cosmos of pain, in the universal agon preliminary to the fully human “present.”


  1. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), I, 335.

  2. Jared R. Curtis has noticed this specially “barren” period (Wordsworth's Experiments with Tradition: The Lyric Poems of 1802 [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975], p. 5).

  3. Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 266.

  4. I am aided in considering the problem of the present by Burton Pike on the “instant” in Rousseau's Confessions (“Time in Autobiography,” Comparative Literature, 28 [1976], 329); Richard Jackson on the Romantic “timeless moment” (“The Romantic Metaphysics of Time,” Studies in Romanticism, 19 [1980], 19-30); and James Olney on the perishable “ta onta” of the “is” (“Some Versions of Memory/Some Versions of Bios: The Ontology of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980], pp. 239-40. My formulation of the present as a problem of Being ultimately independent of “time” is especially influenced by Olney's ontological speculations.

    I have also benefitted from the massive tradition of studies in Wordsworthian time, especially those works that define post-Cartesian temporality with the explicit aid of Georges Poulet's Studies in Human Time (1950). See Herbert Lindenberger, On Wordsworth's Prelude (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), pp. 131-204; Christopher Salvesen, The Landscape of Memory: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 1-45; and Eugene L. Stelzig, All Shades of Consciousness: Wordsworth's Poetry and the Self in Time, Studies in English Literature, Vol. 102 (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), pp. 13-53. See also Jeffrey Baker on Wordsworth and Cartesian time (Time and Mind in Wordsworth's Poetry [Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1980], pp. 145-46.

  5. This line of thought is suggested by Georges Gusdorf: “Christian destiny unfolds as a dialogue of the soul with God in which, right up to the end, every action, every initiative of thought or of conduct, can call everything back into question” [“Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” trans. James Olney, in Autobiography, p. 33]. In describing the confessions as a single speaking situation, of course, I am simplifying. William C. Spengemann has traced in finer detail the modulation within the Confessions from confession of past sins to a form closer to Cartesian meditation: “a revelation of the self to the self, an act of self-knowledge …” (The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980], p. 5 and passim.

  6. Salvesen, pp. 9-10, has considered Descartes' philosophy as an autobiographical mode.

  7. Lindenberger, pp. 160-62, appreciates the artistic “casualness” of Dorothy's “sensibility securely rooted in the present” as akin to the Schillerian “naive,” to the “full and vivid apprehension” of a Goethe in Schiller's scheme.

  8. All quotations are from Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Mary Moorman, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971).

  9. In the interests of clarity, I have restricted my attention to the relation between Dorothy and William, and so omit one other major activity in the Journals: social visits and conversations.

  10. Blake: The Lyric Poetry (London: Edward Arnold, 1968), p. 52.

  11. See, for example, the matching of poetic work and fabric work in Dorothy's entries for August 22, 1800, and March 9 and 23, 1802.

  12. Observes Homans, “William's primary concentration on the self and on subjectivity in poetry make Dorothy's contrasting evasions of poetic identity especially salient …” (Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980], p. 42. My approach owes much to Homans' insight into the negative site of Dorothy's sensibility, its self-positioning as a not-Poetry (see Homans' chapters on Dorothy and on “The Masculine Tradition”).

  13. See Baker, pp. 113-43, on Wordsworthian “idleness.”

  14. MS. B, 439-42, Home at Grasmere …, ed. Beth Darlington, The Cornell Wordsworth, gen. ed. Stephen Parrish (Ithaca: Cornell, 1977). All quotations are from this edition.

  15. “When, To the Attractions of the Busy World,” l. 80.

  16. The Letters of John Wordsworth, ed. Carl H. Ketcham (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1969), p. 123.

  17. Undergirding my thought on the present is what might be called an initiatory phenomenological approach—one that isolates the present as the experience in which the self projects its being outward as a fully-formed “world,” but that then welcomes further anthropologies, sociologies, and psychologies of time. Because my phenomenology is initiatory, I have not felt obliged to respect the full, Heideggerean development of “care.”

  18. MS. B, 104-112.

  19. The Elementary Structures of Kinship, rev. ed., trans. James Harle Bell, et al. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 29-68, 478-97.

  20. Conceived within the post-Cartesian framework of temporality—of succession and the need to transcend succession—this becomes the reorigination problem studied by Leslie Brisman in Romantic Origins (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978). The Romantic poets, Brisman argues, sought to escape the legacy of their first origin, which condemns them to repetition, by conceiving a second origination: for the Romantic poets, “there are two births, and while one is subject to repetition and the ‘failure to originate,’ the other remains pure” (15) and constitutes “a moment whose time is always, potentially, now” (16). The “now” of this Romantic, second origin, however, is ultimately defined not as “purity” but as priority: “Returning to a second birth given both primary importance and something like temporal priority, the poets step outside the circle of imitation, repetition, and belatedness; they return to the sources of their power” (18).

    A worthwhile thought experiment would be to fit Dorothy into Brisman's “conception” of the male Romantics. Dorothy's representation of repetition may also be conceived as a re-origination or second “birth” issuing in a pure “now.” But the specifically temporal idiom of “priority” vs. “belatedness”—and, indeed, the entire metaphor of “birth” and issue—is unavailable to her as a means of defining the purity of the “now.” As Homans, p. 44, observes, Dorothy turns away from “maternal origins.” Her “now,” which I have outlined as a “family” structure strangely void of parental origin (cf., Homans, p. 46), is both sourceless and issueless in conception: characteristically, for example, the Journals do not remember or anticipate more than a year at a time. Perhaps the “unoriginality” of Dorothy's representations tells upon her own negation of sexual potency—her desire to unthink conception and issue—but certainly it also tells us we need to redefine “originality” generally so that it embraces the works of those who do not, like the male Romantics, make an issue of “birth.” If, as Homans argues in her chapters on “The Masculine Tradition” and “Dorothy Wordsworth,” literature in the male lineage seeks to act upon the Other or object, and that Other is, among other things, the mother or Mother Nature, then what Other can the writer who is already an actual mother or immaculate mother (in Dorothy's case, a “sister”) act upon in order to “return to the sources of … power” and become original? (Cf., Barbara A. Schapiro's recent The Romantic Mother: Narcissistic Patterns in Romantic Poetry [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983]; see also Brisman on “maternal presence” in his Wordsworth chapter.) The answer must be not an “Other” at all, but a “domesticated” Other from which otherness is ultimately purged. Ending his examination of Blake, Brisman points back through the “priority” to the purity of “now,” through, that is, the representation of origin to the presentation of what I would call the domesticated origin or sense of things “present to us”: representations, Brisman says in the words of Los, “live before us,” and “if ‘before’ cannot mean ‘anterior to,’ restoring priorities, it can mean ‘present to us,’ restoring a sense of presentness as art best can” (275). The other for Dorothy, as I will show, is “dirt.” Dirt is Adamic dust, a stuff of origin, but the role of this original in Dorothy's domestic universe is to be swept out of the house so that we are left not with the art of origination and reorigination, but of a literal “purity” sufficient unto the day.

  21. A fact that Jeffrey Mehlman makes especially suggestive in his Revolution and Repetition: Marx/Hugo/Balzac (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977).

  22. “The Value of Narrativity,” in On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980-81), pp. 1-23.

  23. The following is a “laundry-list” for 1800 (an ∗ indicates that the laundering was done by Molly Fisher; where there is an ambiguity over the correct date of an entry, I have given Dorothy's designation): May 15 (mending), 19 (mending, drying), 20 (washing∗), 21 (spreading), 22 (drying, starching), 23 (ironing, mending), 27 (mending); June 2 (washing∗), 10 (washing∗), 17 (ironing), [late June to late July missing]; August 4 (spreading), 5 (drying), 6 (ironing, sewing), 18 (mending), 21 (mending), 22 (mending); September 3 (ironing), 5 (ironing), 11 (mending) (washing∗), [late September missing]; October 8 (drying), 9 (ironing), 16 (starching, ironing); December 15 (starching), 16 (ironing). For more information on Dorothy's laundry work, see The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, I, 160-61, 296.

  24. See the entries for the following days of laundry work: May 15, 20, 21, 22, 23, 27; June 10; August 4, 5, 6, 21, 22; October 8, 9.

  25. See, for example, the entries for November 22, 1800; November 17 and December 22, 29, 1801; and February 2, 14, 18, 20 and July 25, 26, 1802 (the latter two days record the visit to Hull). In the entry for July 31, 1802, when Dorothy and William crossed Westminster Bridge on their way from London to Dover (and France), Dorothy stresses repeatedly the “pure light” and “purity” of the dawn.

  26. See Dorothy's entry for June 10, 1802.

  27. It is instructive to read Dorothy's Journals together with Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966). Douglas argues that ceremonies of pollution/purification observe the “boundaries” or defining lines of structure in a society (on boundaries, see especially p. 122) in the sense of constituting those lines even while marking their transgression. Dirt is “matter out of place,” she says, and continues:

    This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the byproduct of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements

    (p. 35).

    Dirt, which all societies and religions require, thus both destroys the order of things as known and makes the idea of that order knowable (see also pp. 94 and 161 on the creative potential of disorder and dirt). I am indebted to Alan J. Bewell of Yale University for directing me to Douglas's fine work.

  28. Robert Con Davis has noted that the “intention” of Dorothy's use of the picturesque is “formal repetition” (“The Structure of the Picturesque: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals,” The Wordsworth Circle, 9 (1978), 45-49). Also pertinent to my thesis on the autobiographical present is Davis's discussion of the “time-and-eternity theme” in picturesque paintings.

  29. See Dorothy's entry for January 29, 1802.

  30. I am aided here by Philip Stevick, The Chapter in Fiction: Theories of Narrative Division (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1970). See especially the argument on “cosmic cadence,” p. 88, and on parts and wholes, pp. 15-16, 99-112.

  31. A “medical-chart” for 1800-July, 1802 shows that entries recording acute “headaches” and other severe symptoms sending Dorothy to bed (symptoms specified only as “not well” or “very ill”) tend to occur in clusters at mostly one-month frequencies. The following list, of course, does not account for periods missing in the Journals (again, where there is ambiguity in the dates, I have respected Dorothy's designations): 1800, May 20, 24, 27; June 3, 23; July 25, 29, 30; August 3, 22, 23, 28; October 7, 8; November 12, 14, 15, 16, 25; December 7; 1801 (Jan.-Oct. missing), October 15, 19; November 14, 18, 23, 24; December 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 19, 26, 28; 1802, February 4, 9, 22, 26; March 6, 8, 9, 26, 28, 29, 31; April 21, 25, 28, 29; May 12, 18, 23, 24, 26, 27, 30; June 14, 30; July 3, 4.

  32. See, for example, the entries for 1800, October 5, 31; November 14, 22, 23, 28; December 1, 6, 20; 1801, October 16, 17; November 18, 23, 24; December 9, 13, 21, 22, 23.

James Holt McGavran, Jr. (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: McGavran, James Holt, Jr. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock, pp. 230-53. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, portions of which were presented in 1982, McGavran explores William Wordsworth's impact on Dorothy's perceptions and representations, especially of herself.]

The “beauteous forms” of the Wye valley, which William Wordsworth simultaneously describes, remembers, and idealizes for his sister Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” enable him through sense, emotion, and thought—blood, heart, and mind (28-29)—to discover the enlarged, powerful self, the “living soul” that can reciprocally “see into the life of things” (46, 49) and subsequently record its vision in poetry. No longer is the external world “a landscape to a blind man's eye” (24); indeed, “All which we behold / Is full of blessings” (133-34), he assures her, thus further emphasizing the crucial importance of perception in his attempts to marry the mind and nature, subject and object, in his writings. Wordsworth realized that his readers, in turn, must see his poems imaginatively if they were to behold the blessings there. Thus he succinctly challenges the reader in “Simon Lee,” “Perhaps a tale you'll make it” (72), while in “Tintern Abbey” he hopes that “in after years” Dorothy may find “healing thoughts / Of tender joy” from her continuing experience of “these my exhortations” (137-46). But what tale can we make of the interlocked perceptions and expressions of the two Wordsworths, the poet of the “egotistical sublime” and the self-sacrificing diarist of the Alfoxden and Grasmere journals? And what effect did this conflation of “eyes” and “I's,” these cross-readings of nature and selves and texts, have upon Dorothy Wordsworth's powers of seeing and knowing and writing?

On Christmas Day 1805, her thirty-fourth birthday, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote of her time at Grasmere, “I think these years have been the very happiest of my life” (Letters 1:659). She had made a choice more than a decade previously, and clearly she was pleased with it. During an adolescence spent with various, mostly sympathetic relatives, Dorothy was exposed to several of the more important religious and social conflicts of her day: the open-minded religion of the Congregationalists and Unitarians and the fervent evangelical Anglicanism of the Clapham sect; the antislavery campaign of William Wilberforce, whom Dorothy knew and with whom she was once teasingly accused of being in love; and, through Wilberforce, the eloquent moralistic writings of Sarah Trimmer (Gittings and Manton, 6-12, 22-27). Women of her time had few choices, to be sure, but nevertheless Dorothy—bright, energetic, creative—could have opted to pursue the people and the issues she had encountered, perhaps through marriage to a man active in public or ecclesiastical affairs, perhaps through work as a teacher, governess, or writer among people of sympathetic views. Instead, she eagerly chose to share her life and her talents with her brother William. First at Windy Brow, then at Racedown and Alfoxden, then at Goslar in Germany, and finally at Grasmere, the orphaned siblings tried to make up for the years of childhood lost as a result of their parents' untimely deaths. Dorothy expresses some of what she felt in another letter of Christmas 1805:

The Day was always kept by my Brothers with rejoicing in my Father's house, but for six years (the interval between my Mother's Death and his) I was never once at home, never was for a single moment under my Father's Roof after her Death, which I cannot think of without regret for many causes, and particularly, that I have been thereby put out of the way of many recollections in common with my Brothers of that period of life.

(Letters 1:663)

Not only were they trying to be children again; they were also reenacting their parents' sheltering and nurturing roles, since at Racedown and Alfoxden they were guardians of young Basil Montagu. If Dorothy's resentment at her father's excluding her from the family was ever transferred to William—as one of the boys who rejoiced without her, or as father-substitute in the relationship with Basil—she never gave a sign.

Besides reestablishing their interrupted family romance, there was another reason, both more compelling and more problematic, why Dorothy chose life with William—why, as Pamela Woof has written, “Dorothy's early Journals … offered to Wordsworth, and still offer to us, … a world accepted” (107). Susan Levin has wisely speculated, “Perhaps she stayed in her brother's house because of the participation in art that was allowed her there” (353). Levin continues: “The country walks, the reading and discussions, the emotional tensions which formed her life with William formed the subject of her art. Dorothy Wordsworth lived far more intensely than most of her female contemporaries” (354). It was a life of creativity. Though she remained unconscious of the reason, I believe Dorothy chose life with William less for his literary gifts and aspirations than for her own, which were sufficient, with help from Coleridge, to create the most powerful male poet in England since Milton and still enable her to produce the haunting beauties, sorrows, passions, and reticences of her Alfoxden and Grasmere journals. However, for all the selves that Dorothy became for William—child, parent, servant, observer, recorder, amanuensis—a terrible price was exacted: the loss of any firm sense of personal identity. Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy seems never to have realized that not all the enslaved of her age were American blacks. Motherless from the age of six, lacking the ebullient self-assertiveness of contemporaries otherwise as different as Wollstonecraft and Trimmer, Dorothy could not develop the collective, interdependent identity that Susan Friedman outlines earlier in this collection. Giving up her sensory perceptions, her feelings, her thoughts, and her words to William, how and where could she formulate and articulate a self?

In her introductory essay to this volume, drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan, Shari Benstock points the way to an answer when she states that “language itself … is a defense against unconscious knowledge. … But it is not an altogether successful defense network,” because messages from the unconscious try to break through the fence of language—just as Dorothy's conscious choice to live with William could not entirely obscure her awareness of the possibility of other ways of living. Lacan's association of language with repression applies to people of both sexes; but, as both Benstock and Friedman suggest, if one is a woman there is the enormous additional problem of having to speak or write in a society whose forms—including literary forms—systematically threaten to violate or even annihilate female selfhood. Working with these feminist concepts, and with the help of Virginia Woolf (who regarded both Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Wollstonecraft as foremothers) as well as phenomenological insights derived from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I intend to show that Dorothy's repressed perceptions and knowledge of herself, her literary ability, and her great sacrifice do appear, most often indirectly, in her early journals. In the very act of “putting herself down”—which for Dorothy involved both self-deprecation and self-transcendence as methods of self-avoidance—she cannot help also putting down on paper traces of the beautiful, relinquished psyche she never fully recognized.

That Dorothy possessed unusual gifts of observation, sensitivity, and intellect was recognized by many who knew her. De Quincey, for instance, comments, “Her manner was warm and even ardent; her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her” (114). Coleridge, in an early letter, seems to have formed much the same impression:

Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive—.
                    In every motion her most innocent soul
                    Outbeams so brightly, that who saw would say,
                    Guilt was a thing impossible in her.

Her information various—her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature—and her taste a perfect electrometer.


Much later in his life, Coleridge blends reminiscence with evocative surmise to describe Dorothy as “a Woman of Genius, as well as manifold acquirements, and but for the absorption of her whole Soul in her Brother's fame and writings would, perhaps, in a different style have been as great a Poet as Himself” (6:959). De Quincey comments more extensively on the visible effects of this discrepancy between her apparent abilities and her accomplishment, noting that her intellect,

being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age, and her maidenly condition …, gave to her whole demeanour, and to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict, that was almost distressing to witness.


But if De Quincey gives more detail of what appeared to him to be Dorothy's outward embarrassment, Coleridge's phrases plunge more deeply to the core of the problem: “a Woman of Genius”; “as great as Himself.” Coleridge qualifies his contention carefully, but nevertheless he puts into words the socially and psychically unacceptable possibility that neither the “most innocent,” unselfconscious Dorothy nor the soul-absorbing William could ever directly confront. William's hearty poetic praise for Dorothy's abilities, and her generosity in sharing these with him, begs the question of what this continued giving does to the giver—or, to be sure, the taker—in such a relationship. From early childhood on, as William gratefully acknowledges in “The Sparrow's Nest,” Dorothy had given him her senses and sensibilities:

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.


As an adult, he makes clear, she gave him still more: after the “crisis” of his young manhood, recounted in The Prelude, she brought about his restoration to his younger self, to nature, and—most important—to poetry (Prelude XI [1850], 306, 345-48). Later, of course, while he gave her his poems to copy, she gave him her journals; even when he did not rely directly upon them for his own work, as in the creation of “A Night-Piece” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (Journals 2, 109), the journals regularly afforded him their abundance of perceptions of nature, people, and events. It was not that William undervalued Dorothy's gifts; indeed, the question seems rather to have been whether he thought he could do without her. We can hear a tone of desperation, even of envy, as well as loving gratitude in his “prayer” in “Tintern Abbey”: “Oh! yet a little while / May I behold in thee what I was once?” (119-20). Perhaps it would not be pressing speculation too far to see a shadow of Dorothy's own desperation, along with the joy, in the one place she could not see it for herself—“in the shooting lights / Of … [her] wild eyes” (118-19).1 For William to wish, however subconsciously, to hold Dorothy's eyes and self prisoner in his own is not only to acquiesce in her arresting of her own development (Fadem 26), but also to seal her into the rural nature they both loved to read, entombing her there (Homans, Women Writers 20-23; Reiman 154-58).2

William does seem to have sensed that Dorothy was suffering and would continue to suffer, however obscurely, and that she would need “healing thoughts” “in after years”; perhaps, suffering himself, he thought he would need them too. In any case, his prophecy of “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief” (“Tintern Abbey” 143) for her future came terribly true. It is difficult to imagine that in the near-total physical and mental eclipse of her later life Dorothy could have found in William's “exhortations” sufficiently abundant recompense for all she had relinquished. But she herself had willed and executed this relinquishment, directed by her love, but also “in obedience”—as De Quincey put it—“to the decorum of her sex and age, and her maidenly condition.” And thus the other part of William's prophecy also came true. Through those long, dark years, nodding and fretting by the fire, she still could hear or recite William's poetry with great feeling and joy; indeed, his words, or his presence at her side, were almost the only means by which the family was able to wake her to any semblance of her former loving, giving self, the “most innocent soul” who had so moved Coleridge years before (De Selincourt 397-98; Moorman 515, 607; Gittings and Manton 276).

Exactly how great was Dorothy's literary ability? Do her journals contain poetry “in a different style”? What were the literary costs, and what the literary profits, of being William's “dear, dear Sister” (“Tintern Abbey” 121)? Sensing that to open Dorothy Wordsworth's journals is to reenact the loving but appropriating role of her brother, yet recognizing that Dorothy herself, like William in “Simon Lee,” presupposes the existence of a strong reading presence, I will look for help to perhaps the strongest revisionary reader and writer of our own century. Virginia Woolf, who hauntingly described the inevitable destruction of the sister she imagined for Shakespeare (A Room of One's Own 48-51), has read the journals of Wordsworth's sister with such acuteness and empathy that one must believe she saw and felt a parallel to exist, in self-destructive frustration, between Dorothy and “Judith Shakespeare.” And yet, in her essay on Dorothy, written in 1929, Woolf also credits her with a literary achievement she could not even dream of for the sixteenth-century “Judith.” Woolf confronts us with the central paradox at which I have already hinted: that Dorothy Wordsworth's relentless self-crippling of her powers of perception and composition is inseparable from the near-mystical self-sublimation of her best lyrical descriptive passages:

… if she let “I” and its rights and its wrongs and its passions and its suffering get between her and the object, she would be calling the moon “the Queen of the Night”; … she would be soaring into reveries and rhapsodies and forgetting to find the exact phrase for the ripple of moonlight upon the lake. It was like “herrings in the water”—she could not have said that if she had been thinking about herself. …

… But if one subdued oneself, and resigned one's private agitations, then, as if in reward, Nature would bestow an exquisite satisfaction.

(Collected Essays 3:200, 203)

Woolf saw that Dorothy had so repressed her awareness of her own role as observer that she could actually believe it was Nature that bestowed the satisfaction. But further, Woolf must have found in Dorothy a precursor with regard to her own attempts in her fiction to escape the social, sexual, and psychic boundaries of personal identity. “But how describe the world seen without a self?” asks Bernard, Woolf's hero of expanded consciousness in The Waves, during his final epiphany (287); this is Woolf's authorial problem in the descriptive interludes of that fiction and in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse as well. Whether or not Woolf had Dorothy's descriptive style consciously in mind while writing The Waves,3 seeing “without a self” was Dorothy Wordsworth's dilemma long before it was Virginia Woolf's. As we shall see, following Woolf's lead, Dorothy's self-repression leads to some profound self-revelation; conversely, Dorothy's lyricism in its finest flights attains the superpersonal, anonymous creative energy that Woolf admired in A Room of One's Own (102) when she echoed Coleridge's statement from the Table Talk that “a great mind must be androgynous.”

Dorothy's unwillingness to look at herself is revealed on several levels in the Alfoxden and Grasmere journals (1798, 1800-1803), in passages that stand out against the matter-of-factness of her writing about ordinary activities. The first of these levels concerns Dorothy's use of the first person. De Quincey notes that Dorothy sometimes stammered in her speech when agitated (Recollections 115), and Woolf speaks of her stammering pen (Collected Essays 3:203). The journals show a repeated stammering use of “I,” and of other first-person-singular pronouns, when Dorothy is experiencing painful feelings deriving from William's absence; she not only misses William, she misses the way he distracts her from thinking about herself.4 Near the beginning of the Grasmere journal, for example, praising the restorative beauty of the lake, she writes:

Grasmere was very solemn in the last glimpse of twilight it calls home the heart to quietness. I had been very melancholy in my walk back. I had many of my saddest thoughts and I could not keep the tears within me. But when I came to Grasmere I felt that it did me good.


“I had,” “I could,” “I came,” “I felt”: Grasmere does Dorothy good, it seems, because her glimpse of it distracts and thus quiets the heart agitated by an unwanted self-consciousness. Ten days later, still missing William and still drawn against her will to sad introspection, she writes: “I sate till I could hardly drag myself away I grew so sad” (21). She finds relief when she continues, not in her own voice, but rather by alluding to William's “Lines Written in Early Spring” and “that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind” (3-4). Nearly two years later, when William has left for a visit with Coleridge at Keswick, she still must find some distraction, something to do to fight off the melancholy self-awareness that struggles toward articulation: “Now for my walk. I will be busy, I will look well and be well when he comes back to me” (97). But then for a long moment Dorothy's eye is held by the core of an apple William had eaten before his departure—surely a symbol not just of William's absent self but also, subconsciously, of her own relinquished self. “I can hardly find in my heart to throw it into the fire,” she remarks pathetically; but then, apparently, in it went, and she breaks away and flees: “I must wash myself, then off.” Later, returning to her journal, she suggests once again that nature and thoughts of her brother have diverted her from self-contemplation: “I walked round the two Lakes crossed the stepping stones at Rydale Foot. Sate down where we always sit. I was full of thoughts about my darling. Blessings on him” (97).

Of course no mere temporary separation from the self she preferred to her own could threaten Dorothy so much as William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson in October 1802. Once again in the journal the stuttering “I” struggles in pain, and finally in vain, to assert itself:

I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing any thing, till Sara came upstairs to me and said “They are coming.” This forced me from the bed where I lay and I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William and fell upon his bosom.


As if she were acknowledging her identity with the dead Lucy, and again echoing her brother's words, Dorothy “neither hears nor sees” in the terrible moment when some act of self-perception or of self-assertion, however painful, should occur. Brownstein feelingly praises the “moving self-control” of this passage (61);5 but what moves us here is precisely the impression that Dorothy is exercising a repressive power far more drastic than what is usually meant by “self-control”—almost a kind of psychic suicide. The conflict and torment in the wedding passage subside only when Dorothy, after welcoming “my dear Mary,” can once again subordinate “I” to “eye,” recording nature and events for William as the three of them start on the wedding trip: “It rained when we set off. Poor Mary was much agitated when she parted from her Brothers and Sisters and her home. Nothing particular occurred till we reached Kirby. We had sunshine and showers, pleasant talk, love and chearfulness [sic]” (154). In this way, time and again, Dorothy honored the generous and yet terrible commitment with which she had begun her task: “I resolved to write a journal of the time till W. and J. [ohn] return, and I set about keeping my resolve because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again” (15-16). Refusing to quarrel with herself, to let “eye” look at “I,” she sublimates that self, in a sense dying for William into the descriptions of nature, or of people and events, that so greatly pleased them both.

In Dorothy's perceptions of nature, however, as in her use of the first-person pronouns, there frequently appear further suggestions of a repressed awareness of herself, her gifts, and what she was doing with them.6 But because the self-awareness is buried in the natural images, Dorothy can confront and describe the images themselves without the distress implicit in the jittery “I's” just noted. Repeatedly the sky above the Lake District becomes for her a dome, an image of enclosure with sepulchral implications. Early in the Alfoxden journal—in the passage that William later used for “A Night-Piece”—she describes the night sky, after the clouds have parted, as a “black-blue vault” (2). Another evening, four years later, she almost seems to pun as she writes, “it was a grave evening—there was something in the air that compelled me to serious thought. The hills were large, closed in by the sky” (104). In another entry, Dorothy uses the image of the sky-dome in revealing combination with a bird's flight and its echoing sound:

we saw a raven very high above us—it called out and the Dome of the sky seemed to echo the sound—it called again and again as it flew onwards, and the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from their center a musical bell-like answering to the bird's hoarse voice.


Dorothy too may yearn, however subconsciously, to escape—in an act of self-assertion or, more likely, of self-transcendence—to fly as high as the raven and send her voice, her words, echoing back; but that enclosing dome—the limit of the rural world to which, for her brother's sake, she has dedicated herself—seems to circumscribe her flight while simultaneously providing, along with the mountains, a necessary sounding board.7 Other images of flight abound in the journals, regularly linked with a limit or impediment to flight: “As I came past Rydale in the morning I saw a Heron swimming with only its neck out of water—it beat and struggled amongst the water when it flew away and was long in getting loose” (22). At this point, early in the writing of the Grasmere journal, still missing her absent brother, Dorothy is trapped not only spatially but temporally as well; she sees the heron while hurrying to Ambleside, hoping to intercept a letter from William, but “forgetting that the post does not come till the evening. How was I grieved when I was so informed” (22). Did Dorothy ever wish, even subconsciously, to rebel, to strike out, to break away from the orbit of her solitary life with William? The journals reveal very few moments of overt violence on Dorothy's part; once, however, moved by beauty and a show of bold independence, she performed an impulsive act of removal—only to repent of it immediately afterward:

I found a strawberry blossom in a rock. The little slender flower had more courage than the green leaves, for they were but half expanded and half grown, but the blossom was spread full out. I uprooted it rashly, and I felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again. It will have but a stormy life of it, but let it live if it can.


In an act of relinquishment, refusing to murder and dissect, Dorothy replants the strawberry, just as it seems she reconciled herself to her situation in life without ever directly confronting it; the empathy of her final comment, “let it live if it can,” is all the more touching for its show of toughness and bitterness.

Dorothy's journals suggest the presence of this subconscious empathy not only with the natural images of her entrapment—hills and sky, birds and plants—but also with other women she meets, especially poor women, whether Lake Country residents or travelers and beggars. Her portrayals of these women confirm Dorothy's awareness of the precariousness of her own social and economic position as a single woman, an orphan, living a rather irregular life in a remote district; they also hint at a deep-buried feeling of sisterhood. If we assemble them in order of the ascending age of the subjects, these descriptions provide an indirect, but still very sharp and moving, reflection of Dorothy's sense of the course of her own life—her childhood, her young womanhood, the disturbed years of her later maturity, and even her death. Early in 1802 she sees on a road a group of travelers led by a carman “talking to a little lass about 10 years of age who seemed to make him her companion.” She sees the girl run ahead to fetch a large stone for blocking the wheel of the cart:

She was a beautiful creature and there was something uncommonly impressive in the lightness and joyousness of her manner. Her business seemed to be all pleasure—pleasure in her own motions—and the man looked at her as if he too was pleased and spoke to her in the same tone in which he spoke to his horses. There was a wildness in her whole figure, not the wildness of a Mountain lass but a Road lass, a traveller from her Birth, who had wanted neither food nor clothes.


Dorothy apparently has no conscious thought, as she describes the carman's tone of voice, that the child may be ill used or exploited for her generous spirit; instead she sees freedom, spontaneity, and courage in the girl, and perhaps she envies her nomadic existence. Her thoughts are totally different, however, upon meeting a woman traveling with her two daughters, one in her arms and the other, a four-year-old, walking with difficulty at her side in second-hand shoes:

Alas too young for such cares and such travels. The Mother when we accosted her told us that her husband had left her and gone off with another woman and how she “pursued” them. Then her fury kindled and her eyes rolled about. She changed again to tears.

Next, clearly expressing her sense of relationship to this victimized woman, Dorothy reveals a peculiar coincidence: “She was a Cockermouth woman 30 years of age—a child at Cockermouth when I was. I was moved and gave her a shilling—I believe 6d more than I ought to have given” (121). What complex feelings must have moved Dorothy to what she subsequently regarded as too great a generosity! As we read the two passages, it almost seems as if the “road lass” chattering with the carman had grown up to become this desperate, deserted wife and mother. Did Dorothy, as the time drew nearer for William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson, unconsciously feel that her own childlike wildness of eye and spirit had been ill used, and that she too was being deserted for another woman? And what lay ahead? Though Dorothy could not have been aware of it, her long years of serving in her brother's house were foreshadowed in the behavior of an old woman who served tea to William and her one day in June 1800: “[She] was very happy to see us and we were so in the pleasure we gave. She was an affecting picture of patient disappointment, suffering under no particular affliction” (30); Dorothy herself is affectingly quick here to diagnose “patient disappointment.” Perhaps a poor woman whose funeral Dorothy subsequently attended and described had also suffered under “no particular affliction” other than to have been a dependent woman living in England at the turn of the nineteenth century:

The dead person 56 years of age buried by the parish. The coffin was neatly lettered and painted black and covered with a decent cloth. They set the corpse down at the door and while we stood within the threshold the men with their hats off sang with decent and solemn countenances a verse of a funeral psalm. The corpse was then borne down the hill and they sang till they had got past the Town-end. I was affected to tears while we stood in the house, the coffin lying before me. There were no near kindred, no children. When we got out of the dark house the sun was shining and the prospect looked so divinely beautiful as I never saw it. It seemed more sacred than I had ever seen it, and yet more allied to human life. The green fields, neighbours of the churchyard, were as green as possible and with the brightness of the sunshine looked quite gay. I thought she was going to a quiet spot and I could not help weeping very much.


Dorothy continues this account by turning critical attention upon the officiating clergyman: “The priest met us—he did not look as a man ought to do on such an occasion—I had seen him half-drunk the day before in a pot-house. Before we came with the corpse one of the company observed he wondered what sort of cue ‘our Parson would be in’” (38). Dorothy's indignation, following her great personal distress at the spectacle of the poor woman's funeral, suggests that she was very close to knowing and articulating her psychic kinship with the deceased as another victimized woman. No wonder, then, that “the prospect looked … more sacred … and yet more allied to human life” than ever before: in terms of Dorothy's personal involvement, her own inner need for what Virginia Woolf called an “exquisite satisfaction,” it was more divinely beautiful—it had to be.8 Nevertheless, as Woolf perceived, Dorothy could never have attained the peculiar intensity of passages like this one had she thought or spoken directly of her own feelings or of women's problems generally, as her more assertive contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft did. The self-sublimation that kept her from becoming a strong authorial presence or a crusading feminist also produced these reticent, painful beauties in the journals.

We have found evidence of Dorothy's struggle not to see or quarrel with herself in her agitated use of personal pronouns, her repeated use of certain images from nature for which she has an unconscious affinity, and her empathic descriptions of some of the women whose lives crossed hers. But there is another, in a sense more positive, aspect of her art of repression: it is the way her rigorous denial of self can lead, as it did sometimes for Woolf and a few of her fictional characters, to an almost mystical expansion of self—the outpouring of her personal identity, with all its pain and fear, into the greater vessel of nature itself. This is the power one reads in Dorothy's most rapturous descriptions—for example, the opening entry in the Alfoxden journal:

The green paths down the hillsides are channels for streams. The young wheat is streaked by silver lines of water running between the ridges, the sheep are gathered together on the slopes. After the wet dark days, the country seems more populous. It peoples itself in the sunbeams. The garden, mimic of spring, is gay with flowers. The purple-starred hepatica spreads itself in the sun, and the clustering snow-drops put forth their white heads, at first upright, ribbed with green, and like a rosebud; when completely opened, hanging their heads downwards, but slowly lengthening their slender stems. The slanting woods of an unvarying brown, showing the light through the thin network of their upper boughs. Upon the highest ridge of that round hill covered with planted oaks, the shafts of the trees show in the light like the columns of a ruin.


Dorothy herself is not numbered as part of the rural population; she has succeeded so well in effacing herself that the sunbeams and flowers have more individual identity than she does. The reader, excited by the strange but irresistible energy of the passage, the androgynous balance of channels and sunbeams, of flowers and lengthening stems, returns to a more contemplative mood in the final image of the tree shafts, “like the columns of a ruin,” with their suggestion of temples and worship. It is almost as if Dorothy had built Kubla Khan's pleasure dome in Somersetshire; as in Coleridge's dream-poem, this depersonalized but not dehumanized energy is intensely physical and sexual as well. A similar passage, written more than two years later, again contains this energy: “The air was become still the lake was of a bright slate colour, the hills darkening. The Bays shot into the low fading shores. Sheep resting all things quiet” (108). The air, the lake, the hills, and even the sheep are all quiet and yet as if electrically charged with an inner life and power that are felt all the more strongly for the surface of tranquility. “The Bays shot into the low fading shores”: one feels the same sort of energy in Woolf's interludes in The Waves, in many of D. H. Lawrence's descriptions of rural nature, and in the remarkable early sepia paintings of the nineteenth-century British artist Samuel Palmer. Dorothy's best-known description, that of the daffodils (109) which served as the basis for William's “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” similarly moves the reader with its selfless synthesis of “simplicity and unity and life.” Her expostulation, “I never saw daffodils so beautiful,” like an earlier one in the Alfoxden journal (“I never saw such a union of earth, sky, and sea” [5]), acquires a strangely literal new dimension: the troubled and troublesome “I” really is not seeing the flowers, for Dorothy is beyond herself. In another unusual passage of self-transcendence, however, she and William lie “unseen by one another” “in the trench under the fence,” as if “in the grave”; this passage indicates that there may be the stirrings of another sort of awareness in Dorothy, a consciousness of the power of words over passion, over change, over mortality: “There was no one waterfall above another—it was a sound of waters in the air—the voice of the air” (117). It is as if Dorothy were overhearing herself, for surely “the voice of the air,” crying from nowhere and yet everywhere at once, like the echoing voice of the raven in the passage quoted earlier, is the voice Dorothy herself achieves in such moments.

Dorothy's journals seem nowhere so full of visionary literary potential, yet so pathetically unable fully to realize that potential, as in passages where the self-sublimating motion, after taking her beyond the limits of individual identity, reverts her to herself again, but with the beginnings of a stronger, more assertive power of perception and creation. In a well-known sarcastic comment on a rich man's garden, from the Alfoxden journal, Dorothy says, “Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy” (13), but there are indications elsewhere in the journals that she may have come close to recognizing her ability as an artist to do just that. “O thought I!” she bursts out, after two days of unseasonably cold weather in mid-May 1802, “what a beautiful thing God has made winter to be by stripping the trees and letting us see their shapes and forms. What a freedom does it seem to give to the storms!” (125). She seems not quite to realize that she too, her “eye” and “I” reconciled in the medium of language, has the godlike power, the freedom, to shape nature. Instead she seems to associate the basic “shapes and forms” of nature and the wind with a more dominant, masculine force, and to regard her own powers as secondary, comparable to the beautiful but relatively insubstantial leafing out of trees in summer. Another entry, written late in 1802, seems to confirm the presence of a constricting sense of masculine and feminine in Dorothy's view of her relationship with nature:

I could not help observing as we went along how much more varied the prospects of Wensly Dale are in the summer time than I could have thought possible in the winter. This seemed to be in great measure owing to the trees being in leaf, and forming groves, and screens, and thence little openings upon recesses and concealed retreats which in winter only made a part of the one great vale The beauty of the summer time here as much excels that of the winter as the variety, owing to the excessive greenness of the fields, and the trees in leaf half concealing, and where they do not conceal, softening the hard bareness of the limey white Roofs.


This summery aspect of nature pleases Dorothy consciously for its delicate variety, and unconsciously, it would seem, for the female energy, the hidden spatial potentiality of its “little openings,” “recesses,” and “concealed retreats.” But the thrice-repeated use of “conceal” suggests that she associates something less admirable, something false or deceptive, with it as well, possibly relating to those images of entrapment—sky, hills, lakes—discussed earlier. It may be that her own female sexuality, imaged in these elements of nature, serves as a source of both pride and shame—as if she were both the agent and the victim of her own creative power. Later in the same passage, she complains that “even the Banks were less interesting than in winter” (159). She regrets that “Nature”—that is, this softening, beautifying, but concealing power—“had entirely got the better in her struggles against the giants who first cast the mould of these works”; continuing this surprisingly evocative passage, she writes:

for indeed it is a place that did not in winter remind one of God, but one could not help feeling as if there had been the agency of some “Mortal Instruments” which Nature had been struggling against without making a perfect conquest. There was something so wild and new in this feeling, knowing as we did in the inner man that God alone had laid his hand upon it that I could not help regretting the want of it, besides it is a pleasure to a real lover of Nature to give winter all the glory he can, for summer will make its own way, and speak its own praises.


Why is nature “less interesting” in its summer greenery? Are beauty, variety, and potentiality, or the complementary qualities of concealment, deception, and entrapment, so lacking in interest? How will summer “speak its own praises” if no one speaks for it? Dorothy seems here to be reiterating the familiar dichotomy of the Beautiful and the Sublime, but in conjunction with a sexual stereotyping, possibly based on an unconscious sexual envy, that robs her of power over both nature and language. Who are these “Mortal Instruments,” “the giants who first cast the mould of these works,” whose shaping power seems to Dorothy to rival or excel God's? If they are mortal, and not pagan gods, are they then Titans? the thinkers or prophets or poets of the past? or, closer to home, William and Coleridge? Apparently, Dorothy must stop short of considering herself one of these larger-than-life beings. She cannot imagine speaking summer's and winter's praises simultaneously, synthesizing the female and male aspects of nature and creativity into the sort of androgynous psychic unity that Virginia Woolf, following Coleridge, envisions in A Room of One's Own—even though, as we have seen, she sometimes achieves it in totally unselfconscious moments. Dorothy moves toward this exciting awareness of a gigantic power of creation that is both primitive and visionary, but she feels debarred from actively tapping it and using it to grow as woman and writer; she ends self-defeatingly by leaving summer to “make its own way,” and lending her words “to give winter all the glory.”

There is one more remarkable passage, however, in which Dorothy does appear about to effect a conscious resolution of this conflict through androgynous creativity. Walking with her brother and Coleridge under Nab Scar, she sees and then describes mountain scenery whose male images of upward thrust—peaks and trees—and female images of seats, bowers, and enclosing hills seem not opposing but complementary, to be shared equally by all:

It was very grand when we looked up very stony, here and there a budding tree. William observed that the umbrella Yew tree that breasts the wind had lost its character as a tree and had become something like to solid wood. Coleridge and I pushed on before. We left William sitting on the stones feasting with silence—and C. and I sate down upon a rocky seat. … He was below us and we could see him. He came to us and repeated his poems while we sate beside him upon the ground. He had made himself a seat in the crumbly ground. After we had lingered long looking into the vales—Ambleside … Rydale …, and our own dear Grasmere first making a little round lake of nature's own with never a house never a green field but the copses and the bare hills enclosing it and the river flowing out of it. Above rose the Coniston Fells in their own shape and colour. Not Man's hills but all for themselves the sky and the clouds and a few wild creatures. C. went to search for something new. We saw him climbing up towards a Rock. He called us and we found him in a Bower, the sweetest that was ever seen. … Above at the top of the Rock there is another spot—it is scarce a Bower, a little parlour on[ly] not enclosed by walls but shaped out for a resting place by the rocks and the ground rising about it.


All here seems familiar yet strangely changed, re-created out of itself like the yew tree William first notices. The bowers or seats in the hills are clearly not women's prisons in any sense, nor are the hills themselves “Man's hills.” The freedom, the exhilaration of this long passage are very rare in the journals. It seems that here, with the male presences of William and especially Coleridge not threatening her but supporting her, and with fond wishes for her absent female friends Mary and Sara Hutchinson as well, Dorothy is for a moment in command of her powers; she is creating the scene, making it a seat, a parlour, a containing vehicle for her self-transcendent but self-assured imagination. Her final comment suggests a moment of reconciliation with her own femininity as well: “We resolved to go and plant flowers in both these places tomorrow” (115).

These flowers are not mentioned again,9 but as we have seen others bloom throughout the Alfoxden and Grasmere journals: flowers of beauty and fear; flowers of sympathy and repression; flowers of self-denial and occasionally of self-transcendence. Like that of the wild strawberry she first snatched up and then replanted, Dorothy Wordsworth's hold on life was uncertain, tenuous. Serving nearly all her life in dependent roles, subject to social and economic as well as psychological pressures, Dorothy had too many constraints upon her vision. In spite of her unusual gifts of observation and composition, she could not, as Virginia Woolf saw, fully assert a creative self without risking the delicate grasp of life and language she already possessed. Although he did not intend it to be so, William's seeing and writing could disastrously interrupt or interfere with her own self-creative acts of perception. One evening, Dorothy wrote in March 1802, “I looked before me and I saw a red light upon Silver How as if coming out of the vale below” (103); attempting no further description herself of this unusual light, she instead interpolates into the journal three lines her brother had written about a similar appearance:

There was a light of most strange birth
A Light that came out of the earth
And spread along the dark hill-side.

She concludes this paradigmatic passage, “Thus I was going on when I saw the shape of my Beloved in the Road at a little distance—we turned back to see the light but it was fading—almost gone” (103). Indeed, the shape of her beloved—and his words, which it was so often her duty to copy—must have appeared everywhere in Dorothy's remote rural world, coming between her and the light, casting their shadows over the pages of her book. Yet the journals were expressly written for her brother's eyes, to “give Wm pleasure by it when he comes home again” (15-16). Nor can there be any question that Dorothy herself found pleasure in her life with and for her brother, in spite of all the difficulties they experienced. She describes a terrible, bone-chilling walk in January 1802 near Grisedale Tarn, through hail, snow, and disorienting mists: “We were long,” she writes, “before we knew that we were in the right track but thanks to William's skill we knew it long before we could see our way before us.” Having thus admired William's power of reading nature, she continues by writing of the feelings they shared upon returning home: “O how comfortable and happy we felt ourselves sitting by our own fire. … We talked about the Lake of Como, read in the descriptive Sketches, looked about us, and felt that we were happy” (79). True contentment could hardly be made more explicit than this.10 Still, more than the warm fire, more even than the twenty-five pounds sterling lying on the table (she had just received her yearly allowance from her brother Christopher and five pounds from the Beaumonts), Dorothy's happiness derives from being able to write here in the first person plural, to direct her thoughts to William's travels to Como and to William's poetry, and thus once again to avoid confronting herself as a single perceiver, a subject. Without her brother, as we have seen, she could not feel free, only desolate.

Nevertheless there were moments, however brief and half-understood, of strong self-assurance. “God be thanked,” she exclaims, “I want not society by a moonlight lake” (23). The moon, with its richness of mythic association, its show of power and authority, and its continuous motion and changes of appearance, seemed always unusually evocative and restorative to her. Of another experience she writes: “O the unutterable darkness of the sky and the earth below the moon! and the glorious brightness of the moon itself! … When I saw this lowly Building in the waters among the Dark and lofty hills, with that bright soft light upon it, it made me more than half a poet” (104). Dorothy subsequently went home and tried to write verses, about which she could say only “alas!”—but we can find poetry in the journal itself; its images of moonlight, waters, and the island house richly suggest a metaphor for the interaction of imagination, nature, and art in the creative processes of the mind. In one other moonlit passage, Dorothy is anxious for Thomas Wilkinson to leave her and let her walk home alone so she can finish reading a letter from William and Mary:

I was glad when he left me. Then I had time to look at the moon while I was thinking over my own thoughts. The moon traveled through the clouds tinging them yellow as she passed along, with two stars near her, one larger than the other. These stars grew or diminished as they passed from or went into the clouds.


The moon here seems to dominate not only the clouds but the two stars that appear to be following in its wake—just as Dorothy, holding the letter, seems to be controlling her world and her words at this moment. But of course the moon, even when reflecting splendor, cannot move the stars, nor can it break the bond of the earth's gravity or free itself from its orbit—any more than Dorothy, reading the words of William and Mary, is completely free to think her own thoughts even after Wilkinson leaves her in the road.11

One of the most eloquent modern writers on the powers and limitations of perception has been the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In a key statement, which the writings of both Wordsworths seem strongly to support, Merleau-Ponty asserts that “perception will … appear as the paradoxical phenomenon which renders being accessible to us” (“The Primacy of Perception” 52). But if perception, with its potential for both “immanence and transcendence” (51), enables us to grow both within and beyond ourselves, there is always, he tells us, also a “hidden side” (48-49): of objects only partially seen from a particular point of view; of words only partially comprehended; or perhaps, as in the case of Dorothy Wordsworth, of a creative self repressed and yet at times articulating itself in the very terms of that repression—putting herself down. Merleau-Ponty concludes a remarkable essay on Cézanne with a haunting commentary that seems in many ways applicable to Dorothy Wordsworth, in spite of the gender difference:

Cézanne's observers did not guess the transmutations which he imposed on events and experiences; they were blind to his significance, to that glow from out of nowhere which surrounded him from time to time. But he himself was never at the center of himself: nine days out of ten all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts. … Yet it was in the world that he had to realize his freedom, with colors upon a canvas. It was on the approval of others that he had to wait for the proof of his worth. That is the reason he questioned the picture emerging beneath his hand, why he hung on the glances other people directed toward his canvas.

(“Cézanne's Doubt” 251)

Of course, apart from her brother's, few glances—approving or otherwise—were ever directed at Dorothy's journals in her own lifetime. And unlike Cézanne, who continued to develop as a painter all his life, most of Dorothy's best writing seems to have been done early, in the journals we have been studying. Still, both were artists deeply and repeatedly frustrated by the circumstances of their lives, although Cézanne was evidently more conscious of the frustration than Dorothy. Both possessed profound abilities to perceive their worlds and the powers to use their respective media—what Merleau-Ponty calls the ability to impose transmutations upon events and experiences—yet both failed to understand their relationships to their worlds or to see their crafts steadily or whole. But how many artists, and how many critics, can see that strongly? Merleau-Ponty's final comment in “Cézanne's Doubt,” with its shift to the first-person plural pronoun, implicitly links Cézanne's powers and limitations not only with Dorothy Wordsworth's, but with those of many others as well: “We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face” (251).


  1. According to De Quincey, Dorothy's eyes were “not soft, as Mrs. Wordsworth's, nor were they fierce or bold; but they were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion” (114). Influenced by De Quincey's descriptions of Dorothy, Elizabeth Hardwick senses fright or panic in her manner and behavior (148, 156).

  2. Richard Fadem speaks of Dorothy's arrested development; Fadem and I share many areas of concern, but I challenge his thesis that Dorothy's writing is not “in any sustained way interesting as literature” (17). Margaret Homans and Donald Reiman associate Lucy's death with Dorothy's ambivalent position in her brother's life and writing. Homans's approach to Dorothy Wordsworth in Women Writers and Poetic Identity is more compatible with mine than Fadem's; her thesis about “poetic identity,” however, requires her to concentrate on Dorothy's attempts to write in verse, and while this concentration produces some brilliant readings, the journals do not receive all the attention they deserve. In Bearing the Word, Homans argues—mistakenly, I believe—that Dorothy “self-consciously literalizes several of her brother's most important figures for sublimity and transcendence” (16); for me, Dorothy is prewriting, not rewriting, William. Donald Reiman essentially supports the argument about a “tragic intensification” in the relationship between William and Dorothy first advanced by F. W. Bateson (see 153-54). I have learned from these scholars and also from Rachel Mayer Brownstein, Susan Levin, and Pamela Woof. Susan Levin's much-needed book, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), appeared too late for me to use it in this article. Although I speak of Dorothy Wordsworth as a repressed person, it is her buried awareness of her own self as a writer, and how that buried awareness manifests itself in her journals, that primarily concern me, not the question of a passionate involvement with her brother.

  3. See McGavran 276-77, where this possibility is explored.

  4. Homans (Women Writers and Poetic Identity 71-73) has observed in Dorothy the converse tendency to avoid the use of the first-person pronoun and suggests there is more to this than the old custom of dropping “I” from hurried personal correspondence; but clearly both the stammerings and the omissions suggest Dorothy's discomfort at the prospect of self-contemplation.

  5. Bateson (157) unaccountably describes this passage as having “level unemotional tones,” perhaps in reaction to the paralysis which was the result of Dorothy's terrible emotions; but surely her tone is “level” only in the sense that it is the tone of a mentally exhausted woman lying prostrate on a bed.

  6. For some of the images of entrapment and attempted flight which follow, I am indebted to my former student, Susanne Felton, whose paper, “Dorothy Wordsworth: A Study in Contrasts,” won an award as the best undergraduate submission to the Carolinas Symposium for British Studies in 1981, and was read at the symposium at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., 10 October 1981.

  7. She notes elsewhere William's much more strongly negative reaction to a similar sensation of enclosure in nature: “He had been surprized [sic] and terrified by a sudden rushing of winds which seemed to bring earth sky and lake together, as if the whole were going to enclose him in—he was glad he was in a high Road” (62). Evidently, Dorothy was more used to coping with such feelings than her brother.

  8. Fadem recognizes the intensity of this passage, but we completely disagree on its significance. “Dorothy,” he writes, “is clearly not interested in death in general or even this particular death. … On the contrary, her weeping is really an excess of joy at the dauntless beauty of nature” (23).

  9. Brownstein concludes her essay with a fine commentary upon the personal significance to Dorothy of a wild columbine she described as “a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement and growing freest and most graceful where it is most alone” (Moorman 129).

  10. Woolf—evidently struck by this passage—chose the last part of it as a conclusion for her essay (Collected Essays 3:206); it may have seemed to Woolf that Dorothy's “eye” had finally triumphed over her “I.”

  11. See Levin (349-50). Brownstein strongly argues that the moon here is William, the stars Mary and Dorothy, and that “Dorothy sketches her terrible, probably true perception of the shiftings and measurings that were going on as her brother made his choice” in April 1802 (52). Dorothy uses the feminine pronoun, however, and I feel that she had reason to identify herself, too, with both the powers and the limitations of the moon.

Parts of an earlier version of this essay were read at the Carolinas Symposium for British Studies, Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C., 10 October 1982. I am grateful to the Foundation of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and to the University of North Carolina for the grant which enabled me to write the essay. Parenthetical numbers following quotations from William Wordsworth's poetry are line references from the Stillinger edition cited below; numbers following quotations from Dorothy Wordsworth's journals are page references to the Moorman edition cited below.

Works Cited

Bateson, F. W. Wordsworth: A Re-Interpretation. 2d ed. London: Longmans, 1956.

Brownstein, Rachel Mayer. “The Private Life: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals.” Modern Language Quarterly 34 (1973): 48-63.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956-71.

De Quincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lake Poets. Ed. Edward Sackville-West. London: John Lehmann, 1948.

De Selincourt, Ernest. Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography [1933]. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Fadem, Richard. “Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey.’” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (1978): 17-32.

Felton, Susanne. “Dorothy Wordsworth: A Study in Contrasts.” Carolinas Symposium for British Studies, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., 10 October 1981.

Gittings, Robert, and Jo Manton. Dorothy Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature. New York: Random, 1974.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

———. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Levin, Susan M. “Subtle Fire: Dorothy Wordsworth's Prose and Poetry.” Massachusetts Review 21 (1980): 345-63.

McGavran, James Holt, Jr. “‘Alone Seeking the Visible World’: The Wordsworths, Virginia Woolf, and The Waves.Modern Language Quarterly 42 (1981): 265-91.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Cézanne's Doubt.” Trans. Hubert L. Dreyfuss and Patricia Allen Dreyfuss. In The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty. Ed. Alden L. Fisher. New York: Harcourt, 1969. 233-51.

———. “The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences.” Trans. James M. Edie. In The Essential Writings of Merleau-Ponty. Ed. Alden L. Fisher. New York: Harcourt, 1969. 47-63.

Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth: A Biography; The Later Years, 1803-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Reiman, Donald H. “Poetry of Familiarity: Wordsworth, Dorothy, and Mary Hutchinson.” In The Evidence of the Imagination: Studies of Interactions Between Life and Art in English Romantic Literature. Ed. Donald H. Reiman, Michael C. Jaye, and Betty T. Bennett. New York: New York University Press, 1978. 142-77.

Woof, Pamela. “Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer.” The Wordsworth Circle 17 (1986): 95-110.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967.

———. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

———. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964.

———. The Waves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal, 1798; The Grasmere Journals, 1800-1803. 2d ed. Ed. Mary Moorman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Wordsworth, William, and Dorothy Wordsworth. Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. Ernest De Selincourt. 2d ed. Vol. 1, The Early Years, 1787-1805. Ed. Chester L. Shaver. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Susan J. Wolfson (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Wolfson, Susan J. “Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William.” In Romanticism and Feminism, edited by Anne K. Mellor, pp. 139-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Wolfson asserts that Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry reveals a desire to investigate and, in some cases, reject William Wordsworth's “favored tropes and figures.”]


Dorothy Wordsworth is known primarily as a writer of journals and recollections, and though passages in these works have impressed readers such as Virginia Woolf with “the gift of the poet,” her actual poetry has attracted little critical attention and even less acclaim.1 The usual remark is that it lacks literary merit, especially when compared to that of the other writer and chief poet of the household, William Wordsworth. More recently, her poems have been read as documents revealing the inhibitions of “a literary tradition that depends on and reinforces the masculine orientation of language and of the poet”2—an approach that has renewed interest in her poetry, but sometimes at the expense of confining its significance to that interpretive matrix alone. In this essay I want to suggest how some of Dorothy Wordsworth's poems, and one of her narratives, are not always so restricted, but reveal efforts to test modes of experience and self-representation different from those privileged, practiced, and promoted by her brother. While these projects are clearly affected by William's example and William's success, they also engage acts of imagination that show Dorothy indirectly questioning her brother's favored tropes and figures, and speculating about alternatives. This essay focuses on the play of such equivocation, both as it informs Dorothy's sense of what makes a poet and as it affects the poetry she makes.

The differences that emerge bear not only on the composition of the Wordsworth circle, but also focus attention on the larger diversity of Romantic writing, both in and beyond the familiar canon. That these differences within a shared historical circumstance, and sometimes within a shared generic practice, are ones also marked by gender affords us an additional opportunity to consider the relation of both writers to “the masculine tradition.” This tradition is typically characterized as deriving from the performative Logos of a paternal deity and is discerned in poetic subjectivity that simultaneously advances a male center and writes the female as the “other”—necessarily represented without her own subjectivity or power of self-representation, and inscribed in political and epistemic hierarchies alike as the object of appropriation, instruction, or mastery.3 We can see the effect of this tradition on both Wordsworths. If William's poetic mode is conspicuously self-enacting, Dorothy “detest[s] the idea of setting myself up as an Author”—even of prose—so she says to friends who were urging the publication of a narrative she had written on behalf of the Grasmere community about its care for a large family of suddenly orphaned children. Dorothy nominally deflects her aversion to setting herself up as such a figure into a concern about the “injurious effect” of bringing the orphans “forward to notice as Individuals,” and so making them “objects of curiosity” before their “Characters … are formed”; but her reticence may also reflect her discomfort with one kind of notice she herself had gained, namely, that of a figure in William's poetry. She can imagine her narrative published only “Thirty or forty years hence,” and then, only as a “service” to others, and only “without a name”—no “thought of me.”4 As if to prescribe this self-effacement, the title page of her manuscript announces merely:

                                        A NARRATIVE
Concerning George and Sarah Green
                    of the Parish of Grasmere
                              addressed to a Friend

It is William's Preface, in fact, that gives the Narrative prestige, and, under his authority, this is only one of two places in the document in which his sister's name appears: “The following Narrative was drawn up by Dorothy Wordsworth at the request of her Brother, William Wordsworth: he entreated that she would give a minute detail of all the particulars which had come within her notice; thinking that the end for which the account was written would be thereby better answered, viz. that of leaving behind a record of human sympathies, and moral sentiments, either as they were called forth or brought to remembrance, by a distressful event, which took place in the course of the month of March, 1808, at Grasmere in the County of Westmoreland” (p. 41). William's underscored phrase accommodates Dorothy's reticence about setting herself up for notice, for it is the record rather than the recorder that is stressed; the sympathies and sentiments in question are not so much personally as socially important; they are understood to reflect communal response. This construction of authority is quite opposite to what habitually obtains in William's own self-inscribing projects, and for Dorothy it is an enabling compromise: she writes as service and in assignment, the recorder for the community and its reporter to others. The second instance of her name in this manuscript fulfills this role. She merely signs and dates the end, as if the designated scribe. This resistance to individual notice, along with her inclination to subscribe her literary activity to acts of service authorized by William, also has a more domestic register. Dorothy manages his household and literally manages the production of his texts, at times equating her subjectivity with his: “After Tea I wrote the first part of Peter Bell,” she notes; “I wrote the Pedlar”; “I wrote the Leech Gatherer for him which he had begun the night before”—meaning, of course, she wrote out fair copies of these poems, but the effect of her syntax is to conflate her activity as a writer into William's authority, as if she were absorbed into his “I” and operating as the technological extension of his imagination.6

Correspondingly, Dorothy discredits her own poetic aptitude, especially if measured against William's. Of a nighttime spectacle that animated “many very exquisite feelings,” she says, “it made me more than half a poet”; yet she struggles to complement the event with her own poetic making: “tried to write verses but alas! I gave up expecting William”7—“expecting William,” that is, from a visit with Coleridge, but her syntax as well as the proximity of this note to her record of defeat have the uncanny effect of relating his absence to absence of poetic power in herself. William, too, wrestles with moods of frustration, and Dorothy's journals are quite informative about the flux of success and failure in his labors; but he retains his sense of vocation, even on occasion turning doubts of capability into his subject and theme, as in the introduction of The Prelude. Dorothy, by contrast, says she is amazed that anyone “would persuade me that I am capable of writing poems that might give pleasure to others besides my own particular friends!! indeed, indeed you do not know me thoroughly,” she exclaims to Lady Beaumont, who had admired some poems of hers she had heard William read along with his own.8 The prescriptive force of William's model and methods is critical to her low self-estimation: “I have made several attempts,” she explains,

and have been obliged to give it up in despair; and looking into my mind I find nothing there, even if I had the gift of language and numbers, that I could have the vanity to suppose could be of any use beyond our own fireside, or to please, as in your case, a few partial friends; but I have no command of language, no power of expressing my ideas, and no one was ever more inapt at molding words into regular metre.

Her implicit equation of poetry with formal regularity, “command” of language, and “power” to express subjective ideas derives from exercises William has perfected, and, not coincidentally, these are the terms in which critics tend to dismiss Dorothy's poetic ability.9 This is not the only model for poetic production, of course, yet Dorothy's commitment to it is so complete that she even emulates its inspiration: “I have often tried when I have been walking alone (muttering to myself as is my Brother's custom) to express my feelings in verse; feelings, and ideas such as they were, I have never wanted at those times; but prose and rhyme and blank verse were jumbled together and nothing ever came of it.” It does not occur to her that the jumble itself might be a productive result, indeed a worthy literary form.

In a late poem, a set of self-described “Irregular Verses,” Dorothy takes up the issue in retrospect, writing a myth of negative vocation in response to a question: why in the “jocund time” of youth did she “not in jingling rhyme / Display those pleasant guileless dreams / That furnished still exhaustless themes?”10 As she recalls how she “reverenced the Poet's skill, / And might have nursed a mounting Will / To imitate the tender Lays / Of them who sang in Nature's praise” (60-63), the capital P she attaches to the word “Poet” already betrays the otherness she associates with the term, for this is the figure of William's ideal. His self-confidence about his credit as “Poet” may waver, but he and Dorothy accept such identity as his vocation and destiny. Dorothy declines such aspiration, not even calling her work “poetry” or “poems”—merely “verses” or “rhyme.” The origin of this slightly deauthorizing manner may be read in the girlhood history she recounts, for she writes, in effect, a countertext to the growth of a poet's mind:

… bashfulness, a struggling shame
A fear that elder heads might blame
—Or something worse—a lurking pride
Whispering my playmates would deride
Stifled ambition, checked the aim
If e'er by chance “the numbers came.”
—Nay even the mild maternal smile,
That oft-times would repress, beguile
The over-confidence of youth,
Even that dear smile, to own the truth
Was dreaded by a fond self-love;
“'Twill glance on me—and to reprove
Or,” (sorest wrong in childhood's school)
“'Will point the sting of ridicule.”


The two voices in quotations are important pressures of imagination in this story of stifled ambition. One is maternal reproof, a negative muse all the more compelling for being fictional, since in the era recounted—her childhood friendship with Jane Pollard—Dorothy's mother was no longer alive. That the “mild maternal smile” remains, Cheshire-cat-like, is a significant trace, for it encodes the judgments that “repress” her poetic impulse, implying that the informing motions—“pride,” “ambition,” “overconfidence” and “self-love”—are inappropriate for girls to exercise, however normative to “masculinist” poetics they may be.11 Tellingly, Dorothy has the adult speaker of “Lines intended for my Niece's Album” refer to that book as one inscribed by male poets, in homage to a male author, Dora's “gifted Sire”: “A wreath for thee is here entwined / By his true Brothers of the Lyre” (27-28). Even if she does not directly link the gender of this company to the question she writes three stanzas later—“But why should I inscribe my name, / No poet I—no longer young?” (37-38)—the issue is surely relevant, for as Susan Levin reports, women writers such as Felicia Hemans and Maria Jane Jewsbury also contributed poems to Dora's album (p. 143). Dorothy's “Lines” suppress this information, with the effect of enhancing the impropriety of her name and poem appearing among the “true” society of male inscribers and the “Sire” they honor.

Not surprisingly, the other voice quoted in her account of childhood inhibition is that of the “gifted Sire” himself. This is the phrase “the numbers came,” cited in “Irregular Verses” in an attitude of irony and self-mocking—for in the Wordsworth circle, at least, it is a clear allusion to that master-document of poetic vocation itself, the “glad preamble” of The Prelude: “To the open fields I told / A prophesy; poetic numbers came / Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robe / My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem, / For holy services.”12 William's voice poses a stark contrast to the “might have” and “if e'er” with which Dorothy's “I” designates the limits of her own ambition. Not only is his statement energized by the pride, ambition, over-confidence, and self-love denied to her, but it is resonant with echoes of one of the chief precursors in the masculine tradition, the poet of Paradise Lost, who claims to “feed on thoughts, that voluntary move / Harmonious numbers,” and whose “Celestial Patroness” “inspires / Easy … unpremeditated Verse.”13 It is significant that Dorothy's irregular verse cites only William's voice of high inspiration, with no indication that what follows this charged moment in his poem is a record of prolonged struggle with doubts of self-worth and vocation, confessions to defeated hopes and thwarted ambition. Along with her distancing and discrediting of her own ambition as a merely juvenile love of “jingling rhyme,” the force of Dorothy's decidedly partial reading of her brother's compositional processes (which she knew full well were rarely spontaneous, rarely easy) allows her to project “the Poet's skill” as radically “other,” and so define herself as disabled and deluded from the start.

Having declined a claim to the title of “Poet,” Dorothy finds another vocation in writing recollections and journals—prose works, as Elizabeth Hardwick puts it, that “are not so much an ambition as a sort of offering” (p. 3) to William and the circle around him. This mode may be more psychologically amenable, but Dorothy also regards such writing as trivial, something “to fill a Lady's bookshelf” (LDW, 159), and she never entirely revokes the ambitions expressed by and recorded within her poetry. Her ardent protests to Lady Beaumont, notwithstanding, the very length and energy of her disclaimer imply interest in the question; indeed, despite her accounts of inhibition and poor skill, Dorothy continues to write and revise poetry into the early 1830s and rework the narrative of George and Sarah Green. Even when she contests her identity as “poet,” she may resort to the medium itself: “why should I inscribe my name, / No poet I … ?” And responding to a request for “some Christmas verses” (LY 2:176), she begins “Irregular Verses,” “Ah Julia! ask a Christmas rhyme / Of me who in the golden time / Of careless, hopeful happy youth / Ne'er strove” beyond “simple prose” (1-4, 9). Though the tone and stressed first-person pronouns in both texts affect modest self-appraisal, the name still gets inscribed, and the rhyme—“irregular” though it is deemed—gets written, suggesting that Dorothy felt able to modulate modesty into a poet's modesty topos. The behavior of the poetry itself applies further contradictions to these acts of poetic self-denial. The syntax of the response to Julia, for instance, verges on (as if to test) a gentle imperative—the poet's soft request for encouragement by a potential reader. That tonal ambiguity is enhanced by the play of the rhymes: though Dorothy pairs the word rhyme with the fancies of a past time, and her present response to Julia reports prose—“To her I told in simple prose / Each girlish vision, as it rose / Before an active busy brain / That needed neither spur nor rein” (9-12)—the form of telling is still rhyme, a form, moreover, that reins the alternative, prose, into its pairings. Though Dorothy evades this curious contradiction as she elaborates her girlish visions and recalls the matrix of thwarted ambition, the fact that her medium throughout remains rhyme keeps the issue alive.


In Women Writers and Poetic Identity, Margaret Homans argues that the aspiration of writers such as Dorothy Wordsworth is checked by a sense of felt exclusion from the male authority of poetic tradition. Both William and Dorothy are undeniably affected by the force of this tradition, as we have seen, yet before we allow the evidence to assume interpretive priority for them or to support general arguments about poetry and gender, we need to attend to complex energies and vulnerabilities on both sides. Can Dorothy Wordsworth be read fully or exclusively with the premises of the masculine tradition? Is her situation only—or primarily—that of someone whose “dislocation from the phallogocentric community causes [her] great difficulty in creating a central sense of self in poetry,” thus thwarting ability to imagine “other structures with which to replace that centrism, so completely does it occlude her view of the possibilities for writing”?14 Homans is one of the first, and still one of the few, to offer an extensive reading of Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry, giving us welcome relief from the dubious but widely accepted view—renewed as recently as 1978—that her writing is not “in any sustained way interesting as literature, no matter how beguiling it is.”15 Even so, readers such as Homans, partly because of their polemical commitments, may miss the alternation in Dorothy's own writing between her self-baffling attempts to write William's kind of poetry and her tactful departures from, or equivocations about, some of the imaginative values associated with his agenda. Thus, if in the following pages I question some of Homans's readings, it is not to challenge the value of her interests, but to suggest how her concern to demonstrate the force of a culturally inherited paradigm has difficulty recognizing and speaking about forms of equivocation within that paradigm. In Dorothy Wordsworth's case, these emerge in quite subtle poetic registers—contrasting figures and different verbal emphases, paths not taken, situations filtered through alternative modes of imagination, or intertextual conversation with the language and informing circumstances of William's poetry.16

A brief example will focus the issue. The speaker of “Floating Island” recounts a vision granted by Nature's “Harmonious Powers”: “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” (5-8).17 This is “a latent figure for the dissolving self,” Homans proposes: “The ‘I’ … casts loose … and becomes similarly diffuse” (p. 83). But is dissolution the sole alternative to egocentricity such as William's? The full range of the poem's pronouns suggests otherwise, for it does not so much diffuse first-person vision as extend it to the potential access of any “one,” and then to “all.” This expansion of individual subjectivity into visionary community is important, because this is the context within which the consequence already revealed parenthetically—the vision “undermined”—may be accepted and integrated into a larger vision of natural process. Dorothy's verse turns to include even her readers in this expanding community: “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” (21-24).

The contrasts with William's visionary poetics are significant. When the speaker of The Thorn makes a similar proposal to his auditors, “perhaps when you are at the place / You something of her tale may trace,” he means to seek validation for a private and deeply traumatic event and his discourse remains self-concentrated right up to the final lines: “I cannot tell how this may be, / But … this I know … That I have heard her cry.”18 If the speaker of “Floating Island” is not so obsessed, the tenuousness even of her cherished vision is a circumstance shared with many of William's speakers, and, in these terms as well, important divergences may be noted. William's tendency is to want to lodge perishable visions in shrines that may preserve them (typically lamenting their inadequacy); Dorothy avoids elegy by blending the passing of her vision into a suggestion that what has passed away from one may be renewed by others: the isle is not so much lost as invisible, “Buried beneath the glittering Lake.” And unlike the corpse beneath the lake recalled in book 5 of The Prelude, Dorothy's burial promises renewed life: “Yet the lost fragments shall remain / To fertilise some other ground.” The absence of an “I” in this process does not have to denote a “vanished self”—indeed the disappearance of “both subject and object”—that Homans reads (p. 85), but may signify Dorothy's deliberate turn from those modes of imagination, such as William's, which stake their value solely on self-inscription and individual privilege. The title in her Commonplace Book, “Floating Island at Hawkshead, An Incident in the schemes of Nature,” signals this plural value, for the terms with which it scans this event in nature, instead of writing a language of self, ponder a relationship that abides in a text outside and beyond the self. Dorothy is aware of William's habitual concern to read terms of relation between an impressive incident and a purposeful design, and her poem, like many of his, concerns such acts of interpretation. There is a difference, however, for she has no special investment in confirming her own privileged place in Nature's schemes or in promoting the authority of her poetic “I” as the designated reader of Nature's designs. Thus the “fragments” of her particular seeing do not challenge the poetic self with purposes obscured, projects uncompleted, or unities disintegrated, as they tend to in William's poetry—recall, for instance, the “Tree,” “single Field,” and “Pansy” that repeat a tale of absences in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality;” or the unfinished sheepfold in “Michael”; or the broken bowl and ruined cottage in book 1 of The Excursion; or The Excursion itself. The potency of Dorothy's fragments has precisely to do with their release from the burdens of self-reference that oppress the speakers of William's poems; though “lost” to her, they abide to “remain” as potential elements of “other ground,” other visions, other envisioners.

These revisions of William's poetics are in part strategies of evasion, but they are not just that, for Dorothy's motions around William, as “Floating Island” suggests, yield oblique conversations with his favored imaginative values, especially his habitual turns and returns to moments of individual confrontation and solitary reflection. Nor are these always inscriptions of difference, for they often work to amplify ambivalences and dialogues already active in William's poetry. To read Dorothy's poems in secondary and defeated relation to William's is to neglect not only her reevaluations of his risky preoccupation with the power of self, but to neglect his own equivocations. It is suggested that William would insist on publishing “Floating Island” in his 1842 edition, as if he wanted to accommodate its poetics of democratic integration. For the alternative poetics of confrontation, appropriation, subjection, and mastery, as he clearly knows, require demonstrations of power and assertions of success. Indeed the hierarchical order of masculinist poetics demands that the mind emerge as lord and master, or acknowledge itself bewildered and engulphed—and William Wordsworth, at least, frequently writes in ways that show him uneasy about his place in this economy; he is not the sure, secure figure of logocentric performance and egocentric confidence ascribed to him in some feminist (and older masculinist) readings of Romanticism.19

If at times he writes nature as “feminine” in order to take advantage of traditional sexual politics, to imply, as Homans does, that this “feminization of nature” is the whole of his imagination (p. 13), and to privilege as a “usual tendency” those moments in William's poetry when he strives “to dominate in subject-object relations” (p. 23) is to attend to only half the evidence. For just as typically, and with a full range of investigation, this poet may represent male consciousness as passive, itself inscribed by voices of the “other”: “the changeful earth … on my mind had stamped / The faces of the moving year” (Prelude 1.586-88); the “common face of Nature spake to me … impressed / Collateral objects and appearances, / Albeit lifeless then, and doomed to sleep / Until maturer seasons call them forth / To impregnate and to elevate the mind” (1.615-24). Here the self is not just passive but feminine, and imaged, implicitly, with the potential of female (re)productivity. At other times, of course, sensations of passivity are not so elevating, but inhabit dramas of a male self dominated by a nature not only of distinctly masculine aspect, but of supernatural potency—as in his recollection of that “huge cliff” that, “as if with voluntary power instinct … growing still in stature,” loomed up against the boy who has stolen a shepherd's boat (1.372-426). That this trauma remains a trouble even to the mind of the adult poet is due in part, surely, to the apparent collaboration of nature perceived as female, and not at all passive: “—surely I was led by her—” he reflects. Even the domestic influence of such devoted feminine allies as Dorothy herself may erode the poet's sense of strong self and strong language, the very foundation of “masculinist” poetics. As William and she were both aware, his poems owed her numerous verbal and imaginative debts, and he reflects his quiet agitation over this in strategies that suppress, disguise, or deny her influence—usually by representing experiences they shared as solitary ones or, if not, acknowledging her influence with statements that seem as condescending as they are affectionate.

Dorothy's poetry does not deliberately exploit these issues, but she renews our attention to them by conceiving the alternatives her brother is intent to contain or reject altogether. The argumentative priorities of reading in relation to “masculinist poetics” not only obscure this view of William but, furthermore, apply a paradigm that fails to account for the wayward evidence of Dorothy's own poetry. Her speakers are not always, or even usually (for instance), thwarted or dominated by the passive, feminized nature of the masculine tradition: some poems show an enabling and energizing vision of nature as a world of female voices, female builders, female authority, female community: “'Twas nature built this Hall of ours, / She shap'd the banks, she framed the bowers, … From her we hold our precious right. … She rules with mildest sway” (“A Holiday at Gwerndovennant,” Irregular Stanzas, 11-16). At other times, nature is not even feminine, but a masculine other whom she figuratively governs, as in “Address to a Child,” whose speaker domesticates a winter storm by casting it into the imagery of a rambunctious and merely mischievous boy: “He will suddenly stop in a cunning nook, / And ring a sharp 'larum;—but, if you should look, / There's nothing to see but a cushion of snow / Round as a pillow, and whiter than milk, / And softer than if it were covered with silk.”20 These two poems, and others, show Dorothy not written by external authority, but instead writing the self into the figure of a community—whether this is the domestic one of hearth and family, the social one of the village, or the world of natural events that shape and flow through these human communities.


If the clearest divergence of Dorothy's imagination from William's poetry is to be read in her repeated figurings of a community in which the self has a place, but not the privileged place, and in which shared lives and values shape and sustain individual desire, she is also aware of how dependent this ideal is: it assumes both the availability of a community as a home for the self and the accessibility of that community to the self as its ground of security and focus of activity. Two works from her first decade in Grasmere show the flux of her negotiations with this ideal, each revealing the degree to which its conditions are not given, but must be achieved and are not always achievable. “A Winter's Ramble in Grasmere's Vale” (about her first days there in early 1799)21 recalls her desire to imagine and write herself into potentially supportive figures of community, playing this against certain alternative figures in William's Grasmere poetry. George and Sarah Green (1808), her most sustained literary work, continues this dialogue, crediting the achievements of community life in Grasmere's Vale, but also wrestling with the psychic pressures and vulnerabilities these values would contain. Both works engage tentative conversations with William's turns of imagination, for the very process of elaborating her ideal of community involves Dorothy with his antithetical figures of solitude or isolation.

William's greetings to Grasmere are informed by individual purpose. With epic invocations for nature's blessing on his chosen career, he claims his place, and reads the vale itself as a receptive field for his endeavors:

What dwelling shall receive me, in what vale
Shall be my harbour, underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmurs lull me to rest?
The earth is all before me. …

(1805 Prelude 1.11-15)

The allusion to the close of Paradise Lost (“The World was all before them, where to choose / Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide” [12.646-47]) has long been noted; less often remarked is the deft conversion of Milton's them to a singular pronoun that rewrites Adam and Eve's community as self-absorption and solitary labor: “Enough that I am free, for months to come / May dedicate myself to chosen tasks” (33-34). This self-concentration is no less pronounced in Home at Grasmere: “On Nature's invitation do I come, / By reason sanctioned. Can the choice mislead / That made the calmest, fairest spot of earth, / With all its unappropriated good, / My own … ?”22 He begs the question of entitlement, even more emphatically so in an earlier draft: “The unappropriated bliss hath found / An owner, and that owner I am he,” the poet simply asserts; “The Lord of this enjoyment is on Earth / And in my breast. What wonder if I speak / With fervour, am exalted with the thought / Of my possessions, of my genuine wealth / inward and outward?” (B. 85-91). Writing himself as the center, he assumes all as his imaginative property, a resource ordained for his use. Even when he thinks of himself in community, one of “a happy Band” (D. 663), he is provoked to differentiate himself: “Why do They shine around me, whom I love? … Possessions have I that are solely mine, / Something within, which yet is shared by none” (679, 686-87). And while he acknowledges that Grasmere is “not mine only” (75), the way he elaborates his network of social relations typically returns community to the language of solitary self-sufficiency: “a genuine frame / Of many into one incorporate” (615-16); “A Whole without dependence or defect, / Made for itself and happy in itself, / Perfect Contentment, Unity entire” (149-51).

The image of community conceived in William's poetry is, moreover, a noticeably embattled one, shaded with vulnerability and defensiveness: it is a “Society” established in urgent retreat “Far from” that larger community of “the thronged World” and its “multitude / Human and brute” (D. 613-14, 621-22). What “must be looked for here,” he insists, is “One family and one mansion; to themselves / Appropriate and divided from the world” (617-20). It is not surprising that such assertions (as readers of William's poetry know) habitually interact with darker moods: obsession with tales of loss and disunion, with grief unredeemed by art, with fears of “Ill neighbourhood,” or at best, a place where the heart “may … Breathe in the air of fellow suffering / Dreadless” (356, 368-69). As the poet lectures his sister, “No, we are not alone; we do not stand … here misplaced and desolate” (427-28), the excess of instruction, as in “Nutting,” suggests that the attitudes imputed to the auditor also need assimilation in the self. William's poetry conveys the sense that its emphatic charter is framed more by desire than informed by the confidence of lived fact, that its repeated assertions and exhortations are laboring to contain anxiety and defend against adverse influence.

The figures of community in Dorothy's “Ramble” are not imposed by such rhetorical assertion, but emerge as the poem's speaker discovers their possibility. Dorothy unfolds that drama in part by testing her alignment with the modes of imagination that characterize her brother's Grasmere poetry. She evokes certain of his images and circumstances, but does so to discover alternatives—ones to be read in the way she recasts his habitual figures, recontextualizes key words, and substitutes for his speakers' fascinated solitary converse with alien presences her speaker's impulse to read signs promising community. Although she opens her poem in near alignment with William's early mood—“A Stranger, Grasmere, in thy Vale, / All faces then to me unknown …” (1-2)—her present perspective contains its figures of strangeness all in the past: casting the past self as archetypal “Stranger” marks that self, rather than the world that awaits its exploration, as strange. The sense of present familiarity is enhanced by the apostrophe, especially in the way it tropes on the convention itself. For if, as Jonathan Culler puts it, apostrophe derives its evocative power from countermanding a temporal sequence through which “something once present has been lost or attenuated,” and depends for effect on the absence of the apostrophized object, Dorothy's pretext is different:23 she does not summon an absent object, but addresses the Vale as a conversational presence at the moment of composition. Her second line enhances the effect of this rhetorical maneuver by implying that the community of faces is now known, familiar as the vale.

The chief movement of Dorothy's “Ramble” in fact dramatizes her emergence from her initial status of “Stranger” to her present identity as “Inmate of this vale.” This is something she senses in retrospect that she needed to accomplish on her own: “I left my sole companion-friend / To wander out alone” (3-4)—wander, that is, without his mediations, exhortations, and expectations. That separation from William's experience—and William's urgencies—may be seen in the departure of her “Ramble” from his habitual poetic routes. In his “glad preamble,” William does not so much “wander out alone” as look to wandering objects for portents and signs: “a wandering cloud” seems an apt “guide” (1.17-18); he reports that later he “made a choice / Of one sweet vale whither my steps should turn … nor did I fail / To add meanwhile assurance of some work / Of glory there forthwith to be begun” (81-88); he longs to “brace [him]self to some determined aim” (124), and though he reports obstacles, frustrations, and self-doubt, these are ultimately contained by a prospect in the mind that conceives a chart of action: “The road lies plain before me” (668). This aim also guides the course of Home at Grasmere toward the famous statement of vocation that William will later incorporate as the Prospectus for his epic, The Recluse.

Home at Grasmere will ultimately remain a fragment, as is the poem from which Dorothy adapts her “Ramble,” “Grasmere—A Fragment,” but William casts himself as beginning a major project, while Dorothy's exploration seems as tentative as her designation. If he proceeds home to Grasmere map in hand, she represents herself as not quite knowing how to read. Even with the vantage of retrospect, her drama seems less calculated in its motions of inquiry than do his egocentric assertions and self-absorbed musings, the very interrogatives of which seem presumptuous. Instead of lofty blank-verse declarations, she writes a humble ballad, whose oblique, generally unaccented rhymes and rhythmic irregularity yield a jauntily explorative poem, a ramble that converts the metaphoric amble of William's “preamble” into dramatic action. Her speaker does not stand and invoke, but sets out without agenda—either of poetic form or poetic project—on a walk to acquaint herself with her world:

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


The interplay of “wander,” “lured,” “winding,” “tempting”—as well as the departure from the public road—wittily reimagines the prospect of error William would shun, by revealing it to be the insider's way through the vale, smoothed from familiar traffic and inviting for that very reason. When the poet of “Michael” exhorts his reader to leave “the public way” (1), his posture is one of superiority: he knows something about the “hidden valley” (8) we do not; an object unintelligible to us—one that we might even “pass by, / Might see and notice not” (15-16)—is the marker of a full story for him.24

This poetic habit of making the strange path a figure in a predetermined scheme—the chosen way in the “glad preamble” or the way known to the poet of “Michael”—suggests in its very schematism the risk of pathlessness. Indeed, the darkest moments of The Prelude tend to be marked by the way lost, or the path obscured. The master trope is given in the Conclusion as the poet refers to those passages of life and text when the stream of imagination was lost, “bewildered and engulphed” (13.178); but the figure is everywhere—from the boy who, having lost his path, “encourager and guide,” confronts haunting vestiges of murder and execution (11.278 ff.), to the adult poet who can scarcely remember his course of life after the death of his mother: it “is a path / More difficult before me, and I fear / That in its broken windings we shall need / The chamois' sinews and the eagle's wing” (2.287-90), or who worries about the course of his poetry, “My drift hath scarcely / I fear been obvious” (5.290-91). Even a path seen can betray—such as the “beaten road” that seemed to promise the high sensation of crossing the Alps, only to lead William and his companions downward to “dejection” (6.491-524).

The voices William hears on his first walks through Grasmere bear these burdens, imposing private pressures of mission and misgivings of purpose:

          Bleak season was it, turbulent and bleak,
When hitherward we journeyed, side by side …
                                                                                          The naked Trees,
The icy brooks, as on we passed, appeared
To question us. “Whence come ye? To what end?”
They seemed to say. “What would ye?” said the shower,
“Wild Wanderers, whither through my dark domain?”
The sunbeam said, “Be happy.” When this Vale
We entered, bright and solemn was the sky
That faced us. …

(Home at Grasmere, D. 152-3; 165-71)

William's verb for the alien voice of nature, appeared, carries the contrary impulses of his imagination: it suggests an illusion of speaking nature about which he is softly ironic, but it also implies a felt challenge to himself an intruder. The excessive simplicity of the sunbeam's voice is the thinnest of retreats—so thin that the brightness of the sky seems part of its solemnity.

Dorothy's “Ramble” enters unmapped terrain with different expectations: not intent on a course, she does not risk failure, error, or betrayal. And thus released from William's urgencies, she can test his imaginative tendencies without being overwhelmed by them. This renegotiation of William's terrain can be seen in her study of a figure that recalls the focus of one of his more vexed poems of strange encounters—“The Thorn”—but with a difference:

This pathway led me on
Until I reach'd a stately Rock
With velvet moss o'ergrown.
With russet oak and tufts of fern
Its top was richly garlanded;
Its sides adorned with eglantine
Bedropp'd with hips of glossy red.


This image is critical in Margaret Homans's assessment of Dorothy's plight as poet, for it reveals “the adverse psychic effects” of an encounter with that “feminized or maternal nature” already written by William: she can only read his figures, which, “instead of provoking poetry … arrest it” (pp. 50-51); this rock, “gorgeous and domineering,” blocks her “speaker's spiritual and physical progress” with his “experience of nature and of maternal origins,” and so imposes “difficulties in sustaining poetic voice” (p. 53). Homans has “Nutting” in mind as the countertext, but the imagery of “The Thorn” seems not only more visible, but of different import for Dorothy's poetic adventures. Covered in “splendid moss … More rich its hues of various green, / Orange, and gold & glittering red” (29-32), Dorothy's rock palpably evokes that “fresh and lovely sight, / A beauteous heap, a hill of moss” on the mountain ridge of William's poem—a feminine figure whose “network” of “olive-green and scarlet bright” seems “woven” by “hand of lady fair” (35-46), in a spot perhaps haunted by an actual woman, Martha Ray. Yet the spectral shimmer of William's figure in Dorothy's image seems not to block her imagination; indeed she seems to be reading against it. For one, her pronouns are not feminine, but neuter: “Its top … Its sides … its hues.” To Homans, these spell Dorothy's alienation from William's feminized nature—revealed as nature refuses her gender—but it is just as possible that her neuters mark an effort to explore a world free from ascriptions of gender and the social politics so implicated. The “stately Rock” has attracted her speaker's eye and stayed her course, but nothing in Dorothy's poem shows her “I” usurped or silenced by the force of William's prior figurings. When, in fact, Dorothy has her speaker apply a gender to nature, it is masculine: “Here winter keeps his revelry … Hath pleasure gardens of his own” (24, 28). This denizen, moreover, is of a different character from William's masculine figures of nature, those stern paternal presences he writes into various psychological agons: if there is a certain lordly demeanor in Dorothy's “Winter,” it is not one implicated with exercises of dominance, but one instead equated with play and pleasure. Indeed, “Winter” inhabits the world of her poem as a kind of absent benefactor—a happy counterpart to the absent “companion friend” from whom Dorothy's speaker has consciously departed: unlike that poet (who is not quite at home in Grasmere), this one is able to evoke a sense of communal joy amid an adverse season.

That sense of community is reinforced by the way Dorothy uses her “Ramble” for a tacit restaging of the central confrontation reported by the speaker of “The Thorn.” William's dramatic experiment in representing the conversation of a mind under stress has a different imaginative project from her sentimental retrospect; even so, Dorothy's interest in evoking William's extremes of circumstance and imagery is significant, for she means to test the possibility of community against the strain of increasing isolation that grips the discourse of “The Thorn.” Her engagement with William's figures suggests that she is not oblivious to the power of isolation against community; she does not repress his attraction to figures of isolated consciousness, but tries to work through them in order to imagine a more self-sustaining alternative. Like “The Thorn,” the “Ramble” concerns a strange encounter in a new world. Dorothy's speaker greets the Rock in terms expressing interest in and potential for relationship: “Thou wear'st,” said I, “a splendid garb” (23)—a stark contrast to how the speaker of “The Thorn” reacts. Less savvy about figures, he believes the spot into which he has rambled is actually inhabited, or haunted, by “A woman in a scarlet cloak” (63), and he recoils from his discovery. The colors he reports suggest his agitation—though of nature, the tints seem super- or unnatural, repelling relationship even as they fixate attention—and the story of maternal grief he attaches in retrospect to this sight doubles this fixation. The encounter Dorothy stages involves more remediable psychic pressures. The Rock at once elicits the confession, “I griev'd when summer days were gone,” but immediately turns that thought of grief into a prospect of recompense: “No more I'll grieve; for Winter here / Hath pleasure gardens of his own” (26-28). Her pastoral impulse is no naive delusion (she in fact revised a softer verb, sigh, to the more challenging grieve); Dorothy represents this as a conscious effort to take advantage of the resources at hand: “What need of flowers? The splendid moss / Is gayer than an April mead” (26-30). Her speaker then projects a voice welcoming her to a new community, as if in confirmation:

—Beside that gay and lovely Rock
There came with merry voice
A foaming streamlet glancing by:
It seemed to say ‘Rejoice!’

The speaker of “The Thorn” hears only “Oh misery! oh misery!” (65)—a moan as bleak as “the stormy winter gale” (24) that carries it, and one that sends him running “Head-foremost” for cover (193-95). His incorporation of that voice of misery becomes the poem's last word. In Home at Grasmere, “icy brooks” challenge the wanderers, and William ends the poem less with a resolution of isolation into community than with the poet's translation of isolation into individual visionary purpose. The streamlet of the “Ramble” is given a more social character, its voice seeming to encourage a sensation of community that will sustain and nurture daily life, and Dorothy responds in the poetic present by repeating that voice as her own, using it to close her poem.

My youthful wishes all fulfill'd,
Wishes matured by thoughtful choice,
I stood an Inmate of this vale,
How could I but rejoice?


The final identification of the self as “Inmate” is worth comment, for in William's poetry the word usually implies an untenable ideal—only the blessed infant babe is “An inmate of this active universe” (Prelude 2.266)—or it carries a dark reflex of that ideal: “inmate” as an exile from one world imprisoned in another. The image of the birds in Home at Grasmere as “inmates … Of Winter's household” bears some of this sense (D. 194-95), one carried forward into the poet's claim of refuge from the “jarring world,” wherein all may be “Inmates not unworthy of their home” (D. 632, 647)—the litotes further weakening the claim. “Prisoner” is not listed in the 1901 NED as a synonym for “Inmate,” but the sense is latent in the entry, “an occupant along with others,”25 and is implied by William's usages above still more forcefully so in the “Intimations” Ode, wherein a feminized nature—a “homely Nurse” with “something of a Mother's mind”—does “all she can / To Make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man, / Forget the glories he hath known, / And that imperial palace whence he came” (79-84).26 Dorothy uses “inmate” in quite another register—to suggest the condition of a familiar resident, even a mate or productive partner, “one of the family or company … Indweller, inhabitant” (NED). That sense of belonging achieves a deft formal correlative in her closing rhymes—voice / Rejoice / choice / rejoice—which not only stress the responsive joining of her choice to rejoice with the voice she was willing to hear in her new world, but underscore that responsiveness with a community of sound and sense: as the most emphatic set of rhymes in the “Ramble,” they mark an emphatic evolution from the state implied by the initial, and oppositely marked pair of the poem: unknown / alone.

If the social sensibility animating this joyous welcome avoids the risks attending William's more solitary poetics, Dorothy's vision still engages other risks and other anxieties. Her representation of the self in community is no mere sentimentality, for she is fully alert both to advantages and liabilities, and, as in the case of William's deepest imaginings, her writing discloses the shadows involved in any complex engagement with an ideal.

Dorothy's initiating figure of the self as an inmate of a community is the enabling muse of George and Sarah Green. It is significant that she frames this narrative for and addresses it “to a Friend,” for whatever her actual referent—her brother, Mrs. Clarkson, or Joanna Hutchinson—the rhetorical construction writes her reader into a general community of concern, a potential sympathizer who welcomes her narrative service. The “distressful events” concern one family of the Vale, the Greens. The parents, George and Sarah, went to the village of Langdale on the morning of March 19, 1808, to sell butter, attend a sale, and visit one of Sarah's daughters “in service” there. They perished the same night on their return home across a mountain: baffled by a snowstorm, George fell down a precipice; Sarah, not realizing he died instantly of a fractured skull, tried to assist him, but unable to reach him, climbed back, tripped, and also fell. Six children at home, the oldest age eleven, waited in vain for them to return; they concluded that their parents stayed in town to avoid the weather and would arrive Sunday. On Monday, after the oldest child asked a neighbor for a cloak so that she might retrace her parents' steps, an alarm went out for a community search, and the bodies were found two days later. A public subscription was organized at once—the Narrative helping to “promote this benevolent design” (17)—and the children were placed with various families in the parish, among them the Wordsworths, who accepted the daughter they were already boarding. The Narrative not only reports the immediate disaster, but offers images and recollections of the Green family, and details the aftermath of their tragedy—in particular, the community's concerted care for the orphans.

The community is Dorothy's theme, and her presence both as author of and figure in her Narrative is communal and social. Levin's remark that the “I” of Dorothy's journals is “a facilitating rather than a competitive presence … nonaggressive rather than ego-dominant” (p. 36) also describes the social integration basic to the idealism of the Narrative. Dorothy herself acts as an alternate (standing in for Mary Wordsworth) on the “Committee of six of the neighbouring Ladies … appointed to overlook the Children and manage the funds.” And as chronicler of the whole for the larger community of sympathy focused on their cause, her attitude is generally one of self-effacement before the events at hand. Even when she speaks in the first person, she does so on behalf of all: “I am happy to tell you … our united efforts have been even more successful than we had dared to hope” (pp. 61, 62). Not only does Dorothy not engage those contests of self and other that occupy and preoccupy William, but her poetics of community, in being nonhierarchical, are materially threatened by exercises of egotism. It is, significantly, a spectacle of individual assertion against community that provokes her rare ire. One unnamed lady, “sullen and dissatisfied that she had not had the whole management of the concern,” did not hesitate to show the committee early on how “galled” she was that the entire matter “had not been entrusted to her guidance.” Her behavior in turns galls Dorothy, for her “true interest in the Children's well-doing” is less apparent than her pride of self (p. 72). This lady, Dorothy hotly reports, “had before (without any authority) herself (though only recently come into the country and having no connection with Grasmere) engaged to place all the Children with an old Woman in indigent circumstances, who was totally incapable of the charge” (p. 63).

Dorothy's obsession with “the irregular interference,” “cabals and heartburnings” of “Mrs. _____” (p. 63) underscores not only the modesty of her own assumption of any “authority,” but its credit in her long-standing “connection with Grasmere.” It is such connection, for instance, that authenticates the metaphor she summons to report how poverty impelled the Greens to sell “a few peats in the summer, which they dug out of their own hearts' heart, their Land” (p. 49); the image of self-mutilation bears a knowledge of local values, what “passion” attaches to the legacy of a “few fields” and “ancient home” (p. 75). Knowing how this “Family were bound together by the same cares and exertions,” Dorothy never doubts the children's value to their new families; indeed, she reports, “already one of them has proved that she maintained this spirit after she had quitted her Father's Roof” (p. 76). “I am convinced from observation that there is in the whole Family a peculiar tenderness of Nature … an uncommonly feeling heart” (p. 77)—a conviction that is not sentimental, but credited, Dorothy emphasizes, by first-person witness and acquaintance. The authority that enables her to speak of “how closely the bonds of family connection are held together in these retired vallies” (p. 65) also lies behind the tendency of her narrative to modulate the dispersal of the orphans among several households into a sense of the way the vale itself abides as foster parent and fosters a family bond; one of the girls was even accepted by descendants of George Green's first wife, not blood relatives.

Dorothy's intimacy with the textures that bind the community is not just self-authorizing, but gives her access to the several voices that she weaves into the texture of her narrative: “It is, when any unusual event happens, affecting to listen to the fireside talk in our Cottages; you then find how faithfully the inner histories of Families, their lesser and greater cares, their peculiar habits, and ways of life are recorded in the breasts of their Fellow-inhabitants of the Vale.” The veracity of such records depends on the register of individual life in the life of the family, and in the life of the larger community of the Vale: as Dorothy goes on to remark, records in the hearts of “Fellow-inhabitants” can “much more faithfully … be preserved in remembrance” than “the lives of those, who have moved in higher stations and had numerous Friends in the busy world … even when their doings and sufferings have been watched for the express purpose of recording them in written narratives” (pp. 52-53). This last comparison is striking, for its implication that the truest record of self is familial, communal, and social has the effect of recalling William's markedly opposite commitments—not only his dedicated self-regard for the express purpose of recording his doings and sufferings in written narrative, but also the way his manner of accounting for “distressful events” serves a set of interests quite different from those that guide the composition of her Narrative. William's focus is primarily a private one. In The Prelude of 1799, for example, having related a boyhood discovery of a drowning, he tells his “Friend” that he “might advert / To numerous accidents in flood or field, / Quarry or moor, or 'mid the winter snows, / Distresses and disasters, tragic facts / Of rural history,” because all such events “impressed [his] mind / With images to which in following years / Far other feelings were attached” (1.279-86). William's record is individual rather than social; its primary information is for “my mind” and of my “feelings”; its deepest significance applies to the self, not others.

Dorothy's notably different orientation affects rhetorical strategy as well. Where William begins his various autobiographies at a high pitch of self-concern, she begins her Narrative with an address to her readers that writes them into the world of her story. This approach may recall William's prologue to “Michael,” in which the poet exhorts us to leave the public way and discover the valley hidden behind an apparently forbidding facade; but Dorothy's tone is different. She assumes community rather than supposes an adversarial reader, and invites us in: “You remember a single Cottage at the foot of Blentern Gill—it is the only dwelling on the Western Side of the upper reaches of the Vale of Easedale, and close under the mountain; a little stream runs over rocks and stones beside the garden wall, after tumbling down the crags: I am sure you recollect the spot: if not, you remember George and Sarah Green who dwelt there” (p. 43). “I” enters her prose only as a voice of encouragement and assurance, in solidarity with a most generously construed “you,” whose powers of recollection are solicited as a prelude to sympathy. The “minute detail of all the particulars” to which she was asked to attend assists this purpose, for her introduction does not treat these details as alien signs needing interpretation, as does the prologue to “Michael;” she produces them as markers for a memory she assumes is efficacious. She even supplies her own point of reference: the Greens were last seen “at the top of Blea Crag above Easedale Tarn, that very spot where I myself had sate down six years ago, unable to see a yard before me, or to go a step further over the Crags. … A mist came on … and I wandered long, not knowing whither. When at last the mist cleared away I found myself at the edge of the Precipice, and trembled at the Gulph below.” It is this memory, she says, that made her think that even though “The neighbourhood of this Precipice had been searched,” she “could not help believing that George and Sarah Green were lying somewhere thereabouts” (pp. 45-46)—as indeed they were.

This quality of sympathetic meditation also checks Dorothy's inclination to judge events, assess liability, or offer instruction. An impulse is there—“perhaps formerly it might be said, and with truth, the Woman had better been at home” (p. 50)—but equally strong is Dorothy's effort to restrain judgment with sympathy, and to evoke that sympathy in her readers with a question requiring our animation of the particulars of her narrative: “who shall assert that this same spirit which led [Sarah] to come at times among her Neighbours as an equal, seeking like them society and pleasure, that this spirit did not assist greatly in preserving her in chearful independance [sic] of mind through the many hardships and privations of extreme poverty?” (p. 50).27 Judgment is applied only against those who accept orphans merely to gain payment from the parish and access to cheap labor, with neither love nor care for the welfare of such children, Dorothy laments. It is primarily to avoid such a fate for the Greens that all, “From the moment we heard that their Parents were lost … anxiously framed plans for raising a sum of money for the purpose of assisting the Parish in placing them with respectable Families; and to give them a little school-learning” (p. 61).

This commitment to communal effort and its informing values appears in the way Dorothy's penultimate paragraph misquotes, perhaps deliberately, a passage from William's as-yet-unpublished story of Margaret's ruined cottage:

I may say with the Pedlar in the “Recluse”
                                                                                                                                                      “I feel
                    The story linger in my heart, my memory
                    Clings to this poor Woman and her Family,”

and I fear I have spun out my narrative to a tedious length. I cannot give you the same feelings that I have of them as neighbours and fellow-inhabitants of this Vale; therefore what is in my mind a full and living picture will be to you but a feeble sketch.

(p. 86)

The lines she has in mind are addressed by the Pedlar to the poem's Author, and are about the effect of his last visit with Margaret, by then clearly deranged and hopeless. Unlike Dorothy, the Pedlar, authorized by powerful feeling, confesses no lack of confidence in the power of his narrative:

                                                                      It would have grieved
Your very heart to see her. Sir, I feel
The story linger in my heart. I fear
'Tis long and tedious, but my script clings
To that poor woman: so familiarly
Do I perceive her manner, and her look
And presence, and so deeply do I feel
Her goodness, that, not seldom, in my walks
A momentary trance comes over me;
And to myself I seem to muse on one
By sorrow laid asleep or borne away. …

(MS. D. 361-71)28

As readers often remark, the Pedlar's concern seems equally divided between care for Margaret and care for his own equanimity. Both in his actions at the time and in subsequent narrative action, he works to contain the pressure of disturbing emotion: having left Margaret “With the best hope and comfort I could give,” he says he was perplexed only that, having thanked him “for his will,” she seemed not to thank him for the hope so tendered (389-92). He himself managed by modulating sympathetic grief into a compensatory fantasy of Margaret consoled by forces beyond nature and human life. Such motions, as students of The Excursion know, are crucial and controversial in assessments of the poem's chief didactic spokesman, for from De Quincey on, many note the contradiction Wordsworth has introduced between the Pedlar's expressions of sympathy and his manner of action, which is one of detachment, retreat, even abandonment. The modest withdrawal from full identity with this figure given by Dorothy's “I may say” is suggestive, for the theme of her Narrative as a whole more emphatically refuses his mode of behavior. The involvement of Grasmere—the men who organize to search for the bodies and the women who organize to assist the orphans—manifestly contrasts the wanderer's departure. That difference is underscored by Dorothy's revision of William's verse: her version (“My memory / Clings to this poor Woman and her family”) alters the Pedlar's line (“my spirit clings / To that poor woman”) to convey the ethical attachment of someone still in the community. The Pedlar's that issues from wandering spirit that identifies itself with no community and clings to Margaret only at an imaginative distance; Dorothy's this expresses a sense of continuing relationship and responsibility, even though her poor woman, like the Pedlar's, is dead at the time of the narration.

Dorothy's alternative to the Pedlar's self-concern can also be read in her care for the “family” victimized by these events. The Pedlar may speak of a “bond / Of brotherhood … broken” by Margaret's death—she never failed, he says, to give “A daughter's welcome … And I loved her / As my own child” (D. 81-85, 94-96)—but his metaphors describe relations he has honored more in absence than in presence. Dorothy, by contrast, has not only participated in a united effort to secure the material welfare of the orphans, but prays that they may remember “the awful end of their Parents … in such a manner as to implant in their hearts a reverence and sorrow for them that may purify their thoughts and make them wiser and better” (pp. 86-87). These terms write a different economy from the one that impels the actual and imaginative distance sought by William's Pedlar from his “daughter,” for they are enabled and empowered by community responsibility. William's Pedlar, a solitary wanderer whose livelihood and composure depend on remaining unfixed and uninvolved in any one particular set of events, is concerned to restrict grief, banish sorrow, and suppress even the elegiac remnants that “steal upon the meditative mind.” In one version he counsels his listener in the “purposes of wisdom” thus: “enough to sorrow have you given … Be wise and chearful” (D. 508-10); and as a model, he cites his own psychological processes: through meditation, he found that all “the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind, … what we feel of sorrow and despair / From ruin and from change, and all the grief / That passing shows of being leave behind, / Appeared an idle dream that could not live” (D. 519-23). Dorothy imagines otherwise for the children who survive to remember their parents' death and their subsequent dislocation from the only home they had known: not only is there is no question that sorrow will remain, but she is confident that the children's acceptance of it will ultimately make them wiser and better. The mediation and sympathy of the community is integral to this faith. At the funeral, “Many tears were shed by persons who had known little of the Deceased; and all the people who were gathered together appeared to be united in one general feeling of sympathy for the helpless condition of the Orphans” (pp. 56-57). Isolated from community, William's Pedlar and his auditor (the Author of the poem) are committed to a different plot, one in which sorrow has to be suppressed or mediated into something else in order for wisdom to be achieved. Though the Author is at first a reluctant student—overcome by “a brother's love” and “the impotence of grief” (D. 499-500)—William fortifies him with the Pedlar's instruction. Another manuscript shows him busily sketching out various curricula: “The trouble … sent into my thought / Was sweet, I looked and looked again, & to myself / I seemed a better and wiser man”; “for the tale which you have told I think / I am a better and a wiser man.”29 Dorothy prays for the Greens' children to become purer, wiser, and better through sorrow; William's figures, even with the mediation of a tale, treat sorrow as an impure excess that needs to be curtailed if one is to think himself wiser and better.

Dorothy's sensitivity to a community of sorrow has its risks, however, and she suggests these in her peripheral obsession with figures of isolation and abandonment. Such attitudes are subordinate in the Narrative proper, but they are as clearly marked in their fixations as are the Pedlar's in his compulsion to escape. One early indication is the peculiar manner in which she writes herself across the Greens' path—namely, her report of “that very spot” where they disappeared. This account does more than corroborate their confusion; it obliquely associates her “dreadful situation” there with her wandering in separation from the family member to whom she is closest: “I left W. at Stikell Tarn. A mist came on after I had parted with him, and I wandered long, not knowing whither. When at last the mist cleared away I found myself at the edge of the Precipice, and trembled at the Gulph below, which appeared immeasurable.” Recalling a separation from William, Dorothy also recalls a world of mist and danger that seems internal as well as external, psychological as well as natural, threatening self-destruction with an intensity hardly dispelled by the matter-of-fact conclusion she applies: “Happily I had some hours of daylight before me, and after a laborious walk I arrived home in the evening” (pp. 45-46). The Greens' fate was otherwise, but Dorothy's spectral layering of their loss of home and family over her terror away from home and William, once revealed, remains a potential point of reference throughout the course of her narrative, casting a shadowy map of self-interest across the Greens' tragedy and its terms of resolution.

That plane of interest remains suppressed until the Narrative's close, but it reappears there, again in the imagination of alternative fates, alternative circumstances: “There is at least this consolation, that the Father and Mother have been preserved by their untimely end from that dependence which they dreaded … and perhaps, after the Land had been sold, the happy chearfulness of George and Sarah Green might have forsaken them, and their latter days have been tedious and melancholy” (p. 87). This is Dorothy's last sentence: a dark fantasy of dependency, of being a burden, of living out one's life in poverty and bereft of the history preserved in the Land. Not only is it a stark departure from her optimistic and idealizing story of life in the Grasmere community, but it is sufficiently odd to suggest the pressure of private authorial concerns in this story of a family scattered. One wonders to what degree Dorothy's own experience—first as an orphaned child fearing the prospect of being “destitute of the means of supporting myself” (LDW, 11), and then as an adult feeling abandoned by her brother's marriage—haunts about the shape of this conclusion. “How we are squandered abroad!” she laments as her brothers return to school and John sails for Barbados.30 She imagines, alternatively, that the “Day of my Felicity” will be “the Day in which I am once more to find a Home under the same Roof with my Brother” (16 June 1793; EY, 93); “the idea of a home” is basic to her happiness (2-3 Sept. 1795; EY, 146). It seems clear enough that her misfortune in being orphaned as a child and a fear of being left without family, or a burden to others, are felt pressures in the stiffly formal letter she writes to her brother Richard, in which she attempts to come to terms with William's impending marriage and the disruption it bodes (10 June 1802; LDW, 51-52). Though she claims full confidence in “the affection of my Brothers and their regard for my happiness” and knows she “shall continue to live with my Brother William,” she is concerned not to strain affection with a necessary dependence: William, “having nothing to spare nor being likely to have, at least for many years, I am obliged (I need not say how much he regrets this necessity) to set him aside, and I will consider myself as boarding through my whole life with an indifferent person”—a resolve, in effect, to convert her status as intimate inmate of a household into a social and psychological correlative of her brother's intimation of man as the “inmate” of a world to which he does not originally or properly belong. Dorothy wants only to be minimally comfortable without dependence: she asks Richard to arrange a per annum so that she “should have something to spare to exercise my better feelings in relieving the necessities of others,” and she insists that it is “absolutely necessary, to give it any effect,” that her stipend “be independent of accidents of death or any other sort that may befal [sic] you or any of my Brothers, its principal object being to make me tranquil in my mind with respect to my future life. … I should be very loth to be oppressive to you, or any of my Brothers, or to draw upon you for more than you could spare.”

The bleak conclusion of Dorothy's Narrative not only bears the imprint of these concerns, but is made bleaker yet by notes she added to it. One attests to the literal truth of her “account of the stock of provisions in the House at the time of [the Greens'] Death,” remarking that this list is really one of absences, “all the things that were wanting even to the ordinary supply of a poor house” (p. 88). These absences impinge in the next paragraph of the note, which details the sale of the “household goods” and the prices they fetched—repeating the distribution of the children to new families, but with marketplace values replacing the bonds of connection. What seems to play in Dorothy's mind as she writes these addenda and supplements are figures of dissolution, dispersal, and the reduction of a shared life to a mere list of properties. The bleakness of these details is extended by a series of dreadful associations Dorothy feels compelled to append, and which, in ending her manuscript, acquire the quality of a summary gloss on the Narrative itself.

The first is a report of the frantic reaction of the daughter with whom Sarah Green had been visiting before her death: in her “distraction” over the Greens' disappearance, “she thought that she should surely find them” and had to be restrained from going to the mountains to look for them herself (p. 90). This distraction operates as a bond of connection in Dorothy's imagination to the story of Mary Watson, who expressed the same poignant confidence in her ability to find a son who had drowned in the local lake six years before. “I never shall forget the agony of her face” (p. 90), Dorothy says, acknowledging in effect the order of memory she hopes the orphans will be spared, for this unforgettable agony not only lacks meliorating thoughts, but focuses on the reciprocal tragedy, a mother bereft of a child. This tragedy recalls a further connection to “the end of Mary Watson herself … murdered a few years ago in her own cottage by a poor Maniac, [another] Son, with whom she had lived fearlessly though everyone in the vale had had apprehensions for her.” And if this inward collapse of the family were not enough, Dorothy's last sentence reports that the estate “fell to a grandson” who “had been sent to Liverpool to learn a trade, came home a dashing fellow, spent all his property—took to dishonest practices, and [like William's Luke] is now under sentence of transportation” (p. 91). In assessing these peculiar addenda, Margaret Homans proposes that the “arbitrary cruelty inflicted on Mary Watson by circumstances is a corrective” to the too “positively framed” and “saccharine ending with which Dorothy felt compelled to close” the narrative proper (pp. 59-60). These notes are correctives, however, only if one finds that ending saccharine. The Narrative has meliorating motions, to be sure, but its final words suggest that Dorothy's addenda may fill out, rather than counter, something definitely not saccharine in her final sentence, which broods over circumstances in which “the happy chearfulness of George and Sarah Green might have forsaken them, and their latter days have been tedious and melancholy.” Though this is only a fantasy alternative that Dorothy is glad they have been spared, her manuscript in effect creates it for them, first in the note that details the breakup of their estate, and then more starkly, in the story of the complete disintegration of Mary Watson's family and estate.

If William's egocentric poetics depend on asserting self over circumstance or, alternately, confronting the impotence of self in the face of circumstance, Dorothy's poetics of community generate their own counter-texts and spectres of defeat. Having written the Narrative in service to the community, and having stressed throughout the sustaining and restorative identification of individual lives with the ongoing life of the vale, Dorothy is captured by thoughts and recollections that compete with and threaten to subvert the tradition of writing in which she hoped to locate herself. These impulses suggest that the “otherness” of Dorothy Wordsworth's imagination may not so much be the imperatives of an alienating masculine tradition, as an “otherness” in the mind itself, which inevitably, and perhaps naturally, contests its own most cherished compositions.


  1. Woolf, “Dorothy Wordsworth,” The Second Common Reader (1932); rpt. Collected Essays (London: Hogarth, 1967), 3:199-206. For general dismissals of Dorothy Wordsworth as writer, see Richard Fadem, who not only rules out the possibility of any legitimate interest, but claims that by “inflating Dorothy's stature as a critic and writer, we in fact do her a disservice” (“Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey,’” TWC [The Wordsworth Circle] 9 [1978], p. 17); for specific dismissals of her poetic ability see: Ernest De Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), p. 388; Elizabeth Hardwick, “Amateurs: Dorothy Wordsworth & Jane Carlyle,” NYRB [The New York Review of Books] 19, no. 9 (30 Nov. 1972): 3-4; Rachel Mayer Brownstein, “The Private Life,” MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 34 (1971): 48-63; Pamela Woof, “Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer,” TWC 17 (1986): 95-110.

  2. Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 3. Homans gives an account of this tradition in her first chapter and of its effect on Dorothy Wordsworth in her second. A still more recent study by Susan M. Levin (Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism [New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987]) offers a reading of Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry that finds her less disabled by the “masculine tradition” and more fully engaged in a tradition of “feminine romanticism.” My work is indebted to these two strong interpretations and the questions they raise.

  3. In addition to the studies of Homans and Levin, cited in n. 2 above, see Irene Taylor and Gina Luria, “Gender and Genre: Women in British Romantic Literature,” What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature, ed. Marlene Springer (New York: New York University Press, 1977), pp. 98-123, and Anne K. Mellor, “Teaching Wordsworth and Women,” Approaches to Teaching Wordsworth's Poetry, ed. Spencer Hall with Jonathan Ramsey (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986), pp. 142-46.

  4. Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 113; hereafter cited LDW with page number.

  5. George & Sarah Green: A Narrative, By Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. with a preface by E. De Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. 39. Hereafter, references to page numbers are given parenthetically in my text.

  6. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 2nd ed., ed. Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971); Grasmere Journal is cited GJ. My quotations, in order, are from 20 Feb. 1802 (GJ, 93), 6 March 1802 (GJ, 98), 4 May 1802 (GJ, 120). There are numerous other examples of this incorporation: “Writing all the morning for William” (17 Dec. 1800; GJ, 54); “still at work at the Pedlar, altering and refitting. … William left me at work altering some passages of the Pedlar. … I worked hard, got the backs pasted the writing finished, and all quite trim” (13-14 Feb. 1802; GJ, 90); “I wrote the 2nd prologue to Peter Bell. … After dinner I wrote the 1st Prologue” (21 Feb. 1802; GJ, 93); “I stitched up the Pedlar—wrote out Ruth” (7 Mar. 1802; GJ, 98).

  7. 8 March 1802 (GJ, 104).

  8. 20 April 1806 (LDW, 75-77).

  9. For example, Hardwick's unquestioned formalist and essentialist standards lead her to deem the poems “not good”: Dorothy “did not understand meter and wasn't, in any case, really happy with formal constructions. Most of all she lacked generalizing power” and ability to articulate “the meaning of her life” (p. 3). Brownstein repeats this second point: finding a crucial liability in Dorothy's failure to “say how she felt, how a poet must feel, and what she thought,” she invokes an unexamined idea of “a poet” to discredit Dorothy's divergent practices—the “absence of interpretation or explanation, her failure to connect, explicitly, her own feelings with what she observes and finds important enough to write down” (p. 51). Woof points to a tendency to “helpless and passive” responses to visual stimuli to conclude that Dorothy's sense of poor poetic worth is the “correct” judgment (p. 101). Only Levin (p. 66) suggests that Dorothy's terms of self-evaluation reflect assumptions about literary form that are open to debate; she reminds us, in fact, that Dorothy's “jumbled” modes of literary expression anticipate the celebrated experimentalism of certain post-Romantic male writers (p. 108).

  10. Irregular Verses (1827), 56-59; references are to line numbers. Unless otherwise indicated, my texts for the poems follow Levin, The Collected Poems of Dorothy Wordsworth, published as Appendix One of Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, cited in n. 2 above.

  11. For a discussion of the poem in these terms, see Homans, pp. 67-69. It should be noted, however, that there is a second mother in this poem, the adult Jane Pollard Marshall, whose assumed responsiveness to Dorothy's verses counters the maternal smile that discourages childhood ambitions: the poet assures her auditor (Jane's daughter, Julia Marshall) that if this present “strain, / Breathed from the depth of years gone by, / Should touch her Mother's heart with tender pain, / Or call a tear into her loving eye, / She will not check the tear or still the rising sigh” (96-100), but will value the emotions stirred by these verses—merely “irregular” and “poor memorial” though they be. Dorothy herself becomes an encouraging literary mother to Julia's own poetic efforts: see The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, Part 2: 1829-1834, ed. Ernest de Selincourt; 2nd ed., ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 332, 349, 424. Cited hereafter LY 2, with page number.

  12. Book 1.59-63 (1805). Quotations follow The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979). All citations, by book and line, are to the text of 1805, unless otherwise indicated.

  13. Books 3.36-37 and 9.21-24, respectively. Quotations follow John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1957). Citations are given by book and line. The particular context in which Dorothy summons the phrase “the numbers came,” aided by her couplet form, also suggests a second, half-bitter allusion to the brief account of poetic vocation Pope renders in An Epistle from Mr. Pope, To Dr. Arbuthnot: “Why did I write? what sin to me unknown / Dipt me in Ink, my Parents', or my own? / As yet a Child, nor yet a Fool to Fame, / I lisp'd in Numbers, for the Numbers came. / I left no Calling for this idle trade, / No Duty broke, no Father dis-obey'd” (125-30). Dorothy's account of maternal discouragement offers a pointed contrast to the cooperation of Pope's father with (indeed his relentless insistence on) his son's writing poetry: for a relevant anecdote, see vol. 6, p. 376 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, 7 vols., ed. John Butt (London: Methuen, 1939); my quotation follows this edition. I am grateful to the Press's reader for calling my attention to this text as another possible reference for Dorothy's phrase.

  14. Homans, Women Writers, p. 36; a local version is Woof's view that “Dorothy progressively absorbed rather than challenged Wordsworth's critical stance” (p. 97).

  15. Fadem, p. 78. Equating the fictions of the “Sister” in William's poetry (especially “Tintern Abbey”) with the historical Dorothy Wordsworth, Fadem claims that “Dorothy was spontaneous, intuitive, emotional” (p. 17), and “like any number of Wordsworth's characters who are oracularly banal … not thoughtful” (pp. 24, 26); “at twenty-six she is what William was at seven. She is splendid but rudimentary and incomplete … she has not become an adult” (p. 28). One could not guess from his account that Dorothy Wordsworth had an inner life, read (if eclectically) German, Italian, and English literature, was fluent in French, valued as an intelligent companion by her brother, De Quincey, and Coleridge (among others), and successfully managed several households. Fadem's attitude is perpetuated even by the Modern Language Association: The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism (New York: MLA, 1985) offers no review of the critical and scholarly work on Dorothy Wordsworth (nor on any of the publishing women poets of the age).

  16. Homans's more recent study, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), revises the thesis of her first; here she argues that passages of Dorothy's journals operate as oppositional texts to William's “apocalyptic tendencies”: by “privileg[ing] the literal meaning inherent in appearances over symbolism that requires absent signification” (p. 59), Dorothy emphasizes, in ways that William's transcendental and symbolizing imagination subverts, “the lack of distance between object and meaning, signifier and referent” (p. 62). This is a provocative argument but, like its predecessor, may polarize William and Dorothy too exclusively, for many of the passages Homans summons in evidence show Dorothy's imagination also engaged in that “subordination of nature to meaning” attributed only to William (p. 58).

  17. Levin reports that this poem “was probably written in the late 1820s” (p. 208) and prints the version of the Commonplace Book. I use the version published by William in Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842); my text follows The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), Miscellaneous Poems, (vol. 4, pp. 162-63), this edition is cited hereafter PW.

  18. Quotations of The Thorn follow Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads, The text of the 1798 edition with the additional 1800 poems and the Prefaces, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (1965; London: Methuen, 1971).

  19. Homans and Levin are intelligent sponsors of the more recent procedures to which I refer. Although Levin remarks briefly that what she calls “Dorothy's ‘feminine consciousness’ inheres in the writing of her male contemporaries” (p. 7), her chief concern is to differentiate and polarize in relation to issues of gender. Thus, like Homans, she stresses the oppositional relation of Dorothy's writing to William's modes of imagination and self-definition and to the “male romanticism” these are taken to exemplify: “Dorothy's work represents the suspension of male romanticism as well as the suspension of its literary forms … the quality and emphases of [her] romanticism are as different from those of the men around her as is her writing from theirs” (pp. 7-8).

  20. This poem was written in 1806 and published in William's Poems of 1815 as Address to a Child, During a Boisterous Winter Evening. By a female Friend of the Author and placed with “Poems Referring to the Period of Childhood”; my quotation follows that text as given in PW vol. 1, pp. 229-30.

  21. Appearing in Dorothy's Commonplace Book (1826-32) under the title A Winter's Ramble in Grasmere's Vale, this is a slightly revised, independent version of the last ten stanzas of Grasmere—A Fragment, a twenty-two stanza poem probably written some time during or after 1805. Levin does not date A Fragment beyond stating that it is “an early composition” (p. 187); in volume 8 of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth (London: Macmillan, 1896) William Knight refers to a “MS. of 1805” from which he prints his text of the poem and ascribes a date (p. 259). This is the copy Catherine Clarkson made in 1805 of Dorothy's Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland in which she also transcribed “A Fragment” and four other poems, three of which certainly date from that decade. I treat the ten-stanza version only because it suits my immediate subject, the Wordsworths' initial explorations of the vale. “A Fragment” is a revealing origin: in that context, the retrospective “Ramble” stanzas are preceded by ten present-tense stanzas celebrating the peace of the vale and the security of Dove Cottage (also made into an independent poem in the Commonplace Book), then two stanzas recalling the winter's day when the Cottage was first beheld. My quotations are based on the last ten stanzas of Levin's edition of “A Fragment,” incorporating the Commonplace Book variants. For a report on texts and dates, see Levin, pp. 176-77, 187-88.

  22. Home at Grasmere. Part First, Book First of The Recluse, ed. Beth Darlington (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977): MS. D. 71-75. Citations hereafter are given parenthetically, noting manuscript and line.

  23. Culler, “Apostrophe,” Diacritics 7, no. 4 (Dec. 1977), p. 67.

  24. Quotations of “Michael” follow Brett and Jones, cited in note 18 above.

  25. Relevant to the sense of estrangement or alienation in William's use of inmate, the 1901 NED gives the following definitions: “In relation to other persons: One who is the mate or associate of another or others in a house. In early use, one admitted for a consideration [i.e., fee] to reside in a house occupied or rented by another. … In the 16th and 17th c. there were stringent by-laws against the harbouring of poor persons as ‘inmates,’ subtenants or lodgers, a practice which tended to increase the number of paupers locally chargeable; … Sometimes, One not originally or properly belonging to the place where he dwells; a foreigner, stranger” (5:307).

  26. My text follows Poems, in Two Volumes and Other Poems, 1800-1807 by William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983) lines 79-84, p. 273.

  27. For a different view, see Levin, who reads Dorothy's affirmation of “a certain mode of social assistance” as qualified by a palpable narrative intent to show a “wicked mother and the destructive world of nature conspiring to bring about unforgettable loss and devastation” (pp. 41-52).

  28. MS. D (1799); I follow the “reading text” in The Ruined Cottage and The Pedlar, ed. James Butler (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979). Citations are to manuscript and line.

  29. B. 43v and 45r respectively. See Butler's edition, pp. 256-59.

  30. 27 Jan. 1788; The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years 1787-1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt; 2nd rev. ed., ed. Chester Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 16; cited hereafter EY with page number. Dorothy's exclamation is an echo of Merchant of Venice (1.3.21): with Antonio's “ventures … squandered abroad,” Shylock imagines “his means are in supposition”; the editors cite the echo, noting this is a “favourite phrase” of Dorothy's (EY, 26; see also 25 Jan. 1790). Levin reads such pressures of imagination in the Grasmere Journal as well, where Dorothy's attention to “people affected by the economic pressures of the time, dislocated from the land … become[s] a means of focusing ideas about communal charity, about her own center at Grasmere and the possible disintegration of her chosen manner of life. For even as the … journals describe community, unity, and coherence, they also detail breakdown and discontinuity” (p. 21; see also pp. 38-41).

To avoid the condescending and implicitly sexist practice of referring to “Dorothy” among the company “Wordsworth,” “Coleridge,” and “De Quincey,” and to avoid the stylistic encumberment of “Dorothy Wordsworth” and “William Wordsworth,” I shall at times refer only to “Dorothy” and “William.”

Anita Hempill McCormick (essay date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: McCormick, Anita Hempill. “‘I shall be beloved—I want no more’: Dorothy Wordsworth's Rhetoric and the Appeal to Feeling in The Grasmere Journals.Philological Quarterly 69, no. 4 (fall 1990): 471-93.

[In the following essay, McCormick argues for a more complex analysis of Wordsworth's rhetoric in the Grasmere Journals.]

Traditionally the readers of Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, from Virginia Woolf to her recent biographers Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, have seen her writing as transparent and Dorothy as transparently selfless. Such influential scholars as Ernest de Selincourt and Mary Moorman portray Dorothy Wordsworth as an ideally supportive and self-sacrificing sister, utterly devoted to her brother's welfare.1 For such readers her later madness is an inexplicable development in a personality whose traits altered radically and without warning, since according to her nephew by marriage it demonstrated that Dorothy was “all self.”2 Richard Fadem has written that such critics

were made uncomfortable by her insanity, for it implies a nature that was neither as stable nor as perfect as they insist … They contend, therefore, that for over sixty years Dorothy was not only altogether happy but also healthy, leaving us to assume that in hardly more than a few days she disappears without warning through the trap door of her mind.3

But the traditional approach which characterizes the young Dorothy Wordsworth as a happy young woman motivated solely by selfless love for her brother has simplified a complex and troubled personality. In old age she was full of anger and passionate longings which her relations saw as selfish, and she expressed these emotions directly and vigorously. But as a young woman she had also been deeply concerned by her own needs and her insecure situation, particularly during William's courtship of Mary Hutchinson, when she feared losing the place she had found in William's life and in the community at Grasmere. Then she revealed her anxieties and anger indirectly, through recurrent illnesses with psychosomatic components and through a journal which she made available to her brother. Her frequent illnesses and her sense of fellowship with the poor women vagrants she encountered suggest her anxieties and her dependence, and her Grasmere Journals enable her to reveal her dismay at William's approaching marriage in ways which would not threaten her place in his heart and home.

De Quincey was the first of many critics who have hinted that William selfishly allowed his sister to sacrifice herself, sublimely confident that his own personal and poetic needs must be catered to. But Dorothy had deliberately chosen to live with and care for William, and it may well have been the best choice open to her. Her mother had died when Dorothy was six and she had been sent to live with a distant relation; her father never sent for her or saw her again, and when he died during her twelfth year she was uprooted again and sent to live with her elderly, unsympathetic grandparents. Throughout her adolescence she longed for the company of her four brothers, and particularly for William, who wrote her long letters and eventually sought her out. When they decided to take a house together she was living with an uncle and taking responsibility for the care of his children, his wife during her frequent pregnancies, and of the local school; Stephen Gill writes that at this time her letters reveal that she was “miserable” and longed “to escape from the domestic round … with an eagerness that became painfully intense.”4 Living with William, on the other hand, would symbolically reintegrate her into the family she had been exiled from at her mother's death. It also offered her the emotional and intellectual excitement of witnessing and aiding the composition of great poetry: it is no small thing to be addressed in “Tintern Abbey,” or to have William Wordsworth credit you with saving his sanity. So Dorothy eagerly embraced the chance to live with William and act as his cook, housekeeper, scribe, and companion. Her willingness to arrange the business of living made it possible for him to write poetry but also gave her an important role in her household and in the community. For the first time she was the mistress of her own house; she was also central to William's emotional and creative life.

So living with William offered Dorothy considerable social benefits. Had she other motives for devoting herself so entirely to him? F. W. Bateson has claimed that William and Dorothy were drawn together in an incestuous relationship.5 There are certainly indications of a naive infatuation on Dorothy's part. In letters to her friend Jane Pollard written shortly after Dorothy and William first met as adults, Dorothy describes him with ardorous praise and looks forward to a time when Jane can visit them and “find me united to my dear William,” a phrase which suggests a marital rather than a sibling bond.6 Once she knew him better and they had made their home together her tone became more sober, but she often used rhetoric more commonly reserved for the romantically entwined, repeatedly referring to him as “my Beloved” in her Journals.

I would argue, however, that Dorothy's dependency is a more certain clue to explaining her character and her love for William than her incestuous feelings. Her intense desire to be loved and valued was at least as significant in fostering her attachment to William as her unconscious attraction to him. Though her letters of adolescence and early adulthood barely mention her parents, they convey a strong sense of her hurt, bewildered exile; they often mention her brothers, and she longed for the reassurance of their love. She saw them rarely, and when they reached adulthood William was the only one of them who was eager to offer her a home. Her letters to Jane Pollard make it clear that Dorothy warmly welcomed his affectionate and flattering companionship at this stage. Cinderella-like, she had for years been an overworked poor relation living in the households of distant relatives, and the fact that her young, educated, well-travelled brother sought out her company and valued her conversation flattered her and endeared him to her. Soon her dearest wish was to be with William, the brother who most valued the memory of their childhood days together and who assured her of their affinity for one another. In the letters she writes about him before they were able to keep house together the fantasies she shares with Jane are not sexual but domestic, and emphasize her hope of having her own secure home. She foresees the “Day of my Felicity” as “the Day in which I am once more to find a Home under the same Roof with my Brother” (1:30) and describes the cozy parlour where she will preside over tea. Her letters which describe her hopes of escaping from her uncle's house to see William again after his first visit there are painfully eager, for her dearest wish was to live with this deus ex machina forever. In doing so she hoped to escape a life of drudgery for a life of relative freedom with the brother who loved her best. She would have to keep house for him, and they could hardly afford servants, but she would be keeping house for one adult instead of a family full of children. Besides, William longed for her company, not just for her help. He needed her labor but valued her love, and they looked forward to a good deal of companionable leisure: in their early years together they would spend endless hours walking and reading.7

So she looked forward to the day when her brothers would relieve her of being dependent upon others; William's plan of finding a home where they could live together assured her that she would be central to someone's life and plans. She had been on the periphery for most of her life, unimportant and unloved. Her longing to live in a home of her own with the man who valued her most in all the world inevitably sounds like the fantasies of romantic love. But however charged with sexuality her emotions were, her desires to be made much of and to be taken care of seem at least as significant as her unconscious sexual desires. The journal entries written in Grasmere which describe William as being particularly affectionate—resting his head on her shoulder or kissing her in greeting—are proud evidence that Dorothy, who had never inspired much affection before, was at last loved and valued.

Still, though escaping from her uncle's household promised Dorothy freedom and happiness, life with William was not to be uninterruptedly fulfilling. There were times when Dorothy, like the rest of us, felt regret, anxiety and anger. Her place in the household and the self-esteem it afforded her were threatened when it became apparent that William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson was becoming likely. She had long anticipated that William might marry, and had written warmly to Annette Vallon, the mother of William's illegitimate daughter; but the long war which separated William and Annette seemed to secure Dorothy's position in the household, and she had never had to confront what it might mean to welcome a sister-in-law into her home. Gill records Coleridge's frank indication of the change in social status she could expect from their friends.

For so long in everyone's eyes it had been “Wordsworth & his exquisite Sister”. But … Coleridge wrote: “It is absolutely necessary, that I should have one spare Room always ready for Wordsworth & his Wife / and tho' Dorothy would, of course, always accompany them. …” Dorothy was realistic enough to know that this would be the order of precedence from now on.

(p. 205)

She might have feared being an awkward encumbrance in her own home, as well as in society. Dorothy's role in the house would change drastically; Mary would become its mistress and William's principle source of affection and emotional sustenance. Presumably Mary's wishes and desires would supersede Dorothy's. Dorothy would, in effect, duplicate the situation which had made her so unhappy at her uncle's before her escape to Grasmere: she would be a poor relation living in the household of a young married couple, making herself useful by helping around the house and raising their children. So despite their long friendship, Dorothy may not have wholeheartedly welcomed Mary's advent, particularly as it made her confront the fact that she was economically as well as emotionally dependent on William.8

Both Kurt Heinzelman and Susan M. Levin argue that William's marriage is the major organizing principle for the Grasmere Journals. Levin writes that “if we wish to find a narrative structure for this text, we may say it is Dorothy's story of William's engagement and marriage to Mary Hutchinson. … Once the wedding occurs, the journal has for all important purposes run its course, and it is soon left off;” Heinzelman claims that the Grasmere Journals show how Dorothy came to reimagine the household as containing a new member.9 What has not been clear, however, is how she bends the first-person narrative of the Grasmere Journals to rhetorical purposes—not to affect the general reader, but to express her anxieties to her brother. In so using the Journals, she could not afford to protest against the marriage which threatened her for fear of alienating William or Mary and losing both her home and her brother's love.

Dorothy's critics often comment that she resists analyzing the significance of the images she records: Elizabeth Hardwick writes that “she could not, would not analyze,” Susan M. Levin writes that “she refuses to make connections,” and Pamela Woof writes that “there is almost no analysis” in the Journals, that when Dorothy reports that she and William “melted into tears” on reading Book XI of Paradise Lost, “the tears are not analyzed.”10 Both Hardwick and Rachel Brownstein comment on Dorothy's unwillingness or inability to analyze symbols which seem to represent her own situation. But as these critics suggest, analysis would show that she often unconsciously chooses details which demonstrate that she felt vulnerable, or that hint at her pain and anger. Having lost both her parents and her home in childhood, and a second home in adolescence, she might well find that her brother's approaching marriage reawakened fears of exile and betrayal. As Hardwick writes,

We cannot imagine that she was incapable of thought about character, but very early, after her grief and the deaths, she must have become frightened. Her dependency was so greatly loved and so desperately clung to that she could not risk anything except the description of the scenery in which it was lived.11

Analysis might have shown all too clearly that the events which moved Dorothy to anguish or tears often revealed her own threatened position. Would William and Mary have welcomed Dorothy's continued presence in their home if Dorothy's Journals had made her anxieties explicit? Analysis of her fears would hardly have helped to retain his love.

Most journals are written for the author's eyes alone, and provide a private cache for memories and reflection or for the release of energy and imagination. But it appears that Dorothy made her Journals available to William.12 In fact, the first entry of the Grasmere Journal records that Dorothy began it, in William's absence, “because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again” (pp. 15-16). Her awareness of William as a potential audience is likely to have influenced what she chose to write about and the attitudes she took. As she wrote her Journals Dorothy anticipated sharing her work with a specific audience—William Wordsworth—and reading the Grasmere Journals with this in mind changes our understanding of them.

Dorothy's entries vividly describe the natural phenomenon she noticed in her frequent walks and record the cooking and cleaning, walking and visiting that went on as William wrote some of his greatest works. But in the Grasmere Journals she also composed a document which has palpable designs upon William Wordsworth, the person whose love and concern she most needed. In her journal entries she endeavors to show William that she loves him and that she is willing to sacrifice herself for him. But, recognizing that he was falling in love with Mary Hutchinson and worried that the emotional intimacy she shared with him would be lessened, she also uses them to tell him of her fears. She conveys her worries with considerable, though unconscious, rhetorical sophistication. She shows William that his courtship troubles her, that she fears she will be abandoned, and that her feelings are intense and painful, but she avoids expressing anger towards either William or Mary—whose love she cannot afford to lose. Still, even though she avoids analysis herself, the covert suggestions of unhappiness in her prose call out for interpretation. She employs rhetorical strategies which hint to her reader that she feels anger, anxiety and dismay, and yet allow her to preserve the household's harmony by simultaneously insisting on her continuing, intense concern for William's own happiness.

The first entry in the Grasmere Journals records the events of May 14, 1800, when William and John Wordsworth set off to visit Mary Hutchinson, who was living in Yorkshire. Dorothy and William had known Mary since the two girls had been childhood friends in Penrith; all three had spend time there together in the summer of 1787. William and Mary had become reacquainted as adults in 1796, when Mary paid them a long visit to Racedown, but at that time William was hardly in a financial situation to consider marriage. In any case he was all too aware of his obligations to Annette Vallon and their child. But as the years went by and it became more and more obvious that William and Annette would never marry William became free to think of Mary. He had been attracted to her since the summer of 1787,13 and though Stephen Gill writes that “it is not clear when Wordsworth decided that he wanted to marry Mary Hutchinson,” his eagerness to visit her in Yorkshire suggests that their romance was becoming serious.14 Before, William had seen Mary at long intervals; he had never before sought out her company. But now William and John set off to visit her only weeks after she had paid an extended visit to Grasmere.

And they left Dorothy behind. Mary had originally been Dorothy's friend, but now William left Dorothy alone while he went to visit her. Dorothy's unhappiness at parting with William indicates how painful it was for her to confront the changing relationship between William and Mary, which threatened to exclude her.15 On the day William and John left, Dorothy opened her new journal and recorded her reactions, which make it clear that what troubled her particularly was William's farewell; she records no response at all to parting from John.16 Her distress at seeing William leave suggests that it is the nature of his errand—a visit of courtship, as well as pedestrian pleasure—which brought about her tears, and her projection of her own unhappiness upon the nearby lake.

My heart was so full that I could hardly speak to W. when I gave him a farewell kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me I knew not why dull and melancholy, and the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound.

(p. 15)

She continues by describing her walk home from their parting, recording that “I resolved to write a journal of the time till W. and J. return, and I set about keeping my resolve because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again” (pp. 15-16).

What reaction was this entry meant to evoke in William? Dorothy clearly intends him to understand that their parting grieved her, without directly saying why. Her resolution not to “quarrel with myself” hints at her anger—which she directs toward herself, rather than toward William. She also reminds him that she—or her journal, at least—gives him pleasure.

The Journals allow Dorothy to document her own devotion, but they also demonstrate how desperately she needs and values her brother's love. During his absence, Dorothy notes the household tasks she accomplishes, and also records the walks she takes to get the mail in Ambleside. William writes far less frequently than she hopes, and she walks out for the mail at reasonable and unreasonable times. Her preoccupation with his letters shows us—and might have shown her—that William was far more concerned for his romance than for Dorothy. If he read her Journal when he returned, he would see exactly how anxiously she awaited his letters, and how not hearing discomposed her. He would read entries like these:

May 14 1800. … Oh! that I had a letter from William! … Friday morning [16th]. … No letters! … I had been very melancholy in my walk back [from Ambleside]. I had many of my saddest thoughts and I could not keep the tears within me. … Tuesday Morning [20th]. … The post was not come in. I walked as far as Windermere, and met him there. No letters! … I was sadly tired, ate a hasty dinner and had a bad headach. … Tuesday 27th. I walked to Ambleside with letters—met the post before I reached Mr Partridge's … only a letter for Coleridge—I expected a letter from Wm. … I was warm in returning, and becoming cold with sitting in the house—I had a bad head-ach—went to bed after dinner, and lay till after 5—not well after tea. … Friday [30th]. In the morning went to Ambleside, forgetting that the post does not come till the evening. How was I grieved when I was so informed. I walked back resolving to go again in the evening. … Sunday June 1st. … The post was not come in; waited in the Road … Tuesday [3rd]. No letter, no William.

(pp. 16, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23)

If William read these entries, he would see that his letter-writing schedule did not satisfy Dorothy, and would see how this perceived neglect affects her: she becomes sad, she weeps, her fruitless walk exhausts her, she develops a headache. Surely such passages, and her lists of work accomplished and devotions undergone, have a function: she describes her sufferings so that the one who caused them will understand that she suffers, and that he causes her suffering. And surely, too, such entries are meant at least unconsciously to induce guilt.

One way of expressing misery and anger which one dares not voice or cannot consciously admit is to take to one's bed, conveying the resentful message: look at the state to which you have driven me. The Grasmere Journals show that Dorothy often felt ill during the years of William's courtship. Significantly, during the four month course of the Alfoxden Journal Dorothy never once mentions being ill, though she mentions several indispositions of William's; in Grasmere, by contrast, she often records her ailments. Is it possible that recording these events is a passive-aggressive means of directing a reader's attention to her suffering?

Modern medicine claims that psychological troubles often trigger physiological pain, and vice versa. So, psychological ailments often contribute to physical symptoms such as nausea, chronic pain, migraine, and stuttering, while physical illness can trigger such psychological illnesses as depression.17 A physician who has studied Dorothy Wordsworth's symptoms closely, Dr. I. I. J. M. Gibson, confirms that her illnesses in the period of the Grasmere Journals had both psychological and physical origins when she posits that Dorothy was “a particular type of migrainous personality;” that she had anorexia, a disease recognized to have psychological causes; and that her attacks were “multifactorial in origin, due to considerable physical and mental activity, to the stress of William's problems and struggles with composition, and her undue anxiety about him.”18 At this time, in addition, Dorothy had begun to lose her teeth; the pain she suffered, and the consequent difficulties in chewing and digesting food, would certainly have added to her miseries. If Dorothy feared that she would lose her social role and self-esteem when Mary became William's prime companion, such stress could well have contributed to existing illness, and her physical illnesses could certainly have contributed to her stress.

Alan Liu has advanced a different explanation for the illnesses Dorothy mentions in the Grasmere Journals, arguing that her notation of incapacitating “headaches” could be a euphemism, and may “often cloak menstrual pains.”19 But Dorothy never mentions that she is ill in the Alfoxden Journal, and her health improves dramatically by the end of the Grasmere Journals. It is possible, but unusual, for severe menstrual pain to begin suddenly during a woman's late twenties or early thirties; by that time, any pattern is usually well established. But if a woman does begin to suffer from such pains, they are unlikely to diminish or cease suddenly. This would suggest either that Dorothy's “headaches” were actually headaches, or that during the writing of the Grasmere Journals Dorothy made the decision to, however euphemistically, record the menstrual pain she had heretofore suffered silently. And if this is the case, she decided to record it in a way that would suggest to her reader that she suffered severely.

However, though Liu argues for the periodical nature of her “headaches,” he disregards the headaches she records which occur at times which would not reflect a cyclical or menstrual pattern, and disregards the fact that Dorothy's days of recorded illness increase during the course of the Grasmere Journals. As the wedding looms, she describes her health as becoming more and more fragile. So, after her apparently perfect health in Alfoxden, she is ill during three or fewer days a month in May through October of 1800 in Grasmere; by 1802 she is often ill six to nine days (and not always consecutive days) in a month, till the wedding, when she writes that she was ill “during most of the time of our [eleven day] stay” (p. 154). After the wedding, her health improves rapidly. True, she suffers from motion sickness on the honeymoon, and has a toothache from October 23 to 30; she scalds herself badly on November 4. But aside from these dates, when her illnesses have very specific physical causes, in the three months that the Journals continue after the wedding there are only three days when she is “not well,” “not quite well,” “not very well.” If her illnesses had psychosomatic rather than physical roots, this sudden access of comparatively good health would confirm that Dorothy's anxieties diminished after the wedding, when it quickly became apparent that she still had a valued place in the household.

Sometimes we can see the apparent source of an illness in one of those juxtapositions of apparently arbitrary facts which Dorothy's use of the journal form makes possible. On April 25, 1802, she records that she and William “spent the morning in the orchard. Read the Prothalamium of Spenser—walked backwards and forwards. … I was not well before tea.” Spenser's poem celebrating marriages might well have pained Dorothy, especially since in it Spenser uses a pair of swans—birds that mate for life—as figures for a happily wedded couple: William had earlier compared himself and Dorothy to two swans in Home at Grasmere.20

In late May or early June 1802 the Wordsworths learned that they would be paid a substantial legacy—a legacy which would certainly leave William better prepared for marriage. After this time, Dorothy's journal entries sometimes connect her illness and her anxieties explicitly, as when she writes that “I had a woful headache, and was ill in stomach from agitation of mind” on June 18, or in her entry of July 4. The day before, letters had come “from M. H. and Annette;” subsequently, Dorothy “was sick and ill had been made sleepless by letters.” We do not know what those letters contained, though of course William would have. But one eventual result of the turmoil of this time was William's plan to see Annette and wed Mary, and Dorothy's dramatic reaction of distress may have arisen because they indicated how inexorably his plans advanced. These days of illness, and the entries which explicitly connect them to Dorothy's worries, would again tell William very directly of her unhappiness. However, even receiving a letter from William during one of his absences disturbed her; on May 24th, 1800 Dorothy reports that she “found a letter from Wm and from Mary Hutchinson … I went to bed soon with a bad head-ache.” Her Journal would also flatter him by showing how much she longed for his return: “No William! I slackened my pace as I came near home fearing to hear that he was not come. I listened till after one o'clock to every barking dog” (p. 24).

Dorothy originally wrote to please William with her detailed observations and to demonstrate her usefulness by listing the homey tasks she had accomplished, but gradually and less consciously she wrote to show him that he had distressed her. Often a single passage will demonstrate considerable ambivalence. Just after William departs for another visit to Mary, for instance, Dorothy finds an apple core he has tossed aside.

Wm has a nice bright day [for his journey]. … Now for my walk. I will be busy, I will look well and be well when he comes back to me. O the Darling! Here is one of his bitten apples! I can hardly find in my heart to throw it into the fire. I must wash myself, then off—I walked round the two Lakes crossed the stepping stones at Rydale Foot. Sate down where we always sit. I was full of thoughts about my darling. Blessings on him.

(p. 97)

She resolves to “be busy,” to resist a collapse into the indolence or illness that she apparently might expect in his absence; and she resolves to “look well,” to resist the illnesses his absences seem to provoke. These promises may be means of complimenting William by suggesting that in his absence she is too depressed to bother with her tasks, health, and looks. Or they may be threats: threats that if he abandons her she will wither into illness. But Dorothy immediately disarms any such readings by describing her unambiguous rapture at finding his apple core. This entry is perhaps designed to show her reader exactly how pervasive and forgiving her love is, for the bitten apple is, after all, a piece of rubbish left for Dorothy to pick up and discard, though it is so redolent of William that she can hardly bring herself to do so. She continues by describing how she then uses other means to awaken memories of William: revisiting a favorite walk, sitting “where we always sit.” Perhaps this inscription of memory will awaken his memory, too, reminding him of their walks, of his sister's love, and of their happiness.

One of the ways Dorothy expresses her concern for her own situation is by describing women who are homeless. Susan M. Levin has written that “in Dorothy's work [such women] become a means of focusing ideas about … her own center at Grasmere and the possible disintegration of her chosen manner of life”; she also points out Dorothy's identification with these women.21 Dorothy had cause to fear that when William married she would be exiled from William's love and from the roles that gave her life meaning. The vagrant women Dorothy describes in her Journals are projections of Dorothy's worst anxieties: of losing her home, her role and her sense of self. Their sad stories also become means of focusing William's attention upon her needs and concerns.

William was famously interested in solitaries and the homeless, and with the emotions which such figures evoked in him. As James H. Averill suggests, contemporary sentimental literature may have encouraged his interest, and led him to admire those who, like Miss Helen Maria Williams, wept “at a Tale of Distress,” for, as William's sonnet to Williams insists, her “tear proclaims—in thee each virtue dwells.” Living with William and reading the books he favored, Dorothy may have learned that he admired displays of pity for the poor. But, as Averill suggests in reference to William, such sentimental responses are “liable to turn into self-pity; the basically inward concerns, the focus upon one's own response, make the sentimentalist particularly vulnerable to a kind of solipsistic pathos.”22 Dorothy recorded her responses to vagrant women with one eye on her audience—after all, William more than once used such descriptions to generate poetry. Further, though, writing about vagrant women allowed her to pity her own vulnerability, and simultaneously to impress William with her own virtue and compassion.

When Dorothy mentions these vagrants is out of her hands; the journal form compels her to describe a specific day's events in that day's entry. But Dorothy sometimes significantly juxtaposes a passage suggesting her own needs with a description of a woman who is homeless or who has lost her family. So, the first entry in the Grasmere Journals—describing William's departure for Gallow Hill and Dorothy's resolve to remain active and cheerful—continues by noting a beggar who stopped by that evening.

A young woman begged at the door—she had come from Manchester on Sunday morn with two shillings and a slip of paper which she supposed a Bank note—it was a cheat. She had buried her husband and three children within a year and a half—all in one grave—burying very dear—paupers all put in one place—20 shillings paid for as much ground as will bury a man—a stone to be put over it or the right will be lost—11/6 each time the ground is opened. Oh! that I had a letter from William!

(p. 16)

The letter—unreasonable though it is to expect it on the very day he has left—would reassure Dorothy that though he has gone, William still values her, and that she will not lose her secure home, her financial support, and her family, as this woman has.

Later, on September 3, 1800, Dorothy's attendance at the funeral of a female pauper also moves her to consider her own plight, at least unconsciously. “I was affected to tears while we stood in the house, the coffin lying before me,” she reports. A detail that might seem unnecessary to us but was crucial to Dorothy follows: “There were no near kindred, no children.” There was no one to pay for a more dignified funeral or a tombstone, no one but Dorothy to grieve. We can understand all too well why Dorothy “could not help weeping very much” for the death of this poor lonely woman, whose situation is so like what her own might be; as Alan Liu writes, she is “a spectre-self embodying Dorothy's worst fears.”23 And while Dorothy was genuinely moved, she may have sensed that William Wordsworth, surely a sensitive reader, would understand her tears and would be moved by the fact that it was—to paraphrase a later poet—Margaret she mourned for.

Later, another juxtaposition further dramatizes Dorothy's concerns. Just after she describes her anguish at William's wedding, she mentions a sight which she thinks important enough to record: two tombstones she noticed as she accompanied William and Mary on their honeymoon. She records the event in the Journal, for William to read and remember.

Nothing particular occurred till we reached Kirby. We had sunshine and showers, pleasant talk, love and chearfulness. We were obliged to stay two hours at K[irby Moorside]. while the horses were feeding. We wrote a few lines to Sara and then walked out, the sun shone and we went to the Church-yard … We sauntered about and read the Grave-stones. There was one to the memory of 5 Children, who had all died within 5 years, and the longest lived had only lived 4 years. There was another stone erected to the memory of an unfortunate woman (as we supposed, by a stranger). The verses engraved upon it expressed that she had been neglected by her Relations and counselled the Readers of those words to look within and recollect their own frailties. We left Kirby at about 1/2 past 2.

(pp. 154-55).

The sight of these tombstones are odd memories of a honeymoon, though they are perhaps appropriate and significant memories for Dorothy Wordsworth. Her notice of the first headstone indicates that she was moved by these children whose chance to form happy, sympathetic bonds was cut short; they did not live to achieve the sibling relationship which had been so crucial to William's art and sanity, and which Dorothy now feared she might lose. The second headstone reproves those who might neglect their helpless, lonely female relations; its importance to Dorothy is obvious. Unlike this unhappy woman, Dorothy does not leave her own inscription to chance and the passing stranger: her inscription of this entry requires William to remember the headstone and “look within and recollect [his] own frailties” if his new happiness leads him to forget and abandon his sister. Of course we know that William was interested in the contents and composition of epitaphs; recording this tombstone's message may have been intended to please him by echoing the interest that eventually resulted in the Essay upon Epitaphs. But certainly Dorothy's record of it is made “for the common benefit of the living”: for William's eyes, and in hopes that its message would benefit Dorothy. If, as William argues in the Essay, a “village church-yard” is “a visible centre of a community of the living and the dead,” then the epitaph itself can be expected effectively to have admonished a reader as thoughtful as William Wordsworth to insure that his community and home still afforded her a significant place. But Dorothy reemphasized its message by reinscribing it; the nearly naked self-reference here is meant to draw William's attention to her deepest concerns.

The Grasmere Journals as a whole are intended to serve the same function as this stranger's tombstone: to record an existence, no matter how transitory and humble, and to remind those who read that they ought to consider a lonely woman's plight. Because we are not Dorothy's brother, because she is dead, the demand is for us less peremptory, but for her original audience this inscription was both a reminder and demand. Dorothy's letters to her brother Richard sometimes suggest that she could be both imperious and demanding, and Richard Matlak has claimed that though he needed and loved her, William sometimes resented Dorothy: Matlak argues, for instance, that the poems describing Lucy's death arise from William's repressed hostility at “the serious inconvience of [Dorothy's] presence” at the time of their writing.24 Carl H. Ketcham has written that Dorothy was “keen-minded, rather easily affronted, and thoroughly capable of self-defense”; Molly Lefebure interprets many of Dorothy's actions towards Coleridge's wife as hostile or malicious.25 Perhaps, after all, the apparently entirely selfless Dorothy of Victorian biography was capable of hinting of her resentment even to William.

William and Dorothy travelled to Mary's home at Gallow Hill for the wedding. Dorothy described her anticipation of the approaching ceremony and her longing to return to Grasmere in a letter of 29 September 1802 to her old friend Jane Marshall.

If this letter reaches you before next Monday you will think of me, travelling towards our own dear Grasmere with my most beloved Brother and his Wife. I have long loved Mary Hutchinson as a Sister, and she is equally attached to me[;] this being so, you will guess that I look forward with perfect happiness to this Connection between us, but, happy as I am, I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present, and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning. There never lived on earth a better woman than Mary H. and I have not a doubt but that she is in every respect formed to make an excellent wife to my Brother, and I seem to myself to have scarcely any thing left to wish for but that the wedding was over, and we had reached our home once again.26

Though she accepted the future, she expected that the wedding morning might be an emotional ordeal, and it was. How might Dorothy have expected William to read her reactions to his wedding in her journal? She records their arrival at Gallow Hill for the wedding with characteristic ambivalence: “I looked at everything with tranquillity and happiness—was ill on Saturday and on Sunday and continued to be during most of the time of our stay” (p. 154). And she describes her reactions to the wedding with considerable frankness.

At a little after 8 o'clock I saw them go down the avenue towards the Church. William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring—with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before—he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing any thing, till Sara came upstairs to me and said ‘They are coming’. This forced me from the bed where I lay and I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William and fell upon his bosom.

(p. 154).

This entry certainly shows any reader how strongly she responded to the wedding itself. The entry which describes her reactions was written with the knowledge that William might see it. Understandably, then, it does not reflect any overt hostility towards “my beloved William” or “my dear Mary” (154); to do so would hardly serve her need to ensure herself a place in the household and William's continued love. Instead Dorothy describes the transfer of the wedding ring as though this moment has a symbolic import—and it does; she is formally turning her title as William's closest relation over to another, and the transfer, as well as Dorothy's willingness to give and receive blessings, symbolizes her overt acceptance of the marriage. As Gill comments, “Perhaps in this little private ritual Wordsworth had meant to comfort Dorothy and reassure her of her continuing place in his life, but it was such a potent gesture that it is hardly surprising that Dorothy succumbed completely to hysteria” (p. 211). For shortly after returning the ring Dorothy's body objected; she “could stand it no longer,” both literally and figuratively, and she entered what Gibson diagnoses as a hysterical fugue.27 This state allowed her to avoid her own immediate unhappiness but also symbolizes Dorothy's fear that the marriage reduces her to a nonentity: “I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing any thing” (p. 154). This momentary loss of self must have been terrifying for her. William's marriage had the potential to destroy her reason for being and her very identity. Recording her experience for William's eyes allowed her to show him how frightened she was, and appealed to him for continued love and pity, just as her revitalized body automatically propelled Dorothy towards the one person who had consistently loved her, praised her in his poems, and provided her with comfort and a sense of self-worth. The entry's original intent was to show William how desperately she continued to need his love.

Dorothy's rhetorical presentation of herself in the Grasmere Journals parallels De Quincey's description of the way she presented herself in person. In person and in her prose style, fervent emotion is held in by an awareness of her gender and condition. De Quincey claimed that she was “checked” by the conflict between what she felt and believed, and what she felt it was socially appropriate to say.

Some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which, being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age, and her maidenly condition, gave to her whole demeanour, and to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict, that was almost distressing to witness.28

This is exactly the conflict we witness in the rhetoric of the Grasmere Journals: the conflict between the quick, sharp perception of need and grief, and the impossibly constricted vocabulary available to the woman who felt them and yet who needed to retain her dignity and her audience's sympathy. This self-division is duplicated in the rhetoric of the Journals, which allows her to demonstrate her talent and pleasure in writing, in capturing the beauty of nature and living in felicitous words, but which also checks her strong but unacceptable feelings of anger and anxiety so that she expresses them only in ways that are socially acceptable for a woman who wished to and needed to please others. Even if she consciously understood her own unhappiness, no positive purpose would be served by manifesting it overtly. She had no place to go; she was not wanted elsewhere; she had little money of her own.

Dorothy Wordsworth's writings are the jottings of a dependent as well as supportive sister, a sister who deliberately if indirectly informs her brother that his absences cause her far more anguish than they cause him, that his intended marriage will threaten her peace and health, and that he has been thinking of himself and not of her. To be more direct, to reveal naked anger, might be to risk his rebuke or rejection. But her need to show how his romance threatened her is understandable, especially granted the lonely exiles of her youth. The anxieties and hostilities Dorothy occasionally reveals in the Grasmere Journals and in her letters throughout her life manifested themselves overtly when Dorothy lost her many responsibilities: when she had no productive work to do, when the children were raised and the household work could be done by servants. Then she was overtaken by physical illness and madness, and voiced the anger and selfishness which arose in her as it arises in most of us, but which the younger woman had denied and disguised.29 Certainly physical illness played a crucial role in causing the sad mental disturbances of Dorothy Wordsworth's final twenty years; Gibson, in fact, diagnoses her as suffering from “senile dementia.”30 But the struggle to deny her anger and to fulfill the role of self-sacrificing sister may also have contributed to the miseries of her old age; as Richard Fadem claims, her insanity “can be interpreted to mean that self-sacrifice on the order of Dorothy's may have unhappy consequences” (p. 18). And certainly the troubling emotions which she manifested in her later illness were not entirely unexampled in her youth. It is possible to see Dorothy Wordsworth's madness and selfishness in her last years as congruent with her earlier personality, without denying her talents and her sensitivity.

In a poem entitled “Grasmere” Amy Clampitt describes one of Dorothy Wordsworth's recurrent migraines as a “packed ganglion's / black blood clot” symptomatic of “attachment's uncut knot—so rich, so dark, / so dense a node the ache still bleeds, / still binds, but cannot speak.”31 On the contrary: in the Grasmere Journals, the ache finds a voice. Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals speak circuitously, but they speak about her pain. And certainly her persona here, so matter-of-factly recording that she put up curtains, made a shoe, or received a letter, can also surprise a reader into wrenching compassion by suddenly revealing that such details are the context for her own losses, bliss and needs: “My tooth broke today. They will soon be gone. Let that pass I shall be beloved—I want no more” (p. 129). Traditional views which idealize her as naive and entirely selfless do her a disservice; her Grasmere Journals are the work of an intelligent writer of considerable, if unconscious, psychological and rhetorical sophistication. Her use of the journal form, the apparent irrelevance of her juxtapositions, and her slow, culmulative creation of a needy persona dramatize her anxieties and sufferings and appeal to her reader's—her readers'—tenderness.


  1. In de Selincourt's Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933); and Moorman's William Wordsworth: A Biography, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), “Wordsworth and His Children,” Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies in Memory of John Alban Finch, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (Cornell U. Press, 1970) pp. 111-41, “Dorothy Wordsworth, 1771-1855,” Contemporary Review (December 1971): 313-21, and “William and Dorothy Wordsworth,” Essays by Divers Hands 37 (1972): 75-94.

  2. “Edward Quillinan to Henry Crabb Robinson,” 23 Apr. 1850, quoted in de Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth, p. 399.

  3. Richard Fadem, “Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey,’” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (1978): 18.

  4. Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 79.

  5. F. W. Bateson, William Wordsworth: A Reinterpretation (London: Longmans, 1954). The question was debated at length, though inconclusively, in the letters columns of TLS in 1974. Donald Reiman has further argued that “several of Wordsworth's poems seem to reflect an emotional struggle to define his feelings toward Dorothy within a socially acceptable context,” and he draws the reader's attention to “the headaches and tensions that Dorothy's journals record as afflicting William and her during the years of their life together,” miseries he sees as “relevant” to what he reads as William's “subconscious struggle to avoid focusing his obviously strong sexual drive on the sister he lived with for seven years [before his marriage] (“Poetry of Familiarity: Wordsworth, Dorothy, and Mary Hutchinson,” in Romantic Texts and Contexts [U. of Missouri Press, 1987], pp. 189, 202). Pages have been torn from the Grasmere Journal and passages have been defaced, apparently to frustrate prying eyes; these facts lend credence to the incest theory, but in themselves prove nothing. There are several instances in the Journals which do suggest unusual physical intimacy, times when Dorothy notices that William's “mouth and breath” were unusually cold “when he kissed me” after a long winter's walk, or when she misses him so much during an absence that she sleeps in his bed; she records a time when she “petted him on the carpet” and times when he made “a pillow of my shoulder” before going to sleep. Entries like this, which record moments which seem to have been particularly moving to Dorothy, do suggest that Dorothy at least unconsciously had incestuous feelings for William, as does her emotionally overwrought description of her reaction to his wedding. But though incestuous feelings are relatively common, they are of course not always conscious, and certainly are not always acted upon. The fact that she allowed the journals to survive suggests that Dorothy did not recognize the occasional whiffs of incestuous feeling, and would not have been able to imagine that subsequent readers, including William's descendants, might regard the Journals as evidence that her love was incestuous.

  6. Dorothy Wordsworth, “To Jane Pollard,” 4 June 1793, letter 29 of Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. ed. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 91.

  7. One of the luxuries Dorothy hoped William would provide her with was the time to read and study. Dorothy had clearly been disappointed in living with her uncle. When she met him, in 1787, he had begun teaching her French and arithmetic, and he promised to teach her geography “when I am a good Arithmetician” (Letters 1:3). Five years later she was living with him and his growing family, and he had less time for Dorothy; she wrote Jane Pollard that he did not “blend much instruction with his conversation, or enter much into my studies” (1:31). Her desire to learn may have been one of the motives which led her to live with William; during her first long stay with him, at Windy Brow, she was able to report that her French had improved greatly, and that William had begun to teach her Italian (1:117). Sadly, as William's family increased, Dorothy seems to have had little time for the studies she looked forward to. Her letters as an adult rarely mention her reading, and de Quincey, describing Dorothy when he first met her, claimed that “her knowledge of literature was irregular, and thoroughly unsystematic. She was content to be ignorant of many things.” Recollections of the Lake Poets, ed. Edmund Sackville-West (London: John Lehmann, 1948), p. 116.

  8. Dorothy's altered financial situation indicates just how peripherally William now chose to consider her. Apparently Dorothy had, until the marriage, relied on William for financial support. In what must have been an extremely humiliating letter to write, she informs her brother Richard on 10 June 1802 that William has told her, or that she and William have agreed, that she is “obliged … to set him aside,” a strong expression of the sort then used customarily when a husband decided to separate from a wife. She writes that he, “having nothing to spare nor being likely to have,” cannot support her any longer; she must ask her other brothers to do so, so that William can afford her continued presence. Thereafter “I will consider myself as boarding through my whole life with an indifferent person” (1:171). The redundancy of “through my whole life” is piercing, as is the pain revealed in this new characterization of William as hereafter being, in one sense at least, like “an indifferent person.”

  9. Susan M. Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth & Romanticism (Rutgers U. Press, 1987), pp. 21-22; Kurt Heinzelman, “The Cult of Domesticity: Dorothy and William Wordsworth at Grasmere,” in Anne K. Mellor, ed., Romanticism and Feminism (Indiana U. Press, 1988), p. 68.

  10. Elizabeth Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York: Random House, 1974) p. 163; Levin, p. 4; Pamela Woof, Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer (Grasmere: The Wordsworth Trust, 1988), p. 27.

  11. Hardwick, p. 163.

  12. Apparently William and Coleridge both had access to her Journals; both borrowed images from them. Coleridge, for instance, used several images from the Alfoxden Journal of January through March 1798 when he came to write Christabel and The Ancient Mariner, according to Mary Moorman's notes to the Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803, 2nd ed. (Oxford U. Press, 1971), pp. 2, 3, 6, 9, and 11. This edition indicates several specific instances in which William is indebted to Dorothy's Journals. Two important examples: the texts of “Resolution and Independence” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud” are at points close enough to Dorothy's descriptions of the leech-gatherer she and William talked with, and of the daffodils that delighted them on another walk, to suggest that William refreshed his memory by looking at Dorothy's Journal or asking her to read her entries describing these events when he wrote the poems years after the events had happened. One entry attests that William attended to Dorothy's words so closely as to be haunted by them. William based the poem “Beggars” on an incident which had actually happened to Dorothy on her own—a strong indication, in itself, that William was familiar with her journals. Two years after she met two young beggars, he decided to write a poem about the encounter, and asked Dorothy to read him her entry describing them; “and an unlucky thing it was,” Dorothy records, “for he could not escape from those very words, and so he could not write the poem. He left it unfinished and went tired to Bed” (p. 101). So we know that Dorothy sometimes read passages aloud to her brother and that he sometimes recollected them and tried to make poems on the basis of what he recalled. As Susan J. Wolfson writes, “his poems owed her numerous verbal and imaginative debts, and he reflects his quiet agitation over this in strategies that suppress, disguise, or deny her influence—usually by representing experiences they shared as solitary ones or, if not, acknowledging her influence with statements that seem as condescending as they are affectionate” (Wolfson, “Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William,” in Mellor, p. 147). It is possible that William read her journals in some detail; her statement that she begins the Grasmere Journal “because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again” suggests that she intended to share it with him, and that her previous journal had pleased him.

  13. Gill, pp. 35-36.

  14. Gill, p. 204. Mary Hutchinson visited in Grasmere from late January to around April 6, 1800, and on May 14 of that year William and his brother John left Grasmere to visit Mary. In a letter of March 16, 1805, William wrote that at the time of Mary's visit to Grasmere “I had no thoughts of marrying.” He wrote this letter, which describes John's visit to Grasmere from late January to September, 1800, when his grief for John's death was still fresh. Sometime during his visit, John made William and Dorothy an astonishingly generous offer: he pledged that, from his earnings and investments as a sailor, he would support them, freeing William to write poetry. In his letter William writes that “we [that is, he and Dorothy] had at that time little to live upon and he went to sea high in hope and heart that he should soon be able to make his Sister independant [sic] and contribute to any wants which I might have. He encouraged me to persist in the plan of life which I had adopted; I will work for you was his language and you shall attempt to do something for the world.” Not for the first time, William had found a man confident enough in his abilities to offer financial support when William was poor and “when we had no hope about the Lowther debt” (“To James Losh,” Letters 1:256). This letter suggests that financial considerations, rather than disinclination, stood as the barrier preventing William from thinking of marriage at this time. Once John had made his offer, William might very well consider initiating a courtship; and three and a half months into John's visit the two men proceeded to visit Mary, who had left Grasmere a little more than a month before. John's promise of future maintenance was not, of course, enough to keep a wife on, and William prudently held off from marriage; but two years later the news that Sir James Lowther planned to pay the Wordsworth siblings the money the Earl of Lonsdale had owed them seems to have freed William to marry. The Earl died on May 24, 1802 (Gill, p. 207), and by October 4 William had learned of the death and of his heir's plan to pay his debts, arranged to claim his share of the money; travelled to Gallow Hill to see Mary, explained matters to Annette in France, returned to Gallow Hill, and married—all before he had actually received any of the money he was counting on. The promise of this money had galvanized him into action; in 1800, John's promise to offer financial support sometime in the indefinite future may have encouraged William to begin courting Mary seriously, long after his first attraction to her. William, despite his prudence and his resultant long courtship of Mary, was no reluctant lover, as their recently discovered love letters confirms; his eagerness to court Mary as soon as he had hopes of financial support may have shown his sister how much he wished to marry.

  15. William's growing bond with Mary threatened to supersede the sibling relationship, which Dorothy seems to have valued above all others. Alan Richardson describes an ideal Romantic sympathy between brother and sister as typical of the Romantic poets, a sympathy “based on shared memories and … closely related to the Romantic valorization of childhood.” Such a bond promises brother and sister “a sympathetic love more intense and complete than either sibling could feel for anyone else.” Richardson, “The Dangers of Sympathy: Sibling Incest in English Romantic Poetry,” SEL [Studies in English Literature 1500-1900] 25 (1985): 739.

  16. There is reason to suspect that John Wordsworth, too, loved Mary, according to Carl H. Ketcham, who edited The Letters of John Wordsworth (Cornell U. Press, 1969), pp. 24-26. If Dorothy did notice any tender emotions which John felt for Mary in 1800, as he and William left to visit Mary, they did not disturb her enough to merit comment in her Journal. The first journal entry indicates that the prospect of William's absence concerned her much more, and it is only his absence, and the paucity of his letters, which the Grasmere Journal laments during both brothers' journey to Yorkshire.

  17. Personal interview with Dr. Jay Schlumpberger, UCLA Family Health Center, August, 1985.

  18. Iris, I. J. M. Gibson, “Illness of Dorothy Wordsworth,” British Medical Journal 285 (1982): 1813.

  19. Alan Liu, “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals,Criticism 26.2 (1984): 133.

  20. I am indebted to Jonathan Wordsworth for directing my attention to the passage comparing William and Dorothy to two swans. William Wordsworth, Home at Grasmere: Part First, Book First of “The Recluse.” Ed. Beth Darlington. (Cornell U. Press, 1977), MS. B, lines 323-42, 58.

  21. Levin, p. 21.

  22. James H. Averill, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Human Suffering (Cornell U. Press, 1980), p. 51.

  23. Liu, p. 124.

  24. Richard E. Matlak, “Wordsworth's Lucy Poems in Psychobiographical Context,” PMLA 93 (1978): 46.

  25. Carl H. Ketcham, “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals, 1824-1835,” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (1978): 5; Molly Lefebure, The Bondage of Love: A Life of Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London: Victor Gollancz, 1986), pp. 15-16, 26, 93-94, 189-91. Stephen Gill's references to Dorothy in William Wordsworth suggest a rounded character; he makes it clear that she had many good and valued characteristics, but was often worried and anxious, sometimes bitter, and sometimes angry, as, for example, when she discovered William's resistance to publishing The White Doe of Rylstone and “snapped and reproached him fiercely” (p. 265).

  26. Letters 1:178. Jane Pollard had by this time married John Marshall.

  27. Gibson, “Illness of Dorothy Wordsworth,” p. 1815.

  28. Thomas De Quincey, “William Wordsworth,” in Recollections of the Lake Poets, ed. Edward Sackville-West (London: Lehmann, 1949).

  29. Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, in Dorothy Wordsworth (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), in fact, point out that Dorothy's first serious illness came about when she realized that her nephew John Wordsworth no longer needed her services as a housekeeper and companion, “tacitly admitting that her own long service to him must come to an end” (p. 256).

  30. Gibson, “Appendix Two: Dorothy Wordsworth's Medical Condition,” in Gittings and Manton, p. 282.

  31. Amy Clampitt, “Grasmere,” in Archaic Figure (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 52.

    My thanks to J. E. Grant, Anne Mellor, Ruth Yeazell, an anonymous reviewer, and the Editor for their comments on this article.

Pamela Woof (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Woof, Pamela. “Dorothy Wordsworth and the Pleasures of Recognition: An Approach to the Travel Journals.” The Wordsworth Circle 22, no. 3 (summer 1991): 150-160.

[In the following excerpt, Woof praises Wordsworth's journals for their “humanness” and unique expressions of pleasure.]

Journals we shall have in number sufficient to fill a Lady's bookshelf,—for all, except my Brother, write a Journal.

(MY, II, 625)

So Dorothy Wordsworth to Catherine Clarkson at the beginning of the Continental Tour on July 23, 1820. A shelf-full of Journals! And Wordsworth, though he refrained from a Journal, produced more poems than for the Scottish Recollections of 1803. Further Journals were written in 1822 for the second Scottish Tour. And there were letters; these have an immediacy not quite allowed to the Journals. Here, for instance, is Mary Wordsworth's personal fear when left alone “under a great waterfall amongst the hills … If any one should come near me and I was unable to speak to them [because she couldn't speak German] and if W should be bewildered in the black wood above!” (Letters of Mary Wordsworth, ed. Mary E. Burton [1958] p. 63). This, of course, is omitted from the Journal, as is Dorothy's impatience with Italians, clear from a letter from Milan to Catherine Clarkson: “One of Buonaparte's works was the finishing of this Cathedral, and I wish he had never done anything worse. The Italians always call him Napoleone, and he seems to be a great favourite here, and the people, being what they are, and having no dignified government of their own to be attached to, it is no wonder” (MY, II, 638). The grudging approval of Napoleon's attempt to get Milan's cathedral finished is repeated in the Journal, but not the comment on the Italian people.

It was, indeed, as Dorothy said in 1823, when she was pondering with Samuel Rogers the possibility of publishing a revised 1803 Recollections—in order to defray the expenses of another Continental Tour and write yet another Journal—“‘Far better’ I say, ‘make another Tour and write the journal on a different plan!’” (LY, I, 271)—it was, as she pointed out, a “writing and publishing (especially tour-writing and tour-publishing) age,” and she feared her own work might be “wholly overlooked” (LY, I, 181). In the event, there were no published Recollections, no second Continental Tour, no Journal “on a different plan.” Dorothy's existing Tours simply begin their narrative on leaving home and end on returning. She has no eleven-page Preface as, say, John Stoddart has in his Remarks on Scotland of 1801, no discussion of the philosophy of travel as Sterne had slipped into his Sentimental Journey. In 1825, she said that the Object of her Continental Tour had not been “a Book, but to leave to my Niece a neatly penned Memorial of those few interesting months of our lives” (LY, I, 271) and that it “well answered the purpose intended, of reviving recollections” (LY, I, 337). Mary began her “imperfect notices … at D's request—& with a certain notion on my part, that they might be useful, when she wrote her Journal—but soon finding my notes superfluous, in that point of view, I should not have had resolution to go on—but at Wms desire—& from the feeling that my daughter & perhaps her brothers might one day find pleasure—especially if they are ever so fortunate as to track our steps—in recognising those objects their Mother had seen. At any rate this thought has been a powerful & a heart chearing stimulant to me—often when I have been fagged & would rather …” (DC MS 91). Here, Mary breaks off, and in the fair copy she is not “fagged” (a local word Dorothy had used about Potter's wife panting up a hill, Grasmere Journals, 69), but she would rather have “sought repose.”

I shall try now to move amongst the Journals and poems, touching on aspects of Dorothy's writing. This from the Alfoxden Journal, 1798: “The shapes of the mist, slowly moving along, exquisitely beautiful; passing over the sheep they almost seemed to have more of life than those quiet creatures” (March 1, 1798, Journals, ed. Moorman, 9). This from the Recollections, 1803: “We walked up to the house and stood some minutes watching the swallows that flew about restlessly, and flung their shadows upon the sunbright walls of the old building; the shadows glanced and twinkled, interchanged and crossed each other, expanded and shrunk up, appeared and disappeared every instant; as I observed to Wm and Coleridge, seeming more like living things than the birds themselves” (Journals, I, 195-6). Dorothy, Wordsworth and Coleridge were passing Rose Castle on their way to Carlisle and Scotland. The same fancy is in both passages. Dorothy sees a life in mist and in shadows; in the Recollections she recalls speaking about this: “as I observed to Wm and Coleridge,” and undoubtedly she had done the same at Alfoxden—the same companions were with her then. They had a community of observation: famously, Alfoxden's sole remaining leaf that danced; the red marks left upon palings by locks of sheep's wool, the dim moon sailing suddenly out of cloud; we are all aware of such noticings that moved probably from conversation into the writing of two, or even all three. And Coleridge, in his 1803 Notebook, has observations so like Dorothy's in the Recollections that behind both must be conversation. He too remarks “the Swallows & their Shadows on the Castle-House walls” (Notebooks, I, 1427) and later, he and Dorothy must have talked about the movements of people on the road to the waterfall at Cora Linn: Dorothy has “lasses in gay dresses running like cattle among the broom” (Journals, I, 222); while Coleridge's “Men & women in their Sunday finery straggle like Cattle, each in his own path” (Notebooks, I, 1449). They both say of the inside of a moss-hut near the Fall that it was “like a Haystack scooped out” (Notebooks, I, 1449; Journals, I, 224). Coleridge is writing on the spot, sketching from Nature: “As I write this, I turn my head, & close by me I see a Birch … the Shadows of its Leaves playing on its silver Bark, an image that delighted my Boyhood, when I had no waterfalls to see.” Dorothy appears not to have been occupied with her Notebook, and we see her briefly from the outside as Coleridge records both her reaction and that of the guide, a “little Girl sent to dog & guide us, yawning with stretching Limbs a droll dissonance with Dorothy's Raptures.” Apart from being “much affected” and “struck with astonishment,” Dorothy has not written “Raptures” here; her finished account is not immediately from nature; it is Recollections, and it has space for elaboration and distinctions.

Coleridge can dispatch an evening in a few words: “We had a merry meal in the Hovel black & varnished & glistering with peat smoak, the Fowls roosting in the Chimney amid the cloud of smoke” (Notebooks, I, 1471). Dorothy had reached the Hovel sick with cold after being in an open boat in the rain for three and a half miles down Loch Katrine (Coleridge had walked). So she records the stages of becoming comfortable, the clothes drying, the coffee Coleridge had put to boil, the whiskey they asked for, the man of the house cold and wet, but keeping back from the fire, the woman's separate bringing of sugar, butter, barley bread and milk:

We caroused our cups of coffee, laughing like children at the strange atmosphere in which we were: the smoke came in gusts, and spread along the walls and above our heads in the chimney, where the hens were roosting like light clouds in the sky; we laughed and laughed again, in spite of the smarting of our eyes, yet had a quieter pleasure in observing the beauty of the beams and rafters gleaming between the clouds of smoke. They had been crusted over and varnished by many winters, till, where the firelight fell upon them, they were as glossy as black rocks on a sunny day cased in ice.

(Journals, I, 276-7)

The black and varnished rafters, the hens roosting and the clouds are common to both accounts, but Dorothy has space to distinguish between laughter and “quieter pleasure,” and in “glossy as black rocks on a sunny day cased in ice” she mingles all their sensibilities: Wordsworth's “black rock wet with constant springs” that “glistered” in the declining sun (Prelude, 1805, VIII, 566-8), and Coleridge's yoking of sun and ice in “Kubla Khan.”

Next morning, Sunday, August 28, 1803, they crossed the lake, again, “wet to the skin,” walked through rain to Loch Lomond, waited hours in the Ferry house, everyone being gone to a preaching, save an old grandmother, a baby, and two young girls, one

As light and beauteous as a squirrel,
As beauteous and as wild,

writes Dorothy, taking Wordsworth's words from Peter Bell about a sweet Highland girl. This allusion too comes out of discussion: Coleridge had written to his wife: “beautiful as a Vision / & put both me & Dorothy in mind of the Highland Girl in William's Peter Bell” (Letters, ed. Griggs, II, 978). Dorothy's prose is alive with detail: the gabbling of Erse, the hesitant English, more drying of clothes, the cotton sprigged gown and blue lindsey petticoat for her to put on, the poultry cooking, the porridge boiling, the baby crying, the grandmother rocking the cradle the more violently as it cried and singing doleful Erse songs, the rain, the wet floor, the sound of the waterfall. And the “neighbourly connexion” of people from around two lakes going to a preaching she found “exceedingly pleasing to my imagination” (Journals, I, 282). Coleridge merely contrasts the comfortless Hovel with the native Elegance of the girls, of one particularly, a “divine Creature” (Notebooks, I, 1471). Wordsworth produces his version after returning to Grasmere, probably while Dorothy was converting her rough notes into Recollections. His imagination was not stirred by the social, the preaching so pleasing to Dorothy's, but yet his bare unparticularised response could well have been triggered by her inclusive handling of the scene. It had happened before: he had lifted his leech gatherer out of detail, out of fact, into a mythic world. He would do the same with the daffodils of that windy day on Ullswater. Likewise, for the Highland Girl. The Ferryman's hut becomes an abode “Like something in a dream”; the girl is a solitary stranger with hints of leadings from above.

Thanks to Heaven! that of its grace
Hath led me to this lonely place.

Like the later Solitary Reaper, she communicates the better in that her language is not understood; she has,

… thoughts that lie beyond the reach
Of thy few words of English speech

She has a pastoral queenliness:

What hand but would a garland cull
For thee who are so beautiful?

She is Perdita:

Thou art to me but as a wave
Of the wild sea

And we recall Florizel's

          when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so

And Wordsworth's own

She seemed as happy as a wave
That dances on the sea

(“The Two April Mornings,” 51-2)

But Wordsworth is not Florizel, not, as he momentarily wished, “a Shepherd, thou a Shepherdess.” He ends, the not-so-young poet he is, leaving, but taking with him the lasting image that he has created:

Joy have I had, and going hence
I bear away my recompense.

As ever, it is good to have both: Dorothy's lively untidy hut, her two girls laughing and raking out the mother's dresses, with Dorothy persistently attempting conversation (one recollects her pleasure in meeting an Italian barometer-seller in 1820 who spoke English—she can get his story); and, Wordsworth's reduction of detail, even to finding language an irrelevance in order to create an inner vision.

There must have been a lot of talking as Dorothy wrote up the Recollections in the autumn of 1803 and in 1804. At the end of her account of the “half-articulate Gaelic hooting” of the little boy in grey plaid in mist on a hillside calling home the cattle, she adds, “It was a text, as Wm has since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life—his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature” (Journals, I, 286). A boy in a landscape—for Wordsworth, a text to be read for meaning; like the heap of unhewn stones in “Michael” that must be noticed as well as seen, or fields that like a book preserved memory. Coleridge, by contrast, is concerned only to remember: “Never, never let me forget that small Herd boy, in his Tartan Plaid, dim-seen on the hilly field, & long heard ere seen, a melancholy Voice, calling to his Cattle! (Notebooks, I, 1471). Shortly after this Coleridge went his way, alone.

It was with Wordsworth that Dorothy shared so many interests. One was a delight in secluded places. The retreats and Bowers of the Grasmere Journals, the Grasmere Columbine sheltered and shaded, seeking retirement, Wensley Dale in summer, 1802, with its trees in leaf “& forming groves, & screens, & then little openings upon recesses & concealed retreats,” even these are related to the “narrow deep valley,” the “perfect solitude without house or hut suddenly seen near Ballachulish in 1803, when shower and rainy clouds passed away (Journals, I, 330). And much later, how inevitably was Dorothy moved in 1820, when, walking on towards Chamonix ahead of Wordsworth and Mary, she “looked suddenly down from the edge of the step into a long, level verdant, and narrow Dell, sprinkled with brown wood cottages,” and it was the same “aboriginal vale,” “the green recess” of Prelude, VI (Journals, II, 280). Wordsworth could check his memory of thirty years, and Dorothy could live the feelings she had long known from his verse and talk. This significant recess came unexpectedly; but Dorothy could go in deliberate pursuit. In 1822, Joanna Hutchinson still sleeping, half past eight of a Sunday morning near Inverary, she records in her Notebook “how the Robins warble—one has just left the Sea-rock where I sit—White cottage gable end & smoke between two Groves. One promontory below, a deep small Bay half concealed. I must on thither” (Second Tour, 167). The urgency of “I must on thither” disappears in the written up account, where a “white cottage peeping from a cluster of trees” merely “tempts me onward” (Second Tour, 130).

But this pleasure could be brought about by mist as well as geography, and Dorothy was alert to “vapours settling or shifting.” She could watch a sea of vapour from an eminence “till the sun had mastery of all beneath us, after a silent process of change and interchange—of concealing and revealing” (Journals, II, 96). This, at Lenzberg, between the Jura and the Alps, in 1820, but it had been the same in 1801 on Helvellyn with “Mists above & below & close to us …” (Grasmere Journals, October 25, 1801). Or on the road to Keswick, “the mountains for every varying, now hid in the Clouds & now with their tops visible while perhaps they were half concealed below” (Grasmere Journals, November 9, 1801). Mist was positive. Sun could be destructive: “It was no longer a visionary scene: the sun shone into every crevice of the hills, and the mountain tops were clear” (Journals, I, 366). And again: “we had seen the place to great advantage at our first approach, owing to the mists upon the mountains, which had made them exceedingly high, while the strange figures on the Cobbler appeared and disappeared, like living things; but as the day cleared we were disappointed …” (Journals, I, 288). Yet real disappointment was rare, for though mist partly concealed things, Dorothy was not extravagant in imagination: “we always fill up what we are left to guess at with something as beautiful as what we see” (Journals, I, 364). As, but not more beautiful. “I wished for nothing that was not there,” she writes, of meadow-land beside the Tweed where, in the words of Wordsworth's sonnet, “Degenerate Douglas” had levelled “with the dust a noble horde, / A brotherhood of ancient trees.” Yet even Wordsworth, writing within the tradition of melancholy about felled trees, acknowledges that nature itself has no sorrow.

For shelter'd places, bosoms, nooks and bays
And the pure mountains and the gentle Tweed,
And the green silent pastures yet remain.

Dorothy learned later about the fallen woods but she does not allow any regret to alter her recollected pleasure; her attitude is Nature's: “I wished for nothing that was not there” (Journals, I, 389). She is not unlike that looker in Wallace Stevens' Snow Man who saw nothing that was not there, but she is quite unlike that same viewer who saw also the “nothing that was.” None of it is nothing to Dorothy Wordsworth. And Edinburgh was not nothing, not even when a “cloud of black smoke overhung the city”—Dorothy's expression here recalling the dawn houses of London “not overhung by their cloud of smoke,” and rivalling nature's purity (Grasmere Journals, 123). Edinburgh was at a disadvantage; it had black smoke and rain and mist as Dorothy and Wordsworth sat on Arthur's Seat. Yet—and with Wordsworth's very recently written passage on the climbing of Snowdon surely in mind—Dorothy writes that,

… instead of the roaring of torrents, we listened to the noises of the city … The Castle rock looked exceedingly large through the misty air … an obscurity which added much to the grandeur of the sound. … It was impossible to think of anything that was little or mean, the goings-on of trade, the strife of men, or every-day city business; the impression was one, and it was visionary, like the conceptions of our childhood of Bagdad or Balsora when we have been reading the Arabian Nights' Entertainment

(Journals, I, 385)

Naturally, Dorothy was prepared to find the experience impressive: they had climbed up for it, and, as she told Jane Marshall in 1807, “there is no sensation more elevating to the heart and the imagination than what we take in … from some superior eminence” (MY, I, 163). She took in, here, above Edinburgh, a visionary impression, but one that still belonged to the familiar, to “conceptions of our childhood of Bagdad or Balsora when we have been reading the Arabian Nights' Entertainment.” This is comfortable. The visionariness does not go beyond the warm childhood recollection. Instead of “the roaring of torrents, we listened to the noises of the city.” No Snowdon mediation rises to usurp the real, to brood on power or civilisation. Despite Dorothy's claim that it was impossible to think of “trade, the strife of men, every-day city business,” these are exactly what she does think of. Even when she cannot see, she cannot forget what is.

What is, anchors the “raptures,” as Coleridge might call them. At home, domestic life inevitably provoked the writing about baking the bread and the apple pie-making, the gathering of peas, all the particularity of the Grasmere Journals. Away, although Dorothy was excited, she was alert for what she recognised. Reaching Calais in 1820, she recalled Calais in 1802: “I looked about for what I remembered, and looked for new things, and in both quests was gratified” (Journals, II, 9). She was generally so gratified. “On going into a new country I seem to myself to waken up” (Journals, I, 247), she wrote, approaching the Highlands. Roads were bright and, for Dorothy, not at all disheartened by poor weather, they were “brightened by rain”; distant prospects were an excitement (Journals, I, 250). At the same time, Scotland, though literally new, generated a kind of remembering; there was even some literal revisiting, a second walking along the same path in the Trossachs, for example. There was much that, either for its likeness or its difference, brought the Lake District to mind, called up Wordsworth's poetry, reminded Dorothy of familiar books—Cervantes' Don Quixote, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Smollett's Waters of Leven, read in 1802, and, in any case, probably long known from Humphrey Clinker—Ossian, Burns, Thomson, Bunyan, Stoddart. The Continental Tour likewise: Milton, Johnny Gilpin's Chase, Swift's Brobdingnag, Southey, Chaucer, as well as an Inn Host who had reminded Dorothy of “some thriving Friar of old time,” but who, as she wrote up her Tour, having just reread Chaucer's Prologue, seemed rather the Hoste of the Tabard, with the implication that the Wordsworths were pilgrims. That 1820 Tour was a pilgrimage; in spirit a revisiting and in fact a new visiting of places significant for Wordsworth thirty years before. Dorothy was by nature a pilgrim, creating with Wordsworth, the personal holy places. In the Grasmere Journals she refers in terms of pilgrimage to her coming to the Lake District in 1794, the arrival in Staveley, “the first mountain village that I came to with Wm when we first began our pilgrimage together” (Grasmere Journals, 131-2). Her paths and roads gather up memories into ritual. At the same time, they are real enough: Dorothy loved the very “marks of sledges or wheel” in that track through green pastures under a glowing sky in the Trossachs (Journals, I, 367). And she could share Wordsworth's feelings of “spiritual right / To travel through that region bright” (Stepping Westward, 11.15-16). A road was “like a guide into eternity” (Prelude, 1805, XII, 151) as well as into the past. Bunyan was important. Life was pilgrimage. One recalls that last letter to Dora in 1838: “My Friend Mrs Rawson has ended her ninety and two years pilgrimage—and I have fought and fretted and striven—” (LY, III, 528).

And behind that intensity of intimacy and adventure which is pilgrimage, Dorothy saw, as she always had, the ordinariness of what was there. Travelling, she does not cook, as at Grasmere, but she notes the “miserable Trout” of Locarno “that made us think of a sickness among the fishes” (Journals, II, 202) and the well-cooked “moorfowl and mutton chops” at Tyndrum in 1803 (Journals, I, 339). She does not do washing, but she describes a washhouse in Glasgow with some 300 women, “arms, head and face all in motion” (Journals, I, 236-7). She does not make clothes, but she tells how she, Wordsworth and Mary stepped into an old-fashioned shop in Locarno to buy a cooler dress for Mary, and found such a courtesy there that it somehow made Dorothy fancy the times “when our great-Grandmother used to ride single to London with the “Merchants” from Penrith to purchase her yearly supply of goods” (Journals, II, 204). If she does not dress-make, she always needs a needle and thread. In Longtown, in 1803, she was unable to buy a silver thimble and had to make a halfpenny brass one do (Journals, I, 196), and she remembered this against Longtown in 1822—“mean shops that looked as if they could still supply nothing better than a brass thimble” (Journals, II, 340). In a high Alpine village in 1820, confined by storm and having seen a “Westmorland bridge” that afternoon, “M and I … sate at work as if we had been in England” (Journals, II, 180). Securities and recognitions are everywhere, and nowhere more than in Dorothy's homely likenesses.

These do not occur in orthodox tours—in Gilpin, Heron, Pennant, Ritson, Stoddart, or even in Humphrey Clinker—none of these has a play of images, no “moonshine like herrings in the water,” as earlier in the private Grasmere Journals. And so, writing more publicly in the Recollections, Dorothy almost apologises for her everyday similes. A variegated landscape “was (to use a woman's illustration) like a collection of patchwork, made of pieces as they might have chanced to have been cut by the mantua-maker, only just smoothed to fit each other …” (Journals, I, 207). The broad vale of Nith resembled “the old-fashioned valances of a bed” (Journals, I, 200). Cora Linn, in 1822, reflected in the mirror of a summer-house, was “bustling like suds in a washing-tub” (Second Tour, 153). Seabirds cover a small rock in the water “like comfits on a cake” (ibid., 18). Black stones on a beach are like “armies of Seals couched on shore” (ibid., 26). People walking west into evening sun are “almost like a blacksmith when he is at work at night” (Journals, I, 219). The King's Head Inn at Glen Coe was “as dirty as a house after a sale on a rainy day” (Journals, I, 334). There were “beds, or rather streams, of stones” on the way to Loch Etive, itself almost recognisable, for it had “familiar fire-side names,” including that of “the old woman with whom Wm lodged 10 years at Hawkshead”; these “streams of stones” appeared as “smooth as the turf itself, nay, I might say, as soft as the feathers of birds” (Journals, I, 307). But a well-built cottage, with bright windows, was like “a visitor, a stranger come into the Highlands”; indeed, it “fixed our attention almost as much as a Chinese or a Turk would do passing through the vale of Grasmere” (Journals, I, 347)—and we know from De Quincey how a similar stranger, a Malay, could fix Grasmere's attention. Yet Dorothy had homely associations even for the Chinese: in 1820, an old gentleman with an umbrella against the sun was like “a Chinese upon a punch-bowl or on Betty's Langdale teapot” (Journals, II, 52).

But how do ladies who keep travel Journals—and Dorothy objected to a Frenchman's referring to her and Mary as “two women”—how do they deal with scenes already dealt with by others? William Coxe's Sketches of Switzerland, 1779, made it, for example, seem unnecessary to Dorothy for her to set about another account of the Falls of Schaffhausen: “I took no description of the Falls at the time; nor will I now attempt to describe them. Coxe and other travellers have done it better than I could do” (Journals, II, 89). Here is a passage from Coxe's Schaffhausen description; phrases of hyperbole seem almost to overwhelm him:

… we looked down perpendicularly upon the cataract, and saw the river tumbling over the sides of the rock with amazing violence and precipitation. From hence we descended … and stood close to the fall; so that I could almost have touched it with my hands. A scaffolding is erected in the very spray of this tremendous cataract, and upon the most sublime point of view:—the sea of foam tumbling down—the continual cloud of spray scattered around at a great distance, and to a considerable height—in short, the magnificence of the whole scenery far surpassed my most sanguine expectations, and exceeds all description … the water forced itself through in an oblique direction, with inexpressible fury, and an hollow sound. After having continued some time, contemplating in silent admiration the awful sublimity of this wonderful landscape, we descended; and below the fall we crossed the river, which was exceedingly agitated.

(Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland; in a series of letters to William Melmoth, Esq, William Coxe, London 1779, pp. 17-18).

Dorothy, having refused description, conveys the power of the Falls through the excited reaction of the viewers. They had descended to where “a roofed wooden gallery or platform has been erected and there (venturing to the extremity nearest to the tumult) cheared by our exulting guide, we were gloriously wetted and stunned and deafened by the waters of the Rhine … The whole stream falls like liquid emeralds … We walked upon the platform as dizzy as if we had been on the deck of a ship in a storm” (Journals, II, 89-90). Mary Wordsworth is more domestic, though she does retain the emeralds: “the colour of the River less bright, as if milk had been thrown into the green Water, & sullied that delicious clearness appearing, (as it did at the falls), like melted Emeralds” (DC MS 92). Another time, it was Mary, not Dorothy, who decided of a famous place, the Devil's Bridge, that “as everyone knows [it], [it] need not be described,” and again, both ladies offer personal responses. Here is Coxe:

We then came to a bridge thrown across a very deep chasm over the Reuss, which here forms a considerable cataract down the shagged sides of the mountain, and over immense fragments of rock which it has undermined in its course. … As we stood upon the bridge admiring the cataract, we were covered with a kind of drizzling rain; the river throwing up the spray to a considerable heighth. These are sublime scenes of horror, of which those who have not been spectators, can form no idea: neither the powers of painting nor poetry can give an adequate image of them.

(Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland; in a series of letters to William Melmoth, Esq, William Coxe, London 1779, p. 160).

Coxe then describes the dark passage cut through rock and the sudden emergence into the “serene and cultivated valley of Ursuren” (pp. 160-1). His “immense fragments of rock” become, for Mary, “Architectural rocks, looking like the foundations of buildings—Ruins of Rome for instance” (DC MS 92)—which she would have known from prints, Piranesi perhaps; and for Dorothy, “like the ruins of a city” (Journals, II, 186). Both women add the flowers that grow about the bridge: Mary, “harebells, grass of Parnassus, Monks-hood, Columbine—also a flower, the only one of the kind I ever saw, the colour of a Michaelmas daisy, but in all other points like Camomile” (DC MS 92). Dorothy, less botanic, more elegant perhaps: “flowers in abundance:—Monks-hood, and many smaller flowers of gem-like brilliance, and the shrubby twigs of the Rosa Alpa bearing some lingering blossoms” (Journals, II, 186). Both note the orange lichens on the rocks and bridge. Both discount Coxe's notion that poetry “could give no adequate image of the scene”; they each quote from Wordsworth's Descriptive Sketches. Mary has two endearing touches: one, that, she may say, she was “rather disappointed [in the Devil's Bridge]”; and two, that Mr. Crabb Robinson had called her to look through the light-giving niche in the side of the rock tunnel, and so she had had a first and partial view of the vale of Ursuren, whereas “D said the natural way of coming upon it, without preparation, through the arch of the Cavern, was best” (DC MS 92). Dorothy's characteristic touches were her delight in that total surprise view, and her noting “Three young kids … standing in perfect peacefulness, on a crag close to the bridge and the impassioned torrent,—a living image of silence itself, in the midst of a deafening and dizzy tumult!” (Journals, II, 186).

The stillness of the kids beside the torrential water constitutes for Dorothy a visual equivalent to silence. Noise and stillness, movement and silence, have been frequent co-presences in her writing. At Alfoxden, in 1798, underneath roaring trees, dancing leaves and a furious wind, “Still the asses pastured in quietness under the hollies” (Journals, ed. Moorman, 4). Contrast itself was enlivening for Dorothy—the very exchange of the sublimity of the Devil's Bridge and the gloom of the granite passage for the soft and gentle vale of Ursuren, that, Dorothy wrote, “bursts upon our view.” Even Coxe, forty years before, had noted that “the change was so abrupt and instantaneous, that it seems like a sudden enchantment.” Dorothy, witness her verbs, expressed it more dramatically: “Consider what ruggedness we had been haunted by, what noise and tumult we had escaped from; and you may conceive that the transition was enchanting” (DC MS 90, omitted from Journals, II, 186). Dorothy seems often to point up contrast—almost as an element of composition. It is a nuance; she is never exclusively visual, has not the vocabulary of art, declared herself (strangely, in view of the Wordsworths' friendship for, say, Joseph Wilkinson or, especially, Sir George Beaumont) as “Little conversant in pictures” (Journals, II, 238). Even so, many a scene from her travel journals could be satisfactorily drawn.

She sees with her own eyes, respects the facts, and allows feeling. We see this best where we can compare versions, and luckily one rough notebook exists for the Continental Journal; it covers the last section. They had “dined,” wrote Dorothy in her Notebook, “at the Table d'hote—French officers—polite & gentlemanly—yet they spit on the floor at the dinner table.” Mary omits the spitting, and only records irritation as sight-seeing had been curtailed: “obliged to hurry without seeing more of the Town on acct. of dinner & now that that important business is over it is too late to go out—” (DC MS 91). She revises this petulant tone for her fair copy: “dined about 1/2 past five at Table d'hote with a party of French Officers—an inconvenient time for us as it prevented our being at liberty to walk” (DC MS 92). Dorothy in her fair copy simply says there was “not light sufficient to view anything distinctly,” but now adds that the dinner was “excellent” and that they endured “starvation [which has to do with cold, not hunger, cf. the “little peat fire” of the Grasmere Journals, 64]—“no fire-staring windows—and an outer door constantly open” (DC MS 90). She retained the spitting of the polite officers; it was omitted by her more genteel editor, de Selincourt.

The expansion might be moral comment—Dorothy's suspicion, for example, that an innkeeper's failure to serve them breakfast—purportedly lack of milk—was “some other reason.” In her fair copy Dorothy has found the reason: “probably indolence, which often in lonely places (for example in the Wilds of Scotland) makes the people prefer ease to accidental gain” (Journals, II, 314). Mary has neither the milk nor the moralising; nor does she indicate that on this same walk she went alone up a valley: “What if a wolf had crossed her path!” wrote Dorothy in the safety of retrospective trepidation in her fair copy, “Large troops of wolves haunt this district” (ibid.).

In this next example we see an expansion that develops feeling. Here first is Mary's description of the gardens at Fontainebleau: “The old garden with its pools & fountains very pleasing—rich flower gardens & fantastically cut trees—broad gravel walks—& then those stately peaceful creatures the Swans give spirit to the whole” (DC MS 91). Here is Dorothy in her Notebook: “Fontainebleau … Pool—swans—weeping willows.” Writing this up, perceiving the same whiteness in the water and the swans, and yet their contrasting restlessness and peace, Dorothy finds almost a supernaturalness; just as, in earlier days, she had found a life in mist or in shadows: “… the busy water had reminded us of drifting snow, as white as the swans floating the pool beneath. The contrast of that white restless substance with the silent untroubled gliding of the swans seemed to impart almost a supernatural composure to the fleecy forms of those living creatures” (DC MS 90). “Pool—swans—weeping willows” is then expanded into a complex of regrets that rise almost to Burkean elegy. None of this, incidentally, is in the printed edition.

A stern republican, after rambling in the forest, may look with contempt on the antique and costly gardens; but to us the transition was delightful; and we could not but regret that a greater number of similar specimens of the taste of our ancestors had not been left us in England, their place being ill supplied by our modern imitations of nature. Josephine's garden is, however, a sweet place, and, as a comment upon her judicious and quiet character, is very interesting; but to us who had not before seen anything so splendid in the ancient style, the Queen's garden was much more interesting—the statues, fountain, and flower borders all remaining in the same state as when Marie Antoinette, in the days of her glory, used to walk among them, little dreaming that in a few years, an obscure Individual should be regent of her pleasure-ground—plant and improve—and all again to be resigned to another, soon to be dispossessed like herself!


For almost half of the 1822 Journal of the Second Tour of Scotland there are three versions: the rough Notebook and two expansions, both dotted with deletions and insertions. The recent splendid edition by Jiro Nagasawa allows us to register Dorothy's changes in detail, to see her first thoughts, even perhaps to regret her elaboration. Here is a place remembered from 1803—first, the Notebook: “Ferry house at Inversneyde just the same, excepting now a glass window. A Girl now standing at the door, but her I cannot fancy our Highland Girl, & the Babe, which its Grandame rocked, while the Babe squalled, now must be grown up to toil & perhaps hardship or is it in a quiet grave?” (Second Tour, 5-6). In the next two versions the pathos—hypothetical after all—is thickly and more thickly applied: “Ferry house at Inversneyd just the same, excepting now a glass window. A Girl standing at the door. We are not near enough to distinguish her person; but I cannot fancy her so fair as our Highland Girl; & poor Thing! I ask myself in vain what is become of her, and that little Babe that was still squalling the harder while its Grandame rocked as if to stifle its cries. Brought up with toil & hardship is it still struggling on, or, with the aged woman sleeping in the quiet grave?” (Second Tour, 52). And: “Ferry house at Inversneyde just the same, but there is now a glass window. A girl standing on the threshold. We are not near enough to distinguish whether her person be awkward or graceful, or her face pretty; but I cannot fancy her so pretty as our Highland Girl [Continues as above.]” (Second Tour, 98).

In the case of the umbrella, the expanded versions are necessary explanations of a telegraphic Notebook entry: “Up at 5. Umbrella—foggy, cold. I walked along Saltmarket. Joan[n]a stayed foot palsied. No umbrella[.] Mounted coach at 7. Boy comes. Fog …” (Second Tour, 19). The second version has an entry for four days earlier, September 20, 1822, recording Dorothy and Joanna's setting out for an excursion to Loch Lomond: “Rose at 5. Hurried away to reach Boat at 6. Discovered that J had left my umbrella at Fruiterers while I was in search of post office, & wrote an order for the waiter, to demand it before our return” (Second Tour, 47). They returned from Loch Lomond, and the third version continues the story: “Asked after my umbrella at the Fruiterer's Shop—if it had been fetched away. The Boy only knew that it was not in the shop; & his master's house was a half a mile distant. Found Joanna much fatigued” (Second Tour, 143-4). Next morning, as they were about to leave Glasgow for good, Dorothy makes a determined personal effort; the Notebook's “up at 5. Umbrella—foggy, cold. Joan[n]a stayed foot palsied. No umbrella[.] Mounted coach at 7. Boy comes. Fog …” is now fully explained:

Rose at 5 (to secure our umbrella) though the Coach was not to depart till 7. In fact I had been obliged in the evening to sally forth a second time, with the Boots, who had delivered our note, yet could not obtain the umbrella and I have little doubt that it had been removed from the Shop to the house purposely that the owner, (whom the Shopkeeper must have known to be a stranger) shrinking from trouble, might leave the umbrella behind her. A fraud easy to the conscience. Our attendant went in search of the Fruiterer's Dwelling. Joanna remained under the piazzas of the Tron house; & I walked down one of the picturesque old streets to the Salt Market[.] The poor Fellow returned unsuccessful, and we expected to lose the umbrella; but just when we were seated on the Coach & the Driver ready with his whip, we perceived the Fruiterer's Boy coming with it in his hand.

(ibid., 144)

De Selincourt, not correlating the three versions, simply missed the whole thing out.

We have heard before those staccato notes of the 1822 Journal, jottings written in haste, when there was little time for articles and verbs—the Grasmere Journals: “… Lloyds called. The hawthorns on the mountain sides like orchards in blossom. Brought Rhubarb down. It rained hard. Ambleside Fair” (Grasmere Journals, 107-8). The 1822 Notebook has an almost surreal economy: “Broken sash windows. Lieutenant. Stones, Fish. Father. Drunkenness. Shabby clothes, dirty shirt” (Second Tour, 11). The next two versions fill out the story of an alcoholic gentleman who eked out an allowance from his father by selling local curiosities: “Stones, Fish. Father”; and we have Dorothy's feeling, “Pitying his condition I said what a dismal life” (Second Tour, 66), but the vivid economy has gone.

Early and late in Dorothy's writings is recognition of Wordsworth's, and it is one of our recognitions to see Dorothy so close to his words that she used them as her own. In the Grasmere Journals she describes “our patient, bow-bent Friend with his little wooden box at his Back” carrying letters along the roads: “he goes at that slow pace every morning,” he “neither murmurs nor thinks it hard” (February 8, 1802). In his movements and in his patience, as well as in the one adjective, “bow-bent,” this letter-carrier must have behind him the Old Cumberland Beggar:

          Thus, from day to day,
Bowbent, his eyes forever on the ground,
He plies his weary journey …

(Old Cumberland Beggar, 51-3)

Or, there is that view over the islands of Loch Lomond which Gilpin, in his Observations, had dismissed as of little “value in a picturesque light. The surface of the lake is broken by a number of islands, which are scattered about it, and prevent all unity of composition” (Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty Made in the Year 1776, on Several Parts of Great Britain; particularly the High-Lands of Scotland, 2nd ed. 1792, II, 21). Dorothy is not concerned with unity of composition:

… we looked towards the foot of the lake, scattered over with islands without beginning and without end. The sun shone, and the distant hills were visible, some through sunny mists, others in gloom with patches of sunshine; the lake was lost under the low and distant hills, and the islands lost in the lake, which was all in motion with travelling fields of light, or dark shadows under rainy clouds. There are many hills, but no commanding eminence at a distance to confine the prospect, so that the land seemed endless as the water.

(Journals, I, 251-2)

This has an immensity, a relation somehow with the cosmic boat in Peter Bell that goes “among the scattered stars”

Up goes my boat between the stars,
Through many a breathless field of light,
Through many a long blue field of ether.

As Dorothy's “fields of light” indicate, she lived with the poetry; of the lines in The Solitary Reaper,

Oh listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound—

She told Lady Beaumont in November, 1805, “I often catch myself repeating them in disconnection with any thought, or even, I may say, recollection of the Poem” (EY, 650). It is an intimacy, a literary intimacy; Coleridge saw it and longed for it. At this very time, at Loch Lomond, he wrote in his Notebook: “What? tho' the World praise me, I have no dear Heart that loves my Verses—I never hear them in snatches from a beloved Voice, fitted to some sweet occasion, of natural Prospect, in Winds at Night—” (Coleridge, Notebooks, I, 1463). In this instance—of the islands of Loch Lomond—there is a further connection with Wordsworth's poetry: with Ruth, and this, possibly a result of John Stoddart's Remarks on Scotland, 1801. Immediately after describing the fields of light and the land ‘endless as the water’, Dorothy continues: “… it was an outlandish scene—we might have believed ourselves in North America.” Stoddart, describing those same islands, had quoted from Ruth:

                    All the fairy crowds
Of islands that together lie
As quietly as spots of sky
Among the evening clouds


This is one of his several admiring pointers to Wordsworth (though here unacknowledged). It cannot have failed to bring to Dorothy's mind the first lines of the verse quoted,

The Youth of green Savannahs spake
And many an endless, endless lake

and altogether to have prompted her thought, “We might have believed ourselves in North America.” Indeed, three paragraphs on, still discussing the islands, Dorothy comments “It was a place that might have been just visited by new settlers. I thought of Ruth and her dreams of romantic love” and she quotes the stanza from Ruth immediately following the one quoted by Stoddart (Journals, I, 254).

Stoddart was certainly an influence, and Dorothy refers to him several times in her Recollections. It was through him surely that they tried so hard to see Rubens' Daniel in the Lion's Den at Hamilton House. “I cannot see,” Mr. Gilpin had said of the painting in his Observations, “how two passions can exist together in the same place” (II, 60). Stoddart took issue in his Remarks: “the struggles of fear, with the prevailing emotion of hope are both present in the face of Daniel” (Remarks, I, 175). Dorothy and Wordsworth set out: “Aug. 22. Immediately after breakfast walked to the Duke of Hamilton's house to view the picture-gallery, chiefly the famous picture of Daniel in the Lion's Den, by Rubens” (Journals, I, 231). At the front door they were told by the porter that the housekeeper was unwell; they might come back in an hour but to a more obscure door. They apologised, walked about (though were not allowed to walk in the park), and returned:

We stopped at the proper door of the Duke's house, and seated ourselves humbly upon a bench, waiting the pleasure of the porter, who, after a little time, informed us that we could not be admitted, giving no reason whatever. When we got to the inn, we could just gather from the waiter that it was not usual to refuse admittance to strangers; but that was all: he could not, or would not, help us, so we were obliged to give it up, which mortified us, for I had wished much to see the picture. Wm vowed that he would write that very night to Lord Archibald Hamilton, stating the whole matter, which he did from Glasgow.

(Journals, I, 231-2)

It was Kafkaesque, and they never saw the Rubens. Nor did they have more luck at Cologne Cathedral in 1820 because “that Buonaparte seized on the picture [Rubens' Crucifixion of St Peter] and sent it to Paris” (Journals, II, 42).

It is in the mixed mode that the pleasures of Dorothy's own Journals lie, not of course coexisting in the grand Rubens' manner, but in the continuous glancing from description to anecdote to commentary, from high to low. We can glimpse the horse, for example, only in the interstices of the 1803 Scottish narrative: we have him plunging with fear and stamping about on the ferry as they crossed Loch Etive; at the next Loch, he had to go outside the boat—the first horse that swam with the ferry—but so frightened that he strove to push himself under the boat (the ferrymen had to be given whisky to control him); Dorothy feared for him (Journals, I, 319). Shortly after, he is not eating his corn, and they decide not to push beyond a “slow walk” (Journals, I, 342). He had to manage another ferry and was so exhausted that when the woman at Killiecrankie “refused to lodge us … we entreated again and again in behalf of the poor horse” (Journals, I, 348). Finally, as they got back into the Border Country, they knew that they could never get him even over the easy ford of the Tweed—“he had not forgotten the fright,” writes Dorothy, “at Connel Ferry” and they had to hire a man to help get him over (Journals, I, 398).

A few pages can show the mingled yarn of the Journals. Here is the sublime: the Glacier de Boissons at Chamouny (Dorothy's spelling): “A few steps brought us in view of the famous Pyramids, concealed from us when we were on the ice above them. Imagine a multitude of tall cones or needles mingled with other fantastic shapes—towers or fragments of towers—all as white as new-fallen snow, and in substance like alabaster—imagine these, rising, as it seems, out of a forest of pines—and their forms a model of the enduring pikes and needles of the Mountains” (Journals, II, 288).

It is like a Francis Towne. From this, the Wordsworths come down to “green fields and cottages,” alas a world less of the beautiful than of tourist manipulation: “… a little Girl began to talk to me at her Mother's door, with a civility which was quite unnatural—‘Madame, vous avez été sur la Glacière—ne l'avez vous pas trouvée très belle? n'êtes vous pas fatiguée?’ All this doubtless, in expectation of money. Thus the Inhabitants of this Vale have been corrupted …” (Journals, II, 289). Dorothy had been saddened years before in Grasmere when two healthy beggar boys had “addressed me with the Begging cant & the whining voice of Sorrow,” and then crept up to Matthew Harrison's house “with a Beggar's complaining foot” (Grasmere Journals, 10). The strands of generosity and a suspicion of exploitation are with Dorothy from the start of the Continental Journal. On her door in Calais was the notice, “Sterne's Room” for the Wordsworths stayed in the Hotel d'Angleterre, famous from A Sentimental Journey. They had seen Sterne's own remise (we are to believe) among the carriages for sale, and Dorothy could not fail to be reminded that Yorick's journey was not through great landscapes, cathedrals or galleries, but through the movements of the heart. And just like Sterne in Calais, she is moved to charity by a person who does not ask for it: “a squalid, ragged women. She sate alone upon some steps … a white dog beside her … she did not notice us; but her rags, and her melancholy and sickly aspect drew a penny from me, and the change in the woman's skinny, doleful face is not to be imagined: it was brightened by a light and gracious smile” (Journals, II, 12). Sterne's “pauvre honteux” thanked him with a tear (how genuine we cannot know): “—he pull'd out a little handkerchief, and wiped his face as he turned away—and I thought he thank'd me more than them all.” (L. Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr Yorick, ed. G. D. Stout, [1967], 134). Dorothy's ragged woman thanked with a smile. Another time, Dorothy was attracted by a beguiling child, a “little Wanderer” whose “cunning” made her “a successful beggar, but a useless appendage of hers, a sickly girl, who joined us in hopes that a little might fall to her share (though she had not a word to say for it) pleaded with me as powerfully for sous as my active, engaging little friend …” (Journals, II, 14-15). But this is not Dorothy's accustomed mode, and she gives less on the Continent than at home. Without ease of language, she cannot reach the old sailors, discharged soldiers, abandoned women, she cannot reach them for their stories. At the same time, she feels threatened. On leaving Calais, she sounds a little like Smelfungus, the caricature of Smollett in Sterne's Journey, who saw all Europeans as treacherous; this is one of several such grumbles: “Bought a pound of cherries for six sous, probably twice as much as would have been demanded from French people …” (Journals, II, 13). After that note of distaste for corruption which sounds in the vignette of the unnaturally attentive little girl who spoke to Dorothy when they had descended from the pinnacles of the Glacier, we have something quite different: the admirable story of Pierre, the Chamonix guide: his family in the valley five hundred years, his fields lost by a father's gambling, retrieved, and destroyed by avalanche, a child drowned in the Arve, and yet that cheerful dignity of the pastoral that the Wordsworths so deeply respected. Following this, the “sound of voices chanting” and a procession moving slowly round the church at Argentière, the women—

from head to foot, covered with one piece of white cloth, resembled the small pyramids of the Glacier, which were before our eyes; and it as impossible to look at one and the other without fancifully connecting them together. Imagine the moving Figures, like a stream of pyramids—the white Church, the half-concealed Village, and the Glacier close behind, among pine-trees,—a pure sun shining over all! and remember that these objects were seen at the base of those enormous mountains, and you may have some faint notion of the effect produced on us by that beautiful spectacle. It was a farewell of the Vale of Chamouny that can scarcely be less vividly remembered twenty years hence …

(Journals, II, 291)

We are back with the sublime. That repeated design of ice pyramids, mountains and human figures, Dorothy bids her reader see as impressive, commends it to future memory, and clearly shares a response to it with Wordsworth, whose poem, “Processions,” goes beyond “beautiful spectacle” to a meditation on myth and metamorphosis, for the resemblances between the living and the icy—People, Pillars and the Mountain—had set the mind in play, even frighteningly:

Trembling, I look upon the secret springs
Of that licentious craving in the mind
To act the God among external things,
To bind, on apt suggestion, or unbind;

(‘Processions’, Memorials of a Tour on the Continent, XXXII, 64-7)

Again, the old relationship of the two writers—Dorothy content to note and remember, Wordsworth to brood upon the mind. From that living stream of pyramids Dorothy shifts again; she characteristically finds her own landscape, a “hamlet under shaded trees,” a “Valley of Westmorland” and so, at the end of the day they come once more to that green dell of Trientz, and “we ourselves within the deep enclosure,” the “aboriginal vale.” For a second time they are pilgrims here. It had been “the most romantic of our fancies” to stay with Wordsworth there for a night. But there was another side, and Dorothy is honest: there were fleas in the beds. She and Mary were up the “long, but I must not say tedious night,” filled with “images and thoughts of simple and quiet life” (Journals, II, 293-4), protests Dorothy, trying hard. She is not a Smelgungus sweeping into condemnation of “execrable auberges … nothing but dirt and imposition (Smollett, Travels, Letter I).

Despite her recognitions of Westmorland, she does not travel a parochial Smelgungus; nor does she set out from the aggressive opposite—“They order, said I, this matter better in France,” Sterne's polemical beginning to his fictional Sentimental Journey. Dorothy has her share of prejudices; she finds the green glacial lake and river waters less able “than our own pellucid lakes” to take the delicacies of reflection; that so much less clearly is that other sky “received into the bosom”; she misses, despite her fear of cows, the troops of cattle “that enliven the banks of our lakes, or beautify the pastures” (Journals, II, 109); she finds Catholicism meaningless, the Mass a performance with the priest in gaudy dress, opening and shutting a little cupboard, the vocal service gabbled (Journals, II, 11), and priests generally “spattering over the prayers” (Journals, II, 18). Even so, she is never so hostile as was Smollett, for example, who wrote in his Travels that he thought that Catholicism produced a “frivolous taste for frippery and shew, and encouraged a habit of idleness” (Letter IV). In Milan the Wordsworths went to the Opera, had to stand in the Pit it was so crowded and, Dorothy noted, the stage only was illuminated. They preferred the English way: “We did not think the additional brilliancy given to it by contrast with the rest of the house made amends for the dullness cast over the spectators” (Journals, II, 236). They left before the end.

Dorothy was not a solitary traveller, bolstering her prejudices or having adventures of the heart. She travelled, as she lived, with her family. Certainly, she took her world with her, and “looked about for what she remembered,” but she also “looked for new things.” And in both quests she was gratified. Above Chamonix, in 1820, she and Wordsworth are the same people as when in John's Grove in Grasmere in 1802, “William lay, & I lay in the trench under the fence—he with his eyes shut & listening to the waterfalls & the Birds.” In Chamonix they lie and listen again to what in 1802 Dorothy had called “the peaceful sounds of the earth: “W. and I lay down upon a sunny bank beside a rivulet … We shut our eyes to listen, and to feel the pleasure of the sunshine in perfect rest (Journals, II, 283). Dorothy is the main character in all her Journals. No one but she entering the Assembly Rooms at Brussels where the Duchess of Richmond had given the Ball five years before on the night before Waterloo, would first of all count the chandeliers and the mirrors: “17 lustres—14 huge mirrors—14 marble Ionic pillars—scarlet sofas—” (Journals, II, 26), before commenting on the “young officers hurried away in their dancing shoes to meet the Enemy” (Journals, II, 27). Incidentally, Dorothy, naturally loyal to Wordsworth's disapproval, reveals no awareness whatsoever of the most popular of all travel books, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Her memories of Lake Geneva, unlike Mary Shelley's four years earlier in 1816, need nothing from Canto III. When she goes to Chillon she does note that Lord Byron's poem, which she mistitles “The Fortress of Chillon,” was there among “a few other books,” but having, in her forthright way, got into the kitchen, and “There I sate by the fire” (Journals, II, 297), and then having looked round the place “which tells its tale of sickening sorrow—of groans long since laid asleep, the mind,” she wrote, “is not satisfied with its own imaginings; it craves something more,” and so they listen to the Warder's tales of tyranny, “which have only left an indistinct impression on my memory” (Journals, II, 297). No persons but the Wordsworths could have been in Chillon, craving something more for the mind, having Byron's poem to hand, and could yet have preferred the Warder's unmemorable chat. No journal writer but Dorothy could have recorded it without comment. But then, there are some prejudices that are unalterable, and it is for her humanness that we read Dorothy Wordsworth.


I am grateful to my fellow Trustees of the Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, for permission to quote from the manuscript Notebooks and Journals of Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth. All abbreviations to quoted sources are standard. The following abbreviations refer to the various published versions of Dorothy's Journals: Journals (ed. De Selincourt, 1952); Journals, ed. Moorman (ed. Mary Moorman, 2nd ed., 1971); Second Tour (Journal of My Second Tour in Scotland, ed. Jiro Nagasawa, 1989); Grasmere Journals (The Grasmere Journals, ed. Pamela Woof, 1991).

William C. Snyder (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Snyder, William C. “Mother Nature's Other Natures: Landscape in Women's Writing, 1770-1830.” Women's Studies 21, no. 2 (1992): 143-62.

[In the following essay, Snyder contends that the picturesque movement provided particular intellectual opportunity for women artists, Wordsworth among them.]

In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, the merging of two concurrent phenomena—the solidification of picturesque values and the proliferation of women artists—yields an imagery that resists seeing Nature as Mother. Progressive women artists at the end of the century and even through Romanticism tend to limit mothering impulses to human expression, while rendering external Nature as multifaceted and integrative, patterned but not personified. Individualized re-creation of a Nature mystically charged with fertility may have been brilliance of a kind, but as this new sensibility replaced the insistent patriarchism of the neo-classical style, the female was no less marginalized, fit to the role of praiseworthy Mother. Thus, enterprising women artists at the end of the eighteenth century were forced to explore an aesthetic space free from male metaphors of hierarchy—Nature as the great chain of being—or of maternality—Nature as the milk of paradise.1 They drew the self not as individualized against natural and social barriers, but as communalized with other and Nature. Their implicating of gender in natural process stressed inclusion and integration aside from fructification; and as they traced the immediate connections carried out in family, community and partner, the aesthetic space women artists tended to refer to was that of the picturesque.


For seminal commentary on sensation and intellection in the encountering of landscape, the chief theorists of the picturesque looked to Edmund Burke's 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In positing curiosity as our primal imaginative drive (Enquiry 31), Burke tends to questions that correlate feelings, such as love or astonishment, to sensuous apprehension. Burke calls elements of the Beautiful—softness, smoothness, grace—feminine, while he considers strength, power and rationality masculine. His argument, in disclosing the features of the Beautiful and Sublime, considers masculinity and femininity as carrying aesthetic weight while concomitantly dealing with effects of verbal and visual representation.

From the 1770's on, picturesque thinkers such as Uvedale Price and William Gilpin derive from and take issue with Burke. At this time, the rise of the importance of landscape and the emergence of the picturesque widened artistic range by reviving themes or imagery not categorized under beautiful or sublime, as well as by urging the coalescence of a variety of arts. Theoretically, the picturesque seeks new fields of associations—to combine the humble with the grand, the mellow with the bold, the smooth with the rugged, the aged with the youthful. This central feature of the picturesque, the blending of opposing qualities in landscape, thus prompts a new reading of the relation between nature and gender. A general, simplified view would hold picturesque texts as tempering masculine boldness, dynamism and reason with feminine delicacy, passivity and reflection. But a more specific, more complex view discloses these texts as explorations of a key paradox: how powerful natural forms and effects suggest, co-create or foster domesticity, community and sympathy—the province of both genders. In its mature stages, picturesque art goes beyond its definition of “that which looks well in a picture.” It reaches a point where imagination reconciles the vastness of natural forms such as mountains and sprawling valleys with shepherds, cottages and ruined abbeys. The process of integrating a variety of features in natural objects and atmospheres is an inclusive one which tests aesthetic depth without relinquishing control.

This process has implications for the role of gender in aesthetics. Price's essay On the Picturesque re-evaluates Burke's Beautiful Feminine—revealing “smoothness,” “uniformity of surface” and “gradual variation.”2 Price devotes a chapter to separating the Beautiful from the picturesque, asserting that “sudden protuberances, and lines that cross each other in a sudden and broken manner, are among the most fruitful causes of intricacy” (82). Nature, then, is only partly Beautiful, and not centrally feminine. The picturesque delves into the complementariness of scenic phenomena, and accepts parts of Nature as broken, ambiguous, ruined or barren—not simply Beautiful, not simply powerful, and certainly not maternal.3

The proclivity to associate Nature with fecundity is often seen as axiomatic for Romanticism, as well as for the male: the egotistical sublime needs to value profusion, intensity, power, transcendence. Thus Romantic imagery is frequently characterized by ascents and abysses, fountains, clouds, “winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn, / The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky” (Prelude VI). However, women writers seem to resist such signification of Nature and natural process, unless intending to associate these with abuse of power. Rather, women writers gravitate toward the picturesque because one of its aesthetic ideals is “grace,” which Michael Cooke considers “the term most effectively combining power and ease, strength and delicacy” (Acts of Inclusion, 182).4 Perhaps because their message tends to privilege intimacy over spectacle, domesticity over transcendence, women artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries find more compatible the understatement, subtlety and integrative qualities of the picturesque. A marginalized, subordinated program itself, this theory of art may have been inviting to women because of its ability to merge pursuits in which they had some hand—the picturesque encompassed not only painting, poetry and aesthetic theory, but correspondence, touring, architecture, journal-keeping and gardening.5 From one point of view, then, the picturesque helped to demythologize Arcadian landscape and to offer a way of apprehending Nature before one part of Romanticism remythologized it as Mother.

As the rise of landscape coincides with the rise of the picturesque, the rise of female artists is concurrent with the rise of both. While the first-generation Romantics take one direction in providing an elaborate imagery of Nature as provider, care-taker and nurturer, contemporaries Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Ann Radcliffe turn to the picturesque to elevate alternate ideals or patterns they saw implied in natural processes: community, generosity, sympathy, delight, connection, and intimacy. These female artists appropriate the picturesque to re-gender Nature by focusing on themes that we might call “pre-transcendent,” themes directed toward reciprocity, inclusiveness, and sustained rather than transitory fulfillment.


The woman most fully involved with landscape is Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept a variety of journals during tours with her famous brother.6 Her relationship with nature is more phenomenological than ontological; as Margaret Homans says, “… though her personality enters into her description, it never imposes on what she describes” (Homans, 94). Nevertheless, her journals are rich, especially in the way that her descriptions reveal a nimbleness of perception and expression: she draws together a variety of influences and imaginative powers, ranging from Virgilian mimesis to Turnerian optical fusion. But her steadiest style is picturesque, as in particular she explores paradoxes of delight and care in rusticity and domesticity.7

In her Alfoxden journal Dorothy expresses a deep sense of care for a Nature which she perceives clearly in picturesque terms:

Set forward after breakfast to Crookham, and returned to dinner at three o'clock. A fine cloudy morning. Walked about the squire's grounds. Quaint waterfalls about, about which Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed—ruins, hermitages, etc. etc. In spite of all these things, the dell romantic and beautiful, though everywhere planted with unnaturalised trees. Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.


Despite her use of the term “romantic,” the objects of her attention and her vocabulary are patently picturesque: “quaint,” “beautiful,” “ruins,” “hermitages.” And her association of art with deformity betokens an anti-academic sensibility which is often allied with the picturesque. Importantly, Dorothy presents Nature in need of care: the mothering impulse actually comes from the artist. We might even infer that Nature may be considered a hurt child. For Dorothy, maternal care flows out from the human heart, not to it from above or beyond, a sensibility echoed in many other places in her journals.

Whereas Dorothy contextualizes care only as a human sensibility, she does, like her brother, allow that Nature can provide pleasure. However, pleasure for Dorothy has little to do with rapture. Mostly, she presents Nature as a source of sensuous enjoyment, a kind of open-air gallery, usually creating brief depictions that draw out the uniqueness of object or of perception. In Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, Dorothy describes a bridge as providing the kind of amusement apropos of the picturesque:

It is a bridge of heavy construction, almost bending inwards in the middle, but it is grey, and there is a look of ancientry in the architecture of it that pleased me.


And she notes that perceiving ambiguities in Nature causes a delight of recognition, a perceptual process which receives such attention in Price and Gilpin. Like a painter, Dorothy experiments with perspective and exercises an eye that is creative, yet controlled:

The solitary hut on the flat green island seemed unsheltered and desolate, and yet not wholly so, for it was but a broad river's breadth from the covert of the wood of the other island. Near to these is a miniature, an islet covered with trees, on which stands a small ruin that looks like the remains of a religious house; it is overgrown with ivy, and were it not that the arch of a window or gateway may be distinctly seen, it would be difficult to believe that it was not a tuft of trees growing in the shape of a ruin, rather than a ruin overshadowed by trees. When we had walked a little further we saw below us, on the nearest large island, where some of the wood had been cut down, a hut, which we conjectured to be a bark hut. It appeared to be on the shore of a little forest lake, enclosed by Inch-ta-vannach, where we were, and the woody island on which the hut stands.


The ruin-tuft ambiguity is clearly a source of picturesque pleasure caused by playful engaging of mind and scene. For Dorothy, Nature is more visual experience than anything else; she constantly attends to lighting and texture and, deliberately, I think, overlooks possibilities for maternal symbolism or personification, usually referring to Nature with the impersonal pronoun “it,” and not with “she” or “her,” as did her brother.

Dorothy seems to have been fond of visual ambiguities, some of which were transformed into poetry by William. Her optical notation, “The hawthorn hedges, black and pointed, glittering with millions of diamond drops; the hollies shining with broader patches of light. The road to the village of Holford glittered like another stream” appears in William's Prelude IV:

My homeward course led up a long ascent,
Where the road's watery surface, to the top
Of that sharp rising, glittered to the moon
And bore the semblance of another stream
Stealing with silent lapse to join the brook
That murmured in the vale.

And the famous flowers of “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” are first encountered at Ullswater by Dorothy's curious, playful eye:

… at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them … the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing … a few stragglers higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.”


When Dorothy does associate Nature with Female, the reference is a metaphor in which Dorothy writes the female as a craftsperson, not as a mother, as in this impression gained in Scotland:

Every cottage seems to have its little plot of ground, fenced by a ridge of earth; this plot contained two or three different divisions, kail, potatoes, oats, hay; the houses all standing in lines, or never far apart; the cultivated ground was all together also, and made a very strange appearance with its many greens among the dark brown hills, neither tree nor shrub growing; yet the grass and the potatoes looked greener than elsewhere, owing to the bareness of the neighboring hills; it was indeed a wild and singular spot—to use a woman's illustration, like a collection of patchwork, made from pieces as they might have chanced to have been cut by the mantua-maker, only just smoothed to kit each other, the different sorts of produce being in such a multitude of plots, and those so small and of such irregular shapes.


Here the attention is on the arrangement of Nature much more than on its profusion. Dorothy sketches how cultivation and accident, lushness and bareness, regularity and irregularity intermesh to create a particular kind of scene. Her perception of contrast and division is modified by an appreciation for order within irregularity. She likens the work of Nature to that of the maker of gowns; the image is female as pattern-maker, as integrator, emphasizing a certain visual and tactile intricacy—what the hands, not the breasts, do. The implied oxymoron—that this scene offers a “wild collection” of shapes, textures and shadows, is entirely compatible with Price's penultimate statement in his essay On the Picturesque: “that the two opposite qualities of roughness, and of sudden variation, joined to that of irregularity, are the most efficient causes of the picturesque” (82).

Reading the art of brother and sister provides a unique view of a relationship between gender and Nature. While the writing of both William and Dorothy is incubated in the picturesque in the early 1790's, William leaves it behind to seek the divine in Nature and, on his way, to characterize it as nurture: “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” (Tintern Abbey, l. 122). In keeping William emotionally, artistically and domestically nurtured, Dorothy knew that her role was as integrator of a moveable household that could include other male artists. Her vision so close to home, she had little inclination to see or believe in Nature as Mother when so much human mothering was needed.8 As Homans points out, “when [Dorothy] might have been writing she was instead spending her creative energies on plans for the future” (67). Busied away from exercising imaginative power—axiomatic for a fully Romantic perception of the world—“Dorothy sees herself excluded from a hermetic system” (Homans, 67) a system which provided time for William to cultivate his view of Nature as Mother. A nurturer without actually being a mother, a giver far more than receiver, Dorothy could neither perceive nor trope Nature in the same way as William. For him, maternality was equated with productivity, abundance and fertility; for Dorothy, maternality meant care, protection and intimacy.



Critically and historically, then, the picturesque opens women artists to participation in a specific artistic program embracing values with which they could identify and feel free to express. Partly because, as Ronald Paulson points out, “picturesque landscape was … cut off from a historical and social context and given a personal one” (154), women artists working in the picturesque were not as tightly bound to the codes of a patriarchal history and society. Participating in the philosophical and aesthetic challenges to Burke's categorization of Nature as Beautiful or Sublime, they seem to hold the Beautiful as often illusionary and easily appropriated, its association with the female too heavily dependent on male desire. On the other hand, the Sublime is unsatisfactory for female expression because it privileges Nature, valuing it on its own terms, dramatizing only its most obvious features or processes. Between these, the Picturesque is based on mutuality of human and natural, masculine and feminine, both of which can share power and delicacy. There is a strain in the movement which leans toward care and preservation (the feministic), without an imagery of procreation and fertility (the maternalistic). Thus, this complex aesthetic phase directly preceding Romanticism shows that Nature may be prolific, ornamented, admirable and powerful, but for human happiness, it must be connected with, arranged, lived into—processes implying a more holistic investment than seeing it as Mother allows.9


  1. The place of land and landscape under the view of Nature as Mother is neatly synopsized by Carolyn Merchant: “… While the pastoral tradition symbolized nature as a benevolent female, it contained the implication that nature when plowed and cultivated could be used as a commodity and manipulated as a resource. Nature, tamed and subdued, could be transformed into a garden to provide both material and spiritual food to enhance the comfort and soothe the anxieties of men distraught by the demands of an urban world and the stresses of the marketplace. It depends on a masculine perception of nature as a mother and bride whose primary function was to comfort, nurture, and provide for the well-being of the male. In pastoral imagery, both nature and women are subordinate and essentially passive. They nurture but do not control or exhibit disruptive passion” (The Death of Nature. 8-9).

  2. Price undertakes his argument because he finds “picturesque” to be an equivocated aesthetic term: “In general, I believe, it is applied to every object, and every kind of scenery, which has been or might be represented with good effect in painting—just as the word beautiful, when we speak of visible nature, is applied to every object and every kind of scenery that in any way give pleasure to the eye—and these seem to be significations of both words, taken in their most extended and popular sense” (77). Price's thesis in Chapter III is “that the picturesque has a character not less separate and distinct than either the sublime or the beautiful, nor less independent of the art of painting” (78).

  3. Valuing of barren, decayed, broken or “encrusted” objects counters imagery presenting Nature as beautiful and fecund. See Price, p. 82, where Time is discussed as a key agent, because it “converts a beautiful object into picturesque one. …”

  4. Cooke actually considers “grace” to be an effect of the romantic pursuit of the feminine, but I believe the term is also apt for this strain of the picturesque.

  5. See Malcolm Andrews, Chapter III, “The Evolution of Picturesque Taste, 1750-1800,” and IV, “Travelling ‘knick-knacks.’”

  6. In “The Cult of Domesticity,” Kurt Heinzelman shows that the Wordsworth's moving to the Lake District in 1799 was the beginning of a domestic consciousness from which Dorothy “articulates and sustains the idea that the equating of creativity and work is necessary to the success of the household unit” (Romanticism and Feminism, 56).

  7. Brief sketches like these are frequent in her journals: “The morning warm and sunny. The young lasses seen on the hill-tops, in the villages and roads, in their summer holiday clothes—pink petticoats and blue. Mothers with their children in arms, and the little ones that could just walk, tottering by their side” (7). “We went up the hill, to gather sods and plants; and went down to the lake side, and took up orchises, etc. I watered the garden and weeded” (37).

  8. While her journals mention mothering only in human contexts, Dorothy's most significant narrative, “Concerning George and Sarah Green of the Parish of Grasmere,” details the tragic orphaning of the Green children whose parents met with a fatal winter accident. See Susan J. Wolfson, “Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William” in Romanticism and Feminism, 139-166.

  9. I am indebted to Anne Mellor, James Heffernan, Ann Bermingham, David Rollison, Catherine Burroughs, Katherine Haley Arneson and Richard Wissolik for fruitful ongoing conversation and advice that have certainly contributed to the refining of ideas in this essay.

Works Cited

Andrews, Malcolm. The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800. Stanford, Ca.: University Press, 1989.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. New York: New American Library, 1979.

———. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Scholastic Library, 1962.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. James Boulton, ed. Notre Dame University Press, 1958, 1986.

Cooke, Michael G. Acts of Inclusion: Studies Bearing on an Elementary Theory of Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: University Press, 1980.

Manwaring, Elizabeth Wheeler. Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England: A Study Chiefly of the Influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa on English Taste, 1700-1800. Riverside, Ca.: Marcellus Bookery, 1925.

Mellor, Anne, ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

Price, Uvedale. An Essay on the Picturesque. 1794.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, a Romance. Frederick Garber, ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, 1987.

Wolfson, Susan. “Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William” in Romanticism and Feminism, Anne K. Mellor, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journal. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1987.

———. Journals. William Knight, ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1938.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works. Ed. Ernest De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-49.

Pamela Woof (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Woof, Pamela. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals and the Engendering of Poetry.” In Wordsworth in Context, edited by Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy, pp. 122-55. Canterbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1992.

[In the following essay, Woof studies the relationships between Dorothy Wordsworth's journals and William Wordsworth's poems.]

The story of how some of Wordsworth's poetry was engendered can be pieced together from Dorothy's Journal, and this will be the subject of the first part of this paper. The second part will be a discussion of some of the characteristics of prose poetry that Dorothy engendered in her own writing. Her accounts of daily life, by no means shaped for artistic effect, nevertheless sometimes attained that effect; her words often surprise us as poetry does with that sudden surge into truth.


The poem “Beggars” was written 13-14 March 1802; its origin lay in an encounter that took place on 27 May 1800, almost two years before. Dorothy recorded on that day:

I walked to Ambleside with letters—met the post before I reached Mr Partridges, one paper, only a letter for Coleridge—I expected a letter from Wm. It was a sweet morning, the ashes in the valleys nearly in full leaf but still to be distinguished, quite bare on the higher grounds. I was warm in returning, & becoming cold with sitting in the house—I had a bad head-ach—went to bed after dinner, & lay till after 5—not well after tea. I worked in the garden, but did not walk further. A delightful evening before the Sun set but afterwards it grew colder. Mended stockings & c.1

There was no mention of the meeting with the beggar woman. During these first three weeks of the Journal, begun 14 May 1800, Dorothy was alone, Wordsworth and John having gone into Yorkshire to stay with the Hutchinsons. She recorded planting, weeding, watering, drinking tea with Miss Simpson, reading Shakespeare, writing letters, walking to Ambleside to look for letters, going to church, putting up valances; there are no extended descriptions of people met upon the roads. Wordsworth returned on 7 June, and on the 10th he and Dorothy walked to Ambleside. That night she completed her entry for 10 June, drew her normal concluding line after it, and then launched into her long description of the beggar woman and her two boys, met two weeks before:

On Tuesday, May 27th, a very tall woman, tall much beyond the measure of tall women, called at the door. …

Her long account is both recollected and revised: “I saw two boys one about 10 the other about 8”; a clarifying phrase is inserted: “I saw two boys before me, one about 10.” Again, “I served your Mother this morning (The Boys were so like her that I could not be mistaken)”; the word “her” is crossed out and the illogicality removed by an additional inserted clause. “(The Boys were so like the woman who had called at the door that I could not be mistaken.)” When the boys “flew like lightning” away, Dorothy continued, “They had however sauntered so long at Ambleside”; this is misremembered, and Dorothy corrected, “They had however sauntered so long in their road that they did not reach Ambleside before me.” After she records seeing them creep “with a Beggars complaining foot,” her story went on: “On my return I met the mother driving her asses”; this is revised to a precise, “On my return through Ambleside I met in the street the mother driving her asses.” Nothing so far in the Journal has been written with such sustained attention to detail as this account of an episode that had been left out of the original record of the day when it took place. The impulse to write it down must have come out of conversation: Dorothy, walking with Wordsworth on that same Ambleside road, surely told him of the adventure of two weeks before, and as a result of his interest, on returning, she wrote it down. Dorothy's famous account of the leech-gatherer must have a similar origin. It was written on the morning of 4 October 1800, and was about an incident of 26 September, but the account follows another of Wordsworth's walks to Ambleside: “I went with him part of the way—he talked much about the object of his Essay for the 2nd volume of LB.” Talking about that essay, the forthcoming Preface for Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its well-known emphasis on the advantages of writing about “low and rustic life” among the “beautiful and permanent forms of nature,” must have brought back to mind for both brother and sister the leech-gatherer whom they had met on 26 September. Dorothy's careful recollected description follows this talking. Another instance: the story of Alice Fell was a twice-told tale before it reached the Journal: Mr. Graham told it to Wordsworth, Wordsworth to Dorothy, Dorothy to her Journal, and shortly afterwards Wordsworth retold the story in verse. It is a reminder of how many of the stories in the Journal seem to have begun in conversations. Among other things, the Journal is a collection, a deliberate collection, of oral stories.

The story of the beggar family next turns up at about 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon, 14 March 1802. Wordsworth had gone to bed after dinner, and Dorothy, as so often when Wordsworth took a nap, wrote up her Journal. The achievements for Saturday, the day before, were first of all summarized:

It was as cold as ever it has been all winter very hard frost. I baked pies Bread, & Seed-cake for Mr Simpson—William finished Alice Fell, & then he wrote the Poem of the Beggar woman taken from a Woman whom I had seen in May—(now nearly 2 years ago) when John & he were at Gallow hill—I sate with him at Intervals all the morning, took down his stanzas & c—

Dorothy then moves into detail about a walk to Rydal:

After dinner we walked to Rydale, for letters, it was terribly cold we had 2 or 3 brisk hail showers. The hail stones looked clean & pretty upon the dry clean Road. Little Peggy Simpson was standing at the door catching the Hail-stones in her hand. She grows very like her Mother. When she is sixteen years old I daresay that, to her Grandmothers eye she will seem as like to what her Mother was as any rose in her garden is like the Rose that grew there years before.

The phrase “years before” is inserted above some words that have been crossed out; these appear to read “when the mother was a child before she is a woman.” Dorothy's interest clearly is in likeness: how a rose is like a rose of some distant previous year, and how a child is like its mother, and like that mother must have seemed to the grandmother. Dorothy then proceeds with detail about the composition of the poem “Beggars:”

After tea I read to William that account of the little Boys belonging to the tall woman & an unlucky thing it was for he could not escape from those very words, & so he could not write the poem, he left it unfinished & went tired to Bed. In our walk from Rydale he had got warmed with the subject & had half cast the Poem.

Sunday Morning [14th]. William had slept badly—he got up at 9 o clock, but before he rose he had finished the Beggar Boys—

Wordsworth had not been reading Dorothy's Journal before beginning the poem. That he had “half cast the Poem” during the walk from Rydal was surely to do with their seeing a child like its mother, and with the recollection of that conversation with Dorothy about the beggar woman's children seen almost two years before and unmistakably like their mother. Brother and sister must have talked about resemblance between generations. Dorothy's actual written words, when she looked up her old notebook and read them after tea to Wordsworth, inhibited him; he “could not escape” from them. Yet there must have been one detail there that did finally release him—the butterfly. Those boys, as like their mother as little Peggy Simpson was like hers, in Wordsworth's words,

Two Brothers seem'd they, eight and ten years old;
And like that Woman's face as gold is like to gold(2)

were at play, not catching clean and pretty hailstones like Peggy Simpson, but chasing a butterfly. The poem had begun as “the Poem of the Beggar woman”; it was finished next morning as “the Beggar Boys.” It was Spenser who probably contributed to the change of emphasis. The association in Dorothy's account of a butterfly with a mother and her children alike beautiful to see and yet in a “state of the greatest moral depravity,” as Wordsworth later termed it in 1808,3 perhaps directed Wordsworth to that very dramatic phrase, “a Weed of glorious feature,” borrowed from Spenser and used by Wordsworth to form the moral climax of his portrait of the mother. There is no censure in this phrase in Spenser's “Muiopotmos or The Fate of the Butterfly.”4 Here, Clarion, a happy butterfly, briefly enjoys the delights of a paradisal garden, and feeds on “flowres and weeds of glorious feature,” before he is caught and killed by a hideous spider foe. From this perhaps comes the suggestion in Wordsworth's poem that the children, besides “chasing a crimson butterfly” (Dorothy had not given it a color), are not unlike butterflies themselves in their beauty, their movements, and, in association with “Muiopotmos,” their possibly dismal future. In Dorothy's account of June 1800, after she had refused to give the boys anything more, “away they flew like lightning.” Wordsworth has no lightning; his boys are more like butterflies in flight,

                                                                      without more ado
Off to some other play they both together flew. …

An added verse in 1827 brings out more clearly his sense of their similarity to the beautiful and vulnerable butterflies, the very “fluttering game” they hunted,

Wings let them have, and they might flit. …

Wordsworth finished the poem “before he rose” the next morning, 14 March 1802, and the conversation at breakfast (not surprisingly) was about butterflies. That afternoon, at about half past five, with Wordsworth returned to bed, Dorothy recorded that breakfast conversation and the subsequent composition of the next poem, “To a Butterfly,” “Stay near me—do not take thy flight”:

The thought first came upon him as we were talking about the pleasure we both always feel at the sight of a Butterfly.

Immediately, with his “Basin of Broth before him untouched & a little plate of Bread & butter he wrote the Poem to a Butterfly!” The chasers now are not two beggar boys, but Wordsworth himself as a child and Dorothy who “used to chase them a little but that I was afraid of brushing the dust off their wings, & did not catch them—.” And the butterfly, like the cuckoo before it and the rainbow after it, has become a talisman for Wordsworth, a talisman into the past, a bringer of images to the heart, a historian of infancy.

A month later the butterfly is back again, now in its role of victim; another poem is written, and the Journal establishes that its genesis occurred some months before. On 18 April 1802 Wordsworth and Dorothy “sate in the orchard—William wrote the poem on the Robin & the Butterfly.” Dorothy, recording this, recalls her own observation of the day before, the 17th, and squeezes an insertion into that previous day's entry, “I saw a Robin chacing a scarlet Butterfly this morning.” In the poem Wordsworth expresses his sorrowful wonder that a robin (and an English, not an American robin, a domestic bird of garden crofts and crumbs in winter) should pursue a beautiful butterfly:

Could Father Adam open his eyes
And see this sight beneath the skies,
He'd wish to close them again.

The bird's aggression is familiar; man shares it, and Wordsworth underlines this by noting the universal habit of calling the robin by our own common names: in English, “Robin,” but

          the Charles of Swedish Boors
In Germany their little Hans
The Frederick who they love in France
Their Thomas in Finland. …

(PTV, 75)

Yet the robin, again like us, and like the butterfly, is a victim too. All are victims. The creature kinship of bird to butterfly is made clear, almost ridiculously, “As if he were bone of thy bone” (there are no bones in butterflies). “We,” Dorothy records at night, “left out some lines.” This particular line ultimately was altered to “A brother he seems of thine own.” Despite such improvement, the poem attracted parody when it was published in 1807. Richard Mant, author of “The Simpliciad” (1808), mocked

Poets, [who] …
With brother lark or brother robin fly
And flutter with half-brother butterfly …

(ll. 204-6)

And Wordsworth's poem attracted incomprehension. De Quincey, thirty years later, recalled meeting a Mrs. Grant of Laggan in London in 1808 and that the lady had demanded apropos the lines—

Could Father Adam open his eyes
And see this sight beneath the skies,
He'd wish to close them again.

—“Now what possible relation can Father Adam have to this case of the bird and the butterfly?” De Quincey at the time parried Mrs. Grant's question, but later the light flashed upon him that Wordsworth's “secret reference must be to that passage in the ‘Paradise Lost’ where Adam is represented—on the very next morning after his fatal transgression, and whilst yet in suspense as to the shape in which the dread consequences would begin to reveal themselves, and how soon begin—as lifting up his eyes, and seeing the first sad proof that all flesh was tainted, and that corruption had already travelled, by mysterious sympathy, through universal nature.”5 Adam is troubled, and we realize that the significance of Wordsworth's redbreast chasing a butterfly comes from Milton's words,

The bird of Jove, stooped from his airy tower,
Two birds of gayest plume before him drove:
Down from a hill the beast that reigns in woods,
First hunter then, pursued a gentle brace,
Goodliest of all the forest, hart and hind;
Direct to the eastern gate was bent their flight.
Adam observed, and with his eye the chase
Pursuing, not unmoved to Eve thus spake.


De Quincey debated long with himself, but finally decided that Wordsworth was entitled “to presume in his readers such a knowledge of Milton.” Nevertheless, he mentioned the difficulty to Wordsworth, who then himself added a footnote directing readers to Paradise Lost, book 11. And Paradise Lost 11 had been Wordsworth's and Dorothy's last sustained reading before their spring 1802 immersion in the poetry of Ben Jonson. “After tea,” wrote Dorothy on 2 February 1802, “I read aloud the 11th Book of Paradise Lost we were much impressed & also melted into tears. The papers came in soon after I had laid aside the Book—a good thing for my William.” These tears are now explained: like Adam, Wordsworth was “not unmoved” at the sight of aggression in the natural world, and “The Robin and the Butterfly” of April is thus linked to the tears of February when this poem in a sense began.

Within a day of this April poem is written the third butterfly poem, “I've watched you now a full half-hour,” where the butterfly is back in its role of unlocking the past, but now with a difference; the theme is again paradise lost:

We'll talk of sunshine and of song
And summer days, when we were young.

Youth and paradise have gone:

Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.

And the poet perhaps protests too much that the garden is a “sanctuary,” that the butterfly need “fear no wrong.” Despite his assertion of protection that

This plot of Orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister's flowers, …

(PTV, 216)

neither he nor any fallen human being can control predatory robins. It is in this kind of way that Dorothy's Journal can lead us to an understanding of how, say, “Beggars” and the Butterfly poems were engendered. We cannot put together quite so full a picture of the background of “To the Cuckoo” or “My heart leaps up,” but still, through the Journal, there are hints toward origins. First, “To the Cuckoo.” Wordsworth entered upon his long literary relationship with the cuckoo when, as we know from the Journal, he was preparing a version of the medieval “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” in the winter of 1801-2. The bird of this poem was the antecedent of Shakespeare's

Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

It was a bird of moral meaning rather than one of wings and voice, and Wordsworth found himself having to speak of its “uncouth singing,” to assert “full little joy have I now of thy cry,” to describe it as the “sorry Cuckoo,” the “bird unholy,” the “churlish bird,” the “false bird.”7 Yet he would, even as he was writing this poem, be already aware of a very different literary cuckoo, the cuckoo of John Logan's “Ode to the Cuckoo.” In May 1801 his brother John, about to set off on a voyage with a brand new set of Anderson's British Poets, had written to Dorothy asking her to get William's advice for him with regard to what best to read in Anderson's Poets, “and I would be more particularly pleased at his pointing out any good poems in poets such as Logan for instance.”8 Wordsworth no doubt pointed out the very first Logan poem in Anderson, “Ode to the Cuckoo” (and he could well have recommended the second one, “The Braes of Yarrow,” undoubtedly one of the “various Poems” associated with that river that Wordsworth referred to in his headnote for his own “Yarrow Unvisited” of 1803). Anderson's own view of John Logan (1748-88) was admiring and compassionate, for Logan had a “pensive melancholy” such as “men of genius and feeling” felt, his spirits were “always much elated, or much depressed,” and since he “eagerly snatched that temporary relief which the bottle supplied”9 he was thought to have hastened his death. Dorothy's description of him as “poor Logan” (Journal, 4 June 1802) would surely carry both her own and Wordsworth's feeling and fear for poets who were subject to depression as well as joy, poets who met early death, the poets indeed of that great poem of spring 1802, “Resolution and Independence”: Logan, one of the shadowy company; Burns and Chatterton mentioned; Coleridge, and Wordsworth himself perhaps, implied and in similar jeopardy.

Dorothy, some months after presumably replying to John's request for good Logan poems, came yet again in contact with Logan and his cuckoo poem. And it was on a day, 8 December 1801, on which “Wm worked at the Cuckow & the Nightingale till he was tired.” On that day Dorothy “read Bruce's Lochleven & Life.” As she read Anderson's “Life of Bruce” Dorothy would have come across Anderson's comment that he had not included among Bruce's poems the “Ode to the Cuckoo” because in his view this was the work of Logan. Confusingly, Logan had himself included it in his edition of Bruce's poems, 1770, and had then reprinted it with some alterations in his own volume of Poems, 1781. Feeling apparently ran high among the friends and family of both deceased poets; Anderson discusses the vexed question of authorship in his “Life of Logan,” and in his “Life of Bruce” simply points to the poem as Logan's. Indubitably, this Cuckoo, Logan's or Bruce's, was known to Wordsworth.10 Even as he was composing his version of the medieval dream poem, consolidating the stereotype of the cuckoo, he must have been aware of that contrasting freshness, that move toward a different account of the bird that is in Logan's poem.11 Although Logan's first lines, “Hail, beauteous stranger of the grove / Thou messenger of Spring,” have still a literary antecedent—they are borrowed from Spenser's sonnet “The merry Cuckow, messenger of Spring”—the poem reaches for direct experience. Logan's cuckoo, like Wordsworth's, is more than anything else a voice (in Wordsworth “a wandering Voice,” “a voice, a mystery”). Logan hails the “messenger of Spring,”

What time the daisy decks the green
Thy certain voice we hear.


          schoolboy wandering through the wood
To pull the primrose gay,
Starts, the new voice of Spring to hear …

and anticipates Wordsworth's

The same whom in my schoolboy days
I listened to. …

Although Logan's bird cannot make the poet

          listen, till I do beget
That golden time again …

it lives in an eternal spring:

Sweet bird! thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year!

So Wordsworth, taking a hint from Logan, conceived of the cuckoo as a voice that could lead into an eternal spring, a golden time, that could tell of visionary hours. But he also felt compelled to present the bird as real. Neither the medieval poet nor Logan had tried to define the sound of the cuckoo. Wordsworth tried variously for many years, indeed until 1845 when he achieved the final precision of

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear
From hill to hill it seems to pass
At once far off, and near.(12)

It was not only on 14 May 1802, we must presume, that Wordsworth “teased himself with seeking an epithet for the Cuckow.” On 23 March 1802, when Dorothy first records that Wordsworth “worked at the Cuckow poem,” there could be no actual cuckoos in Grasmere. Behind Wordsworth's poem was both his memory of the bird and two strands of literary tradition: that of “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” and that of John Logan. The real cuckoo was heard in Grasmere on 29 April; Dorothy recorded, “Mr Simpson heard the Cuckow today”; she herself heard her first cuckoo of that spring on 1 May. On 3 June, with the poem written though not yet “teased” into perfection, Dorothy recorded their reading of the “writings of poor Logan” and also that on that day the “cuckow sang.” Did the real bird remind them of a literary one?

The literary context for My heart leaps up is less intricate than it is for “To the Cuckoo,” at least as far as the Journal reveals it. On one of those days when Wordsworth was “working at the Cuckow” a rainbow, like the cuckoo a natural, literary, and not immediately present object, became suddenly another way into the exploration of personal time and change. “The Rainbow” was written with no rainbow visible, at night, on 26 March 1802, “while I was getting into bed,” wrote Dorothy. In the cuckoo poem with which the day had begun Wordsworth radiates a confidence that he can, by listening to that voice again, transform the world to its earlier gold, but by that evening he was writing perhaps a little less surely of the power of just such another natural phenomenon, now the rainbow, to carry the harmonies of the past into the present, and beyond, into the future. There is a prayer in his rainbow poem:

So be it when I shall grow old
          Or let me die!

(PTV, 206)

And the following day there is something quite blank about the bald statement in the “Intimations Ode,” “The rainbow comes and goes.” It was a few weeks before this that Wordsworth had listened to Dorothy reading a poem in which past and present are discussed in the context of a rainbow. This discussion is banal; it has no complex of feeling about past and present as they change within the mind. The poem was by Thomas Campbell and we see once again how Wordsworth could take literary convention and transform it. On 1 February 1802 a long awaited box came from London and in it was Campbell's “Pleasures of Hope.” That same day Dorothy read it to Wordsworth. Published by the twenty-year-old Scottish poet in 1799, by 1806 “The Pleasures of Hope” was to reach its ninth edition. Wordsworth in 1802, with the far less popular Lyrical Ballads behind him, had been wanting to look at it for a year. Coleridge had written to Godwin in March 1801 for the return of his copy of Campbell “which Wordsworth wishes to see.” The poem begins with a rainbow:

At summer eve, when Heaven's ethereal bow
Spans with bright arch the glittering hills below,
Why to yon mountain turns the musing eye,
Whose sunbright summit mingles with the sky?
Why do those cliffs of shadowy tint appear
More sweet than all the landscape smiling near?—
'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.
Thus, with delight, we linger to survey
The promised joys of life's unmeasured way;
Thus, from afar, each dim-discovered scene
More pleasing seems than all the past hath been. …(13)

Lulled by easy lilt and commonplace morality, we can almost achieve a contemporary reaction to Wordsworth's lines of 26 March:

My heart leaps up when I behold
          A Rainbow in the sky:

(PTV, 206)

These seem suddenly shocking, almost naked, with not an adjective or a hiding behind a plural pronoun “we” to soften the straight personal response. The Journal records only this one reading of Campbell. Crabb Robinson in 1812 reported that Wordsworth thought Blake “as having the elements of poetry a thousand times more than either Byron or Scott; but Scott he thinks superior to Campbell.” Indeed Wordsworth spoke, reported Crabb Robinson, “with great contempt of Campbell as a poet.”14 And Dorothy in 1811 referred to “the huddling nonsense of the ‘Pleasures of Hope.’”15 Contemptible or not, Campbell's rainbow and his easy optimism about time perhaps helped Wordsworth toward his own sharp poem with its complex awareness of time's changes.

My last example of how Dorothy's Journal helps us to understand the engendering of Wordsworth's poetry concerns “The Leech-gatherer.” This poem, later entitled “Resolution and Independence,” has behind it a complex of literary and personal presences; only one will be discussed here. On 5 May 1802 Dorothy recorded “I read The Lover's Complaint to Wm in bed & left him composed.” Wordsworth had gone to bed “very nervous” through working on “The Leech-gatherer.” Whose choice was it to read Shakespeare's “Lover's Complaint” aloud? It was certainly a happy choice, for it “left him composed”; and two days later when Dorothy next mentioned composition, she wrote that Wordsworth, “feeling himself strong, he fell to work at the Leech gatherer—he wrote hard at it till dinner time, then he gave over tired to death—he had finished the poem.” (He had not finished it of course and Dorothy, speaking in her own extraordinarily positive way, was “oppressed sick at heart for he wearied himself to death” with it in only two days' time.) But the power to finish even a version of “The Leech-gatherer” had perhaps a connection with “A Lover's Complaint” that “left him composed.” This is a narrative in the same rhyme royal as Wordsworth's poem, though Wordsworth retains the two extra syllables in each stanza's final line that Chatterton, “the marvellous Boy” of “The Leech-gatherer,” had himself added to the rhyme royal stanza in his “Excelente Balade of Charite.” In Shakespeare's “Lover's Complaint” the poet comes upon a seduced and abandoned maid “Storming her world with sorrow's wind and rain” by the margin of a river, and he hears a “reverend man,” “privileged by age,” desire

                                                                                                                                  to know
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.

A second time the old man desires

Her grievance with his hearing to divide;
If that from him there may be aught apply'd
Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage,
'Tis promis'd in the charity of age.

(BP, 2:671-74)

The first stanzas (“several stanzas”) of “The Leech-gatherer” had been written on 3 and 4 May, but in the shaping of the latter half of the poem, the encounter with the old man, Wordsworth perhaps received some confirmation from listening to Dorothy's reading on 5 May of Shakespeare's poem. The weeping maid in Shakespeare has a conventional trouble quite different from “the fears and fancies” that had come “thick” upon the poet in “The Leech-gatherer,” fears that were to come a second time as Wordsworth revised the poem after 14 June:

My former thoughts return'd, the fear that kills,
The hope that is unwilling to be fed,
Cold, pain, and labour, & all fleshly ills,
And mighty Poets in their misery dead;

In Wordsworth's poem it is the poet who takes the “freedom,” later “the stranger's privilege,” of “drawing” to the side of the old man: “And now such freedom as I could I took / And, drawing to his side, to him did say.” The old man, the “reverend man” in Shakespeare, “privileged by age,” was the one who “fastly drew” to the afflicted girl. It is the poet in the June-July “Leech-gatherer” who twice questions the old man, while in “A Complaint” it is the old man who asks twice and who listens to youth's story. The roles of speaking and listening are reversed, but then, Wordsworth had been metaphorically listening to old men as ministering angels since “Old Man Travelling” of 1797. “A Lover's Complaint” left Wordsworth “composed”: in its meter and in the broad sweep of its situation it must have been of interest to a poet struggling to write “The Leech-gatherer.” In both poems troubled youth meets beside water (there was no water, no pond in Dorothy's Journal account) an old man who simply has survived and who can perhaps impart “human strength.”

When Sara Hutchinson (and Mary) reacted with some reservations to the second half of the poem, apparently finding the old man's speech “tedious” (a great part of this version has been torn away in the only copy of it that exists),16 Wordsworth wrote to Sara defensively (14 June 1802). Nevertheless, he took note of the criticism and by 4 July—“Wm finished the Leechgatherer today”—much of the old man's direct account of his misfortunes has disappeared. Perhaps some of the “tedious” detail for this, “the godly books,” for example, had come from Dorothy's Journal account of 3 October 1800 (though Wordsworth in his first version had much detail that Dorothy does not have: he too had met the impressive leech gatherer that September day in 1800). In place of the old man's particular narrative detail Wordsworth now gave further emphasis to that “feeling of spirituality or supernaturalness” that was already connected with the old man's presence (see letter of 14 June 1802), the “peculiar grace / A leading from above, a something given.” The landscape shifts on revision into that of an ancient, almost timeless world: through the new sea-beast simile, that brings to mind distant geological time; through the stillness—the unmoving, enchanted cloud and the still old man; through the new language that seems to be from an earlier poetry—the word “espied,” the line “And still as I drew near with gentle pace,” the words “heareth,” “moveth,” “bespake,” the phrase “moorish flood.” “Moorish” is not a word that Wordsworth uses elsewhere; it recalls Spenser's “moorish fennes” in “Ruines of Time” (l. 140; BP, 2:566). The rhythms of “The Leech-gatherer” bring Spenser and Shakespeare to mind; and the poem already carried an echo of Wordsworth's own version of the medieval dream poem, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” Jared Curtis's comment on the lines from “The Leech-gatherer”

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness

usefully draws attention to Wordsworth's early version of stanza 35 of “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”:

For thereof comes discomfort & heart-sadness
Sickness and care & sorrows many and great
Untrust & jealousy, despite, debate
Depraving, shame, anger importunate
Pride envy mischief poverty & madness.

(PTV, 409)

Shakespeare's “Lover's Complaint” is itself almost a dream poem; its poet-narrator does not dream asleep as he hears the maid's story and hears the old man beg her to tell it, but he is similarly distanced: he is in “a sist'ring vale” and the story comes to him along an echo, as “down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale.” And Dorothy read “A Lover's Complaint” from Anderson, and near it in the same volume is Spenser's “Muiopotmos,” a poem from which Wordsworth had already borrowed, and next to that is Spenser's “Ruines of Time,” a poem again in the same rhyme royal and in the same mode as the “Complaint” and “The Leech-gatherer.” In the “Ruines” a narrator “chanced” to be beside a river, audience to a woman's lamentation on the other side. Her disappearance after the lament leaves the poet “long time in sencelesse sad affright.” He broods on her words—

My thought returned greeved home againe,
Renewing her complaint with passion strong

—and in a kind of trance he is offered images that chart sudden changes from states of bliss to states of sorrow, and then, he records,

Much was I troubled in my heavie spright,
At sight of these sad spectacles forepast,
That all my senses were bereaved quight,
And I in minde remained sore agast
I heard a voice, which loudly to me called,
That with the suddein shrill I was appalled.

The voice advises “a heart to God inclin'de” and the poem ends with visions of a heavenly nature. The affinities between the new “Resolution and Independence” and this poetry of an earlier time are pervasive rather than precise, but Wordsworth, after Dorothy's reading on 5 May, had “A Lover's Complaint” (surely reminding him of Spenser) fresh in mind. The poem left him immediately “composed,” and it is no surprise that when he shortly came to revise “The Leech-gatherer,” his poem moved in action, language, and rhythm toward Shakespeare (including Hamlet), Spenser, and the earlier dream poetry. The poet in “The Leech-gatherer” passes awake into a trancelike state:

The Old Man still stood talking by my side,
But soon his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard, nor word from word could I divide,
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent. …

A dream landscape fills the poet's imagination:

In my mind's eye I seem'd to see him pace
About the weary Moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently. …

In this discussion of “Beggars,” the Butterfly poems, “To the Cuckoo,” “My heart leaps up,” and “Resolution and Independence” I have tried to show how Dorothy's Journal can sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, point to the engendering of poetry.


Dorothy Wordsworth had an ease with her pen. There is an immediacy in her prose, whether it be in the single line or in the sustained anecdote. We come upon a sudden rising to perceptions and expressions that were clear and true for her and are a discovery of importance for us too. Again and again we see our world as well as hers with indisputable freshness. Such writing is not confined to the Grasmere Journals, and I shall try to show that the late mainly unpublished Journals of Dorothy's more stricken years are of a kind with the famous early writing. A kind of poetry is engendered.

This first example from a late Journal (12 February 1831) requires a little explanation for its context to be understood.

Snow drops in warm places hanging their bead like heads

So, on a February day in 1831, the snowdrops emerge from a “foggy morning” into an afternoon of “gleams of sunshine.” The day had been characteristic of Dorothy Wordsworth's days in these years after 1829 when bouts of illness narrowed activity to the valley, the garden, the room at Rydal Mount. It had been a day, according to the Journal, of news and visits: Sara Hutchinson had gone into Ambleside, Dorothy had been to Mrs. Luff's—a short walk down the hill and across the Rothay by Pelter Bridge; she had been visiting Mrs. Luff for thirty years, but now Captain Luff was long dead in Mauritius, and Mrs. Luff no longer had the house under “the storm-stiffened black Yew trees” that Dorothy had seen through “flying mists,” by the side of Ullswater in 1805. The Luffs' large white dog that had lain in moonshine under the old Yew Tree—“dark Tree with its dark shadow … elegant Creature as fair as a Spirit”—was now indeed no more than the “beautiful and romantic image” that Dorothy had called it in 1805. The only thing noted after this 1831 visit to Mrs. Luff is “no damage from flood”; flood was a fear at Mrs. Luff's present house, Fox Ghyll, the cottage at river level where De Quincey had from 1820-25 housed his children, while his books were in separate safety at Dove Cottage. “No damage from flood—& in our garden very small—Met by H. Cookson—comes home with me—.” H. Cookson was probably Hannah, daughter of Thomas Cookson of Kendal, a wool merchant who had stood banker to Wordsworth for £60 in 1804;17 Thomas had married an old schoolfriend of Sara Hutchinson, Elizabeth Mitford, and Sara was staying with the Cooksons in February 1805 when news reached Kendal of John Wordsworth's drowning. She immediately left to bring the sad tidings to Grasmere, and from that time the Cooksons of Kendal were sympathetic friends to the Wordsworths. They had latterly lost money, and two of the daughters, to help with “the burthen of a large family,” had come to “a very pretty Cottage at Ambleside” and established a day school “for the Gentry's children.”18 They have “raised themselves,” wrote Sara Hutchinson, “in the estimation of everyone.” Able now to walk frequently to Rydal Mount for tea, Hannah Cookson became a close friend: later in 1847 she was to give help to the whole family as Wordsworth's daughter Dora lay dying.19 “H. Cookson—comes home with me—S. arrives to Tea—& James after with news of good old Mrs Stricklands death—no Friends near her but Mr Gawthorpe, his housekeeper, & Nancy—Strange message to James—.” James Dixon, the Wordsworths' gardener, had brought the deathbed news.

Old Mrs. Strickland was ninety, or near it; she had been Hannah Gawthrop before marriage (so there was certainly one relative, Mr. Gawthorpe, attending her). Already an elderly widow when Dorothy first knew her as a friend of the Kendal Cooksons, she lived in Stricklandgate in Kendal and provided Dorothy with a fine viewing position during the electoral contest of 1818 between Lord Lowther and Brougham. Henry Brougham campaigned for Kendal on 23 March 1818, and Dorothy, a true Tory, stationed at Mrs. Strickland's windows, a bitter snow shower outside, listened and looked, and then, with a little help from Mrs. Strickland, quoted from and described Brougham's speech:

“They [the Lowthers] have great Riches, but how did they get their riches!”—Oh! he looked ready to lead a gang of Robespierrists set to pull down Lowther Castle and tear up the very trees that adorn it. He then—in illustration of what points I have really forgotten, bungled out a quotation from our “immortal Poet”—not, as he said “that Poet” (pointing towards the Ambleside road) you are not to suppose I mean him [Wordsworth] … No—the language intended to be uttered no doubt was Shakespeare's, but his memory here seemed to fail him; and as Mrs. Strickland said, “he put in some words of his own.”

(MY, 2:444)

After the report of Mrs. Strickland's death, Dorothy's entry for 12 February 1831 concluded, “Gleams of sunshine in afternoon & very pleasant—Snow drops in warm places hanging their bead like heads.”

This late Journal entry is a list of staccato points: fog—visit—Mrs. Luff's—flood—Tea—H. Cookson—Mrs. Strickland's death: some eighty words, and only two of them verbs. This has always been a possible style for the Journal:

Sunday Morning 14th. [September 1800] Made bread—a sore thumb from a cut—a lovely day—read Boswell in the house in the morning & after dinner under the bright yellow leaves of the orchard—the pear trees a bright yellow, the apple trees green still, a sweet lovely afternoon.

In 1831 the privacy is more opaque—lists of names, an unremitting allusiveness. Yet, amid all these words that now need annotation to bring them to life, there are—less frequently than before—but there still are those perceptions that open out, out of Dorothy's own time into ours or any other: “Snow drops in warm places hanging their bead like heads.” There they are; nothing is made of them; they are not even in a full sentence; no person is said to have seen them; yet, amid the visits and the tea, the damage and the death, “Snow drops in warm places” exist, and they are part of our experience too. “Hanging their bead like heads” is quite simply an accurate description of that brief stage before the flower opens, when the closed petals seem to form an opaque weight too heavy for the thread of stalk.

Thirty years before, such phrases that give us pause, and give us eyes to see our world as well as Dorothy's, were scattered over almost every entry. They approach the emblematic, yet without pretension or a reaching toward it; they lift events almost to vision:

Wednesday 9 June 1802: Wm slept ill. A soaking all-day Rain. We should have gone to Mr Simpson's to tea but we walked up after tea. Lloyds called. The hawthorns on the mountain sides like orchards in blossom. Brought Rhubarb down. It rained hard. Ambleside Fair. I wrote to Chrisr α MH.

Out of the rain and muddle of the day, we come suddenly clear of the house and into space and color, hawthorns on the mountainsides like orchards in blossom. There is space enough on mountainsides for not one orchard but several. Yet of course, orchards, with the exception of such small snug garden orchards as the Wordsworths' own close behind their house on a “little domestic slip of mountain” (EY, 274), are not commonly to be found on Lake District mountainsides. The flowering of mountains is a mingling of the sublime with the beautiful. Again, for orchards in blossom, as for snowdrops and their beadlike heads, there is short time allowed us to see them, and one of Dorothy Wordsworth's ways of catching at our feelings is her instinct to grasp at what is passing. Hawthorns in flower last as short a time as orchards in blossom. There is nothing new here, no extraordinary leap of imagination; there is just a sudden movement upwards, a fine sense, even a double sense—since orchards double hawthorns—of a very brief beauty. The permanent mountains, with their transient blossoming and no verb even to anchor them in syntax, provide imaginative release, while their context only adds to their power—the day's tasks and the unrelenting rain.

Dorothy notices such natural oppositions, but with the instinct of the true writer she rarely draws attention to the drama or to its tenuous resolution. “The near hills,” wrote Dorothy of that 1805 Ullswater landscape, “were in black shade, those on the opposite side were almost as bright as snow. Mrs. Luff's large white Dog lay in the moonshine upon the round knoll under the old Yew Tree—a beautiful and romantic image—the dark Tree with its dark shadow, and the elegant Creature as fair as a Spirit.”20 This is a picture held against time: moonlight is as unfixed as bright snow that will melt, the dog, almost insubstantial in moonshine, will move, and the telling enchantment of the living creature momentarily fixed into permanence with the hills and tree, will be broken.

The Ullswater Excursion was, like the Scottish Journal, read by family and friends. Wordsworth revised and included it in Select Views (1810—the basic text of the later Guide to the Lakes). Thus, the writing is more expansive than in many comparable passages of the Grasmere Journals. Here, for example, is the Grasmere entry for the day immediately following the recording of the hawthorn blossom:

I wrote to Mrs Clarkson & Luff—went with Ellen to Rydale. Coleridge came in with a sack-full of Books & c & a Branch of mountain ash he had been attacked by a Cow—he came over by Grisdale—a furious wind. Mr Simpson drank tea. William very poorly—we went to bed latish. I slept in sitting room.

(10 June 1802)

Again, in the middle of struggling activities is an emblematic yoking—Coleridge, a sack full of books, and a branch of mountain ash. This says everything: it gives us Coleridge. Four days later Dorothy wrote to Mary and Sara Hutchinson and described again Coleridge's arrival:

in the evening Coleridge came over Grisdale Hawes with a wallet of books—he had had a furious wind to struggle with, and had been attacked by a vicious cow, luckily without horns, so he was no worse—he had been ill the day before—but he looked and was well—strong he must have been for he brought a load over those Fells that I would not have carried to Ambleside for five shillings. Mr. Simpson was with us when he came in—it was about 7 o'clock, William had been tired with talking to Mr. S., who had drunk tea with us, and had slept miserably, so he looked ill, and was out of spirits, and C. was shocked by his appearance—.

(EY, 362)

Everything in this expanded letter version is explained, is set in context: Coleridge was no worse because the cow had no horns; Wordsworth was so tired through talking to Mr. Simpson. There are not these links in the Journal: Mr. S. drank tea. William very poorly. The statements stand side by side, unconnected. And although it is good to know that Dorothy would not have carried that load of books to Ambleside for five shillings, it is more exciting to connect Coleridge and his “sack-full of Books” (a sackful, more absurd, more unwieldy, than a wallet) with the wind and a branch of mountain ash, sign of hope and of delight in the natural world. This branch is quite omitted from the letter, but it is the combination of opposites—books and the branch—that declares the idiosyncratic man. Coleridge is in part Matthew with his bough of wilding, in part Pericles even, struggling with the elements, his rusty armor a sackful of books, and in his hand, as in Pericles', the branch green at the top.

One final example of Dorothy's Journal habit of letting things be without putting them into relation: “I working & reading Amelia. The Michaelmas daisy droops” (7 November 1800). The woman reading (not, “I read Amelia”) and the autumnal flower create separate pictures of present being; each is, without touching; they are equals, and as we jump the space between, we jump them into life. This entry is in two parts: Dorothy clearly wrote the Journal during the time given to “Amelia,” and the Michaelmas daisy is followed by what is now a less exciting succession of pansies, ash trees and brown copses, all in the present tense but without the unexpected neighboring of “I … reading Amelia. The Michaelmas daisy droops.” The concluding line is then drawn below the entry and at some later point, perhaps in two days, Dorothy squeezed between the end of the entry and the final line a recollection: “The poor woman & child from Whitehaven drank tea—nothing warm that day.” She then forgot that on Friday she had been reading “Amelia” and she began again: “Friday 7th. A very rainy morning—it cleared up in the afternoon. We expected the Lloyds but they did not come. William still unwell. A rainy night.” This is summary writing for that same day: no reading of “Amelia” now, and the Michaelmas daisy is not there.

It is a reminder that the Journal is not of a piece. It is not all the vivid catching of instant moments; it is also, among much else, an incomplete and often humdrum record:

W & S[toddart] did not rise till I o clock. W very sick & very ill. S & I drank tea at Lloyds & came home immediately after, a very fine moonlight night—The moonshine like herrings in the water.

(31 October 1800)

By this last phrase, of course, we are arrested; with no perceiver and no verb, the moonshine is outside time, playing continuously upon the water, like herrings in the water. Previous readers of the manuscript have interpreted the one word “moonshine,” since it drops into the centerfold of the notebook, as two words, “moon shone”; I cannot see this, and I feel that the verbless phrase is entirely characteristic of Dorothy.

Wordsworth's tribute is just: “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.” Always, Dorothy watches, and she listens, to silence, to birds, and to water and wind: “waterfowl calling out by the lake side” as Dorothy and Wordsworth walk back from Ambleside at midnight (17 December 1801), the thrush that has shouted all day long in the orchard (21 February 1802), and beneath this same “dear voice” the “chearful undersong” of robins (23 February 1802), the owl whose halloo was like a human shout (13 June 1802), the raven's “hoarse voice” above the lake and the mountains “as if from their center” answering, musical, bell-like (26 July 1800), the swallows that “twitter & make bustle.” It is indeed for these birds that Dorothy most strongly expresses anxiety at the prospect of Wordsworth's marriage. Three weeks before she and Wordsworth left Grasmere on the first stage of the journey toward Wordsworth's marriage with Mary she wrote in her Journal:

I wrote to Mary after dinner while Wm sate in the orchard … I read my letter to William, speaking to Mary about having a cat. I spoke of the little Birds keeping us company. …

(16 June 1802)

And there follows a long passage, first about a little bird flying onto Wordsworth's leg as he lay under an apple tree, and second about swallows “as if wishing to build.” The passage is laced with small revisions, all tending to emphasize the birds' vulnerability; words are crossed out and written over: should it be “having” a cat or “keeping” a cat; should “keeping” be used only to describe the birds' “keeping us company”; should the next bird to be mentioned be a “young” bird or a “little” bird; the “little creature” becomes then “a little young creature”; the “little” bird becomes simply a bird, not “strong” enough, then not “stout” enough, finally again not “strong” enough; the bird “unacquainted with man & na[ture]” becomes the bird “unacquainted with man & unaccustomed to struggle against storms and winds.” The swallows originally “hang against the panes of glass”; in revision they “twitter & make a bustle & a little chearful song hanging against the panes of glass.” The letter Dorothy wrote and read to Wordsworth is lost, but from these several Journal revisions we can tell that she was anxious, and we know that Mary did not like mice; with snow on the roads the previous December, she and Wordsworth had walked to Ambleside “to buy mouse traps” and indeed, recorded Dorothy, “Mary fell & hurt her wrist” in the endeavor. Mousetraps were not enough; by the following year, in November 1803, Dorothy had capitulated:

we have got a little cat … We are almost over-run with Rats so were forced to get a cat, and I should now think that the house could scarcely have been right without one, if it were not for the Birds in the orchard.

(EY, 421)

We know of Dorothy's childhood feeling for birds from the poem “The Sparrow's Nest.” We know of her joy in robins when she was sixteen at Forncett: “how tame they are,” they “hop about the room,” two having “gone to rest” in the room (EY, 23). In the last Journal of 1834 there is the same delight and fear:

A tolerable day. Mr Pearson sends a beautiful white cat—My tears fall for Robin who had just treated me with his best song & perched on my table while I scattered for it its food.

(3 December 1834)

This robin perhaps survived the beautiful cat, for in February 1835 a robin rescues a Journal entry from its quite banal beginning: “I seem to have little or nothing to record. The weather in general unusually mild.” Then Dorothy picks up, and with something like her old flare for noting the quality of sound she turns to the song of the robin as it succeeded the general absence of birdsong in the few days of keen frost: “my own companion Robin cheared my bed-room with its slender subdued piping.” “Slender subdued piping”: this is simply true; it is also, in a way that is characteristic of Dorothy Wordsworth, an almost submerged allusion to a writer she had known well in her youth, Cowper. Like Jane Austen's Fanny Price, the young Dorothy Wordsworth had absorbed attitudes, even, in her letters, expressions, that derived from Cowper. Here, the circumstance of silence followed by the robin's “slender subdued piping” must have surfaced from a memory of Cowper's lines:

No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
The redbreast warbles still, but is content
With slender notes, and more than half suppressed.

(The Task, 6.76-78)21

The sound of water. Dorothy could distinguish the different sounds of sykes—the little tumbling streams of the fells: “the sykes made a sweet sound everywhere … That little one above Mr Oliffs house was very impressive, a ghostly white serpent line—it made a sound most distinctly heard of itself” (22 February 1802). The valley could be “enlivened,” “populous” with streams (2 March 1802), and during that same spring, lying still and unseen by Wordsworth who was also lying by the wall of John's Grove, listening to April waterfalls, Dorothy distinguished “no one waterfall above another—it was a sound of waters in the air—the voice of the air” (29 April 1802). The populousness of water has become the voice of air; the elements are transfigured. The waterfalls have risen in stages to this apotheosis. The same thing happens to the water at the climax of that other April day in 1802, when Dorothy and Wordsworth came upon the wild daffodils by Ullswater.

Dorothy's first description of that walk is in a letter to Mary Hutchinson written as soon as they reached Grasmere the following evening. Mrs. Clarkson, wrote Dorothy, had soon parted from them and returned home, “for she durst not face the furious wind that blew against us. Indeed we could hardly stand it. If we had been going from home we certainly should have turned back, but we pushed on boldly. It sometimes almost took our breath away, we rested wherever we found a shelter, & reached Sty barrow Crag about sunset. A heavy rain came on” (EY, 350). The Journal account has so much more than the letter: it has boathouse and furze bush, plough and boat, cows and people and a climbing over a gate, hawthorns and birches and flower after flower, primroses, wood sorrel, anemone, starry yellow pilewort, and, added in an insertion, two more flowers—scentless violets and strawberries, and then, the wild daffodils. And the wind is more than a furious force in opposition; the flowers that “reeled & danced” seemed “as if they verily laughed with the wind”; the wind has become a partner in the dance. Dorothy added two clauses here, inserted additions to enforce the point that the wind was blowing over the lake to the daffodils, blowing directly to them. The power of this wind is registered not only by movement but by sound, by the various sounds of the waves: “we heard the waves at different distances & in the middle of the water like the Sea.” It is an immense power that dances with fragile flowers. None of this drama is in the letter.

Certainly Dorothy's eye and ear gave her the perceptions, and these come across the more vividly to us as they are described briefly. One of Dorothy's strengths was to write economically when it was required; and it was often required. Sometimes the Journal had to be written in odd corners of space that suddenly emerged. Wordsworth's late rising and daytime sleeps gave Dorothy several opportunities—but one could never know how long an opportunity might last. On Saturday, 19 June 1802, for instance, Wordsworth slept long: “I slept pretty well, but William has got no sleep. It is after 11 & he is still in bed—a fine morning—.” And then, the present moment apparently yielding no more, Dorothy launched into three distinct anecdotes: the one Coleridge had told her about the old Quaker woman who for years, when there was no longer a Keswick meeting, would regularly worship “alone, in that beautiful place among those fir-trees, in that spacious vale, under the great mountain Skiddaw”; the one about poor old Willy—“Hallo! as aught particular happened … Nay naught at aw nobbut auld Willy's dead,” dead apparently a pauper, having spent a little estate at Hawkshead and then been an ostler; then, immediately, the one about Miss Hudson, “O! I love flowers! I sow flowers in the Parks several miles from home & my mother & I visit them”—and the consequent temptation to excitement for botanists (such as Dorothy) as they come upon a rare out-of-place flower. The Journal was put down at this point, but had Wordsworth wakened sooner, there would no doubt have been one anecdote less. The entry for the rest of that Saturday was probably finished on Monday morning when “William was obliged to be in Bed late, he had slept so miserably.”

Sometimes, however, the stories of the poor people on the roads are set down with calm deliberation as Wordsworth's interest in them as possible subjects for poetry became clear; Dorothy's belated accounts of the beggar woman and her boys, and of the leech-gatherer have been discussed in the first section of this paper. She had begun to record local speech, often to great effect. Her portrait of the leech-gatherer, for example, ends with his own words that properly and naturally place his sufferings in the context of the sky and a dying light: “it was then ‘late in the evening—when the light was just going away.’”

Alongside Dorothy's pleasure in recording for Wordsworth was her genuine feeling for distress; this was always there. It meant that in 1808 she became the perfect recorder of the Green tragedy, and that, sporadically in her sporadic late Journal, long after Wordsworth needed stories for such poems as “Beggars,” “Repentance,” “Alice Fell,” “The Singing Bird,” “The Emigrant Mother,” the story of distress still appeared in the Journal. Here, as late as April 1834, is such a tale of pathos:

A sweet rich morning—I now sit with open window—Sarah Cookson below—My Flowers everlasting & very pretty. A poor Woman refused a lodging by Thomas Troughton on Tuesday night—slept with her Husband in Smelly hovel without straw or covering—next day proceeded & was delivered, by herself, of a dead Child on road near Quarry. The 2 Ws dining at Mr Hamiltons. I read Spectator & 2 sermons of Bp. H[orsley].

(2 April 1834)

But this is like an item of shocking news, the more shocking as at home, near the quarry. Dorothy had no direct contact with the destitute woman; there is no observed detail. In November 1801 she could give so much more: a woman on a night with snow upon the ground, traveling with a wounded husband, had been offered a bed at the Cock in Ambleside for 4d, had been sent to “one Harrison's where she & her husband had slept upon the hearth & bought a pennyworth of Chips for a fire,” and then Dorothy moves into direct speech, quoting the woman: “‘Aye’ says she ‘I was once an officers wife I, as you see me now.’” She had had £18 a year for teaching a school, but no fortune, and her husband's father “turned him out of doors.” In the West Indies the husband went to the war: “‘I had a Muslin gown on like yours—I seized hold of his coat as he went from me & slipped the joint of my finger—He was shot directly. I came to London & married this man. He was clerk to Judge Chambray, that man, that man thats going on the Road now.’” It is the price at the Cock, the pennyworth of shavings for a fire at Harrison's, the muslin gown like Dorothy's, the slipped finger joint as the wife tried to stop the husband from going, and that man on the road; these are part of the matter-of-fact base of the Journal.

The matter-of-fact starts up everywhere in Dorothy's writing: the windy birch tree, transcendent “like a flying sunshiny shower,” “like a Spirit of water,” exists alongside the honey that Peggy Ashburner sent Dorothy in return for a bit of goose in November 1801, and Peggy's sadness about the land they had been forced to sell is expressed in terms of cattle and sheep and of how she used to “gang out upon a hill & look ower t'fields & see them.” Peggy Ashburner's way of life nonetheless provides Dorothy with a realistic standard of endurable poverty. When Dorothy's cousin Tom Hutchinson was thinking of emigration to Van Diemen's land in 1821, “better,” wrote Dorothy, “live on oat-bread, milk & porridge by a fire-side like Peggy Ashburner's than go to such a banishment.”22

The Journal's stories of the poor display a different facet of Dorothy's narrative art from that revealed in the well-told, frequently sardonic stories in the letters. There is some intention in these last to entertain, for the early nineteenth-century letter writer was generally aware that the recipient had to pay the postage, and Dorothy, even she, modest of her own writing as she was, did not feel the need to demur, as she does to Catherine Clarkson in November 1803: “I am afraid this letter is hardly worth the postage, and yet I think that when we are so far from you the sight of our handwriting alone would be worth a shilling” (EY, 423). Where there are not fully told (and passionately told) anecdotes, like that say of the rivalrous lopping of the branches and chopping of the trees on Nab Scar by the workmen respectively of Mr. North and Lady Fleming (6 May 1809; MY, 1:338), there are everywhere scattered crumbs of the concrete world: often there are both. A long letter of item after item of news for Sara Hutchinson in February 1815, for example, has suddenly a comic extended story—that of Wordsworth, Mary, and little Willy paying a visit to old Mrs. Knott, with The Excursion in hand, and indeed making a sale of the unlikely volume to this inappropriate reader. And at the end of the same letter, the actual moment of Dorothy's writing to Sara springs into concrete life: “it is 11 o'clock. William has been reading the Fairy Queen—he has laid aside his book and Mary has set about putting [on] her nightcap” (MY, 2: 204). Dorothy could pass sharp judgments on her fellow creatures and these are memorable as they are concrete. In 1826 she was disappointed with the new husband of the beautiful Miss Horrocks. Miss Horrocks had been with the Wordsworths on their continental tour of 1820, had climbed with Dorothy and Mary up the steep hill to the Castle at Heidelberg, and people “had more than once exclaimed, ‘Quelle belle Femme.’” Now in 1826 Miss Horrocks was married to a Dr. St. Clair: “I thought of a Gentleman's Butler at a well-covered Side-board,” wrote Dorothy, dismissing him (LY, 427). There was always a potential for the caustic in Dorothy's writing and it can be glimpsed even in the last Journals, overwhelmed as they are with the illness and deaths of others and with her own imprisoning pain. She could be “starved to marble” on a cold night in the winter of 1835 when there was no going out, no meeting people outside, nothing visual beyond the garden and the landscape from the window, dependent on gossip that came to her. And she could still be sharply judgmental:

Old James Fleming is on his death-bed & Tommy Black is dead—Two days before I heard of his extreme sufferings from Mary Fisher. His wife has now no incombrance & doubtless will go on adding by hard labour to her little heap of Cash—her one prize—but perhaps a stop may soon be put to this as she may find it easy enough to get a young Husband to spend for her. The weather has been dry all the week.

(30 March 1835)

Yet sharp though this is, it demonstrates yet again that Dorothy's brilliance as a writer was always best when she stayed within the limits of her own eye and ear; she could not make up worlds, nor does her writing often leap outside the world she sees to an imaginative world of metaphor; nor can she too successfully take on the passions of others, even of Wordsworth, when her own experience was not involved. Sitting at old Mrs. Strickland's window in March 1818, Dorothy had watched the entry of Henry Brougham, the Whig candidate, into Kendal. In the letter (already quoted) she wrote a description of it; indeed, Wordsworth sent a copy to Lord Lonsdale. Dorothy describes Brougham as looking “ready to lead a gang of Robespierrists set to pull down Lowther Castle,” and as having “nothing of a Westmoreland countenance. I could have fancied him one of the French Demagogues of the Tribunal of Terror at certain times, when he gathered a particular fierceness into his face. He is very like a Frenchman” (MY, 2:443). This fancying and fearing a revival of revolutionary violence is more Wordsworth's than Dorothy's; she has enough jeering sharpness to write propaganda copy, but this is far from being her natural home. Her experience had been too different from Wordsworth's; while he, in October 1792, was in Paris after the September Massacres and striving to retain his radical hopes, the young Dorothy was meeting the king of England and his family at Windsor, and loving them: “I own I am too much of an aristocrate or what you please to call me, not to reverence him because he is a Monarch more than I should were he a private Gentleman”; she spoke of “the new-fangled Doctrine of Liberty and Equality” (EY, 83). Wordsworth had had to suffer his change of political heart; Dorothy had never had such hope or such disillusion; politics altogether sat lightly upon her. A single image will demonstrate why we perhaps feel uncomfortable in 1818 when Dorothy moves out of her own experience to wear Wordsworth's political hat. In March 1802 Dorothy had written in her Journal:

When William was at Keswick I saw Jane Ashburner driving the Cow along the high road from the well where she had been watering it she had a stick in her hand & came tripping along in the Jig step, as if she were dancing—Her presence was bold & graceful, her cheeks flushed with health & her countenance was free & gay.

(12 March 1802)

Dorothy must have liked her picture of Jane Ashburner and the cow because the first long sentence here has been carefully improved by a deletion and insertions: the phrase “along the high road” has been added, and the original “watering it with a stick in her hand tripping along in the Jig step” has had two verbs inserted. And if, as is likely, Dorothy told Wordsworth of this, or if he read her account, he must have been reminded of how different it had been in France ten years before when he and his friend Beaupuis had chanced

One day to meet a hunger-bitten Girl,
Who crept along, fitting her languid self
Unto a Heifer's motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the Girl with her two hands
Was busy knitting, in a heartless mood
Of solitude, and at the sight my Friend
In agitation said, “Tis against that
Which we are fighting”. …

(Prelude [1805], 9.512-20)

Jane Ashburner's happiness and her health (from her diet of oatbread, milk and porridge?) would only spur Wordsworth's indignation as he came to write about the appalling poverty in France. The contrast measures also the gap between Wordsworth's and Dorothy's experience of dire poverty and it indicates the effort she had to make to write with overt political intention.

The Journal does not exert political pressure. It is not directed toward moving any reader to public action; Wordsworth was the only reader envisaged, and his sympathies were known. Yet the people who came to the door of the cottage at Town End are affecting because we can tell that they affected Dorothy; she gave to them, and she wrote about them so carefully. There is a long entry for instance for 12 February 1802; the first part of this records old Molly's joy at little Sally Ashburner's joy at going to visit at Mr. Simpson's in a new bed-gown, a very bonny one, “Sally & me's in Luck.” This was written during the bright clear hard frost of that morning. The second part, written probably the following day, with Wordsworth, “still at work at the Pedlar, altering & refitting,” was given a good deal of space and time. Molly and Sally, admittedly, were poor enough people, but they had homes and a recognized and respected place in their society; Dorothy writes, on the heels of their happiness, an account of a poor woman who came “she said to beg some rags for her husbands leg which had been wounded by a slate from the Roof in the great wind.” Dorothy had met this woman before—“she has often come here”; her complexion had been beautiful “but now she looks broken, & her little Boy, a pretty little fellow, & whom I have loved for the sake of Basil, looks thin & pale.” So, Dorothy's memory—and ours—goes back to little Basil Montagu, a lucky child much cared for and loved at Racedown. “Aye says [the woman] we have all been ill. Our house was unroofed in the storm recently.” Dorothy then, on that February morning, evokes the summer of eighteen months before when she had seen the child “walking lazily in the deep narrow lane, overshadowed with the hedge-rows … going ‘a laiting’.” She had indeed in mid-June 1800 noticed him, a “pretty little Boy,” walking in a valley “all perfumed with the Gale & wild thyme, … the woods … veined with rich yellow Broom … a primrose in blossom.” That the contrast affected Dorothy is clear from her lingering on it, making four tiny changes of expression (of the order of “hanging over his shoulder” to “hung over his shoulder,” and returning to insert the sentence about the child's still wearing the same coat, now, “a ragged drab coat”). Dorothy then comments, “I could not help thinking that we are not half thankful enough that we are placed in that condition of life in which we are.” She records the present weather, so different from the summer that has been recalled: “The snow still lies upon the ground,” and then, in the same Journal entry, comes a final image of struggle and poverty, a family passing the door “just at the closing in of the Day”:

I heard a cart pass the door, & at the same time the dismal sound of a crying Infant. I went to the window & had light enough to see that a man was driving a cart which seemed not to be very full, & that a woman with an infant in her arms was following close behind & a dog close to her. It was a wild & melancholy sight.

It made Dorothy return and insert another sentence about the woman who had begged earlier; she squeezed between the lines the words, “This woman's was but a common case.” The power of the entry as a whole lies in Dorothy's relation with and movement into deepening poverty. It is not a movement toward action but into an intensifying of sympathy. She moves from happy neighborly and domestic involvement with cheerful Molly's “Luck” and little Sally's excitement at the bonny dress and visiting, to talking with the woman with the child and wounded husband, to her remembrance of them in easier summer days, her sense of their worsening plight, and finally, in growing darkness and snow, to her own silent standing and looking through a window as a man pushing a cart, a woman, a crying child and a dog pass by into the night. Dorothy returns to her own world: candles were lighted, “William rubbed his Table,” before wearing himself and Dorothy out with labor at “The Pedlar.” Wordsworth had, on occasion, dug a little, cleaned out the well, cleared a path to the necessary, added a step to the orchard steps, gone to work in the garden with the dung, cut down the winter cherry, cut wood a little, helped plant the bower, nailed up the trees, raked a few stones off the garden, but this is his only activity within the house that Dorothy records: the polishing of his writing table. It was not until 1811 that Wordsworth acquired a writing desk, “what I most wanted,” he wrote to Sara Hutchinson (MY, 1: 510), who gave him the desk. Meanwhile, in February 1802, a day of no walking but of work and labor at “The Pedlar,” he rubbed his table. This perhaps held the place for Wordsworth of that “one oaken cupboard” in poor Sarah Green's scantily furnished house, a cupboard “so bright with rubbing,” wrote Dorothy in her narrative, “that it was plain it had been prized as an ornament and a Treasure.”23 The Wordsworths sat a long time with the windows unclosed that February evening, keeping in their candlelit room an awareness of the dark. They had, said Dorothy, “an affecting conversation.” We must suppose that the affecting conversation was connected with the approaching change—Wordsworth's marriage, but for us, readers of the private Journal, the affecting conversation comes also as a natural sequence in the play of feeling of the entire day—its poor people, their lights and growing darknesses, and Dorothy's care for such human unsuccess so absolutely demonstrated in her care to record it.

There is no conclusion to a Journal. Of its nature, it is not concluded. It has no single style of writing. After the last full entry of the Grasmere Journal, the one for 16 January 1803, the word Monda[y] is begun, but the last letter is omitted and there is a drawing in ink of a chair, some two inches in height, badly drawn so that it appears to be standing on one leg. The chair is thoroughly inconsequent, as is that picture of Wordsworth polishing his table in candlelight, his mind full of “The Pedlar,” Dorothy laboring with him to write out the poem and aware of those unfortunates of the day who had passed by. There is no higher praise for the Journal in its several styles than that it is, in Dorothy's own word, “affecting,” that it can affect us as poetry does.


  1. Quotations from Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals are from the manuscripts and are identified in the text by date of entry. To consult the complete Grasmere text, see my annotated edition of Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). I am grateful to my fellow trustees of the Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, for permission to quote from these manuscripts.

  2. For the text of “Beggars” and the variants see Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 1800-1807, by William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 113-16; hereafter PTV, with page numbers cited in the text.

  3. The Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson with the Wordsworth Circle, ed. Edith J. Morley, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 1:53.

  4. The Works of the British Poets, ed. Robert Anderson, 13 vols. (London, 1797), 2:575; hereafter BP, with volume and page numbers cited in the text.

  5. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, 14 vols. (Edinburgh: Black, 1889-90), 3:27.

  6. The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alistair Fowler (Harlow: Longman, 1968).

  7. See The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-49), 4:217-28.

  8. The Letters of John Wordsworth, ed. Carl H. Ketcham (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 123.

  9. Anderson, British Poets, 11:1027-34.

  10. Bruce, like Logan, could have fitted into the company of the “Leech-gatherer” poets. In later life, again discussing Burns and Chatterton and the value of raising monuments to them in their native places, Wordsworth wrote: “I should also be glad to see a monument erected on the banks of Lochleven to the memory of the innocent, and tender-hearted Michael Bruce, who, after a short life spent in poverty and obscurity, was called away too early to leave behind him more than a few trustworthy promises of pure affection and unvitiated imagination” (21 April 1819); in The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d ed., The Middle Years, Part 2: 1812-1820, rev. Mary Moorman and Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 535; hereafter MY 2, with page numbers cited in the text.

  11. Anderson, British Poets, 11:1035.

  12. The first 1802 version was:

    While I am lying on the grass,
    I hear thy restless shout
    From hill to hill it seems to pass,
    About, and all about!

    (ll. 5-8)

    For the text see PTV, 213-14. The “restless shout” by 1814 had achieved its characteristic dual effect:

    From hill to hill it seems to pass
    At once far off and near. …

    (ll. 7-8)

    These lines were kept in Poems (1815), but the “restless shout” of line 6 had become “Thy loud noise smites my ear.” By 1820 the “hill to hill” of line 7 had gone, to be replaced by “It seems to fill the whole air's space.” In 1827 Wordsworth came close to the final version:

    While I am lying on the grass
    Thy twofold shout I hear,
    That seems to fill the whole air's space
    As loud far off as near.

    Finally, in 1845, the twofold shout of the bird with its curious deceptiveness of distance is restored to the landscape of hills. As his own cuckoo was a presence for Wordsworth into late life, so was that other cuckoo of The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. That too made progress toward a reality. The text in Anderson that Wordsworth used in 1801, assuming, as everyone did, that the poem was Chaucer's, was in any case corrupt, and when Wordsworth, urged by Thomas Powell, came to prepare his version of the poem in 1839-40 for R. H. Horne's Chaucer Modernised (1841), he took the precaution, possibly when he was in Oxford for his honorary degree in 1839, to check the text “from a manuscript in the Bodleian.” He discovered differences from Anderson: two verses indeed, “which are necessary to complete the sense,” added Wordsworth in a footnote (Poetical Works, 4: 224-25). In Anderson the nightingale, the constant servant of love, finally weeps and longs for vengeance on the churlish cuckoo who, contemptuous of love and lovers alike, simply (and unaccountably) flies away. This was Wordsworth's version in 1801, true to Anderson:

    Methought that he did then start up anon,
    And glad was I, in truth, that he was gone,
    And ever as the Cuckoo flew away
    He cried out farewell, farewell Popinjay
    As though he had been scorning me alone.

    By 1841 the dreamer, an old man who clearly cannot bear any mockery of his lifelong devotion to love, behaves in a thoroughly realistic, though disturbingly violent way, toward the cuckoo. This bird is now reminiscent of Wordsworth's bird in To the Cuckoo hunted by a schoolboy who searched and looked “a thousand ways / In bush, and tree, and sky.” Wordsworth's corrected version of the medieval was now:

    And so methought I started up anon,
    And to the brook I ran and got a stone,
    Which at the Cuckoo hardily I cast,
    And he for dread did fly away full fast;
    And glad, in sooth, was I when he was gone.
    And as he flew, the Cuckoo, ever and aye,
    Kept crying, “Farewell!—farewell, Popinjay!”
    As if in scornful mockery of me;
    And on I hunted him from tree to tree,
    Till he was far, all out of sight, away.
  13. The Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell (London, 1840), 1-2.

  14. Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers, ed. Edith J. Morley, 3 vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1:85, 90.

  15. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d ed., The Middle Years, Part 1: 1806-1811, rev. Mary Moorman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 467; hereafter MY 1, with page numbers cited in the text.

  16. See Jared R. Curtis, Wordsworth's Experiments with Tradition: The Lyric Poems of 1802 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), 97-113 and 187-95.

  17. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d ed., The Early Years, 1787-1805, rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 538; hereafter EY, with page numbers cited in the text.

  18. The Letters of Sara Hutchinson, ed. Kathleen Coburn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954), 372.

  19. The Cookson daughters, incidentally, and their mother, from the early 1840s, lived in Grasmere, in their new house, How Foot, the house that will become, it is hoped, the future Wordsworth Library.

  20. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 2:371.

  21. The Poetical Works of William Cowper, ed. T. S. Grimshawe (London, 1845), 264.

  22. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d ed., The Later Years, Part 1: 1821-1828, rev. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 50; hereafter LY, with page numbers cited in text.

  23. Dorothy Wordsworth, George & Sarah Green: A Narrative, ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), 55.

Katherine T. Meiners (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Meiners, Katherine T. “Reading Pain and the Feminine Body in Romantic Writing: The Examples of Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge.” The Centennial Review 37, no. 3 (fall 1993): 487-512.

[In the following essay, Meiners considers the role of the experience of suffering in the creation of meaning and selfhood for Romantic writers, including Dorothy Wordsworth.]


Romantic Encounters with illness and pain precipitate crises of intelligibility, moments when intense pain makes a sufferer unintelligible to others as much as to herself. The nineteenth-century witnesses an increased tendency to professionalize such suffering and turn pain into an event to be objectified and co-opted by other intelligibilities, including those of poetry and medicine. This essay will address Romantic understanding as a complex cultural practice greater than the making of literature which is inclined to seek its remedies for human suffering outside the medical disciplines as much as within them.

The experience of suffering pain routinely enters and engages the attention of the Romantic family, and familiar Romantic poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Tintern Abbey” may be seen as therapeutic exercises which invoke the Romantic family as the irreducible foundation of human experience and feeling.1 When considering the claims of women writers to the operations of the intellect, or their defining presence in the experience of pain during this historical period, the privileged locus of feminine agency is also the family. Although perceptions of suffering vary greatly in the writing of men and women, these variances cannot be easily described as differences in gender-based protests of discomfort. And while these variances readily lend themselves to gender-based descriptions, one must be cautious about rigid distinctions. To entirely sexualize suffering is to presume that the languages of pain are both available and easy to pronounce, for men and women alike, or even that one gender might possibly articulate its pains “better” than the other. To say so would also presume a kind of predictability about pain and its sources, expressions, and remedies that rarely exists.

This is not to say, however, that perceptions of suffering in the Romantic community defy scrutiny, that pain is “genderless,” or that pain is too personal an experience for distanced observers to understand.2 But one cannot say, simply and conventionally, that for writers like Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge suffering is a form of empowerment, indissolubly joined to literary study.3 Pain seldom empowers its sufferers. Rather, pain must be considered insofar as it is deemed transferable in the observer's eyes. In the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a sufferer's pain routinely transforms the sympathetic speaker's identity; pain in masculine writing is easily transferred from sufferer to sympathizer. The work of Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, almost inevitably enrolled within the genre of “women's writing,” explores somewhat different relations to pain in the domestic sphere. When their writing takes a sufferer's pain as its focus, that pain is rarely the occasion for a sympathizer's transformation; pain is not easily co-opted by an observer's compulsive search for intelligibility.

Certainly each of these women in fact suffered greatly in her life: Dorothy from bouts with migraines, toothaches, and eventually arteriosclerosis, and Sara with digestive troubles, depression, and the breast cancer which killed her. Such suffering in the domestic sphere must also be understood as both habitual and indeterminate, “indefinite” as Sara calls it, full of illegible meaning, and tied inevitably to issues of blame. But it is not, as is so often presumed, the sufferer's mind which is indeterminate, but the very nature of suffering itself. From an early age, Sara's primary work was the editing of her father's texts; one might argue that underlying this massive project is a secondary one no less daunting: the attempt to “translate [suffering] into an intelligible language” and the insistence that sufferers make pain's “very indefiniteness an object of contemplation” (Memoir and Letters 172 [1839]).

Dorothy and Sara respond to pain, its locale in domesticity, and its recalcitrance to the explanatory power of other knowledges. The indeterminacy of pain in what Dorothy calls domesticity's “inhabited solitudes” (Journals 1: 214), for instance, never becomes fully intelligible in someone else's identity or professional discourse because suffering always retains the unintelligibility of its source. This very unintelligibility, however, may become transformative when the sufferer consciously meditates upon the indefiniteness of her own experience. Thus for Dorothy and Sara, as indeed for anyone, any engagement with the shadowy province of suffering, and its irreducible pains, must lead primarily to a knowledge of the untranscendable differences between the sufferer and all others.


Dorothy Wordsworth's belated status as a nineteenth-century woman writer essential to her brother's production, a representative suppressed significant Other, and a crucial participant in the Romantic community, is closely allied with late, gender-specific perspectives on pain. She is a self-effacing sister devoted to the needs of her famous brother and domesticity at Dove Cottage, but in letters and journals she capably pushes William's overweening ambition to the peripheries of her narratives. Many critics praise her actualization of feminine experience and its displacement of masculine ambition, yet fail to reckon the precise cost to Dorothy. In more utopian versions of the Romantic family—Pantisocracy on the Susquehanna or Dorothy's early visions of Grasmere—women are equally present and responsible. Her later writing shows the incompleteness of the Grasmere community as she originally conceived it, lacking the regular society of women, specifically her childhood friend Jane Pollard.4 She always seeks to meet women in her travels and in her later poetry mourns the absence of their company.

The Grasmere Journals tell of women's loneliness at the heart of the family; indeed, perhaps no Romantic text better illustrates “crises of intelligibility,” through its narrative of recurring pain, equally compounded of Dorothy's own loneliness at the center of this community of consciousness and her attendant frustrations, her observations of the interplay of ambition, failure, and real suffering in the experience of her bother and Coleridge, and her extraordinary empathy with the lives of others in society. Of course, no man or woman is immune to the pains of loneliness, but the Romantic masculine remedies are usually more reading, writing, walking, and the fellowship of the road. One can take one's loneliness on walking tours. Dorothy walks too, but rarely alone. Her loneliness might be seen as akin to that Coleridge claimed for himself; perhaps Dorothy's sympathetic recognition explains her strong affection and frequent anxiety for him. But Dorothy's loneliness is domesticated, a fact which Coleridge could not imagine; not even the meditation of “Frost at Midnight” envisions such domesticity.5 She is at the center of a society she both constitutes and from which she is increasingly excluded: descriptions of her old age are savage images of the decay of any putative feminine claims to genius. Old men decline admirably in body and mind, but there is no “Resolution and Independence” to memorialize the virtuous duration of feminine senescence.6

The Grasmere Journals are embedded chronicles of the Romantic community in which women's writing is inseparable from the material conditions of work and pain. While masculine pain often seems to be a requisite component of the Romantic work process, feminine pain is viewed as inhibiting, as a permanent check on women's production. Pain in women is not part of the intellectual process but a sign of its breakdown. But Dorothy's own work tells another tale; the Journals may be seen as part of an ongoing text about women, domesticity, and pain—a representative symbolic discourse repeatedly recalled in her later experience. Instances of suffering are not consciously made exemplary; instead, women in their loneliness and pain are fleeting, spare narratives of indeterminacy and the persistence of suffering in routine domesticity. These instances emerge as striking counterparts to her often-cited narratives of clarity, relation, and affection; they bring into relief as well the frequency with which all inhabitants of Dove Cottage retire quietly and separately to carry their pain to their own rooms, mourning for the agony of themselves and others.

It is usually in narratives about women that Dorothy is at her best. These narratives are plentiful, focused, concerned with the nature of employment and domesticity, troubling in their measure of passion subsumed by labor. For her, as for William Cobbett, the condition of women mirrors the condition of the land they work, but Cobbett never notices women as consistently or as efficiently as Dorothy does. Her journals are certainly records of what she does and sees at Grasmere, but they are also intense chronicles of the material conditions of women in the early nineteenth century: their manners, dress, speech, labor, and pains. Within the situationally-modified meanings of all experience at Grasmere, work and pain are unadorned, minimally explained, even as Dorothy insists on observing and qualifying their conditions. She shares much with the traveler she sees at a pub one evening, noting his “mysterious manner of letting out a little bit of his errand, and yet telling nothing” (1: 98).

Much recent feminist theory argues that Dorothy's habitual self-effacement is characteristic of nineteenth-century women writers7 and this argument may be true, but only to the extent that it points toward her essential way of being in the world and in language. Her encounter one “heavenly morning” with “The Cockermouth traveller” is typical of her observations: this woman “is very healthy; has travelled over the mountains these thirty years. She does not mind the storms, if she can keep her goods dry. Her husband will not travel with an ass, because it is the tramper's badge; she would have one to relieve her from the weary load” (1: 65). As usual, the account is brief. Dorothy's approach may be described as “literal,” but in a more complicated way than is ordinarily credited. Her language is partially mimetic and deeply rooted in the material conditions of labor: the woman Dorothy observes is mute, her desire for relief from “the weary load” transmuted into Dorothy's intuition and words. Her language bears pain as silently as the one who performs tasks that her husband disdains.

Dorothy's attraction to the poverty-stricken and infirm can bring a sense of kinship transcending wealth or health. She drops in on funerals uninvited. She shares William's passion for graveyards, which they often visit while walking, though the sentiments she takes from the experience are frequently at odds with those of the “Essay on Epitaphs,” with its effacement of the personal and preference for the nobility of general sentiment. Dorothy always personalizes such occasions and constructs narratives for the event, especially as they exemplify the difficult solitude of women's lives: “There was another stone erected to the memory of an unfortunate woman (as we supposed, by a stranger). The verses engraved upon it expressed that she had been neglected by her relations, and counselled the readers of those words to look within, and recollect their own frailties” (1: 176-77). This process of recollecting frailty is a habit with Dorothy, as when she remarks of a nameless suicide in Grasmere: “Poor body, she has been little thought of by anybody else” (1: 109-10). Unlike similar occasions in her brother's poems, Dorothy's stories of frailty and suffering are not designed to comfort a reader. She is herself susceptible to imaginative sympathies with others who are sick or dying, and these thoughts do not necessarily bring the transcendent calm so characteristic of Romantic rhetorical closure. The bodies of the Cockermouth traveler, the woman whose funeral Dorothy attends, and the suicide occupy analogous positions to Dorothy's body in the Journals. Thinking still of the suicide, she meditates on her own, ultimately wordless, suffering: “I attempted a fable, but my head ached; my bones were sore with the cold of the day before, and I was downright stupid” (1: 110). While recollection brings another's sufferings into focus, it also initiates aphasia and atrophy; the body's confines are absolute, and words end as abruptly as do the attempts to comprehend the magnitude of suffering.

In recounting the suffering of others, Dorothy does not merely express sympathy or locate analogous pains in women. She may seem wilfully cryptic in these encounters, silent where William would be expansive, but she explains things perfectly: it is not that there is nothing to say, but that another's suffering never becomes fully intelligible somewhere else, in someone else's words. In the Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, the persistent occasions of loneliness and pain of the Grasmere Journals become even more dominant. In Dorothy's planned journey she regularly stops to forge “bonds of connexion” with other, often elderly, women. She finds Scotland to be a land of “inhabited solitudes … [where] the employments of the people are so immediately connected with the places where you find them”; experience is routinely “dismal or insipid” (1: 214). Dorothy's judgment of “employment” and “place” is often more poignant than William's: the ambiguities of Scotland and the general “unworldliness of nature” (1: 286) conspire to be very dirty business indeed, and the communion with landscapes often means far different things to those who must make a living in them as opposed to those who would compose about them. Here, pain that seems almost unpronounceable is persistently owned or occupied: domesticated, if you will.

While out walking one day, Dorothy and William become transfixed by the sight of an inert, stone-like woman sitting on a hill. Dorothy writes at length about her, finding her unforgettable because “there was so much obscurity and uncertainty about her” and she embodied not only the “desolation” and anguish of the land itself, but the transcendent qualities of the human condition in “dreary solitariness” (1: 213). In another encounter, Dorothy finds herself in a landscape that recalls her own “childhood after the long day's playing of a summer's holiday”; she is especially drawn to “a feeble paralytic old woman” who tells of her long life and marriage to an English soldier (1: 377-78). She has “travelled far in [her] time,” returning lately to “her native place” where she labors at digging peat. The physical condition of the old woman and her labor are interchangeable, synonymous terms in this particular text, terms which are strikingly prescient of those that will drive Dorothy's own later writing:

While this infirm old woman was relating her story in a tremulous voice, I could not but think of the changes of things, and the days of her youth, when the shrill fife, sounding from the walls of the Garrison, made a merry noise through the echoing hills.

(1: 378)

Dorothy's final comment is extraordinary: “I asked myself, if she were to be carried again to the deserted spot after her course of life, no doubt a troublesome one, would the silence appear to her the silence of desolation or of peace?” (1: 378). For Dorothy, there is no agenda of moral transformation, and she draws no overt moral conclusions from another's life. In this exemplary situation, in which bodily condition and means of material existence are nearly indistinguishable, it is uncertain whether such synonymity will bring misery or serenity. Scotland is redolent with the ambiguities of human and geographic history; its irreducibly material and painful contingencies of routine experience prompt Dorothy to ask questions which, characteristically, she does not answer. She refuses to resolve the subjective experience of suffering into a pedagogical narrative of pain, but ends the story with the sufferer's mute, unfinished ordeal. It is as if suffering resists inscription in texts. The silence of suffering is never the mere silence a witness observes, but a space where another person's language remains and narratives begin. So many passions here, as in Grasmere, are silent, checked by work, pressed into quiescence by the routine of day-to-day labor and pain.

Encounters with feminine desolation and suffering become, by the time Dorothy writes the later poetry, a long-deliberated nexus of reflection, memorial, and personal history. It is only because the material conditions of her present labor and the accrual of pain's meanings over the past are so carefully and unassumingly invoked (similar to the way such matters concerning the Cockermouth traveler are transmitted through Dorothy's journal entry) that the personal history embodied in the later poetry presents itself to many readers as rhymed commonplaces, a largely rhetorical whining over illness and opportunities lost. However, the poetry written during her “insanity” should not be read as a macabre, unhappy portrait of late dementia, but as an essential part of her relationship to the earlier Grasmere experience. Themes of solitude and pain have been internalized and personally attuned to explore the ever-changing relationship between recollection and confinement. The journeying mind and the static frame it occupies establish the perspective in the last stanzas of “Thoughts on my sick-bed” (1832):

No prisoner in this lonely room,
I saw the green Banks of the Wye,
Recalling thy prophetic words,
Bard, Brother, Friend from infancy!
No need of motion, or of strength,
Or even the breathing air:
—I thought of Nature's loveliest scenes;
And with Memory I was there.


Dorothy might just as well be the motionless woman she observed in 1803 on the hill in Scotland. In a utopian construction she ought to be revitalized by healing thoughts of William, but here they function as pastiche and grim parody. Thoughts of “Nature's loveliest scenes” seem to be recollections not of immortality, but ideal memory wafting through catatonia, occasionally enlivening the mind of one paralytically (not transcendentally) “laid asleep.” Memory only marginally displaces thoughts of imprisonment, and the structures of this “lonely room” prevent the full enactment of “healing thoughts.” In similar fashion, “Lines to Dora H.” (1835) features “faithful recollections dear” which enter a room transformed through Dorothy's frailty into “a prison” that governs her recollections, making them ironic. The repeated negatives of the succeeding lines only reassert the case:

My failing strength my tottering limbs
Into a prison change this room
Though it is not a cheerless spot
A cell of sorrow or of gloom
No damp cold walls enclose it round
No heavy hinges grating sound
Disturb the silence & the calm


This relationship between imprisonment and memory is intimated in the Grasmere Journals, but not with the confrontational force of the later poetry. Wistful strains of nostalgia—for Grasmere, for William, for mobility, for health—are often expressed as desires for the recuperation which meditations on a certain version of the past can enact; but while an evoked past can bring momentary calm, it cannot restore youth and health. Grasmere is the center of Dorothy's nostalgic vision: an essentially ambiguous but nevertheless decisive experience with complications extending into the present. In “Grasmere—A Fragment” (1829), she recalls her first excursion to Grasmere in which, shortly after arriving, she left William behind and went exploring by herself:

—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 fulfill'd
Wishes matured by thoughtful choice,
I stood an Inmate of this vale
How could I but rejoice?


Grasmere now seems less like the dreams and “castle-building” she wrote about to Jane Pollard as a young girl, and more the momentous “choice” heavy with then unseen consequence. The transition from the earlier “Stranger” (49) to “Inmate of this vale” (87) is an ambivalent one, with its almost Coleridgean morosity evocative of similar language in “Frost at Midnight” and “This Lime-tree Bower, My Prison.” The passage from one subject position to another is discomforting, and any independence from the former version encloses Dorothy more in the latter. The command to “Rejoice!” conflates Natural vision and William's authoritative poetic voice, and youthful desire shadows and diminishes mature possibilities.

Dorothy's relationship to Grasmere is thus redefined as simultaneously the cause of and cure for the pain that is central to the definition of a poetry which requires nostalgia as a vehicle. Grasmere is reappropriated for her use, but whereas before she occupied it jointly with William, it is now quite her own—narrowed and diminished, perhaps, but an essential late critique of the earlier shared narrative. She has increasingly foregrounded what she names in “Thoughts on my sick-bed” “the hidden life / Couchant within this feeble frame” (5-6). This “hidden” self is drawn inexorably through the sediments of memory and self-obloquy, often addressed to younger women and inhabiting a language of poetry which almost parodies the “real language” of the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads. In the earlier “Irregular Verses” (1829), Dorothy writes to Jane Pollard's daughter, Julia Marshall, of her decision to keep poetic aspirations “hidden” from the gaze of the Grasmere community:

          You ask why in that jocund time
Why did I not in jingling rhyme
Display those pleasant guileless dreams
That furnished still exhaustless themes?
—I reverenced the Poet's skill,
And might have nursed a mounting Will
To imitate the tender Lays
Of them who sang in Nature's praise;
But bashfulness, a struggling shame
A fear that elder heads might blame
—Or something worse—a lurking pride
Whispering my playmates would deride
Stifled ambition, checked the aim
If e'er by chance “the numbers came.”


Physical travel and the possibilities for imparting the “still exhaustless themes” grow every year more impossible but she continues to direct her thoughts through old journeys, to replay and revaluate them in memory and verse. The long familiar desire to write and seek the company of women everywhere permeates her thoughts in isolation; but the sphere of this desire has literally shrunk.

Domestic work has necessarily assumed the form of written ministry to other women as much as to herself. For Dorothy, the convictions of conventional sympathy inadequately interpret a deep ambiguity she perceives in the human condition. Her personal experience has led to the knowledge that this ambiguity is constituted by a condition in which illness and pain, though deeply modified by routine, are never in themselves routine. Phrases of conventional Christianity often accompany revery and pain in Dorothy's later writing, but they function quite differently from inert pieties. While Dorothy never unequivocally refutes the expressions of Christian solace, she casts them into doubt by placing her own situation into a relation of incommensurability with the Romantic paradigms of restorative nature and self-improving valetudinarianism. In “Lines intended for Edith Southey's Album” (1832), the relationship between the sufferer and God is traditional: “Sickness and sorrow, grief and pain” attune the properly “humbled soul” to God, “For Mercy wounds with pitying love, / That can all wayward thoughts control” (33-36). Pain is the means to lucidity:

“'Tis God that maketh soft the heart,
The Almighty that doth trouble me”,
Loosening my bon'dage to this earth
By pain, by joy—an awful mystery!
And when with agony worn down,
So gently doth it pass away,
My shattered frame sinks into rest
As soothing as the light of day.


But Dorothy knows that pain does not always so “gently” pass away. “Control” proves a delusion and suffering cannot always be resolved within the framework of Christian sentiment. Even a text like the sumptuously titled “Lines written (rather say begun) on the morning of Sunday April 6th, the third approach of Spring-time since my illness began. It was a morning of surpassing beauty” (1832), fails to limit pain's indeterminacy. She listens to the “full choral hymn” (3) of Nature and “the chapel bell” (41) which announces a church service that illness prevents her from attending. Though “Nature attunes the pious heart / To gratitude and fervent love” (29-30), such conditions are but “Fit prelude” to “man's appointed, holy task / Of prayer and social gratitude” (33, 34-35) and to the preparation for eternal life. The last stanzas, however, question the relevance of such logic:

Alas! my feet no more may join
The chearful sabbath train;
But if I inwardly lament
Soon may a will subdued all grief restrain.
No prisoner am I on this couch
My mind is free to roam,
And leisure, peace, and loving Friends
Are the best treasures of an earthly home
Such gifts are mine: then why deplore
The body's gentle slow decay,
A warning mercifully sent
To fix my hopes upon a surer stay?




Virginia Woolf's description of Sara Coleridge was written shortly before her own suicide in 1941, and it is almost harsh:

Thought proliferated. Like her father she had a Surinam toad in her head, breeding other toads. But his were jewelled; hers were plain. She was diffuse, unable to conclude, and without the magic that does instead of a conclusion. She would have liked, had she been able to make an end, to have written—on metaphysics, on theology, some book of criticism.

(Collected Essays 3: 225)

By comparison, Woolf's earlier description of Dorothy Wordsworth is more generous. Dorothy is an essentially free, wild spirit. It was she who had constituted Grasmere, and Grasmere was Woolf's epitome of the Romantic experience:

She possessed it [the waterfall at Grasmere] at last—she had laid it up in her mind for ever. It had become one of those “inner visions” which she could call to mind at any time in their distinctness and in their particularity. It would come back to her long years afterwards when she was old and her mind had failed her; it would come back stilled and heightened and mixed with all the happiest memories of her past—with the thought of Racedown and Alfoxden and Coleridge reading “Christabel”, and her beloved, her brother William. It would bring what no human being could give, what no human relation could offer—consolation and quiet.

(3: 205-06)

Perhaps not enough has been made of that last sentence, of Woolf's insistence on Sara's diffuseness, and of Woolf's own agenda. For Woolf, Dorothy wrote a language “of her own” which Sara failed to achieve. Dorothy had herself chosen Grasmere, envisioned William as her companion, and perfected the repository of images from which she continued to draw comfort. What Woolf does not mention is that the structure of Dorothy's desired society, which gradually became the text and habitation called “Grasmere,” included the society of women, and childhood friends like Jane Pollard. It was an incomplete society; she constantly sought a fuller version in her travels, and mourned the absences in the later poetry. The “comforting” Grasmere images certainly recur throughout Dorothy's writing so long as she wrote but, as we have seen, Grasmere was a constantly reinterpreted text; the reinterpretation by no means always yielded consolation.

Woolf insists, in contrast, on Sara's sadness. Her writing was never “her own” because it was always composed in the margins of her father's work. Sara becomes a kind of tragic figure in Woolf's feminist literary history. She was remarkably studious and capable, but her great potential was compromised by living “in the light of [Coleridge's] sunset” for her entire life, “like other children of great men” (3: 222). An “other” child of a “great” man is Woolf herself. The parallel between Sara's experience and her own certainly does not escape Woolf; what does escape her, however, is that both she and Sara may be said to criticize dominant structures at the same time that they create the possibilities of the articulation of feminine voices from within prevailing masculine language.

It can almost be said that too much pain enters Woolf's conception of Sara and too little enters that of Dorothy. Consequently, Sara's work is seen as a failure of feminist possibility in a capitulation to the image of the father. Dorothy, however, is not dominated by either pain or fathers or brothers; she is a model of subversive, feminine accuracy and control. Woolf's narrative fails to see that there is perhaps less difference between the structure of work and suffering which the earlier women inhabited and her own than she believes. Woolf knows how close her own consciousness is to the work of language. She understands as well that Dorothy was an active participant in the founding scenes of English Romanticism. But she quite loses Sara in the overwhelming volubility of the father's language. Woolf certainly is not the first one to be dazzled by the omnivorous Coleridgean discourse. But Sara herself knew how close she was to her father's language, and what the dangers were. She knew also that any achievement she might desire for herself was essentially connected to social language, and not one entirely borrowed from the great movements of Romantic aspiration in which her father participated. She projected a language into a future which might be said to have imagined even the possibility of Virginia Woolf, of independent careers for women writers, of a version of professionalism determined by imagination and will rather than gender.

The problems of pain, of the feminine body, as Sara remarks in “Nervousness,” are “about words.” As she knew with growing acuteness as she moved toward death, the knowledge acquired from chronic suffering and moments of intolerable pain teaches one that the meanings of suffering and pain are those which the self is courageous enough to assign. This knowledge is, as I have tried to demonstrate, a profoundly meaningful indeterminacy constituted more by the continual accrual of meanings than by the refusal to admit different meanings. To think this way is to admit a continual crisis of intelligibility, nowhere more of a crisis than when one faces the end of the process. The burden of choosing to think and live this way is that even one's most deliberate, conscious choices—to live at Grasmere, to revise Coleridge's work—do not preclude the moments, days, even years of indeterminacy. The story of Romantic pain always comes down to one irreducible question: how does one endure agony and live? There is no language that will effectively regulate pain. One will never be fully conscious of all the ways in which words rattle the chains of pain, or how the implications of managing pain can be clearly traced in one's own words.


  1. For related discussions of the Romantic family, see Alan Liu's Wordsworth: the Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989). See esp. ch. 6, “The Tragedy of the Family,” for examinations of Romantic family structure and Romantic friendship.

  2. Liu's discussions of pain in this community, and of pain as historical necessity in Wordsworth's poetry, are again pertinent and revealing. I am also indebted to specific studies of pain, in particular David Morris's The Culture of Pain and Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain. Scarry's paradigm of the sufferer and non-suffering witness which figures in her introduction is especially relevant for my purposes.

  3. For instance, Bradford Mudge occasionally has recourse to such arguments in Sara Coleridge: A Victorian Daughter. Liu as well suggests in “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals” that Dorothy's headaches and other maladies occur at strategic points in her narrative, almost as if they were planned or even invented for the sympathetic attention from others they would earn.

  4. Such themes permeate Dorothy's earliest correspondence with Jane Pollard (later Jane Pollard Marshall). For instance, she writes to Jane on 10 July 1793 from Forncett, Norfolk. She has been living with her aunt and uncle during William's extended continental tour and walking trip, but she now anticipates his homecoming and the establishment of their residence: “But oh, how imperfect is my pleasure! I am alone; why are not you seated with me? and my dear William why is he not here also? I could almost fancy that I see you both near me. I have chosen a bank where I have room to spare for a resting-place for each of you. I hear you point out a spot where, if we could erect a little cottage and call it our own we should be the happiest of human beings. … My dear friend I trust that ere long you will be, without the aid of imagination, the companion of my walks …”.

  5. This theme is developed extensively in the larger study of which this essay is a part. The study is concerned with the discourse of pain in Romanticism, and develops certain inevitable themes of isolation and loneliness that Coleridge, of course, knew well.

  6. In “The Female Vagrant,” for instance, the woman's fortitude in grief and pain is understood only in relation to the overshadowing presence of “My Father”; his death leaves her, like Margaret in “The Ruined Cottage,” impotent, “unaided and unblest” (43, 244).

  7. See discussions in, for example, Valerie Sanders, The Private Lives of Victorian Women; Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing; Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism; Susan Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism.

  8. All verse quotations are taken from Susan Levin's collection of Dorothy's poems in Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Sara. Memoir and Letters of Sara Coleridge. Ed. Edith Coleridge. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1874.

———, ed. Biographia Literaria. By Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2 vols. New York: Holt & Williams, 1872.

Coleridge, Sara Fricker. Minnow Among Tritons or, Letters of Mrs. Coleridge. Ed. Stephen Potter. Bloomsbury: Nonesuch P, 1934.

Griggs, Earl Leslie. Coleridge Fille: A Biography of Sara Coleridge. London: Oxford UP, 1940.

Hill, Geoffrey. “‘The Conscious Mind's Intelligible Structure’: A Debate.” Agenda 9.4/10.1 (Autumn/Winter 1971-72): 14-23.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth & Romanticism. New Brunswick: Rutgers, The State U, 1897.

Liu, Alan. “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals.Criticism 26.2 (Spring 1984): 115-37.

———. Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989.

Mellor, Anne K., Ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Morris, David. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Mudge, Bradford K. “On Tennyson's The Princess: Sara Coleridge in the Quarterly Review.Wordsworth Circle 15.2 (Spring 1984): 51-54.

———. Sara Coleridge: A Victorian Daughter. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford, 1985.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Woof, Pamela. Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer. Grasmere: The Wordsworth Trust, 1988.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. 3 vols. London: The Hogarth P, 1967.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. 2 vols. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. New York: MacMillan, 1941.

Wordsworth, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Vol. 1: The Early Years: 1787-1805. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1967.

Lucinda Cole and Richard G. Swartz (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Cole, Lucinda and Richard G. Swartz. “‘Why Should I wish for Words?’: Literacy, Articulation, and the Borders of Literary Culture.” In At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, edited by Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson, pp. 143-69. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, the authors recognize the role that Wordsworth and other women writers of the eighteenth century played in the struggle to “police, protect, and promote the bounds of literariness itself.”]


Near the end of his life William Wordsworth argued that the humbler ranks of society could not “benefit” from the natural landscapes of the Lake District because “the perception of what has acquired the name of picturesque and romantic scenery is so far from being intuitive, that it can be produced only by a slow and gradual process of culture …” (Guide, 157). Significantly, he does not say that the poor would fail to enjoy the impressive prospects of this area, but that because they lack the ability to “name” what they see, the positive effects of picturesque and romantic (as well as sublime) scenery would be lost on them. Underwriting Wordsworth's comment, then, is first a view of the aesthetic as a carefully refined vocabulary, as a system of classifications which identifies certain phenomena as objects of a particular knowledge. From this perspective, the cultivated spectator or tourist who gazes luminous with sensation at a striking view is doing nothing more than reading back the cultural significations which produce the aesthetic object, scene, or sight in the first place. The humbler ranks, alternatively, who have not had access to this aesthetic vocabulary, can neither interpret nor articulate the meanings invested in romantic or any other kind of scenery. Second, implicit in Wordsworth's remark is a nascent and ideologically loaded theory of acculturation that complicates this view. On the one hand, he represents aesthetic discourse as an official language, as a sort of national wealth to which anyone may potentially have access, if only “through a slow and gradual process of culture.” On the other hand, Wordsworth's representation of culture as the process of passionate and long-continued attention to the forms of nature advances the idea that aesthetic competency is more a product of private experience than of the technical vocabularies toward which he previously gestured. The symbolic appropriation of sublime or picturesque landscape, in other words, now seems to take place largely at the level of consciousness, unconditioned by any specific, socially and historically situated cultural idiolect. Any apparent contradiction between these two dimensions of aesthetic acculturation disappears, however, when one recognizes that for Wordsworth the possession of the aesthetic idiolect is above all a form of distinction: as such, it confers prestige on those who have acquired it precisely because it appears to be a form of natural experience available to all who can see, feel, and imagine. In this quiet promotion of what, altering a phrase from Bourdieu, one might call the illusion of aesthetic communism, William Wordsworth represents aesthetic competency as a universal possibility available to all, but only by obscuring the concrete, socially conditioned forms of dispossession that such an aesthetic education necessarily implies. Much like certain theories of language, then, he converts “the immanent laws of legitimate discourse into universal norms of correct … practice” but, in so doing, deftly avoids addressing questions of the economic and social conditions under which “acquisition of the legitimate competence and of the constitution of the market” take place, and in which, according to Bourdieu, any such definition of “legitimate and illegitimate” language is necessarily “established and imposed” (44).

Taking seriously the idea that aesthetic communism—like Bourdieu's linguistic communism—is in fact an illusion, or, more precisely, an imaginary construct with real social effects, we attempt in this essay to expose some of the conditions of its production, reproduction, legitimation, and potential disarticulation during the romantic period. Although Wordsworth raises the issue of aesthetic competency, the conditions we seek to isolate here are, perhaps not surprisingly, most visible in the comparatively marginalized work of late eighteenth-century women. Critics have noted in the writing of Dorothy Wordsworth and others a double-edged appropriation and subversion of aesthetic discourse, an apparently gender-specific ambivalence that has been valued in different ways. Our essay turns on the assumption that any such discomfort or resistance is less a sign of gender, as such, than it is a symptom of gender-specific (pre)occupations that eighteenth-century women both inherited and helped to promote. Readers of Nancy Armstrong will recall, for example, that certain “cultural functions” increasingly attributed to and promoted by women were “instrumental in bringing the new middle classes into power and maintaining their dominance” (26). Among these was the role of teacher, particularly, teaching that contributed to the moralization of the laboring poor. As we shall see, Hannah More, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Ann Yearsley—the uneducated “milkwoman poet” of Bristol—share with William Wordsworth an understanding that aesthetic discourse is a specialized vocabulary that is “far from being intuitive.” But because that awareness is coupled with a concern—indeed, a moral duty—to moralize the laboring poor as well, they will often differ from him in contesting the value of particular literary idiolects. Their attempts to negotiate the relationships among literacy, aesthetics, and literariness can therefore tell us more about the forms of dispossession involved in a romantic aesthetic education than, arguably, can “purely” romantic writing itself.

This is particularly true in reference to the sublime, which, by the late eighteenth century, has become an index of one's position in the market of official aesthetic and literary discourse. This market is organized to a considerable degree by gender- and class-inflected strictures governing who could and who could not assume the voice of sublime grandeur. Women writers were thus compelled to situate themselves in relation to an increasingly consolidated, if increasingly contested, set of literary practices. Hannah More, in response to this challenge, argued in 1799 that the sublime, properly speaking, was a mode of writing (and feeling) best practiced by men. In her “comparative view of the sexes,” she claims that women are endowed with distinct conceptual, moral, and aesthetic capabilities: they “do not so much generalize their ideas as men,” she writes, “nor do their minds seize a great subject with so large a grasp” (Works, VI:146). Given this, she continues, and because women are blessed by Providence with an “intuitive” penetration into character, they are naturally more suited to “polite letters.” Although this is a commonplace of eighteenth-century writing, More's attempt to institutionalize a doctrine of gendered literary practices is clearly related to her larger project, which is to contribute toward the moralization of the laboring poor. Thus elsewhere in her writings, More argues that because only the elite could grasp the sublime, poets who soared in its regions were evading their duty:

Their taste and their pursuits have familiarized them with the vast, and the grand, and the interesting: and they think to sanctify these in a way of their own. … These elegant spirits seem to live in a certain lofty region of their own minds, where they know the multitude cannot soar after them; they derive their grandeur from this elevation, which separates them with the creatures of their imagination, from all ordinary attributes, and all associations of daily occurrence. In this middle region, too high for earth, and too low for heaven; too refined for sense, and too gross for spirit; they keep a magazine of airy speculations, and shining reveries, and puzzling metaphysics; the chief design of which is to drive to a distance, the profane vulgar. …

(Works, IV: 328)

In comments that are derived from Anglican precepts but that nevertheless seem to mirror the insights of Bourdieu, More exposes the notion of distinction upon which practitioners of the official literary language must depend. In her words, poets attempt to “sanctify” matters of “taste” and habit from which the “multitude” are excluded. Indeed, she represents this “distance” from the “profane vulgar” as the source of “their grandeur.” Taken together, these passages demonstrate that More willingly abdicates the sublime to men, but not without challenging the value of both the practice and its practitioners. Her conflicted relationship to the sublime thus appears as a by-product of the socially sanctioned, class-based gender roles that More advocates with other late eighteenth-century women, a list that includes Mary Wollstonecraft, Sarah Trimmer, and Anna Barbauld.

It also includes Ann Yearsley and Dorothy Wordsworth, the subjects of our essay. Both were deeply interested in the particular mode of social reform and moralization that sought to bring benefits of literacy to the laboring poor. Dorothy Wordsworth, for example, established a Sunday school in 1789, where she taught her young charges to read and spell and to memorize hymns and their catechism. Years later she continued to uphold the charitable ideal of limited education for the laboring poor, as evidenced by her actions on behalf of the orphaned children of John and Sarah Green, a poor family from Grasmere.1 This ideal is also manifest in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland (1803), which not only remarks on scenes of touristic interest, but continually inquires into the status of literacy and literary education in the Lowlands. She writes, for example, of children who “went to school and learned Latin, Virgil, and some of them Greek” (Journals, I: 206); of proud miners whose village has acquired a library “that had all sorts of books—‘What! Have you Shakespeare?’ ‘Yes, we have that …’”—(I: 209); of a young guide who “said she would buy a book” with the sixpence Dorothy gave her (I: 220); and, with uneasy satisfaction, of some young children apprenticed to a cotton factory who, she was told, “were well instructed in reading and writing” (I: 225). Although Yearsley's active promotion of the Sunday school movement is perhaps less overt, it surfaces throughout her works, partially through frequent references to members of lower ranks in terms often borrowed from educated literary culture. “Untaught, unpolish'd is the savage mind,” she writes in “Brutus: A Fragment,” but such “error will decay,” allowing edifying “Visions” to “arise from interchange of thought, / With dear refinement and instruction fraught.”2 To this end Yearsley praises Sunday schools for giving aid to the “race” of illiterate poor, who, oppressed by circumstances, “sink in vulgar toils” and therefore neglect the soul.”3 Without such learning, Yearsley avows in a poem in favor of the establishment of such institutions, the “savage,” working world will be a morally and socially incapacitated one, a “poor unlettr'd tribe” (68) wandering in its own darkness (24-25). As writers themselves, however, Dorothy Wordsworth and Ann Yearsley were also participants within a peculiarly intellectual culture whose specific values they both internalized and partially reproduced. Yearsley's poetry and Dorothy's Journals are partially organized around episodes in which, as poet or tourist, they gaze at scenes, sights, or objects of aesthetic interest. These embedded moments belie their efforts to define themselves as possessors of the cultural capital that, for them as for William Wordsworth, aesthetic knowledge increasingly affords.4 In this sense, Ann Yearsley and Dorothy Wordsworth occupy a complicated, if familiar, subject position. They are members of literary culture, but members (like most of us) who have internalized a culturally given imperative to regulate and control the practices of reading and writing itself.

Their works, correspondingly, directly pertain to the historical problem that we examine here: how literary culture is formed in relationship to struggles over the meaning and value of literacy, linguistic competency, and cultural distinction. Such relationships, we maintain, are most visible in the vastly overdetermined trope of inarticulation. At one end of an implicit cultural continuum of meaning this trope signifies a basic linguistic incompetence, and at another, a moment of sublime genius. William Wordsworth's poetry, for example, often dramatizes a “higher” linguistic breakdown—a poetic failure of language—which marks the poet's access to truths that cannot be spoken. (Kant defines this provisional failure in cognitive terms as a “negative presentation” which “expands the soul” [127].) Yet William often merges the two aspects of inarticulation into a single narrative in which another's silence marks, by a kind of transfer, the poet's access to a sublime beyond of language. One thinks, in this regard, of the Blind Beggar and Discharged Soldier episodes of The Prelude; or, more immediately, of “Tintern Abbey,” where Dorothy's expressive silence serves simultaneously as a mode of distinction (for William) and dispossession (for his sister). It is not surprising, given this situation, that Yearsley and Dorothy Wordsworth both attempt to demystify the idealizing impulses implicit in the literary culture by which, in different ways, both were dispossessed: in Dorothy's case, as a decorous and therefore often self-censoring woman, and in Yearsley's, as a servant whose improvised education marks her as a member of the inarticulate laboring poor. This demystifying tendency, moreover, is intimately related to their interest in the discourses of literacy, where articulation and inarticulation are, it would seem, more pedestrian and “purely” descriptive terms. At the same time, however, as we shall see, both writers partially replicate the tendency of aesthetic discourse to create an inarticulate and sometimes savage other, subject to and subject of their reformist discourse. Yearsley, for example, compares her own, presumably innate aptitude for aesthetic vision to the coarse pleasure of a “noisy crew” of working men, whose “clumsy music crowns the rough delight” they seem to prefer. Let “Yours be the vulgar dissonance,” she writes, “while I … stretch the ardent eye / O'er Nature's wilds. …”5 This negative description of laboring-class speech dramatizes the ways in which aesthetic discourse, with its increasing emphasis upon the civilizing power of the printed word, created “new lines of demarcation within the working classes” (Vincent 1982, 36, 42). Dorothy Wordsworth's unflattering descriptions of Gaelic speakers in her Scottish Tour of 1803 serve a similar function (although one pressed in the service of extending the borders of Englishness itself). Such dividing practices, we suggest in our conclusion, are often simply replicated in an American critical industry that, having inherited a purified notion of literariness, continues to maintain it in splendid isolation. From our perspective, alternatively, to explore articulation in its full range of meanings during the romantic period is to map the internal and external borders of romantic writing, and therefore to begin to explore the constructive limits and constitutive exclusions of romanticism as such.



The moralizing ideal that both animates and confounds much of Yearsley's poetry was the basis of Dorothy Wordsworth's own considerably more official form of education. Having learned the cultural function of the charitable and sympathetic woman at an early age, Dorothy came virtually to embody it, or at least to practice the cultural functions of true womanhood that More worked so hard to construct. Upon meeting Dorothy, William Wilberforce (a crucial supporter of More's philanthropic enterprises) was so impressed by her activities that he gave her a copy of Trimmer's The Oeconomy of Charity, plus ten guineas a year to distribute to the poor.6 Wilberforce recognized in the young Dorothy a kindred spirit who would seek to bring the benefits of learning to the multitude. And without embracing More's version of Tory evangelicalism, Dorothy did seem to accede to this vision. Not only does she demonstrate throughout her life a commitment to the spread of literacy, she seems to have internalized the corresponding prohibition against women writing poetry as well. “I have no command of language, no power of expressing my ideas,” Dorothy wrote of herself (MY, I:25). She did not, however, accept this lack of power without occasional shows of resentment. In a poem of 1829, for example, she writes that although she “reverenced the Poet's skill,” as a child she “had Stifled ambition” of this kind out of a combination of “bashfulness,” “shame,” and regard to domestic authority, or the “fear that elder heads might blame—Or something worse.”7 Dorothy's near-ironic portrayal of her own intimidation (in Bourdieu's sense of the term)8 expressed in the very mode of writing that, she admits, she was not supposed to practice, attests to both her intense and sometimes uneasy attachment to precepts defining the proper role of middle-class women who, bolstered by a keen sense of duty that directed them to “the paths of usefulness,” also abdicate poetry to men. Given this complicated reaction, it is surprising neither that Dorothy Wordsworth turned to prose nor that her journals display another kind of ambition.

In addition to providing expected descriptions of striking scenes, sights, and incidents, these also deliberately explore the discursive idioms and practices of the aesthetic. So well do they perform this task that her highly coded nature descriptions often appear as instinctive expressions of her soul, and thus as signs of a “natural” genius. Indeed, for reasons that shall be explored later, this is a representation of Dorothy Wordsworth that her brother and others were eager to promote. But if one recognizes, with Ian Hunter, that the aesthetic is a “special kind of ethical work,” then it is possible to see how Dorothy's descriptions contribute to “shaping a distinctively aesthetic self through the successive intensification and neutralization of capacities for feeling and thought” (Hunter 1992, 353). Whatever their immediate intention, then, Dorothy's skillful descriptions of persons and places attest to her internalization of a specific set of disciplinary practices and the vocabularies which shape them, and, in so doing, have the added effect of normalizing the presumably “natural” basis of her aesthetic responses. Yet Dorothy does more than “naturalize” the practices, protocols, and vocabulary of aesthetic self-cultivation; she relies on these practices to normalize the ideas of feminine duty and polite letters that More felt compelled to assert. As we have mentioned, in her 1803 Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland Dorothy searches for signs of literacy and reading habit among the Scottish working class. This interest in the civilizing function of reading and education accompanies Dorothy's equally pervasive interest in reaffirming the value of an increasingly national literary tradition: Chaucer, Spenser, Drummond, Jonson, Milton, Thomson, Ossian, her brother's poetry. Such authors provide Dorothy with a tissue of intertextual and cultural associations to construct a given sight as an object of aesthetic interest, even as they signify her possession of a linguistic treasure that, according to Trimmer and others, both enabled and obligated women to spread the benefits of limited literacy to the poor. Dorothy's frequent citations, in this view, are not simply allusions or ornamental references but constructive tropes in her ongoing efforts to refine the articulation of the aesthetic self in ways that reinforce both the social function and values associated with literary culture.

Dorothy's is therefore an exercise in practical aesthetics inescapably tethered to ideological assumptions foundational to that late eighteenth-century cultural formation. Not surprisingly, these assumptions emerge most forcefully around the tropes of inarticulation, tropes that become particularly common when, in the Scottish tour of 1803, the Wordsworths approach the Gaelic-speaking Highlands. We quote from the following episode at length:

It rained, but not heavily; the mountains were not concealed from us by the mists, but appeared larger and more grand; twilight was coming on, and the obscurity under which we saw the objects, with the sounding of the torrents, kept our minds alive and wakeful; all was solitary and huge—sky, water, and mountains mingled together. While we were walking forward, the road leading us over the top of a brow, we stopped suddenly at the sound of half-articulate Gaelic hooting from the field close to us. It came from a little boy, whom we could see on the hill between us and the lake, wrapped up in a grey plaid. He was probably calling home the cattle for the night. His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination: mists were on the hillsides, darkness shutting in upon the huge avenue of mountains, torrents roaring, no house in sight to which the child might belong; his dress, cry, and appearance all different from anything we had been accustomed to. It was a text, as William since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life—his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature.

(Journals, I: 286)

On first glance, it appears that Dorothy is simply providing a staple of travel literature, the picturesque image, which, as critics have long since noted, often figures the poor laborer in the landscape as an object of aesthetic interest for the consumption of onlookers, tourists, and readers (Barrell 1972; Bermingham).9 Dorothy, in this view, seems simply to embellish and reinforce the more poetic vision of her brother for whom, she reports, the boy represents “the whole history of the Highlander's life,” where the unfortunate signs of “his superstition” are presented in dynamic counterpoint with the signs of his “visionariness” and “communion with the unworldliness of nature.” William's retrospective response to the Gaelic boy is, one notes, highly reminiscent of a much-discussed episode of The Prelude, Book V where the Boy of Winander sings “mimic hootings to the silent owls” who answer, “responsive to his call.” When the natural world no longer repeats his cry, “sometimes in that silence, while he hung / Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise / Has carried far into his heart the voice / Of mountain torrents.”10 Like the Gaelic boy above, then, and like the Gaelic singer in “The Solitary Reaper,” the Boy of Winander provides yet another instance of moments in which a pre-linguistic cry or incomprehensible voice becomes a figure for the meaning beyond words, language, or any worldly form of articulation. As Mary Jacobus writes, the “mimic hootings” of the Boy of Winander fulfill William's claim to know “a language more profound than that of books” (128).11 In Dorothy Wordsworth's case, however, it would appear that this Highland boy's “hooting” does not qualify as a sign of inexpressive sublimity. Thus even as she acknowledges William's interpretation of the scene and therefore seems to approve the spirit that William brings to poems such as “The Solitary Reaper” or to the Boy of Winander passage, Dorothy provides details that work against it. Although Dorothy states that the boy's appearance is “in the highest degree moving to the imagination,” his voice strikes her as strangely inhuman: while the “cry” of the boy arrested them both and led to William's commentary on the “visionariness” of the scene, Dorothy represents this sound, somewhat unpoetically, as a “half-articulate Gaelic hooting.” In contrast to the Boy of Winander, then, Dorothy's Gaelic boy does not hoot in sympathetic imitation of natural sounds. For her, this half-articulate hooting is in fact an expression of near-animality, and therefore closer to Yearsley's “vulgar dissonance” than it is to “the voice of mountain torrents.”

What interferes with the aesthetic moment is Dorothy's view of Gaelic, which is tinged by an ambivalence that elsewhere erupts in contempt. This perception of Gaelic was based upon, and in its own negative way acknowledged, the social and historical conditions that led to a severe decline in literacy rates throughout the Highlands. As an effect of what has been called internal colonialism, the increasing anglicization of the Highlands reinforced a situation in which the local economy became dependent upon the economic, social, and legal institutions of the south while it also deprived native Gaelic of any social or cultural prestige (Hechter). A literate Highland culture ceased to exist as such, replaced by a world in which Gaelic came to represent to outsiders a barbarous language of an uneducated, economically backward people.12 Although in 1766 the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge—one of the great institutional engines driving the Highlands toward anglicization—again allowed Gaelic texts to be taught in Highland schools, this was not done to promote Gaelic but to facilitate the spread of English (Withers, 125-26). Indeed, the Highlands were increasingly identified as a region of savage illiteracy. In contrast, the highest literacy rates among the laboring poor were found in the Scottish Lowlands and northern England, including the Lake District. In terms of educational provision and the prevalence of the reading habit, then, the English north and the Scottish Lowlands “may have formed a zone distinct from both southern England and Highland Scotland” (Houston 1985, 265).13 Given this situation, upon leaving the Lowlands—where, as we have observed, Dorothy found numerous signs of the reading habit, and a cultural environment not unlike the one she knew from Penrith and Grasmere—Dorothy entered another, and to her savage, world.

Throughout her Scottish tours, accordingly, Dorothy portrays the Highlands as everything the Lowlands and northern England are not—primitive, foreign, at times repelling—thereby reproducing the structures of internal colonialism mentioned above. While these cultural differences sometimes become the basis of an objectifying and essentializing picturesque, that aesthetic is punctured and often shattered when, in her accounts, Highland speech intrudes. Dorothy's Tour reports on young women “gabbling Erse” (Journals, I:280); a group of boatmen who “shouted to each other in Erse—a savage cry to our ears” (I:294); children “laughing, screaming, and chattering Erse” (I:302); a woman “screaming in Erse, with the most horrible guinea-hen or peacock voice I ever heard (I:317); a group of “stout” working men “who could speak very little English, and stared at us with almost a savage look of wonder” (I:340). Her reference to the boy's “half-articulate Gaelic hooting,” within this context, implies yet another moment of Othering in which the primitive native becomes a sign of excess, an inhuman beyond of culture that culture is compelled either to reclaim or to disown. Dorothy's half-articulate boy, that is, fits into the mingled “sky, water, and mountains” not as one image among others, but as a savage Other whose alien tongue cannot be absorbed into the aesthetic moment. From this perspective, Dorothy's turn to William for an aestheticizing frame argues that, for her, the Gaelic boy's inarticulation represents a form of impropriety that works against the constructive design of the aesthetic response.

At the same time, her highly refined aesthetic sensitivity leads her to portray in cultural and therefore more concrete terms not only her own class and regional prejudices but, as we shall see, the structures of inarticulation upon which William's apparently more generous figurations of the foreign rustic are based. This point can be demonstrated by looking, briefly, at a scene from Dorothy's Journal of a Tour on the Continent (1820) where, once again, the aesthetic is disrupted, but this time in more radical and apparently self-conscious ways. In the entry for August 10, Dorothy describes how she and her party follow a stream to “the gray torrent of the Lutschine” until they arrive at the basin of a cataract “where two women,” Dorothy writes, “appeared before me singing a shrill and savage air”: “their tones were startling, and in connection with their wild yet quiet figures strangely combined with the sounds of dashing water and the silent aspect of the huge crag that seemed to reach the sky!” (Journals, II:118). Like the image of the Gaelic boy, the figures of the two women combine with the sounds of a torrent and “the silent aspect” of surrounding eminences of rock to form what is for Dorothy an unforgettable scene. And just as the boy's Gaelic cries had disturbed the composition of the aesthetic moment, here the women's “shrill and savage air” combines “strangely” with the torrent and the sublimely silent crag.

The further significance of the passage emerges in a lengthy footnote she appends to it. The note includes a sonnet by her brother written in memory of the occasion, and an excerpt from Robert Southey's journal of 1817 describing a similar encounter at the falls. William's sonnet, in the version Dorothy quotes, represents the women's “notes shrill and wild” as being more supernaturally musical than the fabled songs of mermaids or witches. The poem ends by declaring that it is a shame that this compelling music should come from the lips of mendicant women. While their song seems to echo the enthralling power of the waterfall, their pitiable appearance does not:

Tracks let me follow far from human kind
Which these illusive greetings may not reach,
Where only Nature tunes her voice to teach
Careless pursuits and raptures unconfined.
No Mermaid warbles (to allay the wind
That drives some vessel tow'rd a dangerous beach)
More thrilling melodies! no caverned Witch
Chaunting a love-spell ever intertwined
Notes shrill and wild with art more musical!
Alas! that from the lips of abject Want
And Idleness in tatters mendicant
They should proceed—enjoyment to enthral
And with regret and useless pity haunt
This bold, this pure, this skyborn WATERFALL!

(Journals, II:118)14

In his later commentary on the poem, William writes that “this wild and savage air” (an unacknowledged quotation from Dorothy's account) “seemed to belong in some way or other to the waterfall and reminded me of religious services chanted to streams and fountains in Pagan times” (Poetical Works, III:373-74). This commentary indicates the ways in which the poem occludes the social meaning of poverty so that William may follow the play of imaginings that the poor women's song elicits. The song, a reminder of the supernatural, pagan ritual, and oral culture, belongs with the waterfall; the women, who conflict with the scene by raising a “useless” feeling of “pity” for the idle poor, do not. The poem thereby shows how the speaker associates the song with Nature's voice. It is this imaginative distance from “human kind,” William implies, that once again allows him to hear in this song, in spite of the barriers of language and social position that separate him from the singers, a significance that belongs to imagination alone.

The excerpt Dorothy includes from Southey's journal proceeds in much the same way as William's poem: “‘While we were at the waterfall, some half-score peasants, chiefly women and girls, assembled just out of reach of the spray, and set up—surely the wildest chorus that ever was heard by human ears—a song, not of articulate sounds, but in which the voice was used as a mere instrument of music, more flexible than any which art could produce,—sweet, powerful, and thrilling beyond description’” (II: 118).15 William's poem and Southey's prose account, in spite of their obvious differences, both assign these voices a musical power beyond that of ordinary human sound. William may assert that the women, tattered and idle mendicants, interfere with the value and interest of their own song, but he shares with Southey the urge to disembody their voices, and therefore to idealize, dehumanize, and supernaturalize their music in one gesture. Thus in Southey, the song becomes something beyond anything “heard by human ears”—a figure he repeats when he later uses the same journal as the basis for his own poetic appropriation of the wild singers in Canto III of his poem A Tale of Paraguay (1819). In that poem, the wild music reappears in the voice of an unself-consciously beautiful but also pointedly inarticulate expression of a natural poetess who sings in the midst of the South American wilds beside a lonely and sublime waterfall. This “songstress wild” is overheard “Rejoicing in her consciousness of power,” as her “unexpressive lay,” fashioned from “inarticulate and long-breathed sound,” holds her listeners “spellbound” in “mute astonishment.”16

Dorothy's note, in contrast, which claims that these two accounts are similar, includes an interesting disagreement with them both:

I was close to the women when they began to sing, and hence, probably it was that I perceived nothing of sweetness in their tones. I cannot answer for the impression on the rest of the party except my brother, who being behind, heard the carol from a distance. …


It is perhaps surprising to see this presumably self-effacing writer go out of her way to object to poetic accounts of this much-written image of the Staubbach singers. (If you count Southey's Paraguay and William's later prose description of the scene, the Staubbach episode gives rise to five different renderings.) Added to this is that Dorothy's apparent appeal to the empirical is simply beside the point in regard to Southey's description, since his account is based upon a separate event. What seems to be happening here, however, is not simply a local contest over descriptive accuracy, but a far more important struggle over how the women's inarticulation is to be valued. Dorothy's underlinings reinforce this view. Her intervention is based not only on her proximity to the scene—“I was close to the women when they began to sing”—but, more importantly, on her ability to comment upon the negative aesthetic quality of their speech: “I perceived nothing of sweetness in their tones.” In remarking upon the affective appeal of a particular enunciation, she is, of course, reassuring her cultural function, to preserve and extend the grounds of articulation itself. Apparently, Dorothy is so completely assimilated to this function that she does not have to take the poets to task for indulging in the “lofty regions of the mind,” or for allowing their poetic ambitions to divert them from their duty. But in her appeal to the real—that is, to the social imaginary—and in her otherwise inexplicable exposure of the poets' “mistakes,” Dorothy implies that William Wordsworth and Southey, rather than being too immersed in the (merely) aesthetic, are failing to demonstrate aesthetic sensitivity enough. In Dorothy's more socially grounded vision of inarticulation, “vulgar dissonance” cannot be redeemed as a figure of the listening poet's imaginative access to the beyond of language.


In distinguishing between Dorothy's account of the Staubbach singers and those of her male companions, we mean neither to suggest that Dorothy's is a morally superior vision nor to deny its obvious political problems but merely to identify a form of power that, as Nancy Armstrong puts it, “does not seem to be power because it behaves in specifically female ways” (26). Indeed, our argument as a whole has the effect of calling in question the still prevalent notion that women were necessarily “silenced” by romantic aesthetic discourse. Thus throughout this essay, we have focused, first, upon the positive efforts of two women from different social ranks to appropriate, subvert, and otherwise negotiate the idioms of what we have been calling official literary culture. Much like William Wordsworth, as we have seen, Dorothy Wordsworth and Ann Yearsley appropriated the peculiarly romantic trope of inarticulation in their writings and, given their commitment to aesthetic discourse, occasionally applied it to themselves. Among writers of the early romantic period this trope is vastly overdetermined, we have insisted, precisely because it stands on the (shifting) borders between literacy and literariness, and therefore of vulgar dissonance and cultured articulation. It is, in other words, not only a descriptive but a value term, an exceptionally powerful variable that enables the sublime, marks the borders of proper speech, and helps to constitute prestigious literary production. In this view, the real grounds of articulation are not ontologically given in the essence of the (imaginary) linguistic community but are effects of the value systems which produce and reproduce a cultured disposition, where the forms of that acculturation are variously organized by middle-class men and women alike.

Within literary culture proper, however, it also is true that men had more power than women in formulating and monitoring the rules and strategies of the cultural wars that we now identify as romanticism as such. And because inarticulation was such an unstable and mobile term in those skirmishes, women who put this trope into discourse did so at considerable risk. The most famous example of this phenomenon is, of course, William Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey,” where Dorothy appears as a supplementary and therefore confirming repetition of William's own vision: “in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes” (117-20). Dorothy's relatively complex aesthetic sensibility is here cast as a natural stage of human development that William has surpassed. In a more prosaic version of the same tendency, Thomas De Quincey describes Dorothy as a woman of profound feelings and perceptions that she could not articulate because she was too acutely aware of her station in life: “Her sensibility seemed constitutionally deep; and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which, being alternately pushed forward into a conspicuous expression by the irrepressible instincts of her temperament, and then immediately checked, in obedience to the decorum of her sex and age … gave to her whole demeanour and to her conversation, an air of embarrassment and even self-conflict” (131). Even if this were an accurate description of Dorothy's condition, it is so clearly shaped by romantic figures that it is impossible not to assume that De Quincey, like William, is writing Dorothy into a myth that both he and Dorothy had inherited. “Even her very utterance and enunciation often, or rather generally,” he continues, “suffered in point of clearness and steadiness, from the agitation of her excessive sensibility” (131). Strangers, he concludes, might think her to be plagued with an “infirmity of speech” (132). Thus despite her many volumes of letters and travel writing, Dorothy Wordsworth enters into the texts of publicly successful male writers as a woman who was thoroughly emblematic of an aesthetic response she does not herself voice.

One can see a similar mode of dispossession at work in Ann Yearsley's reputation. That many of Yearsley's moments of sublime inarticulation can support two apparently contradictory meanings marks them, we have argued, as the products of a particular and even fleeting moment in the history of literacy and literary culture, when the rhetoric of sublime silence was thought to indicate that which is beyond words. Yearsley seemed to take advantage of this situation to demonstrate the competencies that, according to any number of cultural imperatives, she was not supposed to have had. Yet the same equivocation that enabled Yearsley's poetic distinction was easily collapsed back into the cultural logic of those reformers for whom, one recalls, literacy is concomitant with Anglican reform. A friend of More, for example, commenting upon Yearsley's “curious” descriptions of the “state of her own mind,” writes: “The consciousness of extraordinary powers, unable to exert themselves (as she seems to conceive) from the insuperable barrier of ignorance, with which her mind is surrounded, and which it is perpetually struggling to surmount, is a new and very interesting representation.17 This writer seems to suspect a gap between Yearsley's aesthetic performances and her almost obsessive claim that she is unable to perform at all. But his apparent suspicion is quickly explained away, as Yearsley's sublime inarticulation is cast into a myth of self-development, one quite different from her own. A similar kind of primal inarticulateness may be “observed in a child,” he continues, “who has been conscious of more mind than might be expected from its years, and who seemed to feel that it was only withheld by the imbecility of its age from saying or doing something above the reach of a child's capacity” (Roberts, I:217). This remark, of course, is meant to be sympathetic, but it effectively and completely erases the complex social, cultural, aesthetic, and literary imperatives with which this particular poet was compelled to contend. Indeed, it mirrors the efforts of William Wordsworth to literalize and reify his sister's tropes of inarticulation, to represent them as a stage in a presumably universal condition, and to offer that scheme, in turn, as proof of his own distinction. In this sense, Yearsley's seemingly generous reader does more damage than the oft-cited ravings of the equally condescending More against her “ungrateful” charge. In naturalizing Yearsley's carefully crafted inarticulate sublime, More's correspondent effectively guarantees that Yearsley, however artful her poetic performances, could never achieve the kind of cultural capital that, apparently, she so desperately desired. Given this context, Yearsley's question—”why should I wish for words?”—is not only unanswerable but bitterly ironic.

If these two examples may be taken as representative of a gendered economy of prestige, the value of romantic women's writing is determined in advance, not by the words they use, but by the words they meet. It is subject to a kind of symbolic violence through which social and cultural differences are not mitigated, but (re)produced. Thus women writers may seem to occupy a similar position as Dorothy's Highlanders who, as we have seen, mark the necessary border of literary culture, the place at which the other's language must be domesticated, disowned, or repossessed. Felicia Hemans, for example, epitomizes her ambivalence about the literary marketplace when she comments that writing is defined by an impossible struggle with language: “do not words faint and fail?” she asks. In a massive displacement of—and highly conventionalized protest against—a cultural predicament, Hemans decides that the aspiring soul will find its voice only in heaven, where, “Powerless no more,” “Vainly it shall not strive … on weak words to pour a stream of fire. …”18 Such ambivalences leave feminist critics of romantic writing in a somewhat precarious position. It is possible, of course, to revalue the usually didactic, devotional, or sentimental writing of many women writers of the period, to insist, with Hannah More, that they constitute a separate (and perhaps more socially valuable) realm of letters than that practiced by men. It is possible, alternatively, to refuse that imaginary community and to focus, instead, on how “woman” is a necessary figure of inarticulation in the (more legitimate) productions by William Wordsworth and his literary allies. Yet it is worth remembering that Ann Yearsley, Dorothy Wordsworth, and other late eighteenth-century women are neither Dorothy's Highlanders nor her singers at the Staubbach falls. Instead, their works are symptomatic of struggles within literary culture to police, protect, and promote the bounds of literariness itself. The specific social character of these struggles is often obscured, albeit in different ways, by contemporary neo-formalist and feminist analyses that reify the figure of inarticulation in attempts to identify, define, or revalue romantic writing. We hope to have suggested, alternatively, that to enter into debates about the moral or literary value of women's writing while using the sublime as a norm, even when that norm is challenged, could be simply to reproduce, yet again, the notion of an official literary language, and with it the ideological tensions that such an effort undoubtedly implies. As Bourdieu puts a similar idea, the struggles among writers—and critics, one assumes—over the protocols of literariness “contribute, through their very existence, to producing both the legitimate language, defined by its distance from the ‘common language,’ and belief in its legitimacy’ (58). Given this, one wonders what would happen if we simply stopped playing the game of aesthetic mastery in relation to the sublime and focused, instead, on the social relations that the notions of mastery and competency both imply and help to reproduce.


  1. See Wordsworth, George and Sarah Green—A Narrative (1808). The Narrative indicates something of Dorothy's interest in literacy and popular education, and demonstrates the ways in which this interest intersects with the gendered ideology which states that it is the (educated) woman's duty to become a moral guardian of social stability by educating the poor. Not surprisingly, the Narrative also expresses many of Dorothy's misconceptions of the rural poor and popular literacy. To offer a suggestive example, while she is delighted that the Greens had encouraged the children “in the love of learning” (79), Dorothy inventories their various reading skills and decides that, as orphans to be put under the care of the more fortunate, they are now “likely to be better instructed in reading and writing” (87). It is as if being orphaned, and becoming servants or wards of the parish, suddenly gives these children an unexpected opportunity to be domesticated to the written word. Dorothy believes that the children can now be “instructed,” not that they will be “instructed” differently than they would have been had their parents lived. On the relationship between woman's authority of the heart and her role in consolidating middle-class economic and cultural hegemony, see Armstrong. On the reading habits of the laboring classes, see Vincent 1989. On Wordsworth's Narrative, see Levin, 41-52; and Wolfson, 154-62.

  2. Yearsley, “Brutus: A Fragment,” in The Rural Lyre: ll. 291, 293, 295-96. The poem is an unfinished epic about an encounter between the Trojan Brutus and British “savages.” It is also an obvious allegory of contemporary England and the civilizing influence the literate must exercise over the “savage” poor.

  3. “To Mr. Raikes, on His Benevolent Scheme for Rescuing Poor Children from Vice and Misery, by Promoting Sunday Schools” (Poems, on Several Occasions, ll. 131-32, 130).

  4. Our emphasis differs from that of critics who insist that when women writers recoil from the sublime, it is a symptom of their preoccupation with domesticity, community, the material, the near at hand, and the literal. These arguments reflect Carol Gilligan's continuing influence on romantic studies (see for example Homans, 40-67; and Alexander, 167-192). Anne K. Mellor makes a similar argument in Romanticism and Gender: women writers, she writes, contest “Burke's and Wordsworth's representations of the sublime as a moment of masculine empowerment over female nature” by “offering an alternative definition of the sublime as an experience that produces an intensified emotional and moral participation in a human community” (105). In contrast, our focus is not on romantic ontologies of nature, gender, and community but on the relationship among gender, class, and the cultural (re)production and circulation of literariness in texts by women, for whom the sublime is variously rendered and valued.

  5. “Clifton Hill” (Poems, On Several Occasions, ll. 195-99).

  6. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years, 1787-1805, 27, 30. Dorothy's interest in Sunday schools continued intermittently throughout her life. In 1811, for example, she gladly finds time to “encourage” local Sunday schools by lending her “occasional presence” in the classroom (Letters of Dorothy and William Wordsworth: The Middle Years, Part I: 1806-1811, 492 [cited hereafter in the text as MY, I]). To remark another, related illustration of her interest to educational schemes, in 1814 Dorothy remarks approvingly that Mary Hutchinson, the wife of Tom Hutchinson, is running a private school “on Dr. Bell's plan” (i.e., Dr. Andrew Bell, the educational reformer whose system also appealed to William Wordsworth). Significantly, Dorothy adds that Mary Hutchinson is “well fitted for the duty of instruction by Books, and all other cares belonging to children,” thereby indicating the close ideological association between concepts of femininity, women's social function, and their duty to educate poor children (Letters of Dorothy and William Wordsworth: The Middle Years, Part II: 1812-1820, 162).

  7. “Irregular Verses” (“The Collected Poems of Dorothy Wordsworth,” ll. 60-69).

  8. For Bourdieu, “intimidation” is a “symbolic violence which is not aware of what it is.” Since it “can only be exerted on a person predisposed (in his habitus) to feel it,” its cause lies not in an individual but “in the relation between the situation or the intimidating person (who may deny any intimidating intention) and the person intimidated, or rather, between the social conditions of production of each of them” (51). To analyze the “intimidation” of a particular female writer, from this perspective, is to replace considerations of personal psychology with those of social structure.

  9. Levin observes that Wordsworth's writing is “frequently in line with the attitudes and diction of writers on the sublime and picturesque” (13). See also Nabholtz, and Woof (24-25). For a valuable critique of Bermingham, see Michasiw. Of special interest here are Michasiw's remarks on the deliberate artificiality of Gilpin's picturesque. Gilpin, Michasiw insists, consciously produced a set of arbitrary rules of aesthetic practice, rules which could be reproduced by any literate person (92). Michasiw does not, however, consider the possibility that “literate” and “literacy” are themselves ideologically overdetermined terms.

  10. The Prelude (1805), V:398, 401, 406-409.

  11. “The text” Dorothy attributes to William in this passage—“containing in itself,” as she writes, “the whole history of the Highlander's life,” including “his melancholy, his superstition” and “visionariness which results from a communion with the unwordliness of nature”—is more than an example of William's propensity for transforming solitary Highlanders into emblems of sublime ideality. It is also an example of his penchant for interpreting Highland life on the basis of prior reading, since this “text” is in fact an inter-text based upon a note to the fourth book of Ossian's Temora. Here Macpherson explains that local methods of cattle tending often forced Highlanders to sleep in the open “amidst the whistling of winds, and the roar of waterfalls. The gloominess of the scenes around them was apt to beget that melancholy disposition of mind, which most readily receives impression of the extraordinary and supernatural kind” (quoted in Landon, 363). Many details of Macpherson's note are repeated in the “text” Dorothy records here, including the presence of cattle herders amid the “gloominess” of Highland nature, and the Highlander's predisposition to melancholy superstition, and a supernatural visionariness. As is well known, the “Solitary Reaper,” another of William's idealized emblems of Highland melancholy, is based upon a prior text, namely, the passage of Thomas Wilkinson's Tours to the British Mountains (London, 1824), where he describes a solitary Highland reaper singing in Erse: “the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more” (12). William of course knew Wilkinson and had read this text before writing the poem.

  12. On schooling, literacy, and fate of Gaelic see Durkacz (1978, 1983), MacKinnon (127-29), Houston (1985), Stephens (555-57), and Withers (57-271).

  13. See also Jones, who argues that in the later eighteenth century the largest numbers of book buyers among the Scottish laboring classes resided in the southwest and the Borders (35).

  14. The revised poem “On Approaching the Staub-bach, Lauterbrunnen” was published in 1822. See Poetical Works, III:171.

  15. The lines Dorothy quotes were published in 1819 in a note to A Tale of Paraguay, Canto III (Southey, Poetical Works, II:125). Southey's note includes the first (unpublished) version of William's sonnet in addition to William's brief prose description of the same event.

  16. See A Tale of Paraguay (Poetical Works, VII: Canto III, stanzas 35-39).

  17. Although her poetry was reviewed favorably (Tompkins, 89), writers far into the 1850s echo the view of her recorded here. Cottle remarks that had she been educated, “there is no limiting the distinction to which she might have attained” (I:70), while an anonymous reviewer writes in 1855 that her poetry presents the equally sublime and ridiculous spectacle of a “mind conscious of extraordinary powers vainly struggling to surmount the barriers of ignorance” (Chambers Journal 24 [1855]: 302. This source has not been previously located; it is reprinted in the Eclectic Magazine 37 [1856]: 396). Southey suggests that she died “deranged” by this conflict (Uneducated Poets, 134). For similar estimates of Yearsley's poetry, see, for example, Tompkins (69), Curran (199), and Waldron (319).

  18. Hemans, “A Thought of the Future,” from The Complete Works, II: 296, 297.

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Kay K. Cook (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Cook, Kay K. “Immersion.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 10, no. 1 (spring 1995): 66-80.

[In the following essay, Cook claims that Wordsworth's journals constitute autobiography despite the absence of the first person pronoun.]

The following passage from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere journal captures fragments of a day in early autumn. The year is 1800, and Wordsworth and her brother William have recently moved into Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the English Lake District:

[September] 14th, Sunday Morning. Made bread. A sore thumb from a cut. A lovely day. Read Boswell in the house in the morning, and after dinner under the bright yellow leaves of the orchard. The pear trees a bright yellow. The apple trees green still. A sweet lovely afternoon.


Two years later, in the spring of 1802, Dorothy and William are still living in Grasmere, but their time alone is about to draw to a close; William will marry Mary Hutchinson in the fall and bring her to Dove Cottage to live with him and Dorothy. Dorothy is still writing of her surroundings, both visual and auditory:

May 6, Thursday. We have put the finishing stroke to our bower, and here we are sitting in the orchard. … The small birds are singing, lambs bleating, cuckow calling, the thrush sings by fits, Thomas Ashburner's axe is going quietly (without passion) in the orchard, hens are cackling, flies humming. …


And on. It may seem bold to claim that these passages contain the autobiographical assertion of a self, but so be it. The above entries in Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, and others similarly structured, illustrate, I believe, that identity may be constructed in an autobiographical work without a narrative in which the “I” forms the focal point. Rather, the absence of the first person pronoun in private lifewritings, such as the journal, suggests a textual positioning of a self within an experience; it is a narrative stance that I refer to as “immersion.”

Immersed prose speaks to a quality and style of narrative that focuses on the immediacy of an experience, yet maintains separateness from it. This is not an absorbed textual self, not a sponge merging with its liquid environment; it is, however, multi-focused, desultory, dispersed. The above quotations, for example, may be likened to a medieval (pre-linear perspective) or cubist (non-linear perspective) painting: the narrator's point of view is multi-layered; the elements of the narrative carry the same force and weight (a cut thumb, a lovely day); there is no subordination of eyesight, no vanishing point. The narrator is in the scene, under bright yellow trees, surrounded by color and sound. In short, she is immersed in an orchard, immersed in reading Boswell, immersed in the “sweet, lovely afternoon.”

Given its immediate, quotidian nature, the journal is most conducive to producing this type of immersed autobiographical narrative. In recording the events of a day, the writer's intent is not so much to gain perspective, but to capture, as Elizabeth Bruss puts it, the “dignity of the fleeting data of consciousness as the prime, irreducible elements of reality” (64).1 Events are recorded as they come to mind, rather than in the sequence they may have occurred. In this respect, the journal as a form of self-address is truly that which reflects the desultory and fragmentary way in which the mind retains experience. Immersed, fragmented, and paratactic passages (the latter being a grammatical resistance to subordinating sentences, phrases, and in the case of the journal, entries) signal a resistance to a unifying, harmonizing passage, chronologically complete with subject, verb, and appropriate modifiers correctly placed.2 What Katherine Goodman has stated about epistolary autobiography, for example, is equally true for the journal: it “both credits individual experience and avoids harmonizing and unifying the subject” (311).

As a point of illustration and elaboration of this theory, I am drawing from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals (1800-1803), which fully demonstrate the narrative stance that I have identified. Within these journals, which contain varied narrative positions (an attribute of the journal form itself), there is a preponderance of entries in which no narrating “I” creates the focus. Rather than reading a “lack” of self into these passages, as many critics have done, it is quite possible, by applying a theory that reveals the subtle power of the journal form in structuring identity, to interpret a resistant self-formation in such entries. Specifically, an analysis of the immersed prose in Wordsworth's or any other journal provides a lens through which we can determine textual self-formation at variance with prescribed and valorized autobiographical strategies. My discussion of immersion, then, is inextricably linked to a discussion of the journal as a mode of autobiography.

Wordsworth's is not an unusual narrative stance in private journals, although we usually assume that the autobiographical voice is first person singular, the somewhat older “I” who reflects back to earlier stages in a life and produces the narrative by bringing the reader up to the present time. In journal writing, however, the immersed tendency of the narrative, identifiable through the omission of reference to self in the entries, focuses on surroundings or activities:

[May 17th,] Saturday. Incessant rain from morning till night. T. Ashburner brought us coals. Worked hard, and read Midsummer's Night Dream [and] ballads—sauntered a little in the garden. The Skobby sate quietly in its nest, rocked by the wind and beaten by the rain.

(Wordsworth 39)

In addition to the implied first person in this passage, (“walked,” “sauntered”), there is the immersed narrator, watching the rain at one point, the Skobby (a nuthatch) at another, both from an unidentified viewpoint.

We are talking, then, about much more than generic choices in lifewriting. The choice of the form of lifewriting, whether conscious or not, indicates different concepts of shaping identity. Whether that form is the private journal with daily entries or the retrospective autobiography, the narrative is dictated by epistemologies of the self. Michael J. O'Neal, in his discussion of nonrepresentational (so-called reverse perspective) painting and its corollary in writing, suggests, for example, that the use of immersion in both disciplines reveals the subject's mode of knowing:

In the term of the painter, the “viewer” is no longer outside the frame, looking through the window at proportional and stabilized objects whose foreshortening creates the illusion of depth, of separation, and discrimination; rather, the viewer is now within the frame, in a world of “pure form,” attending only to the harmonies of undifferentiated, non-perspective space and shape.


The association with the immersive nature of the journal form is obvious. The journal writer as well is “within the frame,” creating her own harmonies of “undifferentiated, non-perspective space and shape.” Look at this undifferentiated space in Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entry: “Look down the brook, and see the drops rise upwards and sparkle in the air at the little falls, the higher sparkles the tallest” (66). The dizzying manipulation of space in this passage creates a syntactical and grammatical chaos, a string of words with very faint relationship (is “sparkles” a verb or a noun?), which verbally characterize the immersed experience. The word choices in this prose very much evoke the sense of life, vitality, activity.

The critic's identification and analysis of immersed autobiographical writing make it possible to elaborate alternative ways of narrating a life and to give credence to other ways of self-knowledge. Most importantly, an analysis of immersed narrative can reveal resistance to the author's domestic, socioeconomic, and political positions, as Felicity Nussbaum has pointed out:

[T]he diary, tolerant of multiple subjectivities and discourses, is especially resistant to representing the self as a unified, rational, and intentional subject.

The marginalized and unauthorized discourse in diary holds the power to disrupt authorized versions of experience, even, perhaps to reveal what might be called randomness and arbitrariness of the authoritative and public constructs of reality.

(132, 136)

Dorothy Wordsworth herself challenged (and thus contributed to) notions of autobiography and identity in the early nineteenth century. In a similar vein, diaries of women pioneers demand the refiguring of an American myth of the West, as Lillian Schlissel, for example, has so wonderfully revealed in her work, Women's Diaries of the Westward Movement. Furthermore, diaries of persons with life-threatening illnesses depict disease as process, noting changes in the body, changes in the emotions day by day, since, obviously, it is often not possible to publish a retrospective account of one's experience. These diaries challenge the cold, objective discourse of medical institutions.3

The immersed first person, finally and simply, does not necessarily indicate self-negation. To make such a surmise indicates that there is only one way to shape a textual identity: to make the “I” the center of experience. It is a peculiarly late twentieth-century construct that has its roots not only in the “me” generation ethic and the impulse we have to focus on our inner lives, but also in the literary valorization of perspective and linearity as correspondent to reality or truth.


The term “perspective,” not only as it is used to evaluate autobiography, but also as it occurs in the disciplines of both art and literature, suggests a hierarchical relationship of things arranged in space or a linear, chronological relationship between and among events in time. In autobiography, a perspectival approach presents a life story from a fixed viewpoint, a stance from which the author has gained “distance” over time. The retrospective, formally published autobiography most often exemplifies this “journey though life” paradigm, which takes the reader from a beginning up to the present time. All observations radiate from that perspective; the focus is on how the “I” related to the experiences.4

Our critical and everyday usage of perspective speaks to the extent to which this dominant approach to knowing and writing is deeply ingrained. We often say we are too close to something to know it, that we need to gain perspective on an event. This pervasive attitude even informs standardized English; the widely-used Random House Dictionary, for example, defines “perspective” as “a broad view of events or ideas in their true nature and relationships” (668). The attitude also becomes apparent in looking at works of autobiography, when the critic makes the assumption that the retrospective look at the life is the most valid one in that the autobiographer has gained “distance.” It is clear, however, that both stances—perspective and immersion—involve differing versions of reality, and that immediacy may be afforded the same value as retrospection.

A brief overview of the history of perspective may help to suggest reasons not only for its valorization, but also for the devaluing of immersed narrative. The project requires a look at the most significant time in Western art history: the Italian Renaissance. This era encompassed more than an aesthetic movement; linear perspective, developed during the Renaissance, became a way of seeing the world.

Samuel Edgerton points out that because linear perspective has been “part and parcel of psyche and civilization for too many centuries” (4), we tend to forget, if in fact we ever knew, that it is only a version of reality. So-called reverse perspective, Edgerton maintains, portrays reality in another mode; it is as valid a part of human experience as “realistic” perspective. The medieval painter (and the cubist, as well) “believed he could render what he saw before his eyes convincingly by representing what it felt to walk around experiencing structures almost tactilely, from many different views, rather than from a single, overall vantage” (9-10).

Since the Renaissance the term perspective has meant, in addition to its specialized artistic context, “The faculty of seeing into a thing, insight, penetrativeness,” “A mental view” (OED). In fact, in his work on iconology, W. J. T. Mitchell contends that in both art and literature, perspective “occupies a privileged position for representing the world” (83). It affects, he says, “formation of value judgments, canons of acceptable works …” (103). Such is the case, I believe, in the formation of a “canon” of autobiographical works, discussed by numerous scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, when articles on autobiography began to proliferate and theories, definitions, and questions about the nature of autobiography were answered by referring to retrospectively published life-writings.5

It seems ironic in a postmodern era, when perspective as a narrative stance has been challenged so profoundly in literature, that textual resistance to perspective in private writing is perceived as “lacking perspective,” as if to suggest that this so-called “lack” yields a less “true,” less “real” narrative of a life.

Let me take this discussion of perspective and immersion one step further to suggest that the former is not only a construct, but is a gendered construct that contributed a great deal to furthering the objectification of the female subject. This idea is, of course, not a new one; in fact, the analysis of artistic linear perspective as a male construct has even become a subject for satire in the ongoing debate about “political correctness.” I have before me, for example, a cartoon by Charles Barsotti from a recent New Yorker; I came across it quite serendipitously this spring, some time after I began formulating ideas about linear perspective (or the absence thereof) in autobiography. Within the frame of this cartoon, we see the prominent figure of a man (about six inches high) standing at the front of a room, looking out toward the viewer. The room has been drawn to appear three-dimensional through the use of the vanishing point. Thus, the back wall is significantly smaller than the frame, comprising only about one-third of it. On this back wall is a door, two inches high.

So—what is wrong with this picture? Our six-inch man at the front of the room is extending his right arm through the two-inch door on the back wall. Outside the frame, then, we see his hand and part of the arm truncated by the wall in between the door and the frame of the cartoon. The title of the cartoon is “Perspective”; the caption reads: “Just another lie invented by dead white European males.”

I have another New Yorker cartoon in mind: “Cartoonist Barsotti meets critic Wendy Steiner.” In her Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and Literature, Steiner suggests that the Renaissance discovery of linear perspective aligned truth with distance and depended on a “sexual politics of vision.” The male holding the paintbrush, by imposing rules of geometry on his canvas, rendered the female as other, as object. Quoting Norman Bryson, Steiner notes “that specialized functions are assigned to each sex, pleasure in looking is broken between active (=male) and passive (=female)” (46). The painter literally superimposed a series of vertical and horizontal lines on the canvas, so that he could render the painting three dimensional through use of the mathematically correct proportions and the vanishing point. The screen of mathematics, then, brought technology to painting and in so doing relegated women, as subjects of art, to a space beyond the screen, yet enclosed by it—safe. As Steiner points out: “Here the moral value of perspective is apparent. For perspective creates a distance between viewer and object that denies contact with the object or an appropriation of it …” (46). In fact, the distance between viewer and object, between the individual and his or her earlier life, hardly creates a truer, more faithful account; it merely creates a distanced, safer rendition of one's life (I am not now this younger person in my text).

Where and what, then, is the narrative for a female resisting both objectification and a construct of self-formation that assumes identity is constant over time? The choice of self-formation and the form it takes as a text, as I have said, is a metaphysical one. If that choice is the form that is amenable to immediacy of experience, it resists the concept of harmony, unity, wholeness. To answer my rhetorical question, if a marginalized class (women, in this case) wishes to differentiate itself from such paradigms of identity, then it is obvious that it would turn to the journal as a form for another way of self-formation, particularly in an historic era (the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) when the public figure published the public account of his life, his autobiography.

That the diary is a form used by a significant number of women, especially during the nineteenth century, has been well established.6 George Steiner is one of several critics who have pointed to the implications of this cultural act:

[T]he role of women diarists [during the nineteenth century] in the total aggregate may well have been paramount … [M]ethodologically and in substance, much of what still passes for social history … is, probably, inaccurate; it overlooks the sophistication of social-psychological insight and data contained in the fantastically loquacious world of the diary.


The recent flurry of activity in publishing diaries by women, past and present, attests to the fact that, at least in England and the United States, the activity was (and is) important, regardless of socioeconomic class, race, or ethnicity.

Dorothy Wordsworth, in her fervid dedication to her Grasmere journal, joined a host of women who sought refuge in their private writings. A discussion of her journal is especially appropriate here, since a survey of scholarship reveals that critics, both her defenders and detractors, come to her work with a preconceived notion that she lacked a sense of self separate from her dependency on her brother, William.7 I argue, however, that the textual Dorothy Wordsworth, the narrator of the Grasmere journals, actually reveals an identity resistant to the harmonizing and unifying impulses of her brother's early writing, which found its expression in dominant and valorized literary forms: the lyric, the ode, the sonnet, and the epic. Moreover, her journal writing, as I interpret it, is a deflection of the objectifying and marginalizing gaze identified by Wendy Steiner. By holding the pen, furiously writing her surroundings, she became the subject. She both appropriated and deflected the gaze of her brother, who had, in a manner similar to the Renaissance artist, textualized her as an image of his former self in “Tintern Abbey,” as an ethereal being unnoticed by most of the world in his “Lucy” poems, and as a naive woman whose life was circumscribed by her house and garden in “The Glowworm,” to name only a few.

Among Dorothy's tasks were to act as William's amanuensis, to make fair copy of his poems, and to correct the publisher's galley proofs. Repeatedly, she read and copied lines such as the “Tintern Abbey” reference to her, “May I behold in thee what I was once,” a line that denies and negates her existence except as a reflection of William.

Yet, in turning from amanuensis to creator, she re-forms a self independent of (and often of necessity in the absence of) William's gaze. In other words, Dorothy manages to deflect the male gaze (and by logical extension, the patriarchal society of which she was a part) by filling her journals with observations and descriptions; she becomes the immersed spectator, transforming herself from the object to the subject of the gaze.

Moreover, while acting as William's amanuensis, making fair copy of his poems and prefaces, Dorothy's own writing project was carried out in the one form with which her brother was not experimenting or theorizing: the journal. The two Wordsworths, while living together during the Grasmere years, were each involved in an autobiographical project: William had written the first version of his well known Prelude in 1799 and was in the process of revising it while Dorothy was energetically filling three notebooks with narrative and description about daily life in Grasmere. Because of her ability to keep her own writing separate from the style and genre used by her brother, I conclude that she shaped a textual identity that, rather than relying on her brother's perception and validation of her, instead created a subjectivity that resisted being thus identified. The journal provided her with the format she needed to resist the gaze and the self-formation characterized by her brother's writing.


An analysis of Dorothy Wordsworth's journal in the context of my discussion of the immersed first person produces a reading quite different from one that assumes the importance of linear narrative and the first-person narrator in textually shaping a life. Let me demonstrate these differences by discussing an essay by James Holt McGavran, Jr., “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down.” The play on the words in the title foreshadows the conclusions that McGavran draws in his analysis of the Grasmere journals. He refers to Dorothy Wordsworth's narrative technique as avoiding the first-person pronoun, which, he says, “suggests Dorothy's discomfort at the prospect of self-contemplation” (250). His assessment of Dorothy Wordsworth's “self” tends to be phrased in what have now become predictable epithets. He speaks of her “self-repression,” her “unwillingness to look at herself,” the result of which is that her journals “so full of visionary potential” are “so pathetically unable fully to realize that potential” (243). McGavran's entire essay is informed by his underlying assumption that there is a pathetic lack of self in the journals. The following discussion is typical of his analysis:

In another unusual passage of self-transcendence … William and Dorothy lie “unseen by one another” “in the trench under the fence,” as if “in the grave”; this passage indicates that there may be stirrings of another sort of awareness in Dorothy, a consciousness of the power of words over passion, over change, over mortality: “There was no one waterfall above another—it was a sound of waters in the air—the voice of air” ([Moorman] 117). It is as if Dorothy were overhearing herself, crying from nowhere and yet everywhere at once. …


McGavran uses this passage from the Grasmere journal as an illustration of how Dorothy's “self-effacement” leads to “self-transcendence” but with the “pathetic” results he mentions above.

It is illuminating, I think, to look at the passage that McGavran is analyzing:

Thursday 29th [April 1802] … William lay, and I lay in the trench under the fence—he with his eyes shut and listening to the waterfalls and the Birds. There was no one waterfall above another—it was a sound of waters in the air—the voice of air. William heard me breathing and rustling now and then but we both lay still, and unseen by one another. He thought it would be as sweet thus to lie so in the grave. …


Although McGavran and I are very close in our analysis of the passage, our readings lead us in different directions and to quite different conclusions. First it must be noted that the incident, as reported by Dorothy, recalls to William, not Dorothy, as McGavran suggests, thoughts of the grave. For Dorothy, lying down sightless or at any rate not recording what she saw but rather what she heard suggests that immersion may often obliterate sight and in this case particularly sight of the brother, who in turn cannot see her; she is literally immersed here in a trench. It is an act of resistance that I have mentioned earlier in relation to her writing: by deflecting the gaze of her brother, textually placing herself out of his range of vision, she can shape the experience for herself. The construction of the sentence is important in its parataxis: “William lay and I lay …” That is, she does not say “we” lay, nor does she say that “William and I lay.” In other words, the structure of the sentence works toward creating the separation between her and her brother that is an important step in creating her subjectivity. She has, in fact, set up quite an unusual spatial relationship relying on the auditory to establish the unfixed although locative intent to the prose. She places herself in a trench; she locates herself through dislocated sound rather than a specific arrangement of space. Thus, where McGavran sees unfulfilled potential, I see experimentation with creating a place for herself in ambiguous time and space.

Moreover, the most interesting sentence in the passage reveals another form of resistance—that of the refusal to establish prospect, to create a perspectival stance: “There was no one waterfall above the other—it was a sound of waters in the air.” It (and to what the “it” refers is subject to conjecture) was not, in other words, hierarchical or perspectival but rather contained a multiplicity of sound located in thin air. Thus, while William, as usual, creates meaning that puts him at the center of the experience (lying in the grave), Dorothy's writing resists visual unity by placing the emphasis on sound and by refusing to make a connection to herself. Because her self-structuring strategies do not reflect commonly held notions about the unified self, there is a tendency to misread passages such as these and thus draw the conclusion that the self is “absent.”

The difference between my reading and McGavran's is important. McGavran's foregone conclusions lead him to two analyses. The first is that he tends almost exclusively to select passages from the journals that are linear in structure and that thus conform to the more typical way of recording experience. The example I give above is really an exception to his analyses; that is, he devotes one paragraph to several similar passages and the rest of the paper to the more traditionally structured ones, of which there are several. This selectivity, particularly since McGavran does not draw attention to his principles of inclusion for the entries he discusses, makes him ignore passages that do not conform to the theory he has devised.

The second problem is that his critical framework leads him to some astonishing leaps in his assessments of Dorothy Wordsworth's sense of self. Like several other critics who have come before him, McGavran sees many of Dorothy's descriptions of nature as metaphors for her own situation. Hence, her uprooting and replanting a wild strawberry plant is a “show of bold independence” that then reveals how “she reconciled herself to her situation in life without ever directly confronting it,” (239) although the journal is actually filled with numerous accounts of her uprooting plants in the wild and replanting them in her Grasmere garden. In further instances, her description of the funeral of a village woman becomes her empathetic response to “another victimized woman” (245), and an entry about a heron struggling in the water is interpreted as a symbol of her entrapment (239).

A critical approach to reading private journals based on the principles I have outlined above precludes such “analogical criticism” about the unconscious relationship between Dorothy Wordsworth's own condition (whatever we have assumed that to be) and her observations of nature. Knowing little of what Dorothy Wordsworth thought about her situation, the critic skates on very thin ice in assuming that she felt abandoned, helpless, or trapped, not to mention that the images themselves depict such distress. While not wanting to diminish the impact of such a presence as William on Dorothy's life, I would like to observe that her routine of writing, walking, reading, travelling, and gardening seems refreshingly free compared to the daily life of a twentieth-century academic woman.

McGavran's essay, part of a recent collection on women's autobiography, The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, illustrates that from the earliest critical comments to the present, Dorothy Wordsworth has been consigned, even by those who praise her work, to that circle in the inferno of unfinished work, unrealized potential, unfulfilled self.8 It seems that, as usual, if the mode of writing and structuring identity runs counter to that which is considered valid by those with a vested interest in the canon of autobiography, then the self, if not the work, is considered inferior.

Immersion, however, is a way of seeing, a means of establishing the self's relation to the world. The self created from such a visual and textual strategy is far different from the self that locates itself as the center from which experience radiates and is interpreted. It is, in short, the difference between the Dorothy Wordsworthian decentered earthliness and the William Wordsworthian “egotistical sublime,” to quote John Keats's famous assessment of William's poetry (which he greatly admired).

The irony is that along with multitudes of nineteenth-century women (and several men as well), Dorothy Wordsworth was creating a technique and strategy of self-formation that we characterize as modern, even as postmodern. When Paul Jay, for example, in Being in the Text, examines changing epistemologies of the self and its representation from William Wordsworth to Roland Barthes, he suggests that the early nineteenth-century notion of identity as represented in William Wordsworth's The Prelude was that of unity and coherence, which the author created through the dual and concurrent acts of memory and self-reflexive writing. Jay looks at later writers such as Carlyle and Barthes who deconstructed the notions of the unified self by calling forth fragmentation in their writing. He needed to have looked no further than the Wordsworth household and the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, however, to understand that William's compulsion toward creating a unified self in The Prelude was quietly being matched by Dorothy's own self-formation in her immersed, fragmented, paratactic, resisting journal.

We have been trained, however, to want an autobiographical narrative to proceed, to move toward some teleological finality. We tolerate and even understand the significance when a narrative in a novel is halted by long, descriptive passages or by repetition. But that is because we know as readers we are going somewhere. In the case of the journal, we're not so sure. The record of the dailiness of life will not yield the trajectory to which we are accustomed in autobiography.

A critical approach to the journal form, therefore, requires analysis of various rhetorical and discursive strategies made possible by its very nature. The examination of how immersed narrative is akin to the discursive strategies it promotes is one way to think about the relation of form to structure. Such an approach, requiring the reader to immerse herself in the text in order to recognize the immersed narrative, provides an enlightening, fuller understanding of the journal's significance to self-formation.

The reader's or critic's acknowledgement and attention to these characteristics—far different from those we establish for the traditional, linear, teleological form of autobiography—will reveal rather surprising interpretations of works that heretofore cast doubts on the abilities of their authors to shape a coherent textual self, and, by extrapolation, cast aspersions on the “self” that held the pen.


  1. Bruss argued that: “However unformed journals may seem to a twentieth-century audience, the audience for which they were originally intended often accepted them as finished pieces rather than propaedeutic devices for autobiography yet to be written” (63). Bruss is referring specifically to eighteenth-century autobiography and to the journals of James Boswell.

  2. For a discussion of parataxis as the structuring principle of the diary, see Hogan (101-2).

  3. See, for example, Couser's special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies.

  4. There are two famous exceptions to this brief definition of published autobiography. Gertrude Stein, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, presents a linear account of her life, but refers to herself in the third person. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the author presents memory in alphabetical rather than chronological order; Barthes, does, however, maintain the authority of the narrating “I.” Maxine Hong Kingston so challenged the notion of autobiography with her Woman Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood among Ghosts that to this day the book may be found either in fiction or in biography sections of bookstores, according to the whim or indecisiveness of the cataloguer.

  5. The list of early theorists is often repeated in articles that draw attention to them in order to comment on, enlarge upon, or take exception to their notions. Clearly, the work of James Olney has been the most influential. The collection of essays, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, was seminal and accounts for much of the theory that has developed since that time. The “canon,” as discussed by early writers, predictably included St. Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Bunyan, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and John Henry Cardinal Newman. James Joyce is often cited as an experimenter with the form, as is Roland Barthes.

    Elizabeth Bruss, Rebecca Hogan, Elizabeth Hampsten, Shari Benstock, Felicity Nussbaum, Suzanne Juhasz, Sidonie Smith, and Harriet Blodgett, to name a few, have made significant challenges to the position that the published autobiography is the only form appropriate for analysis and to the concurrent neglect of lifewritings by women in the formation of theory. My own work on Dorothy Wordsworth and on autobiography and illness has sought to add to the dialogue about the private journal, autobiography, and identity.

  6. The journal, of course, is not exclusively used by women. Yet, as George Steiner points out, and Felicity Nussbaum corroborates, it is a form that is most amenable to women. Nussbaum examines the religious circumstances of an era, the seventeenth century, that “encouraged the formation of a large body of private self-reflexive writing” by both men and women in England and the American colonies. She also sees the significance in linking the form to gender, to the marginalized woman:

    Diaries and journals emerged especially from the Dissenting groups of Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists, who urged conversion narratives on their members. … Writing about the “self” reinforces the concept of an independent and hardworking individual who “lives” in the present moment, but the Nonconformist and newly literate classes writing in their diaries may also privately contest the hegemonic institutions of the Church of England, the state, and, in the case of women, the patriarchy. Their loose narrative forms may well issue from the subject's dilemma in asking who grants his/her autonomy. … If gendered subjectivity did not fit into established paradigms, it did not have to be contracted and condensed into recognized genres. … In writing to themselves, eighteenth-century women, in particular, could create a private place in which to speak the unthought, unsaid, and undervalued.


  7. A history of criticism on the writing of Dorothy Wordsworth reveals a progression from examining her journals for revelations about the great men in her life to a serious analysis of her work as a writer. Margaret Homans was one of the first to provide a lengthy analysis of Dorothy Wordsworth's writings, in both Women Writers and Poetic Identity and Bearing the Word. Both Susan Levin and Meena Alexander have made major contributions to Dorothy Wordsworth scholarship through their full and complex investigations of the journals, letters, poetry, and nonfiction writing. Levin's work, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, and Alexander's Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley have greatly influenced my thinking about Dorothy Wordsworth. We differ, however, in our perceptions of Wordsworth's textual identity.

  8. McGavran is, of course, in good company as his own endnotes indicate. He mentions the influence of several critics such as Margaret Homans, Rachel Mayer Brownstein, Susan Levin, and Richard Fadem. Although he draws attention to his points of departure with these critics, the following comment about Homans's work is telling:

    Homans … has observed in Dorothy the converse tendency to avoid the use of the first person pronoun and suggests that there is more to this than the old custom of dropping “I” from hurried personal correspondence; but clearly both the stammerings and the omissions suggest Dorothy's discomfort at the prospect of self-contemplation.


Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley. Savage, MD: Barnes, 1989.

Barsotti, Charles. Cartoon. The New Yorker (22 June 1992): 107.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1977.

Benstock, Shari, ed. The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Blodgett, Harriet. Centuries of Female Days: English-Women's Private Diaries. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1988.

Brownstein, Rachel Mayer. “The Private Life: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals.” Modern Language Quarterly 34 (1973): 48-63.

Bruss, Elizabeth. Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Cook, Kay. “Self-Neglect in the Canon: Why Don't We Talk about Romantic Autobiography?” a/b: Auto/biography Studies 5 (1990): 88-98.

———. “Filling the Dark Spaces: Breast Cancer and Autobiography.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 6 (1991): 85-94.

Couser, G. Thomas, ed. “Special Issue: Illness, Disability, and Lifewriting.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 6.1 (1991): 1-94.

Edgerton, Samuel Y. The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective. New York: Basic, 1975.

Fadem, Richard. “Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey.’” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (1978): 17-32.

Goodman, Katherine R. “Elizabeth to Meta: Epistolary Autobiography and the Postulation of the Self.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 306-19.

Hampsten, Elizabeth. Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writings of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Hogan, Rebecca. “Engendered Autobiographies: The Diary as a Feminine Form.” Prose Studies 14.2 (1991): 95-107.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

———. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Jay, Paul. Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Towards a Theory of Form in Feminist Autobiography: Kate Millet's Flying and Sita and Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior. Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Estelle Jelinek. Bloomington Indiana UP, 1980. 221-37.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. Woman Warrior: A Memoir of Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987.

McGavran, James Holt, Jr. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down.” Benstock 230-53.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Nussbaum, Felicity A. “Eighteenth Century Women's Autobiographical Commonplaces.” Benstock 147-71.

Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

O'Neal. Michael J. “English Decadence and the Concept of Visual Perspective.” British Journal of Aesthetics 23 (Summer 1983): 240-51.

Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken, 1982.

Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Literary Guild, 1933.

Steiner, George. George Steiner: A Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Steiner, Wendy. Pictures of Romance: Form against Context in Painting and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. E. de Selincourt. New York: MacMillan, 1941.

Lisa Tyler (essay date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Tyler, Lisa. “Big Brother Is Watching You: Dorothy Wordsworth's Alfoxden and Grasmere Journals.University of Dayton Review 23, no. 2 (spring 1995): 87-98.

[In the following essay, an abbreviated version of which was presented in 1993, Tyler reads Wordsworth absence from her journals as a narrative strategy of self-protection designed to prevent her brother from appropriating her personal observations.]

The chief observation—and critique—that virtually everyone makes regarding Dorothy Wordsworth's journals is that they display an alarming absence of subjectivity. Critics use almost identical terms to describe this quality in the journals: Bruce Bawer notes that “perhaps what is most arresting about them is their utter unself-consciousness” (30); Ernest de Selincourt describes her journals as “entirely without self-consciousness” (78). Margaret Homans notes “Dorothy's tendency to omit a central or prominent self” (Women 73). Richard Fadem comments, “If Dorothy is notable, as every biographer agrees, for her utter selflessness, she is also remarkable for the absence of a clearly discernible self” (17). Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, Dorothy's most recent biographers, add, “The paradox of her unique style is that it is no style. … The acute observation by Dorothy is there, but no Dorothy herself” (77).

Why is Dorothy Wordsworth so mysteriously absent from her own journals?

Dorothy had reasons to absent herself from her text. She explicitly declares, in the first entry of her Grasmere journal, that she began writing her journals to “give Wm Pleasure” (15-16). William clearly has access to her journal, whether he mines it for ideas or not, and he clearly tends to appropriate whatever he wants from the people—and especially the women—in his life. Moreover, he defines himself by the distance he has come from the childlike simplicity she represents for him.

To phrase Dorothy's textual problem in the harshest possible terms then: If Big Brother (literally!) has access to what she writes, and Big Brother is known to have appropriated both her presence and her experiences as raw material for his poems, Dorothy has every reason to limit herself to writing solely of objective observations. No matter how dearly she loves her brother, surely she has a right to protect her inmost self from his encroachments. She has every reason, then, to prefer the impersonal to the personal, the objective to the subjective, the verifiable to the intangible.

Such a textual strategy, whether consciously or unconsciously adopted, would not only protect Dorothy from William's appropriations—but would also protect William from the threat her subjectivity would pose to his construction of self. For this hypothesis to be correct: 1) Dorothy would have to have demonstrated an ability to use other writing styles before she began living with William, writing styles she abandoned once she joined her brother's household; 2) William would have to have had access to her journal; 3) William would have to have displayed a tendency to appropriate, and Dorothy would have to have been aware on some level of that tendency; and 4) William would have to have demonstrated a construction of his own subjectivity which did not permit subjectivity in others, more specifically in women and particularly in Dorothy.

Dorothy's letters quite easily prove the first contention, that Dorothy did indeed make use of other, more subjective writing styles before she set up house with William. Curiously, Dorothy's biographers Ernest de Selincourt and the team of Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, as well as Alan G. Hill, who edited a selection of her letters, all note an improvement in Dorothy's writing style that they unanimously attribute to William; oddly, none suggests that the dramatic change from subjectivity to objectivity in her writing could also have resulted from William's influence.

Dorothy read Samuel Richardson's Clarissa at the age of 14 (Gittings and Manton 11); not surprisingly, she is moved to imitate Richardson's style. Her letters to her best friend, Jane Pollard, sound suspiciously similar to those of the novel's heroine, as the following self-dramatizing excerpt reveals:

Neither absence too Distance nor Time can ever break the Chain that links me to my Brothers. But why do I talk to you thus? Because these are the thoughts that are uppermost in my Breast at the moment, and when I write to the companion of my childish Days I must write the Dictates of my Heart. In our conversations so full of tenderness I have never constrained my Sentiments; I have laid open to her the inmost Recesses of my Heart then why should I impose a Restraint upon myself when I am writing to her?

(Hill 14)

Ironically, in her life with William, Dorothy rapidly learned to constrain her sentiments, impose restraints upon her writing, and cease writing the dictates of her heart.1 Rarely, after joining her brother, would she even use the first-person pronoun in her journals (Homans, Women 71).

“The earliest extant letters are, admittedly, somewhat mannered,” Hill politely observes; “she tended to dramatise her predicament in novelistic terms. The phase did not last, however …” (xiv). Gittings and Manton, in maintaining that Dorothy “has not yet found her individual touch for natural description,” note instead that she both quotes and imitates the style of Thomas Gray's Journal in the Lakes (44). Only after she and Wordsworth set up house together at Racedown does she begin to write differently: “Her earlier letters describe with a ready pen her delight in the country and country life, but show few traces of her peculiar genius. But this, two years of close companionship with her brother had quickened and brought to birth” (de Selincourt 78). Hill proffers a less sanguine view of the transformation: “Thereafter, she rarely speaks of herself, her own hopes or expectations. If she had any deeper longings, she kept them entirely to herself.” (xiv).

Given, then, that her style changed when she began living with William, was it directly because of William? Did he have access to Dorothy's Alfoxden and Grasmere journals? He copied the first four sentences of the first journal she wrote into his journal (Moorman xii and I), so she must have known from the first that the text was a shared one, and not hers alone. He clearly feels himself entitled to tell her what to write. She notes on Saturday, January 30, 1802: “He asks me to set down the story of Barbara Wilkinson's Turtle Dove” (Wordsworth 81-82). She could not even call the notebooks her own. According to Moorman, the notebook which contains the second volume of the Grasmere journal also contains “drafts in W. W.'s hand of ‘The Brothers’ and ‘Emma's Dell’” (55n). Moorman later notes another such encroachment: “The fourth and last volume of D. W.'s Grasmere journal is written in a notebook already containing at the beginning drafts of ‘Michael’ and ‘Ruth,’ and at the other end extracts from Descartes, in W. W.'s hand” (120n).

Gittings and Manton insist that it is impossible to determine whether Dorothy's journals inspired William and the Wordsworths' mutual friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or vice versa. The consensus of most of her other critics, however—including Mary Moorman, Susan Levin, Ernest de Selincourt, Margaret Homans, and James Holt McGavran, Jr.—is that William did gather ideas and images from Dorothy's journals; certainly the correspondences are too startling to dismiss as coincidence.

The evidence suggests that William considered some of Dorothy's later journals to be as much his as hers. During their trip to Germany, the Wordsworths kept a joint journal, according to Gittings and Manton (92). Certainly at least one entry is identifiably William's experience, written in William's handwriting (de Selincourt 92). Susan Levin suggests that Dorothy acted as communal secretary and that William then took over the responsibility when Dorothy fell ill (78). On their continental tour years later, taken with William's wife, Mary; the Monkhouses, a honeymooning couple; the bride's sister; and the family's maid, everyone but William kept a journal (Gittings and Manton 224). Why did William, the publishing author, fail to write anything down during the trip? Certainly, these were settings he had visited 30 years before and written about in the Prelude—but surely he also knew he had no need to keep a journal when if he wished he could easily avail himself of the extensive (300-page) one kept by his wife or the positively voluminous (750-page) one kept by Dorothy (de Selincourt 324).

That Dorothy's journals were not the personal, private document that journals are now generally assumed to be is also evident from her own behavior. She sent transcripts from her journals with her letters to Catherine Clarkson, one of her closest friends (Gittings and Manton 149), and Dorothy mentions one occasion on which she shared her journal with her brother: “After tea I read to William that account of the little Boys belonging to the tall woman” (Wordsworth 101). A later travel journal, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, was evidently intended to be passed around among Dorothy's friends; in fact, the poet Samuel Rogers urged her to publish the work (Gittings and Manton 146). Moorman notes that an incomplete manuscript copy of an excerpt, “perhaps intended to be lent to members of the family,” is still extant (153n).

Whether William gleaned ideas from her journals or not, then, the evidence suggests that he had access and that Dorothy knew it. Whether he actually read her journals or not becomes largely irrelevant; if he had the power to do so and she recognized that power, she would inevitably have had to compose her journals with that knowledge in mind: “Dorothy … presupposes the existence of a strong reading presence” (McGavran 235). She knew, after he copied her first four sentences, that William tended to consider what she wrote as his for the taking—not, presumably, because William lacked scruples, but because William was the poet and Dorothy, by William's definition, was not. Notes Susan Wolfson: “Writing himself as the center, he assumes all as his imaginative property, a resource ordained for his use” (148). Certainly Dorothy had to realize, in her life with William, that he appropriated her, both literally and literarily.

Dorothy documents his literal appropriation in her journal: She cleans, cooks, sews, paints the house, does the laundry, copes with servants, and cares for children. (She and William took in four-year-old Basil Montagu, evidently as a paying proposition, to provide the boy with a country childhood; later, of course, it is William's children she cares for.) Anne K. Mellor states the case more explicitly: “Borrowing from Dorothy's journals, dictating his compositions to Dorothy, Mary, or Sara Hutchinson, relying on their admiration and devotion, William fully appropriated their female identities into his own male egotistical sublime” (“Teaching” 146). That Dorothy finds great pleasure in serving William none of her critics question.

That he also appropriates Dorothy literarily is equally self-evident. Whether he borrows ideas from her journal or not, he frequently writes in his poetry of experiences they shared, but identifies himself as the only consciousness in the experience (for example, in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”); just as in her journal, Dorothy disappears. In March 1802, Dorothy tells William that she used to chase butterflies but “was afraid of brushing the dust off their wings, and did not catch them” (101): he promptly turns the conversation into a poem, “To a Butterfly.” In April 1802, Dorothy notes, “I happened to say that when I was a child I would not have pulled a strawberry blossom. … At dinner-time he came in with the poem of ‘Children gathering flowers‘” (Wordsworth 116-117). Wordsworth's facility for seizing upon casual comments and making of them a lasting poem demonstrates his literary genius. Surely, however, it also had to disconcert the individual whose words he so unexpectedly took up and transformed.

At least once—in the case of the encounter with the begging mother and her two sons, which became the poem “Beggars” (Wordsworth 26-27, 100-101)—he describes an experience of Dorothy's at which he was clearly not even present. Whether he learned of it through her journals or in conversation with her is moot, since the use he makes of the incident clearly demonstrates his tendency to appropriate.

He appropriates her presence as well: During their time at Grasmere, he again and again writes poems in which he refers to Dorothy but gives her either the name he chooses or no name at all: Dorothy is presumably the “she” of “Point Rash-Judgment” (Moorman 187n), the “Emmeline” of “To a Butterfly,” and “my Love” of “The Glowworm” (Gittings and Manton 91). Certainly she is present in the Prelude and “Tintern Abbey.”

Finally, William appropriates Dorothy's own literary output: He includes three of her poems, attributed in some editions to “A Female Friend” and in others identified as “By My Sister,” in a volume of his poems published in 1815. He changes the names of the characters in the poems to make them less identifiable with specific persons (Levin 112-113). He even adds two stanzas to a poem that she calls “To my Niece” and he calls “A Cottager to her Infant,” stanzas which Susan Levin notes that “Dorothy vigorously crosses out in the Rydal notebook” (115). Moreover, William refused to let Dorothy publish independently: “The Recollections (a travel journal) never appeared during Dorothy's lifetime; William finally decided public authorship would be too much of a strain on his sister's delicate health” (Levin 79).

No wonder, then, that Dorothy consciously or unconsciously creates a text that Levin describes as “characterized by refusal: refusal to generalize, refusal to move out of a limited range of vision, refusal to speculate, refusal to reproduce standard literary forms, refusal to undertake the act of writing (4). No wonder that Dorothy emphasizes distinction in her work, that she writes, for example, of “our favourite birch tree” that “The other Birch trees that were near it looked bright and chearful, but it was a creature by its own self among them” (Wordsworth 61). No wonder that she singles out a columbine to describe: “It is a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement and growing freest and most graceful where it is most alone” (Wordsworth 129). Levin quotes three more such instances (18, 21). Dorothy is trying to maintain distinctions that William fails to perceive. Implicit within her descriptions is a concept of individual integrity within a community—integrity that does not demand the appropriation or subjugation of that which is other.

Levin, in explaining Dorothy's insistence on separateness, notes that “The infant discovers resistant objects that help her comprehend her own separateness from the external world” (15); she theorizes that Dorothy uses “resistant objects … not only to define herself but also to keep herself from feeling overwhelmed by what she calls ‘expansion’ in the Alfoxden journal” (15). Perhaps Dorothy uses resistant objects to keep herself free from feeling overwhelmed by William, and perhaps it is William for whom she is trying to establish her separateness from the outside world.

Clearly, Dorothy had to recognize that William tended to appropriate; is it any wonder, then, that she tried to preserve a part of herself from such appropriation? If she wanted to share in the enterprise of William's poetry-writing, she did not necessarily want to be shared by it. She does seek to help her brother by supplying him with detailed descriptions of the two subjects he most often uses in his writing: nature and country people. Homans argues that Dorothy “turns the possibility of a creating self back toward nature” (Women 75) and “prefers to have nature be the poet” (Women 88)—but is it nature, or William, to whom Dorothy defers?

Dorothy's journal functions more or less as prewriting for William—“a sketch book for descriptive exercises,” to use Pamela Woof's phrase (29), in which each incident described is “offered without comment and lovingly remembered in its exactness for Wordsworth's use” (Woof 49). Elizabeth Hardwick concurs: “The journals are not so much an ambition as a sort of offering. Dorothy seems almost to be making a collection of sights, storing away moments and memories for his poetry” (Hardwick 148). But Dorothy is ultimately not as self-sacrificing as she seems, for it is her self that she finally refuses to sacrifice. She refuses—perhaps, given Dorothy's love for William, not altogether consciously—to write explicitly about her self in her journals.

Such a refusal presupposes a strong sense of self to begin with. This presupposition conflicts with Levin's suggestion that Dorothy has an “unsatisfactory” sense of self (11); it also conflicts with Bawer's assertion that “Dorothy had an extraordinarily weak sense of identity—or, to put it otherwise, a chameleon-like ability to adapt herself, at the most fundamental level, to suit whomever she happened to be living with at the time”27). Certainly, as Bawer notes, she switched religions without hesitation. With the Threlkeld cousins, she became a Dissenter; with her Uncle William, she became an Evangelical. With her brother, she stopped attending church altogether; when he resumed attendance, so did she.

Like Elizabeth Hardwick, Bawer attributes Dorothy's behavior to fear:

[H]aving been removed twice from homes that she loved, she doubtless was so afraid of being sent away once more, and so desperate for a happy and truly permanent home life, that she would make the most profound accommodation in order to secure her desired end.


Certainly his argument makes some sense—but to accept its validity is to deny the very real pressures exerted on women, pressures that specifically encouraged this kind of malleability. Dorothy Wordsworth is in this respect a textbook case of the “Proper Lady,” a socially constructed ideal of feminine behavior that Mary Poovey describes in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. As Poovey points out, “women were encouraged to display no vanity, no passion, no assertive ‘self’ at all” (21). Self-effacement constituted the culturally mandated “norm” for women of Dorothy's generation: “[T]he ideal woman,” observes Poovey, “cannot be seen at all” (22).

As Gittings and Manton note, William represented for Dorothy a paternal as well as fraternal figure; given the role of the Proper Lady, Dorothy had little choice, then, but to accommodate herself to him. Thus while her chameleon-like behavior may indicate her social adjustment, it reveals little about her sense of identity. As Carl Ketcham notes in discussing Dorothy's “satiric spirit” in her later journals, “so much has been made of Dorothy's devotion to her brother and his family that there is some danger of our forgetting this other Dorothy—keen-minded, rather easily affronted, and thoroughly capable of self-defense” (5).

Her journals do offer some suggestion, in their emphasis on singularity and distinction, that a sense of self-identity existed despite the constraints of her role.2 She may identify with nature, as Margaret Homans suggests, but as Virginia Woolf writes, “Dorothy never confused her own soul with the sky” (164). As Susan J. Wolfson observes of Dorothy's poetry. “Though the tone and stressed first-person pronouns … affect modest self-appraisal, the name still gets inscribed, and the rhyme—‘irregular’ though it is deemed—gets written …” (143-44).

It is this underlying and insistent sense of self—and a poet's self, at that—that suggests Dorothy's second, darker reason for writing as she does. Unconsciously, Dorothy refuses to present herself as a subject because she refuses to confront William with a subjectivity that would threaten his. As Margaret Homans argues, “She represents the least ambiguous case of a woman reader's acceptance of the female role specified by Romantic poetry, for she overgoes [sic] even William's expectations for her” (Bearing 65). William characteristically silences the women in his poems, Homans further notes (41). He identifies women, especially Dorothy, with nature, object, Other. If, then, Dorothy unquestioningly accepts the whole ethos of the Romantic movement (as she seems to), how can she write of herself as subject? There is no place for the subjectivity of woman in the Romantic aesthetic, as Margaret Homans has so amply demonstrated.

Moreover, it is the distance between himself and Dorothy by which William defines his consciousness. He identifies Dorothy with childhood and himself with adulthood: “Although attached to his childhood by a sort of lifeline … he is distant from it. The distance is a measure of his growth” (Fadem 27). What happens to William's whole conception of himself as a poet if that distance disappears?3

William repeatedly demonstrates his uneasiness with Dorothy's subjectivity:

As William and she were both aware, his poems owed her numerous verbal and imaginative debts, and he reflects his quiet agitation over this in strategies that suppress, disguise, or deny her influence—usually by representing experiences they shared as solitary ones or, if not, acknowledging her influence with statements that seem as condescending as they are affectionate.

(Wolfson 147)

McGavran, too, senses Wordsworth's dependence and resulting “tone of desperation”: “It was not that William undervalued Dorothy's gifts; indeed, the question seems rather to have been whether he thought he could do without her” (234). Dorothy notes in her journal that after she reads William her “account of the little Boys belonging to the tall woman … he could not escape from those very words, and so he could not write the poem” (Wordsworth 101). Her words render him unable to write.4

Dorothy herself seems to recognize the danger of revealing a self other than the almost nonexistent one permitted to a Proper Lady. In January of 1802, she retells the following anecdote about a clergyman's wife that her friend Mrs. Clarkson knew:

Her husband was very fond of playing Backgammon and used to play whenever he could get any Body to play with him. She had played much in her youth and was an excellent player but her husband knew nothing of this, till one day she said to him ‘You're fond of Backgammon come play with me’. He was surprized. She told him that she had kept it to herself while she had a young family to attend to but that now she would play with him.

(Wordsworth 78)

Dorothy goes on to note that “Mr. C. told us many pleasant stories” and proceeds to list the subjects of several of them. That she took the time to retell this one suggests that it had meaning for her—perhaps the poignant suggestion that being a Proper Lady requires the denial of even the most trivial capabilities and aspects of the self.

Given this context, then, Dorothy must deny her subjectivity unless she wishes to jeopardize William's. Psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray explores the general question of women's subjectivity in an essay entitled “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine.’” As she points out, “Once imagine that woman imagines and the object loses its fixed, obsessional character. As a bench mark that is ultimately more crucial than the subject, for he can sustain himself only by bouncing back off some objectiveness, some objective” (133). She expands upon this idea in a later paragraph:

… at stake here somewhere, ever more insistent in its deathly hauteur, is the risk that the subject (as) self will crumble away. Also at stake, therefore, the “object” and the modes of dividing the economy between them. In particular the economy of discourse. Whereby the silent allegiance of the one who guarantees the auto-sufficiency, and autonomy of the other as long as no questioning of this mutism as a symptom—of historical repression—is required. But what if the “object” started to speak? Which also means beginning to “see,” etc. What disintegration of the subject would that entail?


Dorothy, who loves her brother, has no intention of threatening William's whole Weltanschauung. Her writing is, to use Meena Alexander's term, “non-confrontational” (15). “I startled Wm with my voice,” Dorothy writes in April 1802 (Wordsworth 113). Consciously or unconsciously, Dorothy refuses to so startle him on any other than this concrete, literal level.

Further confirmation of this hypothesis comes from Dorothy's poems. Written for the most part after William's marriage (e.g., when he was primarily someone else's responsibility), they do not show the same peculiarities of style: “Unlike her journals, her poems are determined, at times even aggressive,” Levin observes. “Her poems do not refuse the ‘I’; they are as interested in self as William's, as they carry on the self-definition of her other work” (110). Levin is here echoing Homans (Women 86).

Dorothy's poem entitled “Thoughts on My Sick-bed” (published in Levin 219-20) suggests that she was in fact consciously aware that she had downplayed her subjectivity in her journals. She refers, for example, to “the hidden life,” “my hidden life,” and “consciousness no longer hidden” (11. 5, 39, 40); once consciousness is no longer hidden, the poem's speaker, identified as Dorothy herself by her niece Dora, experiences “a Power unfelt before” (1. 41). In the past, the speaker had set out in search of “known and unknown things” (1. 14), all of them genderless, voiceless figures of nature and perhaps tropes for her own experiences in her life with William: “The silent butterfly spreading its wings / the violet betrayed by its noiseless breath” (11. 16-17). It is particularly telling that the final figure has both a voice and a gender: “The carolling thrush, on his naked perch, / Towering above the budding trees” (11. 19-20; emphasis added). The question of voice hardly seems accidental, given the reference in the next stanza to “The Stirring, the Still, the Loquacious, the Mute” (1. 23) and the mention in the penultimate stanza of William's “prophetic words” (1. 47). Dorothy is here describing the sexual economy later analyzed by both Homans and Irigary, in which men's voices are authorized and women's are not, in which women and nature are silenced and subjugated so that men may speak and dominate. The speaker does after all open the poem asking if Spring's “own prelusive sounds / Touched in my heart no echoing string” (11. 3-4)—thus questioning her right to compose this very poem. As Levin implies, Dorothy's use of the word “pilfered” in the poem (1. 2) may represent a veiled reference to the fate of her writings (136), but it may also represent a more comprehensive reference to what her life with William has cost her.

Susan Levin and Margaret Homans have argued that Dorothy eventually transforms her journals into her own project and that as a result, her writing critiques or even subverts William's writing and, more generally, the masculine literary tradition. But given the circumstances under which these journals were composed, surely her style of writing represents not so much a critique of William's as a means of defense for both herself and her brother.

Richard Fadem notes that “both her journals and letters … lack the intimacy and reflectiveness one assumes of such specifically autobiographical forms” (20). Fadem, like most of her critics, assumes that Dorothy's journals are personal, private documents, written for reasons that have to do with the individual: self-expression, self-revelation, self-analysis, self-knowledge. Given these assumptions, the failure of Dorothy's journals to even acknowledge the self suggests to Fadem that she had profound psychological difficulties (repression, inhibition, a lack of self-identity, arrested development). To more progressive critics, it suggests much more positive alternatives (a questioning of the male Romantics' emphasis on self, or a proto-“ecofeminism” which respects nature without seeking to appropriate).

If the initial assumptions are revised, however, the picture changes: After all, most people (let alone a relatively impoverished, unmarried nineteenth-century Englishwoman) would sound repressed in a diary to which their older brother had access.5 Dorothy's journal represents her deliberate effort to encourage and stimulate (and thus contribute to) what she considered to be her brother's superior poetic genius without completely sacrificing her own identity to his work. Her awareness of her audience—an idea-hungry poet not infrequently afflicted with writer's block—makes her self-avoidance neither a symptom of psychopathology nor a questioning of Romanticism but an intelligent, logical, and understandable rhetorical choice.


  1. When I presented this essay, one member of the audience perceptively suggested that, in mimicking Richardson, Dorothy's self was equally absent—that Dorothy adopted different, perhaps specifically gendered writing styles to suit whichever audience she was addressing at the time: the language of sensibility for her young female friend, the relatively disinterested descriptions of nature and the folk for her older brother. Thus, the “real” Dorothy is perhaps equally inaccessible in both kinds of writing.

  2. Anne Mellor has suggested, in Romanticism and Gender, that Dorothy did not possess the same kind of self that William did, that in her journals Dorothy is constructing a different kind of self, a self-in-relation with permeable ego boundaries—the kind of self that object relations psychologist Nancy Chodorow has postulated as culturally normal for middle-class women in Western societies. It is quite possible. I think, that Dorothy possessed a different kind of self; what I am saying is that Dorothy's self—whatever it was like—is not easily recoverable from her journals because she absented herself from her text, refusing for the most part to write about herself.

  3. Unfortunately, as Rachel Mayer Brownstein observes, “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals have been read mostly by William Wordsworthians” (48); as a result, most of the critics who address Dorothy at all describe her much as William does in the Prelude. Richard Fadem is perhaps the most outspoken of such critics: “[A]t twenty-six she is what William was at seven. She is splendid but rudimentary and incomplete” (28). Complains Elizabeth Hardwick: “She could not, would not analyze” (156). Even James Holt McGavran, Jr., who writes relatively sympathetically of Dorothy, writes of her “loss of any firm sense of personal identity” and refers to “the beautiful, relinquished psyche she never fully recognized” (232-33).

  4. For a fascinating discussion of this incident, see Thomas R. Frosch's essay “Wordsworth's ‘Beggars’ and a Brief Instance of ‘Writer's Block.’” Frosch contends that William's writer's block may have resulted from his conflicting emotions about his upcoming marriage—his desire to marry on the one hand, and his guilt about forsaking Dorothy on the other:

    Dorothy herself typically played a role for Wordsworth akin to that of the genius in the cave, a spirit that refreshed and released his creativity … It was exactly this figure—who generally helped him in his dialectical transactions with the external universe, going before him, as in her journal, encouraging his inner poetic strength, providing within her sensibility and her written entries a place where phenomena, as it may have seemed, could undergo a slow, gestating passage from nature to the verge of imagination—it was this mediator who now suddenly turned against him, overpowering him with the sensations and words of that universe. The liberating influence became the impediment.


  5. Curiously, while Levin repeatedly acknowledges William's role as audience for the journals (13-14, 30-31, 34-36) and further asserts that he must have intimidated Dorothy's poetry (155), she nevertheless attributes the stylistic peculiarities in Dorothy's prose to sexual difference rather than to her awareness of her brother as a potential audience. For example, Levin describes Dorothy's avoidance of first-person pronouns as “characteristic of her vision” (36).

    Anita Hemphill McCormick is the only critic whose analysis of the journals reflects an awareness of Dorothy's consciousness of an audience. In an intriguing and convincing essay, she argues that through the journals, Dorothy appeals to her brother's tenderness for her.

    Dorothy Wordsworth's writings are the jottings of a dependent as well as supportive sister, a sister who deliberately if indirectly informs her brother that his absences cause her far more anguish than they cause him, that his intended marriage will threaten her peace and health, and that he has been thinking of himself and not of her. To be more direct, to reveal naked anger, might be to risk his rebuke or rejection.


An abbreviated version of this essay was presented at the Second Annual Conference on 18th- and 19th-Century Woman Writers of Britain, hosted by the University of Washington, Seattle, May 7 and 8, 1993.

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Bawer, Bruce. “‘My Dear, Dear Sister’: The Life of Dorothy Wordsworth.” The New Criterion 4 (January 1986): 26-34.

Brownstein, Rachel Mayer. “The Private Life: Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals.” Modern Language Quarterly 34 (March 1973): 48-63.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

de Selincourt, Ernest. Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon U P, 1933.

Fadem, Richard. “Dorothy Wordsworth: A View from ‘Tintern Abbey.’” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (Winter 1978): 17-32.

Frosch, Thomas R. “Wordsworth's ‘Beggars’ and a Brief Instance of ‘Writer's Block’” Studies in Romanticism 21 (Winter 1982): 619-36.

Gittings, Robert, and Jo Manton. Dorothy Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon U P, 1984.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Dorothy Wordsworth.” Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature. New York: Random House, 1974. 143-56.

Hill, Alan G., ed. Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon U P, 1985.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

———. Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1980.

Irigary, Luce. “Any. Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine.’” Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell U P, 1985.

Ketcham, Carl H. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals, 1824-1835.” The Wordsworth Circle 9 (Winter 1978): 3-16.

Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. Rutgers: Rutgers U P, 1987.

McCormick, Anita Hemphill. “‘I shall be beloved—I want no more’: Dorothy Wordsworth's Rhetoric and the Appeal to Feeling in The Grasmere Journals.Philological Quarterly 69 (Fall 1990): 471-93.

McGavran, James Holt, Jr. “Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals: Putting Herself Down.” The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988. 230-53.

Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.

———. “Teaching Wordsworth and Women.” Approaches to Teaching Wordsworth's Poetry. Ed. Spencer Hall with Jonathan Ramsey. New York: MLA, 1986. 142-46.

Moorman, Mary, ed. The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. By Dorothy Wordsworth. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1971.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Wolfson, Susan J. “Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William.” Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1988. 139-66.

Woof, Pamela. Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer. Grasmere: The Wordsworth Trust, 1988.

Woolf, Virginia. “Dorothy Wordsworth.” The Second Common Reader. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. San Diego: Harcourt, 1986. 164-72.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. Mary Moorman. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1971.

Alexis Easley (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Easley, Alexis. “Wandering Women: Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals and the Discourse on Female Vagrancy.” Women's Writing 3, no. 1 (1996): 63-77.

[In the following essay, Easley scrutinizes Wordsworth's ideological relationship to the vagrant women who are frequently mentioned in her journals.]


During the time that Dorothy Wordsworth was composing the Grasmere Journals (1800-1803), English society was engaged in a heated debate over what to do about the vagrant poor. Industrialization and enclosure laws had produced a large transient population that traveled from parish to parish, peddling, begging, or looking for work. Like many writers of the period, Dorothy Wordsworth attempted to depict the poverty she saw around her—particularly the many wanderers she encountered on the footpaths and at her doorstep. Many recent critics have praised the sensitivity of these portrayals, claiming that Dorothy Wordsworth presents her observations of the poor as expressions of her sympathy, rather than as a means through which to express her political viewpoints on poverty.1 Wordsworth's views toward the poor are most often described by critics as being outside of prevailing social and moral standards: she is depicted as a sympathetic and charitable friend of the poor, who does not pass moral judgement on the vagrants in her neighborhood.

By examining her work as if it existed both morally and ideologically apart from any historical context, critics have simplified Dorothy Wordsworth's complex and contradictory position with regard to issues of class and gender. As a writer situated within a historical time period where conflicting discourses over class and gender motivated changes in public policy, Dorothy Wordsworth's ideological position was undoubtedly more complex than we have hitherto allowed. With this in mind, we might ask ourselves just how “innocent” or “realistic” Dorothy Wordsworth's depictions of the poor could possibly be. After all, Wordsworth's work existed in an intertextual relationship with various other discourses on poverty that circulated throughout her society. Thus, as is the case with any attempt at representation, Dorothy Wordsworth's depictions of the vagrant poor in the Grasmere Journals must in some ways replicate the contradictions and social inequities at work within the social discourses of her time period.

The intertextuality between the discourse on poverty and the work of Dorothy Wordsworth has received little critical attention.2 There are, of course, many studies which contextualize William Wordsworth's writings within the social discourses on poverty.3 These studies often assume that Dorothy Wordsworth's political viewpoints are identical to those of her brother or that her writing served as documentary “evidence” for William's poetic representations of the poor.4 Although it is true that Dorothy Wordsworth did not often directly discuss her views on public debates over poverty, we must still view her work—as we would any other work which claims to represent the poor—as being in a complex intertextual relationship with social discourses on poverty.

But perhaps most importantly, we must begin to recognize that Dorothy Wordsworth's writing was informed by issues of class and gender in ways that her brother's work was not. After all, Dorothy Wordsworth was writing from within a culture where “femininity” was defined in contradictory terms tied to both class and morality. On one hand, middle- and upper-class women were defined as moral paragons, whose chastity and domesticity would provide the basis for a stable society. Alternatively, lower-class women, by virtue of their participation in the public sphere, came to be defined as profligates, whose sexuality and mobility would undermine all social order. In this way, issues of class and gender came to be deeply intertwined within the discourse on poverty at the turn of the eighteenth century. Just as the work of a middle-class writer such as Dorothy Wordsworth was constructed by socially established definitions of class, gender and morality, so were lower-class women defined according to these same terms.

By examining the intertextuality between the Grasmere Journals and cultural discourses on class and gender, we can gain new insight into Dorothy Wordsworth's complex ideological position as a writer. Thus, the purpose of my analysis is twofold. First, I will demonstrate the ways in which the discourses on poverty intersected with the discourses on gender during the time period in which Dorothy Wordsworth was writing her Grasmere Journals. In this analysis, I will explore the ways in which the conflicting discourses over class and gender were expressed through the trope of the female vagrant. I will argue that the female vagrant—as an emblem of mobility and profligacy—came to be seen as a locus of social problems in both economic and literary discourses. In the second part of this essay, I will examine how the ideological contradictions implicit in the discourse on female vagrancy were reinscribed in Dorothy Wordsworth's representations of the poor. By exploring the ideological complexities inherent in the Grasmere Journals, I will demonstrate the ways in which Dorothy Wordsworth both constructed and resisted the definitions of gender and class imposed by her society.


The intellectual fervor over what to do with the vagrant poor in the late eighteenth century was fueled by the radical philosophies of Jeremy Bentham, Frederic Eden, Edmund Burke, and others. As self-avowed followers of Adam Smith, these philosophers led the movement to reform the English poor laws that had been in place since Elizabethan times. According to the “old” poor laws, landholders were assessed a tax which was used to support the poor and indigent within their parishes.5 Because peasants were increasingly mobile, a system of settlement laws was developed to determine which peasants could legally receive relief from a given parish.6 It was this complex system of taxation and resettlement that so troubled radical economic philosophers in the 1790s.7 They saw poor laws as an interference in natural economic order, where the market would determine the proper price and settlement patterns for labor. Within a laissez-faire economic system, they contended, the poor would be free to settle wherever the wages and living conditions were best. Thus, the migrant poor were seen as a source of inexpensive labor that would fuel economic progress.

The viewpoints of economic philosophers played a key role in forming public perceptions of the poor in the late eighteenth century. However, perhaps the most controversial perspective on the poor law question came from the Reverend Thomas Malthus. In his Essay on Population (1798), Malthus contended that, if left unchecked, human populations would soon outstrip their available food supplies. On this basis, Malthus sharply criticized the poor laws and other interventionist social policies because they encouraged population growth among the lower classes of society. By comforting the poor, he claimed, society was contributing to an ongoing cycle of population increase, poverty, and famine.8

It was not until the publication of the second edition of the Essay on Population in 1803 that Malthus began to stress the importance of “moral restraint”—that is, sexual abstinence and delayed marriage—as a preventive check on population growth. Malthus believed that abstinence as a preventive check was useless if left to men because “moral restraint does not at present prevail much among the male part of society.”9 Female sexual restraint, on the other hand, was seen as a powerful preventive check on population. Malthus writes, “a much larger proportion of women pass a considerable part of their lives in the exercise of this virtue than in past times and among uncivilized nations.”10 In this way, Malthus seems to define a socially constructed “femininity” as the operative site for the control of overpopulation and thus the spread of poverty.11

In the second edition of his Essay, Malthus claimed not only that women should continue to exercise moral restraint, but also that society should change its views on female sexuality. Malthus told his readers that they must come to appreciate childless women who “propagate virtue and happiness” rather than their own progeny.12 In this way, Malthus—like many other social and moral philosophers of his day—associated the repression of female sexual desire with the control of population growth and therefore poverty. To be sure, Malthus did propose ways that male sexual behavior could be controlled, but he focused on methods of “regulation and direction” rather than “diminution or alteration” of male sexual desire.13

In this way, feminine chastity came to be seen as a locus of social stability and control, and female sexuality came to be seen as a problem connected to various other social ills, including overpopulation and poverty. As one writer in the Anti-Jacobin Review noted:

Female chastity has ever been, and ever must be the main source of all the virtues, which constitute the strength and the sanctity of human society. And female modesty is ordained, by the unalterable constitution of nature, to be the guardian of female chastity.14

As the “guardian” of social virtue, the image of the “chaste woman” was placed in direct opposition to the image of the prostitute—the woman who wandered “outside” acceptable norms of gender and sexuality.

Because there were few high paying employment opportunities for lower-class women and the competition for jobs was often severe, many women workers turned to prostitution or begging in times of unemployment or low wages.15 Prostitution was so prevalent among women of lower classes that those in upper classes came to see lower class women as lacking the values of a moral domestic culture.16 As participants in the amoral sphere of the economic market-place, these women were seen as being displaced from their proper domestic spaces, where “feminine” morality would protect them from sexual misconduct. Thus, poor women came to be viewed as “loose”—both in terms of physical mobility and moral turpitude. The physical and moral separation of these categories of women was seen as an imperative closely associated with the stability of the most basic social structures. The fallen woman—as a trope for unrestrained feminine sexuality—was seen as a cultural contaminate which would disrupt social order.

In addition to depicting the prostitute as a source of social instability, these discourses also constructed the trope of the wandering female mendicant, who begged for money instead of working due to laziness or criminal intent. These women were thought to employ every kind of ruse as a means of coming by free money. As Francis Grose put it in 1796,

Pray observe that poor woman, with those two helpless babes half-naked starving on the steps of that great house. Is she an object of charity, think you? None at all; in all likelihood one or both of these children are hired by the day or week, for the purpose of exciting charity—at best the beggar is a professional one.17

Described as a “professional beggar,” the mendicant woman becomes a twisted version of the middle- or upper-class mother: she hires, rather than mothers, children. Because she is not bounded by domestic morality, she is assigned to the category of criminality and immorality, where “real,” nurturing motherhood is an impossibility.

Since female vagrants were seen as existing outside the guiding principles of a moral domestic culture, they were thought to be less likely to exert self-control in sexual matters. Thus, more institutional forms of discipline were proposed, which had the effect of controlling both the mobility and sexuality of female vagrants. William Hazlitt, in his response to Malthus, points out that institutional constraints are the best check on female sexuality. He writes:

It cannot be said I presume that the greater command which the other sex have over themselves is because their heads are stronger and their passions weaker, (this would, I am sure, be out of all anatomical proportion): it is owing solely to the institutions of society, imposing this restraint upon them.18

The public institutions that developed for the purpose of restraining the sexuality of lower class women during this period were diverse indeed. The years between 1750 and 1850 saw a rapid proliferation of reformative agencies designed to house homeless women and provide them with moral instruction which would prevent illicit sexual behavior.19 By containing women within “homes”—institutions which replicated the paternalism of the domestic sphere—social reformers attempted to stem the tide of moral depravity within their society.

In rural parishes there were few institutionalized arrangements for reforming wayward women.20 For this reason, most vagrant women in rural parishes were strangers “passing through” on their way towards employment or resettlement in their home parishes. Those who lingered too long in parishes where they were not entitled to legal settlement were subject to relocation. This was especially true of women who were perceived as being guilty of breaking the rules of proper sexual behavior. Illegitimate children were assigned settlement according to where they were born; thus, as James Taylor has said, “by attaching settlement to birth, parishes had an incentive to move such women on. Moreover, the shame associated with illegitimacy ensured that many women would leave their parish of settlement, becoming unwelcome sojourners wherever they went.”21

As a paternalistic form of social control, the parish settlement laws did not always result in vagrant women being “passed along”; often, parish officers attempted to restore women to the protection of fathers or husbands. The following account, taken from a settlement disposition, demonstrates how this paternal role was fulfilled:

Elizabeth Lively, eighteen years of age, gained her settlement by her father, Philip Lively … This last two months [she] has been unfortunate, and taken from a house of ill-fame in St. Mary Newington, and passed to us. NB: Gave her an order for admittance to Showell's, Bear Lane, until she is cured, and can get a place of service. 24 March 1819: Discharged and clothed, her father promising to take care of her.22

In this way, the settlement laws served as a means of social control aimed at redomesticating a highly mobile lower-class female population. They performed the paternal function of containing female sexuality by restoring wandering women to the stationary—and morally stable—culture of the domestic sphere.

Thus, we see that discourses on female vagrancy were concerned with containing both female sexuality and mobility. By redomesticating wayward women within “homes”—whether they be reformatory institutions or paternally controlled domestic spaces—social reformers sought to stem the tide of moral degeneration within their society. As we will see, the middle-class women had an important role to play in this reformatory project. Dorothy Wordsworth, as a woman inscribed by these discourses on female sexuality, in many ways conformed to social and moral norms in her depictions of vagrant women in the Grasmere Journals. However, as I will demonstrate, she also was able to find ways to resist these socially imposed definitions of proper female behavior.


As a middle-class resident of a poor country village in the County of Westmorland, Dorothy Wordsworth encountered the vagrant poor as part of her daily routine. Her descriptions of these vagrants fit with accounts recorded in late eighteenth-century sociological studies, such as Frederic Eden's The State of the Poor, which depict Westmorland as a “wild” part of the country, where the poor eke out a living in weaving and agricultural employment.23 Though Eden notes that there are “friendly societies,” a workhouse, and adequate poor relief within Westmorland, he adds that many families in the parish have a difficult time making ends meet, even with every member of the family, including children, working in various employments.24 Eden also notes that near the Westmorland town of Kendal, “the insides of cottages … exhibit every appearance of misery.”25

Though Eden mentions few relocations or settlements of transients, we can assume from reading Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals that there was constant traffic of vagrant poor through the Lake District in Westmorland. In the Grasmere Journals, Dorothy Wordsworth seems particularly concerned with describing female vagrants. What is interesting about these passages is that even though dominant social discourses depicted the wandering woman as a corrupt social force, Wordsworth seems to paint them with frankness and sympathy:

A young woman begged at the door—she had come from Manchester on Sunday morn with two shillings & a slip of paper which she supposed a Bank note—it was a cheat. She had buried her husband & three children within a year & a half—All in one grave—burying very dear—paupers all put in one place—20 shillings paid for as much ground as will bury a man—a grave stone to be put over it or the right will be lost—11/6 each time the ground is opened.

(p. 2)26

This passage seems to be a direct critique of the immorality of the economic market-place, which puts such a low price on human life. The vagrant woman is presented as being economically cheated, both in terms of her bogus bank note and the high price for a pauper burial. Wordsworth seems to blame the brutality of the economic system, rather than the immorality of the female vagrant, for the victimization of the poor.

Though we might like to think this sympathetic viewpoint is anomalous given the harshness of late eighteenth-century discourses on poverty, in fact it was very much in step with the socially constructed role of the middle-class female, whose charity and chastity were seen as being a necessary antidote to the ravages of laissez-faire economics and industrialization. First, by repressing her own sexuality, the middle-class woman was seen as helping to stabilize the rampant population growth and poverty which threatened to unravel social ties. In addition, her charitable ministrations were seen as making up for the lack of charity in the economic market-place. Thus, just as the sexuality and morality of lower-class women became a locus for some of the most intractable social problems, so was the sexuality and morality of middle-class women seen as being an active site for solving these same problems.

Dorothy Wordsworth's teenage years in many ways illustrate how middle-class women were socialized to serve as models of morality and charity. When Wordsworth moved in with her Aunt and Uncle Cookson at the age of 17, she took on many roles within the family, including managing the household, caring for children, and undertaking charitable works within her neighborhood. In a letter to Jane Pollard, she describes her daily routine:

We are to have prayers at nine oclock (you will observe it is winter) after breakfast is over we are to read, write, and I am to improve myself in French until twelve oclock, when we are to walk or visit our sick and poor neighbors till three27

The use of passive language in this passage demonstrates how serving the poor was just one of many gender-defined duties which were imposed upon Wordsworth in her teenage years. As she grew older, however, Wordsworth seemed to become more emotionally involved in her charitable works. When a prominent philanthropist, William Wilberforce, came to visit Wordsworth's uncle, he was so impressed with her charitable works that he gave her 10 guineas a year to use in service to the poor. Wordsworth called it “a very nice sum by which I [am] enabled to do more good than perhaps might ever have been in my power …”.28 It is difficult to know the extent of Wordsworth's emotional and intellectual commitment to these charitable works since during her time women were expected to be enthusiastic about serving the poor; thus, the effusions over charitable works in her early letters might well have been as much a function of decorum as they were a function of genuine interest in serving the poor.

Part of the decorum associated with the act of serving the poor was that women could sympathize—but not empathize—with objects of charity. Their role was to assert a superior morality, one which would guide the wayward lower classes toward religious rectitude. Dorothy Wordsworth's main guide to the decorum of charity was Sarah Trimmer's The Oeconomy of Charity, a book given to her in 1789 by William Wilberforce.29 In this tract, Mrs Trimmer describes her designs for poor schools and gives general guidelines for young ladies' charitable acts. She writes that it is “ordained to each peculiar duties: to all in superior stations, justice, humanity, condescension and charity: to the poor, honesty, diligence, humility and gratitude.”30 In this way, Mrs Trimmer conceives of social roles and class divisions as being justified by religious law, which ordains that a middle-class woman is by nature morally superior to the objects of her charity. Thus, by doing her duty, the middle-class woman not only shows compassion for those of lower classes, but also reinforces class hierarchies.

Given the definitions of feminine charity which shaped Dorothy Wordsworth's early interactions with the poor, we might begin to complicate her relationship to the vagrant women depicted in the Grasmere Journals. While clearly Wordsworth's Journals express a great deal of sympathy for these women, in many ways her depictions illustrate her own inability to empathize with them fully. She always seems to be careful to maintain a morally righteous position with regard to the objects of her charity. For this reason, I cannot agree with Susan Wolfson when she claims that Wordsworth's poetic “self has a place, but not the privileged place” in her relationship with others in her community.31 Likewise, though I agree with Margaret Homans that Dorothy Wordsworth is “trying to use language not to augment her own power but as a vehicle of her respect for the other,” I do not think Wordsworth can possibly succeed in this idealistic task.32 This is because, like any writer, she is located within the cultural discourses of her time period. These discourses place her in the “privileged” position of being a white middle-class woman who is enmeshed in cultural definitions of feminine morality and charity.

Dorothy Wordsworth's middle-class ideology comes into play in her descriptions of vagrant women in the Grasmere Journals, where her tendency is to naturalize the circumstances of the poor within the terms of her own conventional morality. In her description of a “Cockermouth woman,” as well as her description of many other encounters, Wordsworth seems to struggle to find a point of identification with women vagrants that will place them within her own moral universe. She writes:

The Mother when we accosted her told us that her Husband had left her & gone off with another woman & how she ‘pursued’ them. Then her fury kindled & her eyes rolled about. She changed again to tears. She was a Cockermouth woman—30 years of age a child at Cockermouth when I was—I was moved and gave her a shilling, I believe 6(d) more than I ought to have given.

(p. 95)

At first Wordsworth seems perplexed—and almost frightened—by the Cockermouth woman, whose “eyes rolled about” in madness. Only when she discovers that the woman had lived in her own home town is Wordsworth able to “locate” the woman within her experience and thus be moved to charity. Through the process of sympathy, she is also able to fix the woman in time and space—to a particular familiar town—rather than allowing her the morally suspect role of eternal wandering. In this way, Wordsworth's sympathy becomes a sort of moral containment, where poverty and misery are justified through shared experience.

Even with her expression of sympathy in this passage, however, Wordsworth seems of feel somewhat ambivalent about her encounter with the Cockermouth woman. In a moment of sympathetic identification, she is moved to give more money than she “ought to have given.” How are we to read the tag on the end of this anecdote? Does Wordsworth feel that she has been emotionally “robbed” or manipulated by the vagrant woman? If read in this way, certainly Wordsworth would seem to be relying on the stereotype of the “lazy mendicant” so prevalent in her society, where the professional beggar plays with the emotions of her victim in order to receive money. Perhaps it would be more reasonable to interpret Wordsworth's remark as a way of chiding herself for not controlling her own emotions. If this is so, Wordsworth in a sense has emotionally “robbed” herself by becoming too sympathetically involved with the vagrant woman. Another reading might interpret this line as a self-congratulatory remark, which places Wordsworth in a position of moral superiority as one who is overgenerous in her interactions with the poor. No matter how we choose to read this line, it seems to suggest some ambivalence underlying Wordsworth's sympathetic actions.

We see this same sort of moral reconstruction in Dorothy Wordsworth's depiction of the “tall woman.” Wordsworth first encounters the tall woman on her doorstep, begging for food. Wordsworth describes her in this way:

A very tall woman, tall much beyond the measure of tall women, called at the door. She had on a very long brown cloak, & a very white cap without a Bonnet—her face was excessively brown, but it had plainly once been fair. She led a little bare footed child about 2 years old by the hand & said her husband who was a tinker was gone before with the other children. I gave her a piece of Bread.

(pp. 9-10)

We might begin by asking ourselves why Wordsworth has chosen to present these particular details. Upon first glance, we might be tempted to say that she is presenting a neutral or “realistic” description of a woman who calls at her door. However, looking more closely, there is more to this description than first appears. After all, in a sense this is a scene about Wordsworth deciding whether or not to give food to the vagrant woman.

Since a long list of particularized details are followed by an action of charity—“I gave her a piece of Bread”—it is as if Wordsworth is “sizing her up” from a moral perspective before making the decision to be charitable. Viewed from an early nineteenth-century moral perspective, a solitary woman with a child (even with a story about a “husband”) might seem to fit within the category of unwed mother or prostitute, especially since her face “had plainly once been fair.” However, Wordsworth perhaps senses decency or purity in the woman's “very white cap” or decides that the woman's “excessively brown” face is tanned from agricultural labor. The use of “very” and “excessively” here seem to suggest a concentration upon these details as somehow “telling,” almost as if they are the kind of details that might tip the scales in favor of charity.

Of course, this is not the last Wordsworth sees of the “tall woman” and her family. And the rest of their tale reads like a moral justification of her charity. Wordsworth meets the woman's other children and husband along the road. The children, following the script of the criminal vagrant poor, attempt a ruse, where they claim that their parents are dead so as to receive more charity. Wordsworth lets them know that she sees through their trick, saying “I served your Mother this morning” (p. 10). But rather than meditating upon the dishonesty of these boys, Wordsworth ends her story with a moral:

On my return through Ambleside I met in the street the mother driving her asses; in the two Panniers of one of which were the two little children whom she was chiding & threatening with a wand which she used to drive on her asses, while the little things hung in wantonness over the Panniers edge. The woman had told me in the morning that she was of Scotland, which her accent fully proved, but that she had lived (I think at Wigton) that they could not keep a house, & so they travelled.

(p. 10)33

The moral purpose of this story is twofold. First, Wordsworth demonstrates the existence of moral values in the vagrant poor, especially in the wandering mother, who performs her domestic disciplinary function even without a roof over her head. Second, Wordsworth seems to be justifying her initial decision to serve the woman and to trust her own sense of judgement. While the children's ruse seems temporarily to have unsettled her trust in the morality and efficacy of the “tall woman” and her family, in the end her own moral sense is rewarded and justified.

The final lines of the passage seem to solidify Wordsworth's judgement that the “tall woman” is indeed genuine. Her accent “proved” she was from the place she claimed to be from. Likewise, Wordsworth seems pleased that the tall woman once kept house in Wigton, a fact that would seem to discount the possibility that the woman is a professional beggar. Again, Wordsworth seems most comfortable with wandering women when she can situate them both morally and physically within familiar territory. Thus, the process of describing the wandering women she encounters is far from a neutral description; rather, it is a form of inquiry where the women are tested against the rules of her own morality. Inevitably—at least for the encounters she chooses to represent—the women rise to her expectations.

One of Dorothy Wordsworth's most extensively drawn depictions of female vagrancy in the Journals occurs in her description of an “officer's widow.” What is interesting about this depiction is that it apparently does not end in a charitable act on Wordsworth's part. The woman is presented as being destitute. (“she and her husband had slept upon the hearth” at Harrison's), yet Wordsworth stops short of describing her own emotional or charitable intervention into the situation (p. 42). Instead, she presents a long passage in which she reports the words of the soldier's widow:

“Aye,” says she “I was once an officers wife I, as you see me now. My first Husband married me at Appleby I had £18 a year for teaching a school & because I had no fortune his father turned him out of doors. I have been in the West Indies—I lost the use of this Finger just before he died he came to me & said he must bid farewell to his dear children & me—I had a Muslin gown on like yours—I seized hold of his coat as he went from me & slipped the joint of my finger—He was shot directly. I came to London & married this man. He was a clerk to Judge Chambray, that man that man thats going on the Road now.”

(p. 42)

One of the most distinctive characteristics of this passage is its passionate tone: the soldier's widow says that her husband “came to her” and that she “seized hold of his coat” so hard that her finger broke. Such violent passion would probably have made a middle-class woman like Dorothy Wordsworth uncomfortable, especially since the soldier's widow claims to have had on “a Muslin gown” like Wordsworth's at the time of the passionate farewell.

The mention of the muslin gown has the effect of putting Wordsworth in a position of identification instead of moralistic sympathy—that is, it thrusts her imaginatively in the same moral place as the soldier's widow. Thus, perhaps it is the fact that this point of identification is aggressively imposed by the soldier's widow that keeps Wordsworth from being moved to sympathy—and charity. After all, the act of sympathy for the middle-class woman is a one-way street; the middle-class woman's role is to initiate, not become the object of, a sympathetic act. If the roles of charity are reversed—where the vagrant woman initiates some point of sympathetic connection—the moral hierarchy is disrupted and the middle-class woman becomes exposed to corrupt lower-class values.

Some critics have claimed that Wordsworth sees something of her own situation in the lives of the vagrant women she meets.34 Like her, they are vulnerable because of their gender and precarious economic status. As Anita Hemphill McCormick states, “The vagrant women Dorothy describes in her Journals are projections of Dorothy's worst anxieties: of losing her home, her role and her sense of self. Their sad stories also become a means of focusing William's attention upon her needs and concerns.”35 Though I agree with McCormick that Dorothy Wordsworth has some sense of the common economic and social inequities endured by women of all classes, I think it is ahistorical to suggest that they are “projections” of her own difficulties. As I have already suggested, the possibilities of complete identification between women of upper and lower classes was constrained by a variety of social factors that emphasized their physical and moral separation. However, though Wordsworth was in many ways incapable of complete identification with female vagrants, she was capable of resisting social constraints in other ways.

What I would like to suggest is that the most transgressive act depicted in Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals is not her representations of vagrant women; rather, it is her depiction of herself as a middle-class woman who is mobile. According to cultural definitions of femininity, the middle-class woman is differentiated from lower class women by virtue of the fact that she is physically and morally located within the domestic sphere. As Anne Wallace has noted, “The latent sexual context of the activity combined with its class content and standard prejudices about women's ‘nature’ and proper roles in society to make women's walking, even on local footpaths, unusually perilous to their reputations.”36 By moving outside protected spaces on her many countryside walks, Wordsworth was risking being associated with mobile—and morally suspect—underclass women.

Dorothy Wordsworth did in fact endure a certain amount of social censure for her own wandering ways. In 1794, Wordsworth's Aunt Crackenthorpe wrote her a letter in which she scolded her for “rambling about the country on foot.” Wordsworth responds by saying, “I rather thought it would have given my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me …”37 In this way, Wordsworth defends her right to walk alone, refusing to acknowledge that her actions should be taken as a transgressive act. Wordsworth's action of walking disrupts the polarity between the mobility associated with the lower classes and the immobility associated with middle-class female culture.

Many critics have made this important connection between the act of walking and social transgression in women's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts. Ellen Moers tells us that “a whole history of literary feminism might be told in terms of the metaphor of walking.”38 Throughout the history of women's literature, she contends, walking can be seen as an act that placed women outside the boundaries of social control. She writes, “Reckless, independent motion out of doors is a persistent metaphor of feminism or female heroism in our literature, where to rebel against the confinement of ‘woman's place’ is often, most dramatically, simply to go, to move, to walk.”39 Of course, it would be ahistorical for us to suggest that Dorothy Wordsworth's walking was “feminist” subversion of middle-class codes of conduct; however, perhaps we can still say that Dorothy Wordsworth successfully resisted social constructions of her gender and class in this aspect of her everyday life.

In this way, Wordsworth's viewpoints on female vagrancy and her own wandering habits were informed by many contradictory definitions of class and gender constructed by her culture. Social discourses on poverty relied upon a distinct separation between the domesticity and morality of middle-class female culture and the mobility and immorality of the lower-class female culture. Though she attempted to empathize with these women, her attempts demonstrate her own inability to overcome the socially defined categories which separated her from her objects of sympathy. Only through her own physical mobility was she able to in some way resist the social patterning which defined her roles and activities as a middle-class woman.

By analyzing the work of Dorothy Wordsworth within the context of the complex discourses over gender and poverty, we begin to see the ways she was able simultaneously to construct and reconstruct the gender and class definitions of her day. Such a historicized view enriches and complicates our views of Dorothy Wordsworth's work by distinguishing it from the work of William Wordsworth on ideological terms. In addition, it allows us to move beyond the depiction of Dorothy Wordsworth as an “innocent” chronicler of her surroundings, whose depictions of the poor were unsullied by political and social discourse. As I have shown, though Dorothy Wordsworth was in many ways isolated from society, her viewpoints and literary representations still existed in a complex intertextual relationship with the social and political discourses of her day. These discourses shaped and constrained what could be expressed by women writers as they encountered deep social divisions based on class and gender—and pointed to ways these divisions could be overcome through transgressive acts of wandering.


  1. See Robert Gittings & Jo Manton, Dorothy Wordsworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); Susan Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1987); and Susan Wolfson, Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William, in Anne Mellor (Ed.) Romanticism and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana, 1988) for discussion of Dorothy Wordsworth's self-effacement in her descriptions of the poor.

  2. Wolfson, “Individual in Community”; Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism; and Gittings & Manton, Dorothy Wordsworth all briefly treat this connection.

  3. See, for example, Gary Harrison, Wordsworth's ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’: The Economy of Charity in Late Eighteenth-century Britain, Criticism, 30 (1988), pp. 23-42; David Simpson, What Bothered Charles Lamb About ‘Poor Susan’?, Studies in English Literature, 26 (1986), pp. 589-612; and Margot Beard, The Interrelationship Between Literature and Politics: Towards a Study of Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1790s, English Studies in Africa: A Journal of the Humanities, 31 (1988), pp. 91-106.

  4. For example, in an article by Harrison, Wordsworth's ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar,’ Dorothy Wordsworth is depicted as the recorder of events which illustrate her brother's stance on charity. Her Journals are said to chronicle the “numerous incidents of their giving alms” (p. 23) and are said to provide “evidence” of William's distanced attitude toward the poor (p. 24). These references seem odd considering the fact that the rest of Harrison's essay denies the possibility of any neutral literary representation of the poor. Yet, here, and elsewhere, Dorothy Wordsworth's work is treated as if it were the repository of “evidence” relating to William's life and work. Elsewhere in his article Harrison seems to assume that Dorothy Wordsworth's representations of the vagrant poor can be conflated with those of her brother. He refers to “the Wordsworths' attitudes toward the poor” and their joint motivations (p. 24). He writes, “Thus Wordsworth and his sister exacted from the poor at least a small price for their charity …” (p. 24).

  5. In my analysis of eighteenth-century settlement laws, I am very much indebted to James Taylor's Poverty, Migration and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution (Palo Alto: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1989).

  6. According to this law, peasants usually gained settlement in a particular parish through birth, employment, marriage, or property rental. If peasants were found wandering or begging in parishes where they had no legal claim to settlement, they were often interrogated by the local magistrates and returned to their “home” parishes.

  7. See Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Knopf, 1984) for a detailed study of late eighteenth-century discourses on poverty.

  8. This and all subsequent references from Malthus are taken from a 1992 edition of the Essay on Population (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), which includes Malthus's 1803 and subsequent revisions of the original essay published in 1798. In proposing alternatives to poor relief, Malthus defined a series of “positive” and “preventive” checks on population which could control overpopulation and poverty. Positive checks included war, famine, emigration, natural disaster, and disease (pp. 42-43). Preventive checks, on the other hand, relied on the “reasoning faculties” of man, which would prevent him from having more children than he could support (p. 21). Malthus questioned the effectiveness of these preventive checks because he believed that the inhibition of natural sexual desire most often led to “misery and vice”. Thus, in the first version of his Essay, Malthus offers a grim picture of the state of the poor, whose populations are determined by harsh natural laws.

  9. Ibid., p. 43.

  10. Ibid., p. 44.

  11. Such a position is a rather contradictory one for Malthus, who claimed in the first version of his Essay that he was describing a scientific “what is,” rather than a moralistic “what should be.”

  12. Ibid., p. 271. Malthus writes, “The matron who has reared a family of ten or twelve children, … is apt to think that society owes her much; … But if the subject be fairly considered, and the respected matron weighed in the scales of justice against the neglected old maid, it is possible that the matron might kick the beam. … If she had not married and had so many children, other members of the society might have enjoyed this satisfaction; … She has therefore rather subtracted from, than added to, the happiness of the other parts of society. The old maid, on the contrary, has exalted others by depressing herself. Her self-denial has made room for another marriage, …” (p. 271).

  13. Ibid., p. 215.

  14. Anon., Review: Reflections at the Conclusion of the War by John Bowles, Anti-Jacobin Review, 10 (1802), p. 405.

  15. Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (London: Routledge, 1930), p. 3.

  16. Ibid., pp. 310-311.

  17. As cited in C. J. Ribton-Turner, A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy (London: Chapman & Hall, 1887), p. 634.

  18. William Hazlitt (1807) A Reply to the “Essay on Population” by the Rev. T. R. Malthus (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967), p. 126.

  19. For an overview of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century reformatory agencies, see William Tuckniss's introduction to Henry Mayhew (1861) London Labour and the London Poor, vol. 4 (New York: Dover, 1968), pp. xxiv-xxx.

  20. In my discussion of rural institutions designed to contain vagrancy, I owe a great deal to Taylor, Poverty, Migration and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution and Frederic Eden (1797) The State of the Poor (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1971).

  21. Taylor, Poverty, Migration and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution, p. 16.

  22. Cited in Taylor, Poverty, Migration and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution, pp. 123-124.

  23. Eden, The State of the Poor, p. 341.

  24. Ibid., pp. 333-335.

  25. Ibid., p. 333.

  26. This and all subsequent references to the Grasmere Journals are from the Oxford University Press (1991) edition of the text edited by Pamela Woof.

  27. Ernest de Selincourt The Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), p. 18.

  28. Ibid., p. 25.

  29. See Gittings & Manton, Dorothy Wordsworth, p. 24.

  30. As cited in Harrison, Wordsworth's ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar,’ p. 30.

  31. Wolfson, “Individual in Community,” pp. 147-148.

  32. Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 86.

  33. Interestingly enough, in Wordsworth's poetic version of this incident, the moralistic conclusion is omitted. See Thomas Frosch, Wordsworth's ‘Beggars’ and a Brief Instance of ‘Writers' Block’, Studies in Romanticism, 21 (1982), pp. 619-636 for an interesting analysis of the connection between Dorothy's and William's alternate interpretations of this anecdote.

  34. See, for example, Frosch, Wordsworth's ‘Beggars,’ and Linda Woolsey, Houseless Women and Travelling Lass: mobility in Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, Tennessee Philological Bulletin, 27 (1990), pp. 31-38.

  35. Anita Hemphill McCormick, ‘I Shall Be Beloved—I Want No More’: Dorothy Wordsworth's Rhetoric and the Appeal to Feeling in the Grasmere Journals,Philological Quarterly, 69 (1990), p. 482.

  36. Anne Wallace, Walking, Literature and English Culture: the origins and uses of peripatetic in the nineteenth century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 30.

  37. de Selincourt, Early Letters, pp. 113-114.

  38. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City: Doubleday, 1976), p. 130.

  39. Ellen Moers, Bleak House: the agitating women, Dickensian, 69 (1973), p. 22.

Alan Grob (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Grob, Alan. “William and Dorothy: A Case Study in the Hermeneutics of Disparagement.” ELH 65, no. 1 (spring 1998): 187-221.

[In the following essay, Grob purports that, at the end of the twentieth century, “adversarial tactics of feminism and the New Historicism” have distorted Wordsworth scholarship.]

Of the convulsive changes that have worked their way through the field of Romantic—and especially Wordsworthian—studies during the postmodernity of the past thirty years, none seems more truly ominous than many critics' virtually wholesale adoption in the past decade of those adversarial presuppositions that now seem to shape and govern almost all undertakings of any real influence in the field. While the term “adversarial” has become a critical commonplace, its meaning self-evident, its pertinence for my purposes derives from a casual remark made by Marjorie Levinson in her plainly seminal Wordsworth's Great Period Poems, her observation that adoption by the New Historicism of feminism's “adversarial tactics” served as a major point of affinity between the two movements, movements which I should add were understood to be essentially disparate when Levinson used the term in 1986 but now clearly are rapidly coalescing.1 As a consequence of the undeniable ascendancy of these critical schools, what has seemingly emerged in Romantic studies, almost by consensus, is an interpretive community adversarially self-defined whose quarrel, astonishingly enough for those of us who came before, is not over but with the subject of its criticism.

In an earlier time, one gained entry to one's interpretive community by taking sides on some time-honored and well-worn point at issue, Milton's vexed conundrum of the two-handed engine, for example, or to bring matters closer to Wordsworthian concerns, whether Wordsworth was a poet of nature or poet of consciousness, a transcendentalist or empiricist, a continuator of the Miltonic tradition or its oedipally agonistic foe. Moreover, in that long-ago time one presumably chose one's community for the ostensible purpose of clarifying meaning and getting it right (even if the practitioners of these older traditions were not always as disinterestedly objective as they believed). And one sought to clarify meaning, to get it right, because in most cases the authors written about deserved no less—or so it was assumed—or how else justify the expenditure of attention and effort? Toward such authors, the critic voiced and presumably felt respect, indeed admiration no doubt aesthetically grounded but often conveying something more; and these respectful and admiring presuppositions the critic knew to be not only the unstated givens of the interpretive community to which he belonged but also the similarly unstated givens of those rival interpretive communities with whom he quarreled. But obviously no such unstated givens of tacit respect—and certainly not tacit admiration—figure in the presuppositions of those who would claim membership in an interpretive community adversarially conceived, whether operating under the banner of New Historicism or an increasingly historicized feminism. In either case the principal requisite for membership would seem to be the critic's virtually a priori presumption of his subject's political and ethical shortcomings, the adoption of a hermeneutics of disparagement designed to find fault and assign blame, the commitment to seek out and be assured of finding evidences of bad faith, reactionary currying of establishment favor, class and sex biases of the most egregious kind on the part of the author in question—or so doctrine and practice teach us in Wordsworth studies.

In this regard, New Historicism and the feminist criticism with which it bears affinities can be looked upon as representing a fundamental paradigm shift in literary criticism, differing radically both from an older historical criticism (even when practiced by such seeming political unassailables as E. P. Thompson and David Erdman) and a deconstructionist postmodernism that New Historicism and feminism would still in essential respects claim as their theoretical forerunner. For Thompson, after all, the aim of his classic essay of 1969 was to show that Wordsworth and Coleridge at the time of Lyrical Ballads had kept the faith and retained their Jacobin loyalties, that while perhaps disenchanted they had not yet defaulted as their critics had often charged.2 And for Erdman, of course, Blake was the very epitome of the politically committed poet, committed in the right way and to the right cause. Moreover, even Yale criticism in its deconstructionist mode had gone to the Romantics for what its critics believed the Romantics offered, their strengths and insights—even if occasionally these were the insights of blindness—rather than for exposing to an audience of ideologically like-minded readers the errors and failings of these heretofore misguidedly respected and admired poets. Thus the writers who interested Paul de Man most and those whom he most respected and admired were often credited with a rhetorical self-awareness by which they had knowingly made available their work to the very deconstructive practices that de Man himself pursued and in which he would have us engage.

To be sure, New Historicism in its initial emergence often saw itself in somewhat less radical terms, not as proposing a paradigm shift but rather building on foundations laid down by a preceding generation's turn to theory. Though Marjorie Levinson told us in 1986 that “the trend in Wordsworth criticism today—and I do mean today—is crystallized by the phrase, ‘historical imagination,’” a term she applied to a practice she designated “deconstructive materialism,” she was still careful to add in that seeming heyday of deconstruction the qualifying stipulation that “one cannot unknow Derrida.”3 And New Historicism did and does deal almost unrelentingly with the absent or displaced, a seemingly sure indicator of its fidelity to the spirit of deconstruction. Still the interpretive privileging of the signified to which the absent signifier points—a privileging Levinson herself engages in in her immensely controversial essay on “Tintern Abbey” where the absent abbey is made the primary pointer to meaning—would itself clearly seem to be an unknowing of Derrida and deconstruction and its governing premise of semantic indeterminacy, all of which over time have clearly become less and less relevant to the current generation's historicizing pursuits.

But it is in differentiating itself from an earlier historical criticism that almost always insisted we judge the past in its own terms that the New Historicism most clearly struck its distinctive note. For what governs New Historicist practice (and often a historicized feminism as well), its way of dealing with those historical subjects and authors put forward as the adversarially conceived objects of study, is an undisguisedly presentist set of standards and values. A criticism that would simply explain “the ‘texts’ we read in terms of the past historical context,” Jerome McGann insists in Romantic Ideology, “must remain as fruitless and arid as any type of formal or structural or thematic criticism so long as it does not make equally explicit, first, the dialectical relation of the analyzed ‘texts’ to present interests and concerns; and, second, the immediate and projected ideological involvements of the criticism, critical theory, and reading we practice, study, and promote.”4 The New Historicism would go back to the past so that it might help take us to the future, to paraphrase the title (while remaining faithful to the spirit) of another important work by Marjorie Levinson, “The New Historicism: Back to the Future.”5 Thus unsurprisingly, in its presentist orientation, our adversarial criticism sees itself united with the disempowered, preoccupied with questions of race, class, and gender, committed to analyzing and evaluating texts by how they advanced or retarded the interests of those for whom the critic purports to speak, with the advancing or retarding of those interests to be measured by the yardstick not of the historical then but the presentist now. We find in the contemporary adversarial critic, the postmodernist engagé, nothing like the deconstructionist's bemused pleasure or, at most, the Nietzschean jouissance in the free play of interpretive undecidables and nothing like the old historicist's contextualizing leniency in which knowing all, which is to say understanding as best we can the circumstances in which the writer under consideration lived, if not quite requiring that we forgive all, still encouraged and enabled us to forgive a great deal. The adversarial critic instead demands answers, takes a stand, and passes unsparing judgment; his or her fundamental aim in most instances is to seek out and identify that politically self-betraying meaning that will be interpretively privileged as the ultimate signified—or at least the only signified of any interest in the adversarial schemata.

In addition to the apparent abandonment of deconstruction's assumption of semantic indeterminacy, Marjorie Levinson's critic of the trend today—and I do mean today—would seem to have departed sharply from his or her immediate postmodernist forerunners in one other not unrelated way, in the conception of the authorial subject. Preoccupied with blame, the adversarial critic with his or her finger on the trigger clearly requires as a target an author with a substantial identity, a real person possessed of determinate attributes, inclinations, and especially biases that render him more unequivocally deserving of targeting than, let us say, Foucault's spectrally elusive author who is nothing more than “the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.”6 Out of their adversarial needs, their rush to prosecutorial judgment, our contemporary adversarial critics have seemingly abandoned the old postmodernist indeterminacies like the death of the author and instead constructed a far more reductively rigid and dogmatically fixed identity for the writers with whom they would quarrel than even a pre-postmodern criticism could have imagined itself doing. But if our adversarially designated author has been reborn, he has been reborn in unfamiliar and often dismayingly disfiguring ways, made unrecognizable to those of us familiar with him from earlier and, most of the time, more benignly engendered incarnations. In general, the Wordsworth whose shortcomings our adversarial critics would identify is simply assumed to be the product of a certain historical causation, to be understood in terms of his class and vocation and gender as these were directed and determined by the socially constructing forces of his place and time, and for these critics this causation specifies those meanings that should concern us, separates out the semantically significant—for us—from that proliferation of less consequential meanings that might otherwise prove distracting.

Of course, the historical interpretation of literary subjects has always been selectively limited by the interests and inclinations of the critic who sorts through, construes, and applies the evidence, but I would submit that a historical interpretation guided by adversarial presuppositions, that is, the historical interpretation practiced today, not only leads frequently to the meanest of judgments but is especially prone to errors, distortions, and misrepresentations of the most astonishing and sometimes inexplicable kind, at least if the critical practice now prevalent in Wordsworth studies is any indication. Too often the historical record seized upon by the adversarial critic is meagerly anecdotal, possessing uncertain explanatory value, especially when set in the context of some larger and more plausibly applicable body of historical data. Or the practicing historian who is occasionally adverted to is often regrettably guided by similar adversarial presuppositions and is therefore similarly prone to the same kinds of errors, distortions, and misrepresentations, thereby exacerbating the likelihood of misconception by the historicizing critic. And even when the historicizing critic seems to make ample and even judicious use of historical evidence (in Wordsworth studies the work of Alan Liu comes most readily to mind), the historical context put forward is rendered much too uncomplicated by the principles of historical interpretation invoked, resembling a rigid social and economic determinism that overrides all other explanatory possibilities. So that most complex and conflicted of historical moments, the 1790s, is often needlessly flattened, the options available unreasonably narrowed at what would seem a rare moment of human choice for young intellectuals who could really, for the first time in any meaningful sense, decide to be republicans or monarchists, supporters of Paine or supporters of Burke. Thus the Wordsworth who might reasonably qualify as one of the first of our deracinated radical intellectuals—“in part / An outlaw and a borderer of his age” is how he describes himself in 1798—is instead reduced in the most constricting way by the adversarial critic to being little more than the product of his class origins with all of its biases, while virtually no attention is given to Wordsworth's own stated expressions of political affiliation in a period of the most tumultuous political debate and disputation.7 The middle-class Wordsworth had, after all, in 1794 declared himself one of “that odious class of men called democrats,” deliberately using language that identifies him as a traitor to class and country.8 All of these self-imposed interpretive limitations and, I believe, self-inflicted wounds are especially evident in the growing body of adversarial commentary on the relationship of William and his sister, especially as that relationship is represented in “Tintern Abbey,” that dark and bloody ground over which so many of the battles of Romantic New Historicist historiography have been fought.

Among an older Romantic critical establishment's scholarly castigators of New Historicism—Abrams, Vendler, and McFarland, to mention the best known—the very term New Historicism has been synonymous with Marjorie Levinson's essay on “Tintern Abbey,” that notorious accusatory exercise alleging guilt by omission.9 But a second New Historicist essay on “Tintern Abbey” is likely to have even greater staying power as feminist concerns gradually incorporate themselves more and more into New Historicist practice. For in her exposé of Wordsworth's political shortcomings, Levinson has surprisingly little to say on the role of Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, in that poem, scarcely indicating her usefulness in supplying further proof that even as early as 1798 Wordsworth was already a reactionary, a leader lost from virtually the moment at which he began to assert his mature poetic powers. Not until the publication of John Barrell's essay, however, two years after Levinson, does Wordsworth's treatment of Dorothy really become part of the bill of adversarially inspired indictable particulars that New Historicist criticism of “Tintern Abbey” has become.10

In the closing verse paragraph of “Tintern Abbey,” when the speaker addresses the “dear, dear Friend” and “dear, dear Sister” who has apparently stood next to him throughout his long, and to this point, self-focused meditation, he expresses a wish that, looking into “the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes,” he might “yet a little while,” still “behold in thee what I was once” (PW, 2:262, ll. 118-20). But even as he gazes he already knows that the “wildness” that he would nostalgically preserve “in after years” will “be matured / Into a sober pleasure” (ll. 137-39) through the agency of a beneficent and humanly concerned nature that “never did betray / The heart that loved her” (ll. 122-23), a maturation—albeit in some regards a loss—that he, nonetheless, still sees as the best of outcomes for his sister. When I wrote on this passage a good many years ago, I suggested that Wordsworth had placed his sister, in accordance with his own classificatory scheme, at the same stage of personal development at which he found himself on his visit to Tintern Abbey five years earlier, when “The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion” (ll. 76-77). It was a visit made, it should be added, when he was well along in his own adult intellectual and social development: after he had graduated from Cambridge, been radicalized by his stay in France during the Revolution, and published a volume of poetry, though before, by his own testimony, he had undergone sufficient moral growth to be able to hear the “still, sad music of humanity” (l. 77) and before he could develop his powers of metaphysical cognition to the point where he could experience “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (ll. 95-96) indwelling within the natural and the human world. And the maturation he had undergone, he confidently asserted, his sister too would undergo, and the moral and spiritual benefits that had thereby accrued to him she too would acquire.

It was an interpretation, I somewhat reluctantly add, of no great originality and, in fact, merely restated views held by many. But what I did hope to demonstrate was that this developmental article of faith,—that, because he could behold in her what he was once, she would become what he is now—was further confirmation of Wordsworth's basic uniformitarian empiricism in 1798. I believed then, and I still believe, that in “Tintern Abbey” we can see at work an optimistic and perfectibilian environmental determinism in the implicitly radical, democratic, and leveling tradition of Hartley and Priestley in England and Helvétius in France, though in 1973 the political implications of Wordsworth's empiricism were not really the focus of my interests. But I did know even then that at the end of the eighteenth century, most radicals, not just in England but in France and America as well, subscribed to some version of an environmentally conditioned, uniformitarian empiricism as the basis of their claims for a general human equality. And I have subsequently learned that, like their male counterparts, the leading female radicals of the time, the first generation of feminists in Britain, Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Hays, similarly subscribed to an environmentally conditioned, uniformitarian empiricism, especially in making the case for providing women with the same education as men. As Mary Hays, admirer of “the great and good Dr. Hartley” and “the excellent Dr. Priestley” and defender of Helvétius in a debate on his environmental determinism in the Monthly Magazine, states it with the starkest simplicity, “Mind, as has been finely said, is of no sex.”11 Or if we would wish to reformulate that proposition in more technically empiricist terms, we might say that the tabula rasa has no gender, appropriate language surely for a writer like Hays, who (quoting Godwin's views as identical with her own) will insist “that man (including the species without distinction of sex) was simply a perceptive being, incapable of receiving knowledge through any other medium than that of the senses.”12 It is just such empiricist, uniformitarian, and egalitarian epistemological premises, I would submit, that condition the sexual politics of “Tintern Abbey.” The nature that can “inform,” “impress” (the implied imprinting of the stamp upon the wax in the Lockeian and sensationalist model of the epistemological transaction), and “feed” “the mind that is within us” will lead Dorothy to the same level of moral and spiritual development that her brother has already attained. Nor is the difference in their rates of moral and spiritual development to be ascribed to some innately gendered developmental capacity separably common to each sex, since it is already evident that both brother and sister have already morally far surpassed that ominously threatening and, one suspects, numerous host of “selfish men,” whose “evil tongues, / Rash judgments,” and “sneers,” William reassuringly tells his sister, “Shall” never “prevail against us” nor “disturb / Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold / Is full of blessings” (ll. 128-34).

Writing out of the harshest of adversarial presuppositions, Barrell obviously reaches very different conclusions from mine about the presence and function of Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey.” The sister who has been present throughout the visit to Tintern, Barrell explains, is introduced at poem's end to assure the poet himself and the male reader who reads it that the abstractly formulated argument of “Tintern Abbey” goes far beyond the intellectual capabilities of the sister, who has presumably just heard it. She is, in effect, at last acknowledged only to insult her (and by that insult to make the males involved as poet and readers feel better about themselves), to make sure that she will recognize her intellectual limitations, that she will understand by dint of her incomprehension of that argument that she is one of “the uneducated and impressionable” required “to know and to keep their place.”13 “It is a fact that we should never lose sight of, in eighteenth-century Britain,” Barrell tells us, “that women were excluded from what was called the ‘republic of letters,’ for the qualification of citizenship in that republic was the ability to reduce the data of experience to abstract categories, and women, it was commonly assumed, could think in terms only of the particular and concrete.”14 That Wordsworth, even if an educated male, should, at the time of writing “Tintern Abbey,” axiomatically regard “abstract categories” as superior to “the particular and concrete,” woman's inferior way of thinking, is in itself surprising, since only a few months later in the prose fragment, the “Essay on Morals,” he would scathingly condemn “lifeless words & abstract propostions” and “bald & naked reasonings” that “contain no picture of human life” and “describe nothing” for their baneful moral effects.15 Be that as it may, David Simpson, another prominent New Historicist, can still insist that Barrell's “argument is essential for our further understanding of the relationship between gender and class at the moment of Wordsworth's writings,” and he fleshes out that argument by explaining that what the closing section of “Tintern Abbey” is more or less engaged in is “the poetic construction of a preliterate female” and “the marginalization of the exemplary female, who may be a worshipful or proleptic companion but who can never be a reader.”16

The historical evidence for the New Historicist's sweeping historical generalization is sparse indeed, with the single piece of data pointed to that would seem to bear on the question of male attitudes toward women, the sole historical analogue to the closing section of “Tintern Abbey” cited by Barrell, being a quotation from a popular eighteenth-century grammar with a large-print text and small-print notes. The large-print “text, the author explains, is all that need concern, as he puts it, ‘women and children, and the ignorant of both sexes.’”17 But that grammar, as Barrell tells us, was actually published in the early eighteenth century, and Barrell never explains why the grammar he cites should have anything to do with the views on women of William Wordsworth in the 1790s, who, after all, during that tumultuous decade had lived in revolutionary France as a sympathizer with the Revolution and upon his return to England had moved in the most advanced radical circles, in fact in the very same circles to which Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays belonged. Barrell in effect concedes this, telling us (with what seems to me the New Historicist's equivalent of a wink and a nudge) that one “could be reasonably sure that Wordsworth would not openly or even privately have endorsed such an account of the intellectual ‘imbecility’ of women”—that is, the account given in the early eighteenth-century grammar described by Barrell and, mutatis mutandis, in that grammar's ideological analogue, the closing section of “Tintern Abbey”—at least not openly or even privately “in the late eighteenth century, and especially in the radical circles within which Wordsworth had moved.”18 Yet Barrell certainly insinuates that, under poetic cover, Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey” implies something very much like this, that while he might not have thought Dorothy altogether deserving of the charge of “intellectual imbecility,” he nonetheless still did not believe her to have his own masculine capacity for grasping “the principles of abstraction,” apparently the indispensable requisite for gaining membership in “the company of the intellectual.”19 And much of Barrell's rationale for ascribing to Wordsworth so contemptibly self-serving a sexist bias is ascribed finally to the inescapable hold over him of his class origins. For Barrell, the fact of Wordsworth's radical affiliations are to count for practically nothing in explaining his opinions, though these affiliations were presumably entered into out of conviction and maintained at great personal risk. (Wordsworth had been under surveillance by the Home Office only a year before “Tintern Abbey” was written.) Instead, these opinions are to be accounted for, including his alleged intellectual disdain for his sister, by suggesting that what is most determining for Wordsworth, far more influential certainly in the shaping of his opinions than his almost daily contacts and conversations with those radicals with whom he habitually associated, is his alleged membership in that far more nebulous and certainly more-likely-to-be-prejudiced category of men designated by Barrell as the “polite male.”20

But at almost every point, this exercise in an adversarially grounded historicizing of the Wordsworthian text—an “argument” that David Simpson tells us “is essential to our further understanding of the relation between gender and class at the moment of Wordsworth's writings”—is contradicted by the historical evidence. Even if I were hypothetically to concede—and let me hasten to add I concede nothing—that Wordsworth's assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of women were more likely to be those of the “polite male” rather than those of the politically committed male radical (who almost to a man, as their diaries and letters indicate, were sympathetic to the cause of women's rights and particularly admiring of Mary Wollstonecraft), we still would not necessarily be able to draw the conclusions that Barrell assumes we should draw from his characterization of Wordsworth in terms of class. In fact, the historian of choice for New Historicists, Lawrence Stone, writing on women's education at the end of the eighteenth century and the attitudes of “polite males” toward that education, reaches diametrically opposed conclusions to those of Barrell on this question, conclusions, I should add, that make that early-eighteenth-century grammar brought forward as evidence by Barrell wholly irrelevant: “The change in women's consciousness,” Stone writes,

from a humiliating sense of their educational inferiority in 1700 to a proud claim to educational superiority in 1810 is little short of revolutionary. Men also admitted the change, and in 1791 The Gentlemen's Magazine could also observe that “at present … the fair sex had asserted its rank, and challenged that natural equality of intellect which nothing but the influence of human institutions could have concealed for a moment.” The standard male attitude towards women's intellectual character had also been significantly modified over the previous half century.21

But it is not the counterarguments of the historian, even one so eminent as Stone, that call most into question Barrell's adversarially directed arguments as augmented by Simpson, designed to prove Wordsworth's intellectual disdain for his sister, but the historical record itself, especially the letters, journals, and poems of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. One would like to think that the unavoidable starting point for any discussion of William's assessment of the intellectual capabilities of his sister would be that letter of 25 July 1832 to W. R. Hamilton, in which, discussing Coleridge, William states, “He and my beloved Sister are the two Beings to whom my intellect is most indebted.”22 The adversarially inclined critic might wish to discount or even dismiss a statement so clearly counter to his own presuppositions, ascribing to brotherly partiality the equating of his sister in her intellectual contribution to him with a man whom John Stuart Mill only eight years later would call “the great awakener in this country of the spirit of philosophy.”23 But in none of the burgeoning literature I am acquainted with on the relationship of William and Dorothy do any of the adversarially minded critics of Wordsworth ever make mention of this assessment of Dorothy by her brother. While the brevity of this great compliment renders it virtually impossible to know how William, on further inquiry, might have differentiated the intellectual contributions of Coleridge from those of his “beloved sister,” one can hardly suppose after reading it that he would have regarded his sister, as Barrell asserts, as incapable of comprehending the abstract language of “Tintern Abbey” or, as Simpson would have it, as “preliterate” and therefore as one who “could never be a reader.”

In fact, in the one poem of 1798 in which William addresses Dorothy in his title, “To My Sister,” she is addressed as a reader and urged by him on this, “the first mild day of March,” to come out of doors “and bring no book,” apparently a request to her to deviate at least for that morning from what would seem to be an otherwise habitual occupation, since he adds, “for this one day / We'll give to idleness” (PW, 4:60, ll. 15-16). Of course the critic who is still resistant to accepting the conclusions that would seem necessarily to follow from this evidence might claim that though Dorothy reads her reading could never meet the literate standards of a Cambridge graduate like her brother, that it would be a woman's reading, escapist reading, which from the masculinely elitist vantage point of an educated male like William Wordsworth could hardly be expected to count as reading. But we know enough about the reading habits of Dorothy to safely conjecture that it is unlikely that the book she would bring with her on a day not given to idleness would be some work of escapism. In a year-long period covered by the Grasmere Journals, she tells of reading Chaucer's “Knight's Tale,” Spenser's “Prothalamion” and the first canto of the Faerie Queene, poems of Jonson, Book I of Paradise Lost, eight plays by Shakespeare, a canto of Ariosto, Schiller's Wallenstein, two or three of Lessing's fables which she also translated, several works by her contemporaries, Coleridge, Southey, Lamb, and, of course, poems by her brother William, with the only novels mentioned being Fielding's Tom Jones and Amelia. And these are only the books she read to herself. Together, William and Dorothy (the woman Simpson would have us believe was regarded by the poet as someone who could never be a reader) read aloud (during the period covered by the Grasmere Journal) selections from Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Fletcher, Bishop Hall, such contemporaries as Campbell, Rogers, and, of course, once again the poems of William himself.24

But nothing in the relationship between William and Dorothy throws more doubt on Barrell's and Simpson's assumption that William doubted his sister's intellectual capabilities or regarded her as “preliterate” than the apparently jointly planned project in translation alluded to when they first decided to live together and referred to on a number of occasions in the following years. Indeed their original plan for living together was to live in London, “maintaining themselves by their literary talents, writing and translating,” this according to Dorothy's cousin, friend, and confidante, “Aunt” Elizabeth Rawson, who thought it “a very bad wild scheme.”25 But William had just returned from France, and Dorothy apparently knew French well enough for William to include her in his plans. (It is worth noting that, according to Moorman, William's knowledge of both French and Spanish while at Cambridge “was probably self-taught and confined to the grammar-book stage,” so that his university education at least in the initial stages of this endeavor did not really provide him with a significant advantage over his sister, who had been instructed in French by her uncle.26) This “bad wild scheme” was fortunately rendered unnecessary by the chance given them to live in the country instead of in London, an understandably attractive option to the Wordsworths—who were after all the Wordsworths and lovers of nature. Even while they lived in the country at Racedown though, the translation project seems still to have persisted, with Dorothy reporting that she was “studying Italian very hard” (EY, 166) a little more than three months after her arrival there and William asking Mathews for his assistance in her efforts, noting that Dorothy had “already gone through half of Davila and” that “yesterday we began Ariosto” (EY, 170). And even after William had already written most of Lyrical Ballads and seemed by any reasonable measure well on his way to a career as a professional poet, the idea of translating together still remained a significant goal. Only a month before their visit to Tintern, in a letter of 13 June 1798, Dorothy informs Aunt Rawson of what is at least the publicly stated and practical motive for the trip to Germany, that by residing there they “hope to make some addition to our resources by translating from the German, the most profitable species of literary labour, and of which I can do almost as much as my Brother” (EY, 221). But, as we know, William learned little German while in Germany. Being housebound much of the time by the bitter cold, instead of going out among his neighbors to learn their language, he spent most of his days writing the opening books of The Prelude and the “Lucy” poems, for most of us a trade-off we would hardly wish to have otherwise. But though we have no comparable account from Dorothy of her progress in German while in Germany, we have her own report in the Grasmere Journal that almost three years after their return to England she was still keeping up with her German and, in fact, translating the fables of Lessing (GJ, 63), with what Pamela Woof describes as “not inconsiderable prowess” (GJ, 203).

That Wordsworth recognized a clear correlation between encouraging (or inhibiting) women in the learning of foreign languages and one's estimate of their intellectual abilities becomes evident in what is, as far as I know, his only recorded unfavorable comment on Milton, a poet on whom he otherwise bestowed lavish praise. “Speaking of Milton's not allowing his daughters to learn the meaning of the Greek they read to him, or at least not exerting himself to teach it to them, he”—that is Wordsworth, according to the account reported by Mrs. Davy—“admitted that this seemed to betoken a low estimate of the condition and purposes of the female mind.” And then, in words that one would think would surely win the approval of any feminist critic, Wordsworth goes on to express surprise that Milton should hold such an opinion: “‘And yet, where could he have picked up such notions,’ said Mr. W., ‘in a country which had seen so many women of learning and talent?’” Finally, Wordsworth concludes these strictures against Milton on women by drawing a bead on the best-known of all Miltonic judgments of women: “He for God only, she for God in him.” “‘Now that,’ said Mr. Wordsworth earnestly, ‘is a low, a very low and a very false estimate of woman's condition.’”27 Admittedly, these comments were made by Wordsworth in 1847, very late in his life, though at a time when he is generally understood to have become, if anything, more conservative in his social views. Still, they are words spoken by Wordsworth himself, expressing views consistent with his behavior to his sister in the 1790s, and therefore, as historical fact almost surely of far greater relevance to an understanding of Wordsworth's estimate of his sister's intellectual abilities at the time of “Tintern Abbey” than Barrell's early eighteenth-century grammar with its large-print text for “‘children, women and the ignorant of both sexes.’”

Of course, Barrell and Simpson do not provide the only historically grounded adversarial explanation of Wordsworth's gender-determined unjustness to his sister in “Tintern Abbey.” In her recent feminist study of Wordsworth, Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women, Judith Page tells us that the explanation of Barrell and Simpson “misses the point,” not because it is unfair and mistaken (as it is), but because they have failed to observe the primary and therefore real reason for William's essentially masculinely biased misrepresentation of Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” that he “sees in ‘her wild eyes’ himself,” imposing a “masculine narrative” where a feminine narrative is required.28 Initially Page turns not to history but to the literary criticism of Carolyn Heilbrun to identify the plots that Dorothy might have used in her own self-representing narrative, “the marriage plot and the plot of abandonment and death.”29 But since Dorothy Wordsworth gives no indication of any interest in marriage at the time of “Tintern Abbey” and would have had no reason to feel herself abandoned then when she would seem, in fact, to have been cherished, Page suggests a third plot, taken not from literature but from historical generalizing in the 1980s, a plot that had “the unmarried sister or daughter live in the household of a brother or her father,” and where “such a sister contributed immeasurably to the economy of the household and helped raise the children.”30 This generalization was originally propounded by Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in their important Marxist-feminist study of family history in the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Coming from professional historians, Davidoff and Hall's generalization would seem far more likely to prove helpful in explaining the relationship of William and Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey” than the flawed hypothesis proposed by Barrell and Simpson, resting as it does on such thin historical underpinnings. Moreover, the use to which Page would put the historians' generalization seems more than justified by the fact that, as their very first illustration of the seemingly incontrovertible proposition that “the combination of women contributing resources and gaining a place was common” in the households of England in the years between 1780 and 1850, Davidoff and Hall put forward a two-sentence summary of the history as dependent of Dorothy Wordsworth herself.31 “Dorothy Wordsworth,” the historians tell us, “when in her early 20s, lived as a ‘mother's help’ with her elder brother, a Suffolk vicar. After she had inherited her share of the family property (1800 pounds invested at 4 per cent), she and her brother William were able to set up housekeeping and later she helped care for William's children.”32 But adversarial presuppositions are not confined to literary critics alone among our current practitioners of an ideologically driven hermeneutic of disparagement, and adversarially minded historians too are prone to err, distort, and misrepresent in order to have their presuppositions come true. Consequently, virtually every statement of ostensible fact in this two-sentence summary by the adversarially minded Davidoff and Hall is staggeringly erroneous. And I would further add that, even if these glaring errors of fact were corrected, the corrected summary would still distort and misrepresent the history of Dorothy's relations with those upon whom she would seem to have depended and, more important, whom she claimed to have loved.

The facts are that between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three Dorothy lived not with an elder brother but with an uncle who was a vicar not in Suffolk but in Norfolk. Moreover, the bare-bones characterization of her position in the household of that uncle as simply a “mother's help,” with its insinuation that she simply lived a Cinderella-like life as drudge, seems to me a very narrow and indeed pinched rendering of that portion of Dorothy's history and a serious injustice to that uncle who, along with his wife, emerges from Dorothy's letters as the soul of generosity and kindness: “There is not a better man in the world than my Uncle; nor a more amiable woman than my Aunt” (EY, 18). In truth, he proved to be something of Prince Charming to Dorothy's Cinderella, though, I should add, a Prince Charming without any apparent romantic intentions. For in inviting the orphaned Dorothy into his own household, her uncle took her out of a situation in which she was desperately unhappy, a fifteen-month residence in the home of his parents and her grandparents, a stay that the sixteen-year-old Dorothy must surely at the time have anticipated would last as long as her grandparents lived. Confined amidst the “ill-nature of my Grandfather” and “the cold insensibility of my Grandmother,” a woman who showed “so little of tenderness in her manner or of anything affectionate” to her granddaughter that Dorothy would write “that while I am in her house I cannot at all consider myself as at home, I feel like a stranger” (EY, 9-10), Dorothy apparently found relief from her misery only upon the return home from graduation from Cambridge of that kindly uncle who would tutor her for two hours every day in French and arithmetic while they both lived in his parents' home. And then—in what seems an act of kindly intended generosity—he spirited his virtually destitute niece away from that unhappy place to the new household he would establish with his marriage a year later. “I was almost mad with joy” (EY, 18) is how Dorothy, in a letter to Jane Pollard, describes her reaction to that invitation to take up residence in a household where, by every indication in her letters, Dorothy found a home in which she never felt a stranger.

Even more troubling because it so erroneously and unfairly characterizes a relationship of such consequence in current scholarship is Davidoff and Hall's statement that William and Dorothy “set up housekeeping,” only “after she had inherited her share of the family inheritance,” thus “gaining a place” by “contributing resources,” an ostensible fact that the historians claim rests on the authority of the 1938 biography of Dorothy Wordsworth by Ernest de Selincourt.33 The page they cite does deal with Dorothy's and her brothers' coming into their family inheritance, but it deals with events of 1802, when Lord Lonsdale's heirs decided to satisfy all of their father's “just debts” by giving the Wordsworths the money the late Lord Lonsdale had unjustly withheld from them. But as anyone familiar with the story of the Wordsworths knows, and certainly anyone familiar with the de Selincourt biography, William and Dorothy had “set up housekeeping” seven years earlier, with Dorothy contributing practically nothing in the way of financial resources to that arrangement. In fact, the story of their setting up housekeeping, correctly told, almost inevitably leads to conclusions diametrically opposed to the economic explanations of family relationships between men and women favored by Davidoff and Hall.

Any narrative of William and Dorothy's establishing of a home for themselves must, on the one hand, begin with an episode of the most undeniably shocking patriarchal callousness with the female child as victim. Immediately following her mother's death, Dorothy at six was sent to live with a cousin of her mother's—unlike her brothers who were at least sent off to school—and she was never thereafter invited to spend “a single moment under my Father's Roof” (EY, 663), as she bitterly remarked thirty years later, not for Chistmas (the date of her birthday) when her brothers routinely returned home from school, not even for her father's funeral six years after her mother's death. But on the other hand, the narrative of William and Dorothy Wordsworth seems also to illustrate the most admirable male devotedness—at least as I read it—the devotedness to his sister of a brother who, having spent most of his life with his brothers and later his male friends, still chose out of what can only be called brotherly love to be his sister's keeper. For Dorothy the desire to live in something akin to the immediate family that she had been forced to leave at six remained a fervent hope—a “fantasy” as Susan Levin terms it—clearly voiced by Dorothy in her earliest extant correspondence.34 But as far as we know, her other brothers, busy making their way in the world, did not share that fantasy, nor did Richard, the attorney and financially the most successful of the brothers, apparently ever attempt to help her realize it.

In 1795, just before they began to set up housekeeping together, William, while “desperate for money” in the words of his biographer Stephen Gill, was also footloose and free, associating with some of the leading British radicals of the day in what certainly must have been an exciting life in London.35 But what made possible William and Dorothy's shared household, what Davidoff and Hall term Dorothy's gaining a place, was not any contribution to that arrangement by Dorothy but a financial contribution made to it by William himself. In that same year, William became beneficiary of an astonishing bequest in the will of Raisley Calvert, brother of a college friend, who, believing (on the basis of what seems to us relatively meager evidence) that William would someday accomplish great things, left him nine hundred pounds. And that bequest was used by William, not to further his independence, his footlooseness and freedom, but to set up a household with his sister and, moreover, to insure Dorothy's future security through a codicil to the will, surely inserted at the urging of William, granting him full power to invest any portion he wished of that money “for the use and benefit of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth” (EY, 134). To understand why William should enter into an arrangement that on the face of it seems financially so disadvantageous as housekeeping with his sister Dorothy, we must, I believe, in this case impute motives to the male partner in the relationship between a man and a woman, even when brother and sister, that now seem almost prohibited by the adversarial presuppositions of our hermeneutics of disparagement, motives such as generosity, affection, and love, motives which figure too rarely in current accounts of the relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Unfortunately for Page then, “the middle-class plot” in which “the unmarried sister or daughter live in the household of a brother or her father” and contribute “immeasurably to the economy of the household” and help “raise the children” has little applicability (as I believe my analysis of the two-sentence summary of Dorothy's history in Davidoff and Hall indicates) to the situation of William and Dorothy Wordsworth at the time of “Tintern Abbey.” If in July of 1798 Dorothy required a plot approximating the events of her own life and even her fantasy life in order to explain it, the most appropriate and meaningful plot for her would almost surely have been that of companionate respect and brotherly affection propounded by William and expressed through those terms of endearment we find in the poem itself, “dear, dear Friend” and “dear, dear Sister.”

One last example from New Historicist histories of William and Dorothy Wordsworth will once again show how adversarial presuppositions lead to errors, distortions, and misrepresentations in the writing of that history, with brother and sister in this case presented not in gendered opposition to one another but instead aligned in middle-class solidarity against the undeserving poor. The one literary critic who seems the exception to the frequently cavalier approach taken by New Historicists and feminists to the historical record and to the findings of historians is Alan Liu, who in a long and excruciatingly intricate and certainly historically informed discussion of The Borderers concludes that, since the crime rate was in decline at the time Wordsworth wrote it, the play could not have been most fundamentally about crime, the conventional view of its subject matter, but must instead have expressed “a deeper, more central social agony.”36 And drawing upon the writings of the social historians, including Stone, Liu further concludes that at a time when the ideology of the middle-class nuclear family was coming into ascendancy, Wordsworth, as a member of that class, indeed as someone who, in Liu's words, “worshiped exclusively the ethos of the nuclear family,” constructed “a deeper, more central social agony” underlying The Borderers out of the “virtually tribal rift” that existed between the middle-class family “and a specially designated class of ‘illegitimates,’ the poor.37 Liu offers page upon page of historical summary to document the claim that from the perspective of the middle class the poor did stand for the Other, that the poor were identified with an immorality that defied the ethos of the middle-class nuclear family, and in consequence of that immorality the poor were identified with illegitimacy and its attendant evils, child neglect and even infanticide. This view of the poor, according to Liu, would have been inculcated in Dorothy and William Wordsworth when they were children by some family elder and counselor, father or grandfather or uncle, who would have told his charges of the moral failings of the neighborhood poor in language that Liu will attempt ventriloquistically (his term) to approximate: “You know those poor children from down the road who sometimes come to beg at our door. Their father died many years ago. Some say he was murdered. Their mother drinks, and worse. … Be glad you are not like them. We are still a family.”38

Such indoctrination obviously took, or so Liu says, not just for William but for Dorothy too. In fact, in a curiously parenthetical call for a much needed “history of prejudice,” a term that would seem synonomous for Liu with middle-class ideology toward the poor, he tells us that “there is no better way to instance the abundance of such material—and its importance in Wordsworth's milieu—than to quote a passage from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal,” a passage which Liu surprisingly quotes in full.39 (I say “surprisingly,” since the plain sense of that passage, which I too will quote in full, seems so transparently at odds with what Liu says about it, his assertion that it supplies material for a history of middle-class prejudice against the poor.)

When we were at Thomas Ashburner's on Sunday Peggy talked about the Queen of Patterdale. She had been brought to drinking by her husband's unkindness and avarice. She was formerly a very nice tidy woman. She had taken to drinking but that was better than if she had taken to something worse (by this I suppose she meant killing herself). She said that her husband used to be out all night with other women and she used to hear him come in in the morning for they never slept together—“Many a poor Body a wife like me, has had a working heart for her, as much stuff as she had.”40

I feel certain that any reader coming to this passage for the first time without the New Historicist's adversarial predisposition would be simply mystified by Liu's claim that from it one would virtually automatically cull what is self-evidently material for “a history of prejudice” or by his assertion that this description of the Queen of Patterdale somehow illustrates the proposition that “for Dorothy, the legitimacy of home life depends on representation” of what Liu terms “an antonymic impure nature whose social avatars must be watched askance with mixed pity and terror,” such “avatars,” he adds, being “the ‘naturals,’ in another sense, of the illegitimate poor.”41 And any reader who knew anything of the true historical background of this passage from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal would, I believe, find it almost perversely ill chosen as an illustration of middle-class prejudice against the poor. In the first place, it is not Dorothy Wordsworth who recounts this tale of a woman who, in Liu's words, is one of “the local poor, the impure ‘Queen of Patterdale,’” but Peggy Ashburner, who could herself be fairly described as one of the “local poor,” her husband, Thomas, having “been forced to sell his patrimonial land” (GJ, 147) and her family having “all got up at 5 o clock in the morning to spin & Thomas carded” (GJ, 41) in order to repay their profoundly burdensome debts. But it is the social status of the subject of Peggy Ashburner's anecdote, the Queen of Patterdale herself, that most severely undermines Liu's class-based analysis of this passage. Though Liu may take it for granted that, in keeping with the prejudices of “Wordsworth's milieu,” any entry in Dorothy Wordsworth's journal that relates the history of a woman who drinks because her husband is unkind and unfaithful must be a cautionary tale told about the “impure” and “illegitimate poor,” the truth is that the Queen of Patterdale was not one of the “local poor” but one of the local rich. Her husband was nothing less than “the richest man in Patterdale,” worth 40,000 pounds, according to one estimate reported by Joseph Budworth in a section of his A Fortnight's Ramble in the Lakes dealing with the King of Patterdale and given the heading “Astonishing Accumulation of Wealth,” an accumulation explained in part by the fact that he was the descendant of a family which “for time immemorial” had had “no one near them greater than themselves,” and in part by that notorious avarice of which Peggy Ashburner speaks.42 The name “Queen of Patterdale” had therefore been given his wife not as a mock title bestowed on the town drunk with heavy-handed derisiveness by the residents of Patterdale but because she was the wife of John Mounsey, the King of Patterdale, a title of honor having “descended by local courtesy from an ancestor who had headed the neighbourhood in defeating a party of Border raiders at Styborrow Crag in Ullswater” (EY, 637 n 3).43 And she lived not in a cottager's hovel but in Patterdale Hall, a house known locally as the “Palace of Patterdale.” That Dorothy knew all this is evident from a letter she wrote from Patterdale only four years later in which, after expressing relief that the “Dale has not yet been intruded on by any of the ‘Fancy builders,’” she goes on to complain that the new Patterdale Hall built by the present King of Patterdale, also named John Mounsey, on the site of his father's residence, the Palace of Patterdale, is an “offensive object” because of its apparent garishness (EY, 637).

Yet one can understand how someone—especially someone with Liu's adversarial presuppositions—might mistakenly assume the Queen of Patterdale to be a poor woman, for Peggy Ashburner's narrative seems devoid of any obvious indicators of the Queen of Patterdale's social class.44 Though critics like Liu would have us believe that this was a society in which consciousness of the hierarchy of class relationships was pervasive, we certainly find in that narrative neither the deference we might have expected from a poor woman describing her betters nor, contrastingly, anything like the resentful pleasurableness that Peggy Ashburner might have felt at seeing one of the high and mighty brought so low. In truth, what seems to me most prominent in the passage in question is pity, not the pity mixed with the class-engendered terror Liu finds there but the pure unalloyed pity of one human for another, Peggy Ashburner's sisterly sympathy and concern for a woman who would have been “a very nice tidy woman” but “had been brought to drinking” by the “unkindness and avarice” of a “husband” who “used to be out all night with other women,” an account given especial poignancy by the added detail that the Queen of Patterdale only “used to hear him come in in the morning for they never slept together.” Even the moral weakness of her drinking—presumably the most visible sign of her impurity—is apparently mitigated for Peggy by its being preferable to a forbidding “something worse”—Dorothy takes Peggy's guarded phrase to mean “killing herself”—that terrible alternative that the Queen of Patterdale in her life's misery might under the circumstances understandably have chosen instead. And this brief account of the Queen of Patterdale concludes with a summary sentence by Peggy Ashburner which Dorothy Wordsworth with marvellous artistic tact and moral understanding gives us, not as reported speech like the material that came before it (speech given in what her brother would have called “the real language of men,” though with that language unobtrusively “purified” by the journal's more literate author), but instead as literally rendered in her poor and less well-spoken neighbor's own compassionately heartful words of identification with the troubled Queen of Patterdale, words that suffer from a certain syntactic and even semantic awkwardness but, nonetheless, convey their speaker's sympathetic understanding well enough and are therefore carefully set off by Dorothy Wordsworth in quotation marks: “‘Many a poor Body a wife like me, has had a working heart for her, as much stuff as she had.’” In this utterance by Peggy Ashburner, and in what she says before this, needless to say, I can find nothing that could conceivably be construed as material for Liu's yet-to-be-written history of middle-class prejudice. What I find there instead is the best of illustrations for the most profoundly affecting of Wordsworthian propositions and assertions of faith: the great claim of “The Old Cumberland Beggar” “that we have all of us one human heart” (PW, 4:239, l. 153).

But it is from an earlier passage in the same journal entry in which Peggy Ashburner's sad history of the Queen of Patterdale appears—an earlier passage that is unquestionably about one of the poor—that we learn just how wildly wide of the mark Liu's charge of prejudice toward the poor against Dorothy Wordsworth actually is. “Preoccupied on December 22, 1801,” according to Liu, with what he tells us he has “elsewhere called ‘purity’ … but will here name ‘legitimacy,’” Dorothy, prior to recording Peggy Ashburner's account of the Queen of Patterdale in the Grasmere Journal, “speculates about the past of a vagrant beggar, someone she had in fact met on the road earlier on that same day, a sailor who had spent “57 years at sea” and now at “75 years of age” has plainly fallen on very hard times (GJ, 50).45 Thinking back to the encounter earlier on the same day, Dorothy does recall something about the old man's appearance that the adversarially inclined reader might wish to take as evidence of her preoccupation with “purity,” but I myself am most struck by how matter-of-factly and unjudgmentally she notes this detail that a more sanctimonious writer might well have used to link that “vagrant beggar” with what Liu believes the middle class regarded as the “bad poor”: “Half the Seaman's nose was reddish as if he had been in his youth somewhat used to drinking, though he was not injured by it” (GJ, 50). But it is her description earlier in the same entry of the encounter itself which most clearly illustrates how much Liu misrepresents Dorothy's frame of mind on that day, only three days before Christmas in 1801. We find there not some censorious middle-class repugnance to one of the “impure” poor to whom Dorothy, “preoccupied” with “purity” and “legitimacy,” coldly extends charity but rather a moment of highly self-critical personal scrutiny by Dorothy Wordsworth of the impulses that underlie her own charitable giving, an act of recollection sufficiently hard on herself that her inclusion of it in a journal intended not just for her own but her brother's eyes redounds to her credit: “As we came up the White Moss we met an old man, who I saw was a beggar by his two bags hanging over his shoulder, but from a half laziness, half indifference & a wanting to try him if he would speak I let him pass. He said nothing, & my heart smote me. I turned back & said You are begging? ‘Ay’ says he—I gave him a halfpenny” (GJ, 51). While we cannot finally gauge how little or how much that halfpenny might have meant to the Wordsworths, we do learn later in that entry that on the very same day William and Dorothy “talked of going to Ambleside after dinner to borrow money of Luff” (GJ, 51). After reading the entry from Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal, I can only say that, if I were to write the “history of prejudice” that Alan Liu believes “needs to be written,” I would be tempted to begin—at least if the term “prejudice” retains its dictionary meaning of “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand”—with Liu and his adversarial allies in their practice of the hermeneutics of disparagement, with critics who approach the texts or events that come under their scrutiny with “beforehand” presuppositions designed to find fault with and to assign blame to the work or writer they have made the object of their ostensibly scholarly consideration.

But if we can acquit Dorothy Wordsworth of the charge of simply being a conduit for the most prejudiced of middle-class values, a smugly uncritical faith in the ethos of the nuclear family and a corresponding animus against the poor for failing to adhere to that ethos, what of her brother? We must bear in mind that it is to catch him up that the accusations against Dorothy are really made, since she, like William, is said to belong to “Wordsworth's milieu,” with all of the unflattering insinuations that assignment to that milieu carries with it. “On the basis of massive documentary evidence gathered by family historians,” Liu as adversarial critic tells us, “the middle class consolidated itself in the eighteenth century through the regulation of actual family form by a much more narrowly defined form resident in the concept of love.”46 And since Wordsworth is to be understood as inescapably the typical and conventional product of his age and class, Liu also informs us that “the poet worshipped exclusively the ethos of the nuclear family,” in general promoting through his poetry what the eighteenth century took to be “family values.”47 But not all members of the middle class in the 1790s worshipped that ethos or believed in the primacy of those values, and, in a valuable recent essay, Evan Radcliffe has shown how during the revolutionary decade the idea of universal benevolence and the ethos of the nuclear family built on the private affections came into conflict in Britain, came, in fact, to be viewed as mutually exclusive ethical motives, touchstones for defining and differentiating radical and reactionary.48 Thus, as Radcliffe states, Burke held that the universal benevolence appealed to by the radicals “simply did not exist,” but yet he believed that this ethical chimera still threatened to have “catastrophic” consequences, that adherence to that doctrine would ultimately destroy “what civilization depends on: all our social feelings and attachments, beginning in the family and ending in the nation.”49 By comparison, Godwin, the most unswervingly radical of all in his faith in the moral and political efficacy of a purely rational benevolence, maintained that “ties of kinship, affection and gratitude simply inhibit us from the proper action.”50 Not all liberals were, of course, as willing to throw out the private affections as Godwin, and, in his regular column in the first volume of the Monthly Magazine (the issues of which had been sent to Wordsworth at Racedown by his friend James Losh), William Enfield had answered the question that served as the title of his essay “Is Private Affection Inconsistent with Universal Benevolence?” with an unhesitating “No.”51 The “dear charities,” according to Enfield, what one gave out of private affection for one's children, one's spouse, one's parents, “may remain, without violating the supreme law which unites man to man, and being to being throughout our universe,” for the private affections “are not to be considered as the scaffolding by means of which the structure of universal benevolence is raised, but as the very materials of which it is composed.”52

At issue for us is where Wordsworth is to be situated in 1798 and 1799, the years most in dispute, in this critically defining debate between advocacy of universal benevolence and commitment to the primacy of the private affections. For Liu the answer is obvious: Wordsworth even earlier than this, at the time of writing The Borderers, had already shown that he “worshiped exclusively the ethos of the nuclear family” and concurred in the class-driven corollary to that ethos, that the poor were the illegitimate Other who invariably violated and threatened those family values that the poet cherished—such views certainly being a far cry from the attitudes of the philanthropist in his generalized love for the species as a whole, and especially in his professed do-gooder's love for the poor. What is surprising though is that on the few occasions in these early years where Wordsworth speaks to the issue directly, he takes what can only be described as the extreme radical position, a position not only closer to Godwin's than to the one Liu assigns him, but also closer to Godwin's than to the compromise position proposed by Enfield. For Wordsworth following the private affections would appear, in these instances, to be inconsistent with the practice of a universal benevolence that is both feasible and necessary.

At the end of the 1798-99 Prelude, when Wordsworth, casting himself—in Coleridge's words—as one of the “visionary philosophes,” reflects on those “good men” who have “fall[en] off” and would now utter “sneers On visionary minds,” he dismisses the “gentle names / Of peace, and quiet, and domestic love” these allegedly “good men” have taken up as mere disguises for “selfishness.”53 The private affections are here conceived, not as a transitional means to and certainly not as a constituent element in a universal benevolence that had as its goal what Coleridge described as the “amelioration of mankind,” but merely as an extension of the self-love that stands as the primary obstacle to that general amelioration.54 Making this point even more directly is “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” where universal benevolence, perhaps the principal ethical end that that poem looks to, is presented as basically antithetical to the private affections. From acts of charity like those performed in behalf of the Cumberland beggar, especially when undertaken in childhood, a disposition toward philanthropy on a universal scale is naturally and necessarily inculcated, as one comes to feel a sense of shared humanity, of the brotherhood of man, of being “kindred with a world / Where want and sorrow were” (PW, 4:238, ll. 115-16). And benefiting most from those encounters are those who will eventually perform the greatest good for the greatest number, philanthropists in the Godwinian mold,

                                                                                                                        lofty minds,
And meditative, in which reason falls
Like a strong radiance of the setting sun
On each minutest feeling of the heart,

(PW, 4:237, Alfoxden MS)

men who out of such childhood episodes of charitable giving are to become

                                                                                                    authors of delight
And happiness, which to the end of time
Will live, and spread, and kindle.

(ll. 107-9)

And, as Wordsworth makes clear, acts of charity so formative in our moral development, our giving to one who has no personal claims on us such as the Cumberland beggar, one who thus comes as close as any individual in the narrow range of our direct experience can to humanity in the abstract, are a very different matter from “acts of love” fostered by the private affections, the kindness of men “to those with whom they dwell, / Their kindred and the children of their blood” (PW, 4:238, ll. 139-40). Such acts of kindness and of love toward those to whom we are bound by the private affections, acts which Enfield speaks of as the “dear charities,” are in “The Old Cumberland Beggar” relegated to the morally inferior status of “inevitable charities” (l. 145). Though doubtlessly motivated by love, these actions apparently confer little merit on those who perform them, since, according to Wordsworth, they lack “wherewith to satisfy the human soul” (l. 146).

But it is in a fragment probably written in Germany between 6 October 1798, and April 1799 that Wordsworth deviates most sharply from Liu's characterization of him not only as someone worshiping “exclusively the ethos of the nuclear family” but as one who judged the poor to be “illegitimate” in their seeming refusal to live by that ethos as well.

For let the impediment be what it may,
His hand must clothe and nourish them; and there
From hour to hour so constantly he feels
An obligation pressing him with weight
Inevitable that all offices
Which want this single tendency appear
Or trivial or redundant; hence remains
So little to be done which can assume
The appearance of a voluntary act
That his affections in their very core
Are false; there is no freedom in his love.
Nor would he err perhaps who should assert
That this perceiv'd necessity creates
The same constriction of the heart, the same
[e] in those with whom he lives,
His wife and children. What then can we hope
From one who is the worst of slaves, the slave
Of his own house? The light that shines abroad,
How can it lead him to an act of love?
Whom can he comfort? Will the afflicted turn
Their steps to him, or will the eye of grief
And sorrow seek him? Is the name of friend
Known to the poor man? When is he to hear
The sweet creative voice of gratitude?(55)

This is, of course, the tale of a “poor man,” one who does not, however, demonstrate the propensity of the poor to drink and be promiscuous and to neglect and even abandon their children, the view of the poor which Liu “ventriloquistically” tells us was propagated in middle-class households like those of the Wordsworths. Indeed the “poor man” of the Goslar fragment is accused of being guilty of the very same charge that Liu levels against Wordsworth, that he “worshiped exclusively the nuclear family,” though we might say in the poor man's defense, the economic “impediment” to his meeting the need to “clothe and nourish” his family so narrows his options that he would seem to lack any real choice in the matter. And yet despite these extenuating circumstances, Wordsworth is still surprisingly hard on the unflaggingly responsible “poor man.” The “act[s] of love” (LB, 311, l. 19) performed by the “poor man” (l. 23), “pressing him with weight / Inevitable” (ll. 4-5), would seem to have no greater moral standing because he is poor than the “inevitable charities” (PW, 4:238, l. 145) bestowed upon “their kindred, and the children of their blood” (PW, 4:238, l. 140) by his more affluent counterparts in “The Old Cumberland Beggar.” In fact, the motivating “affections” of this apparently exemplary family-loving man “in their very core / Are false” (LB, 311, ll. 10-11), Wordsworth insists, “false” because nothing he does “can assume / The appearance of a voluntary act” (ll. 8-9) his “act of love” having its moral worth negated by its inevitability. And therefore Wordsworth concludes, in what is certainly an unexpectedly harsh summary condemnation, that because “there is no freedom in his love” (l. 11) the poor man who cares only for his family must suffer a morally fatal “constriction of the heart” (l. 14), and so too, apparently learning by example, must “those with whom he lives, / His wife and children” (ll. 15-16).

I would suggest that the case against this seemingly morally unexceptionable “poor man” is put forward with such unforgiving harshness by Wordsworth because the criterion he uses to measure virtue is benevolence as that term was understood by the antifamily radicals of the 1790s. For them, the prime requisite of virtue was that we look beyond the self and beyond kinship, disinterestedly seeking to do good where we have no attachment, no interest (and surely acts motivated by the private affections, the “dear charities” bestowed on those by nature “dear” to us, are inescapably interested), and by so conducting ourselves, we would take the necessary first steps toward eventually acting philanthropically in behalf of mankind at large, the “humanity” whose “sad music” so powerfully moves Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.” Having adopted so morally austere a measure of rectitude, Wordsworth apparently feels himself free to judge the family-centered “poor man,” ceaselessly toiling to “clothe and nourish” his wife and children, as no more than a slave (his “manacles” doubtlessly “mind-forged”), indeed “the worst of slaves,” being “the slave / Of his own house” (ll. 17-18).

Yet if the “poor man” does ill by his single-minded devotedness to his family, constricting his own heart and the hearts of “those with whom he lives,” he pays a heavy price for it, depriving himself, and presumably them as well, of the happiness that accrues to those who act disinterestedly. Confined within the limiting horizons of “his own house,” the “poor man” is virtually incapable of viewing anything or anyone by “the light that shines abroad” (l. 18), the enabling condition for a true “act of love.” (“The light that shines abroad” in the Goslar fragment bears a more than passing resemblance to other instances in Wordsworth's poetry in which the workings of benevolence are identified with the sun's light: the description in the unpublished fragment in the Cornell Lyrical Ballads entitled “I would not strike a flower,” in which Wordsworth speaks of “benevolence” as “spread / Like the suns's light upon the open sea” (ll. 89-90), and the manuscript passage in “The Old Cumberland Beggar” where he tells how among the benevolent, those “By their good works exalted, lofty minds, / And meditative,” we find “reason falls / Like a strong radiance of the setting sun” [PW, 4:237, Alfoxden MS, ll. 107-10]). Acting only in behalf of those to whom he is bound by ties of kinship, the self-enslaved “poor man” never feels himself “exalted” because he is never turned to by the “afflicted” or sought after by “the eye of grief / And sorrow” (LB, 311, ll. 21-22). Saddest of all is Wordsworth's concluding question, “Is the name of friend / Known to the poor man?” (ll. 22-23) a rhetorical question to which the answer is clearly no. The “poor man” is never to know “the name of friend” because he shall never experience the pleasure of that reciprocally flowing love that originates in a good will exercised disinterestedly and freely toward one who dwells “abroad,” for only there can the moral life, the only true basis of friendship, be carried on. Thus for Wordsworth, writing in Goslar, the exclusive worship of the nuclear family Liu disparagingly ascribes to him not only is not synonomous with Wordsworthian morality but is in truth a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to it.

The greatest of all limitations upon historical interpretation has always been ourselves, the intrusion into the enterprise of that inescapably subjective lens through which the materials selected for interpretation by the observing subject have always been viewed. But at no time, I believe, has the propensity to error, distortion, and misrepresentation, the dangers that beset all historical interpretation, been nearly as great as at the present moment, a moment ironically when those of us in literary studies have been called upon to reject the vagaries of formalistic inexactness for the greater certainties of a factually grounded historicizing. But why is this so?

It has been a dozen years since Frank Lentricchia in Criticism and Social Change explained to “radical literary intellectuals in American universities” who desired to undertake “radical social action” that the way to do so was to engage in a literary criticism whose “point is not only to interpret texts, but in so interpreting them, change our society.”56 But if we were to engage in this salutary and certainly needed task of bringing about social change by our interpretive practice, Lentricchia warned, we would have to discard many of our politically crippling humanistic shibboleths and understand that “there is no morally pure, no epistemologically secure, no linguistically uncontaminated route to radical change.”57 To do otherwise and “attempt to proceed in purity” or “to proceed with the illusion of purity,” he further warned, “is to situate oneself on the margin of history, as the possessor of a unique truth disengaged from history's flow.”58 Exactly what a criticism would look like that did not “attempt” “to proceed with the illusion of purity” is never really spelled out by Lentricchia, though he does quote approvingly the 1935 suggestion of Kenneth Burke, the unquestioned hero of Criticism and Social Change, that the radical who would foment social change adopt the tactics of our oppressors and do “what our advertisers do when they recommend a particular brand of cigarette by picturing it as being smoked under desirable conditions.”59

Even if Lentricchia at one point indicates that he is untroubled at the prospect of being charged by traditionalists with holding the position that “the end justifies the means,” I do not finally believe that when he tells us to eschew the scholarly fetishizing of “moral purity” he really is urging us to proceed with the advertising copywriter's calculating cynicism, that in some vaguely encoded way he is proffering us a license to lie in behalf of some greater social good.60 And, correspondingly, when Davidoff and Hall identify Dorothy's uncle as her brother and assert that William and Dorothy set up housekeeping only after she had come into her inheritance or when Alan Liu speaks of one of the richest persons in the Lake District as one of the “local poor,” it is surely not the case that, knowing better, these scholars have made these things up. Still there is in Lentricchia's counsel and the practice that succeeds it the implicit message that we are not to be overly fastidious about what was once understood to be the ethic of scholarship—an ethic, I should add, that in that earlier time served to restrain the possible excesses of a literary criticism that perhaps, in its own way, was similarly interested, even if that interestedness was rarely admitted. So we find in our current adversarial criticism a sometimes scornful repudiation of the professed ideal of scholarly objectivity as an innocence-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs or the tendency to turn a blind eye to the employment of what in the past would undoubtedly have been judged fundamentally questionable tactics. But perhaps most insidiously damaging of all is the reluctance of the adversarial critic to take seriously the critic's once understood obligation to consider all of the possible evidence and all of the possible scholarship—from whatever quarter—that might bear on a topic.

If those Wordsworthians who shared Lentricchia's ideological commitments had answered his call to social action (with its concomitant relaxing of scruples about the ethics of scholarship) by entering into some kind of tacit critical compact among themselves at the time he sounded that call, I have little doubt that what would have emerged a dozen years later in Wordsworth studies would be a critical scene very much like the one I have described in the preceding pages. And perhaps the best proof of this is something more troubling than the astonishingly inexplicable outright errors to which I have pointed. It is perhaps the fact that the often immensely knowledgeable adversarial critic is so frequently selective in assembling evidence and that he or she is reluctant to look to any one other than the ideologically like-minded for scholarly authority. Thus a scholar who knows as much about Wordsworth as David Simpson will accede to what in this instance seems the dubious authority of John Barrell in his claim that Wordsworth believed his sister incapable of membership in the intellectual community. Furthermore, he will augment that argument by asserting that for William Dorothy could be no reader, despite the readily available and ample evidence to the contrary to be found in the Grasmere Journals. So too we find that Judith Page, writing a book on Wordsworth and women that shows an evident familiarity with the facts of William's and Dorothy's lives, accepts at a crucial place in her argument a hypothesis by Davidoff and Hall that is plainly incompatible with the true facts of those lives at the time William wrote “Tintern Abbey.” That Simpson and Page would do this finally must deeply perplex and deeply disturb any reader who would take for granted their scholarly integrity and fairness as he or she weighs their arguments. It is as if adoption of the critical practices that Lentricchia calls for and that the adversarial critics I have discussed engage in, the deployment of criticism to foster social change without any undue concern for the niceties of the ethics of scholarship, has instilled an ingrained and—I fear—willful obduracy, which shuts out all inconveniently unassimilable detail and all differing and especially contrary voices.

Whether, in our emerging age of Gingrich (or at least deepening conservatism in both political parties), the adversarial practices so widely adopted in the past decade have furthered the national or the global social changes that Lentricchia and his ideological counterparts in an emerging Romantic critical establishment would like to see take place is a question I do not intend to take up, though my framing of it obviously indicates my suspicions as to how that particular adversarial project is likely to play out in the larger political world in the foreseeable future. But in the academy, and especially in literary studies, these practices and the political assumptions that undergird them are clearly ascendant. Thus in the best (and probably in most) of our graduate schools and increasingly in the classes in Romantic poetry and those sophomore surveys into which the views propounded in the graduate schools eventually filter down, what is learned about the relations between William and Dorothy Wordsworth is not that he was the most loving of brothers as she believed him to be, nor even that he was a better brother to his sister than his other brothers were, indeed a better brother, I suspect, than I certainly and possibly you in similar circumstances could imagine ourselves being. Instead what students are increasingly told is that William was intellectually disdainful of the sister he lived with, inhibiting her growth as a poet, which might otherwise have been as great as his own, that theirs was a relationship fundamentally exploitative, by which he was virtually the sole beneficiary, his behavior toward Dorothy perhaps to be explained as simply in keeping with the spirit of the times, or perhaps by the charge that, in his treatment of Dorothy, William did not even meet that exceedingly low standard. (After all, for “feminist criticism over the past decade,” Wordsworth is “a domestic tyrant in his life”: a characterization of the feminist criticism of Wordsworth, I hasten to add, that is not my own but that of Judith Page, a self-described feminist critic herself, who in her recent Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women intends to soften the portrayal of Wordsworth presented by her feminist predecessors, though, in truth, she seems to me to be only minusculely less severe.61

Even so, we might present the relationship of William and Dorothy Wordsworth in such a way that it could help foster some of the social change that our adversarial critics and I both desire, and do so while still remaining faithful to the traditional ethics of scholarship. That is, if we would adhere more closely to what seems the real facts of the case, we might, in a world of still persisting gendered prejudices and gender-imposed disabilities, have our students look to William Wordsworth as a model of what a brother of a sister might be. They would have as a model one who, out of what would seem to be the purest family feeling, would under the most financially strained circumstances still undertake the care of a sister he had hardly seen since childhood, yet who had found in that relationship with his “beloved sister” much more than what family feeling in and of itself would produce. That is, she was to be not only his “dear, dear Sister” bound to him by ties of blood, but also his rationally chosen partner and companion, a “dear, dear Friend,” whose invaluable intellectual assistance to him he would gladly acknowledge. But to his credit, having invested so much of his love and loyalty in his relationship with his sister, Wordsworth, still the true radical, paradoxically remained convinced—certainly at the time of “Tintern Abbey”—that the genuinely moral life existed only outside the family. Only there, among those to whom he was not related, could he behave benevolently because disinterestedly, and thereby begin the great work of ameliorating the lot of humanity at large. On the other hand, that individual whose acts of kindness were confined wholly to his “kindred” and “those with whom” he “dwelled,” whose only values were family values, was in Wordsworth's eyes “the worst of slaves, the slave / Of his own house” (LB, 311, ll. 17-18)

The examples of error, distortion, and misrepresentation I have presented from adversarial studies of Wordsworth are not rare lapses from a norm of general accuracy but seem to me typical of what is being produced in Wordsworth scholarship today and, in most cases, produced by those emerging as our leading scholars. Moreover, while I cannot state with utter certainty that what I have said about the criticism of Wordsworth necessarily applies to criticism written about other writers—I know no other writer as well as I know Wordsworth and I believe that with the exception of Shakespeare no English writer has been subjected to the adversarial tactics of feminism and the New Historicism to the extent that Wordsworth has—I have read enough in the criticism of other writers to suspect that the current situation in Wordsworth studies is representative enough. Driven by the need to find fault with writers we have long admired and who perhaps simply cannot be as bad in their lives and art as our adversarially inclined critics would have them be, the contemporary criticism that would build its arguments on a hermeneutics of disparagement seems to me doomed to err by its very ideological fervor, a liability compounded for this generation of critics by their belief that genuine truth is most likely to reside in what is displaced or absent. My arguments on behalf of Wordsworth and with his adversarial critics are, I believe, based on historical fact and on the plain sense of the texts I have discussed, but I recognize that in our current critical climate such appeals to fact and the plain sense of texts may not be sufficient.


  1. Marjorie Levinson, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 13.

  2. E. P. Thompson, “Disenchantment or Default? A Lay Sermon,” Power and Consciousness, ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien and William Dean Vanech (London: Univ. of London Press; New York: New York Univ. Press, 1969), 148-81.

  3. Levinson, Wordsworth, 11.

  4. Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), 160.

  5. Marjorie Levinson, “The New Historicism: Back to the Future,” Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History, ed. Marjorie Levinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 18-63.

  6. Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 118.

  7. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-54). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page and line numbers and abbreviated PW.

  8. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years, 1787-1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d rev. ed., ed. Chester Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 119. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and abbreviated EY.

  9. M. H. Abrams, “On Political Readings of Lyrical Ballads,Doing Things with Texts, ed. Michael Fischer (New York: Norton, 1989), 364-91; Helen Vendler, “Tintern Abbey: Two Assaults,” Wordsworth in Context, ed. Pauline Fletcher and John Murphy (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1992), 173-90; Thomas McFarland, William Wordsworth: Intensity and Achievement (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1992), 1-56. Of the three, only Vendler takes up Barrell's essay (cited below), and she does so only briefly.

  10. John Barrell, “The Uses of Dorothy: ‘The Language of the Sense’ in ‘Tintern Abbey,’” Poetry, Language, and Politics (London: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 137-67.

  11. Mary Hays, Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (New York: Garland Publishers, 1974). For “great and good,” see 19; for “excellent,” see 27. For “mind” see Hays, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain, on Behalf of the Women (New York: Garland Publishers, 1974), 105.

  12. Mary Hays, “Improvement Suggested in Female Education,” Monthly Magazine and British Register 2 (July 1796), 469.

  13. Barrell, 166.

  14. Barrell, 160-61.

  15. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974). For “lifeless,” see 1:104; for “bald” and “contain no picture,” see 1:103.

  16. David Simpson, “Figuring Class, Sex, and Gender: What Is the Subject of Wordsworth's ‘Gipsies’?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989), 549, 550.

  17. Barrell, 161.

  18. Barrell, 161.

  19. Barrell, 161.

  20. Barrell, 166.

  21. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, abridged ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 232.

  22. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, 1821-53, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. ed., ed. Alan G. Hill, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978-88), 2:536.

  23. John Stuart Mill, “Coleridge,” Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962), 121.

  24. Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals, ed. Pamela Woof (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 270-71. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page and abbreviated GJ.

  25. Quoted from Ernest de Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 58-59.

  26. Mary Moorman, The Early Years, 1770-1803, vol. 1 of William Wordsworth: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957), 99.

  27. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, 3 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1967), 3:457.

  28. Judith Page, Wordsworth and the Cultivation of Women (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), 44, 45.

  29. Page, 46.

  30. Page, 46.

  31. Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 280.

  32. Davidoff and Hall, 280.

  33. Ernest de Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth: A Biography, 202.

  34. Susan Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth & Romanticism (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1987), 1.

  35. Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), 84.

  36. Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1989), 227.

  37. Liu, 249, 251-52.

  38. Liu, 262.

  39. Liu, 266.

  40. Quoted from Liu, 266.

  41. Liu, 266.

  42. Joseph Budworth, A Fortnight's Ramble in the Lakes in Westmoreland and Cumberland, 3d ed. (London: John Nichols and Son, 1820). For “the richest man,” see 124; for “astonishing accumulation,” see 119; for “no one nearer,” see 119, quoted from Burn's Westmoreland.

  43. This explanation of John Mounsey's title is also offered by the Reverend W. P. Morris in the text of The Records of Patterdale (Kendal: T. Wilson Publishers at Highgate, 1903), although in his notes Morris speculates that the Mounseys “may have received the appellation because of their comparative affluence” and adds Clarke's suggestion “that the Mounseys received the title of the ‘Kings of Patterdale’ from their having neither paid any rent or done any homage, fealty or service for the King, or any claiming under him” (47). But neither of these alternative explanations gives us any reason to consider John Mounsey's wife one of the “local poor.”

  44. Pamela Woof has suggested to me that there might be one indicator of class in this sentence, with the word “stuff” here referring to household goods. If this is the case, and Peggy Ashburner still has a heart that works for the Queen of Patterdale, a heart that goes out to her, regardless of all her wealth, that can only exacerbate Liu's misreading of the passage as the account of a middle-class woman condemning the poor. I had initially understood “stuff” to mean “things she had to put up with,” her “tribulations,” an interpretation that still seems to me consistent with what goes on in the passage as a whole.

  45. “Speculates about the past” is in Liu, 266; all other quotations are from the Grasmere Journals.

  46. Liu, 249.

  47. Liu, 249.

  48. Evan Radcliffe, “Revolutionary Writing, Moral Philosophy, and Universal Benevolence in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas (1993): 221-40.

  49. Radcliffe, 233, 234.

  50. Radcliffe, 231.

  51. William Enfield, Monthly Magazine and British Register 1 (Feb.-June 1796): 273-76.

  52. Enfield, 276, 275, respectively.

  53. For “visionary,” see the Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1956), 1:527. The rest of the quotations are from William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, rev. ed., ed. Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 66.

  54. Coleridge, Collected Letters, 1:527.

  55. Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800, ed. James Butler and Karen Green (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992), 311. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text and abbreviated LB.

  56. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), 8, 10.

  57. Lentricchia, 35.

  58. Lentricchia, 36.

  59. Kenneth Burke, “Revolutionary Symbolism in America,” American Writers Congress, ed. Henry Hart (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 91. Quoted by Lentricchia, 35-36.

  60. Lentricchia, 36.

  61. Page, 2.

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “Texted Selves: Dorothy and William Wordsworth in The Grasmere Journals.a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 14, no. 1 (summer 1999): 118-36.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos considers The Grasmere Journals in the context of late-twentieth-century notions of gender and authorial integrity.]


Anyone undertaking a reading of The Grasmere Journals will be going over much traveled terrain, especially in regard to the relations between Dorothy and William during those crucial years that confirmed Dorothy as William's lifetime companion and William as a poet. To the able and subtle exegeses of Dorothy's Journals, I add late-twentieth-century interrogations about authorial integrity, about resistance to domestication and complicity with it in the construction of gendered textual personae. The Grasmere Journals is the production of an intellectual, audience-driven author who succeeds in creating a textual self so convincing as to have been taken for the “real” Dorothy Wordsworth. In the Journals we see an elaboration of a persona that is different from the Dorothy of the letters, from contemporary accounts of the Dorothy that greeted visitors to Dove Cottage, and no doubt from the way in which she was seen by those mendicants to whom she gave as much as, sometimes more than, she thought she could afford. Moreover, the Journals creates the materiality of the male poet's body, thus destabilizing William's concurrent self-fashionings as a solitary, originary, disembodied masculine genius. In this Wordsworthian paper, I would like to begin with a recollection of Grasmere in the summer of 1986, illustrative of the uses we still make of the domestic writing of women and of our residual resistance to early-nineteenth-century women's conscious manipulations of the medium.

The Wordsworth Summer Conference holds an auction of books and prints as a fund-raising event. The auction takes place in the cavernous, mildewed hall of the Prince of Wales Hotel, which stands on the edge of Grasmere Lake. That August 1986, the objects held up for auction predictably varied in value and interest, from unremarkable prints to rare manuscripts. Among the latter was a leather-bound, handwritten artifact looking for all the world like a journal. It turned out to be Joanna Hutchinson's cookery book, filled with recipes and prescriptions passed on down the line of female generations and culled from women friends. It struck me as a charming entry to a world of women for whom cooking and curing were often the same, an essential sustenance very unlike Derrida's supplemental pharmakon, the interfering drug about whose circulation among the Wordsworth circle we have come to know so much.

Of course, I could not afford to own an early-nineteenth-century manuscript written by someone even marginal to the Inner Circle, but as I watched the bidding, my desire for the little book made me feel a completely unwarranted anxiety about the price going higher and higher, until it reached over £900—surely not the price of an Impressionist painting, but sizable nonetheless for the pocket of an American academician of middling status. After the auction was over, I was told that the two men bidding for the Hutchinson book had bid on behalf of two libraries, Cornell and Dove Cottage. I asked the eminent Cornell editor, who was most kind and accessible and who besides had won the book in the auctioneering contest, why he had bid so much for Joanna's book. He showed me photocopies of a Wordsworth poem in manuscript that he was editing at the time and suggested how hard a task he had before him. A number of individual letters, both consonants and vowels, were indistinguishable in the handwriting. William had had so many amanuenses: Dorothy, Mary, Sara, Joanna. Determining whose woman's hand had copied William's poems was a decisive step in figuring out the peculiarities of that particular script. Having a larger sample of the woman's writing, especially one which in its prosaic simplicity had no ambiguous words, became indispensable for comparison. So Joanna's book would be mined for b's and d's and g's and f's in order to determine, for those times when she had served as scribe in the Wordsworth household, the exact wording of William's poetry.

This memory forces reflections on the generally unacknowledged space of domesticity in the production of the High Romantic texts. This space seems even more burdened by the complications of offerings, obligations, borrowings, slips of the pen, oral exchanges, appropriations when constructed and inhabited by housemates whose level of literacy and literary sensibility involves them intimately in textual production. The Wordsworth siblings' domesticity was not atypical of nineteenth-century writing families (the Lambs, the Shelleys and their circle, later the Brownings and the Rossettis), in which collaboration, affection, and competition supported and, at times, strained structures of power that cannibalized the experience of one or more members of the household in order to create and uphold the Romantic myth of the original, originary, solitary genius, expressed in a variety of accounts of poetic composition: Wordsworth's 1800 “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge's chapters on the Imagination in Biographia Literaria, Shelley's Defence of Poetry.

Yet I will resist here going over the ground broken by feminist predecessors, who have so convincingly argued for a repositioning and reappraisal of Dorothy as a writer inhibited by the limitations of her gendered education and familial history and frustrated by the lack of psychic and even physical space within which to create (Homans, Alexander, Levin, McGavran). Far from disagreeing with these critics, I build on their perceptions and indicate ways in which my questionings have been prompted by their interpretations. If I quarrel with D-Wordsworthians, it is with biographers Gittings and Manton, with the fine editor Pamela Woof, and with Mellor in her recent reappraisal of Dorothy, all of whom persist in maintaining a cultivated obtuseness to the cris de coeur, the bullying tenacity, the sly calculations of the less-than-ideal, -transparent, -naive Dorothy that exude from the textual evidence of journals and letters. What I will argue for is a reading of The Grasmere Journals as biographically a record of resistance to accommodation and, more significantly, as textually a triumph of self-representation. Dorothy converted generations of scholars to faith in her modesty, ordinary aspirations, immediacy of perception, transparency, and the propriety of her sensibility, and she convinced her primary audience, William, of the wisdom of giving in to his “pleasure”—her textual self.1

I also argue for a shift in the investigative ground of W-Wordsworthians' recent concentration on the mote in the poet's eye, namely William's failures to include the economic conditions of his time in his poetry (McGann 84, 90; Levinson 37). The rather large beam in many a materialist and new-historicist's eye is their complete indifference to other glaring erasures in William's poetry, such as the materiality of women's participation in poetry-making, not merely in terms of his own household but the British literary marketplace.2 William's contestation of the literary territory acquired by women poets publishing concurrently with the High Romantics is only recently receiving due attention (Page 29-53). The new-historicist indifference or under-reading, in Nancy K. Miller's terms, is preferable to the complicit erasure of femininity in such deconstructive, or rather reconstitutive, exercises as J. Hillis Miller's reading of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”;3 in Hillis Miller's scrutiny of the text, the female presence metamorphoses from sister to mother to father, so that we end up not with a sense of Dorothy's participation in William's psychic life, but with “the occidental drama of the lost sun,” the Oedipal dyad of “the father sun as logos” and the poet-son who laments his loss of mastery. Thus we are relieved once more of the embarrassing supplemental presence of the unstable, infinitely substitutable, female (109).

In this paper I ally myself with those critics who examine the writing process from the traditional stance of the rhetorician; they not only give us a less phantasmic grounding than psychoanalysis, but their studies provide for the legitimacy of marginal literary genres like journals and letters. A critic like John Willinsky, who keeps both Dorothy and William in mind as he examines William's writings, concludes: “If the ideology in these literary acts is indicated by its silences … then the displaced political in Wordsworth is also the missing depth of the domestic life which forms a part of what his poetry only mentions in passing, even as it draws so directly from it. … The Romantic ideology which William worked was built over a domestic abyss he was not ready to fully explore” (42). Conversely, or perhaps complementarily, Willinsky offers this analysis of the Journals: “The Journals were not private, but were along with William's poetry an integral element in the domestic life of the Wordsworths” (42).

Anita McCormick anticipates my own reading of The Grasmere Journals as a “first-person narrative” deployed “to express [Dorothy's] anxieties [about being displaced by Mary] to her brother” (473). Yet, while she grants Dorothy “considerable, … rhetorical sophistication” (476), she argues that the rhetorical effects are largely the result of an unconscious process. I, however, will eschew psychoanalytic speculation in favor of arguing that, apart from automatic writing, textual production, far from being effected unconsciously, is the product of labor, so that while I agree with McCormick's analysis of the rhetoric of The Grasmere Journals, I will be looking at them in the context of domestic praxis, art, making.4 Like Ingeborg Kohn, I read the Journals as a love story, but I differ from her Barthian description of such writing as “a solitary project” (569), and I regard the text as a qualified triumph of self-representation rather than a record “spelling defeat” (572).

Recognizing Dorothy as an integral, though largely unnamed, part of William's writing and her emotional investment in him as an integral part of her writing dishonors neither of these writers. What I will do here is once again put into question a chief construction of the Romantic ideology—the myth of the solitary genius, a myth which obscures the shared textual production in a household of literate people whose social and gender status may not make them equal but whose sensibility and acuteness to each other's intelligence make them inextricable participants in the process of creation.5 This myth served to isolate Romanticists' analyses first from the economic and material conditions so emphatically recovered for us by the new historicists and present-day critics, then from the tenor of a domesticity in which housemates (generally women) were not wholly victims but often willing participants in a ritual sacrifice that elevated their own existence beyond the fulfillment of gender-determined and approved duties. I will, however, set aside such ungenderings of the Journals as those performed by Liu, for whom a male obsession for origins gets projected onto Dorothy's recordings of housekeeping and illnesses.

In my reading of the Wordsworth siblings, I take my cue both from the bracing recent formulations about subjectivity by Gagnier and Gilmore, as well as from my knowledge of writerly households, in which no copyrights, no patents are issued as conversation and texts flow, merge, and resuface—appropriated, “borrowed,” alluded to—not infrequently amid shouts of “That was my idea,” particularly from the members of the household least secure in their status. Gagnier writes, “Since the nineteenth century, professional writers and literary critics have attempted generic definitions of autobiography, encouraging readers to take some forms of self-representation as proper autobiography and others as life, perhaps, but not Art. Such determinations were concurrent with developments in literary professionalism” (31). It is therefore salutary to our own interrogation of “professionalism” and to a revaluation of the nineteenth-century notion to read The Grasmere Journals as Art, the art of autobiography, conscious self-representation, for an audience of the kind that, after all, few of us are likely to have, for good or ill: the chosen life companion, the closest blood relative, and one expected to become the foremost poet of the age. The audience is primarily William, in the same exclusive yet public sense in which a love lyric is addressed to the beloved. Yet the self-construction at work in a love lyric is as artful, as artificial, as created as Dorothy's Journals self.

Gilmore argues that autobiography “can be seen to exploit the metaphorical resonance of reality, a metaphor that functions as a trope of truth beyond argument, of identity beyond proof, of what simply is.” Such thinking leads us into the error of neglecting “the narrative dimension of the text, neglect [ing] autobiography's textuality as anything other than a transparent view onto reality” (67). What is remarkable about The Grasmere Journals is the extent to which this text, which does not even claim the status of autobiography, nevertheless presents us with a “narrative dimension,” with a reality functioning as trope of truth, so that neither the daily scenes nor Dorothy's identity are examined for their metaphoric, constructed selectiveness. The Grasmere Journals represents Dorothy's surrogate offering of self for William's consumption, for his “pleasure,” but not, in line with cultural taboos, for his jouissance. In order to please William, she must offer as whole, as pleasing a self as she can muster under the circumstances, and the circumstances are trying indeed. The Grasmere Journals begins with an anticipation of loss: “My heart was so full that I could hardly speak to W when I gave him a farewell kiss. I sate a long time upon a stone at the margin of the lake, & after a flood of tears my heart was easier. The lake looked to me I knew not why dull and melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound” (1). An ominous beginning, which in fact is as much of a beginning as the opening scene of a Sophoclean tragedy: everything has already happened, and the rest shows us how the hero accommodates her/himself to dire knowledge. It is useless for the purposes of reading the Journals to invoke Dorothy's affection for Mary Hutchinson. Nowhere is there a glimmer of happy anticipation of the marriage, nowhere does Dorothy describe her joy at preparing the house for Mary's arrival. The Journals moves toward a change that must deprive Dorothy of her place as the woman of the household and as her brother's chief companion. As such, its textual power derives from Dorothy's successful representation of herself as indispensable both for the maintenance of the household—from its narrowest sense, washing linen and picking beans, to its widest, providing a living link with the human community of the valley—and for an inscribed sensibility sufficiently different from, yet complementary to, William's so that his poetic practice might profit from it.

It has been remarked that the plot of the Journals centers on William's engagement and marriage, but the narrative allows these momentous events to enter only on the slant if at all. The Journals is Dorothy's construct of her own vulnerable, sensitive, sensible, ever-busy self, offered to William along with the numberless pies and tarts and tea and broth whose baking and preparation and serving she records. She fashions herself in contrast to the portrait she draws in letters of Coleridge's wife Sarah as “a sad fiddle-faddle” whose “radical fault is want of sensibility” but who also fails in all domestic duties but suckling her children (Letters 331.)

If the Journals swerves from this ritual offering renewed almost daily, it does so after the Wordsworths leave first for Calais and then for Gallow Hill. After the marriage, on the journey home, Dorothy shifts her address to the new audience, the newlywed couple; she insistently presents the return to Grasmere as an anticlimax, as an afterthought, as containing emotional force only from its being a less felicitous re-enactment of the journey made by herself and William in the first place. In the space of one printed page we are offered the following account of primacy and togetherness (note the pronoun we, which Dorothy explicates almost without exception as “Wm & I”):

Every foot of the Road was, of itself interesting to us, for we had travelled along it on foot Wm & I when we went to fetch our dear Mary, & and had sate upon the Turf by the roadside more than once.

We were not shewn into the same parlour where Wm & I were.

Mary was very much delighted with the view of the Castle from the point where we had seen it before.


Dorothy continues in the same reminiscent vein with the same insistence on her having been there first and on her union with William:

I was pleased to see again the little path which we had walked upon, the gate I had climbed over, & the Road down which we had seen the two little Boys drag a load of wood. … We had felt compassion. …


We went to a new built house at Leyburn, the same village where Wm & I had dined with George Hutchinson on our Road to Grasmere 2 years & 3/4 ago.

My heart was melted away with dear recollections, the Bridge, the little water-spout … They are among the most vivid of my own inner visions, for they were the first objects that I saw after we were left to ourselves, & had turned our whole hearts to Grasmere as a home in which we were to rest.


It was a dear place to William & me.

We were in the same Room where we had spent the Evening together in our road to Grasmere.


Stavely … is a place I dearly love to think of—the first mountain village that I came to with Wm when we first began our pilgrimage together.


Dorothy fails to characterize the journey à trois in any way, whereas she consecrates her journey with William as a “pilgrimage.” This latter journey at last reaches the holy place, and “We went by candle light into the garden & were astonished at the growth” (132). On holy ground as well, the we stands for William and Dorothy, for Mary could not measure the growth of the garden against recollections of how it had been when Dorothy and William made their farewell. Dorothy, however, could intervene only temporarily either textually or bodily between the spouses: “I prevailed upon William to go up with me to the ruins we left Mary sitting by the kitchen fire” (127); “Wm fell asleep, lying upon my breast & I upon Mary” (130). After she concludes the narrative of the marriage and return, Dorothy attempts to restore the journal to its genre—daily entries, but she has less and less to record. McCormick, Heinzelman, and Mellor regard the gradual diminution of writing and the subsequent silence as good signs in a text that reaches a satisfactory resolution. The protagonist has made the necessary accommodation to the inevitable and has made it happily. While McCormick, mistakenly as far as I can see, detects a lessening of Dorothy's symptoms after the marriage and reads in the apparent absence of illness Dorothy's sense that she has not been displaced, Heinzelman and Mellor interpret the end-story of the Journals as an untroubled happy closure (McCormick 489; Heinzelman 52-78; Mellor 162, 166). We might regard the infinite deferral of promises in the last entries, “will for the future write regularly &, if I can legibly,” with some suspicion. Some writers write themselves out through a crisis, but Dorothy continued to correspond with vigor and at great length. Was it the threat of a different domestic circulation of the Journals, its changed audience, that required of Dorothy the construction of a self that she could or would not muster? Why the curious addition, “if I can legibly,” since up to this moment in the textual life of the Journals no complaint of illegibility is registered from the reader to whom it brought pleasure, for whom it preserved the incidents and encounters that, stripped of the materiality of local knowledge, would be transformed into the stuff of High Romantic poetry?

This reading leads us to see William's marriage as the end of the great experiment of “home at Grasmere.” We look to the experience of artists in their youth in the great metropolises of London or Paris for the vie de bohème, the rebellion against middle-class strictures about the organization of family life and gendered spheres, but we have not yet looked for it in the hills and valleys of the Lake District. Yet Dorothy's life with William deviated from bourgeois respectability in both English and German eyes. To a 1794 letter from an aunt questioning the propriety of Dorothy's behavior at a time when Dorothy was just beginning her rambles in William's company, she replies tartly, not unstung: “I affirm that I consider the character and virtues of my brother as a sufficient protection” (Letters 1: 117). This period approximates the one in which a fictional character, Eliza Bennet, becomes the subject of scandalized censure for merely walking alone three miles from home to be with a sister taken ill. In Germany, as Coleridge makes clear in his correspondence, Dorothy and William are regarded as an illicit couple, the word “sister” being code for “mistress.” Even in England, the relationship does not escape censure. Gittings and Manton go to great lengths to vindicate the couple's innocence by ascribing the gossip surrounding them “beside an English fire” to the sensation caused among rustics by “visiting intellectuals” among them (106), but the very impulse to vindicate shows unease even among twentieth-century critics about the less than regular and regulated life at Dove Cottage.

Despite relatives' and strangers' disapproval, Dorothy and William lived their idyllic bohème in Grasmere. The Journals records walks taken at all times of day and night in all weather, by Dorothy with her brother or alone, and her hospitality to men, such as Coleridge, in her brother's absence. She disdained the need for masculine protection on moonlit nights, although she remained terrified of cows. She and William seemed to stay up, sleep in, take meals in an enviable freedom from ordinary schedules. Of necessity, William's marriage alters this bohemian existence. The exigencies of middle-class propriety begin to make themselves felt, and the inalterable need for a well-regulated life, at least for the women, begins with the expectation of Mary and William's first child. Not much of these changes appears in the last entries, although Mary is already pregnant. The emotional temperature, however, like the physical one that Dorothy records, drops considerably, in the sense that Dorothy confesses herself less and less able or willing to go on with her journal: “Monday was a frosty day, & it has been frost ever since. … It is today Christmas-day. … I am 31 years of age.—It is a dull frosty day.” “Still as mild as Spring … but before morning the wind rose & it became dreadfully cold.” “Furiously cold.” “The blackness of the Cold made us slow to put forward & we did not walk at all.” “Very cold, & cold all the week.” “Intensely cold” (135-37). In the last entry, Dorothy has to borrow the servant's cloak to run an errand in order to satisfy William's “fancy for some gingerbread.” The errand proves not entirely successful, the Newtons having but a “little stock” in their cupboard and no thick to go with it. William's craving, at the time of his wife's first pregnancy, spurs domestic production of the said item in the Wordsworth kitchen, and the entry ends with an account of the extra “2 pennyworth” spent for cream after the “6 pennyworth” spent for the gingerbread that William couldn't wait for. That final count of exertion on a cold day, domestic labor, and expense concludes Dorothy's offering of her writing for William's pleasure.

The scope of this paper does not permit me to move from offering to consumption in a thorough analysis of William's poetry that would eschew exaggerated emphases and seemingly arbitrary selections. However, I intend at least to be suggestive since I cannot begin to be exhaustive. In relation to William, whether we accept or reject F. W. Bateson's suggestions about the incestuous love between brother and sister or Matlak's stranger assertion that since William resented Dorothy he could not have at the same time desired her, we must recognize that they and other psychoanalytic critics have rescued the Wordsworth siblings from Victorian pieties and have focused our attention on conflicted familial relations. However, what should prove of greater interest is the socioeconomic-emotional dependency of one writer on another and the way in which tensions on both sides produce texts. The Journals is a domestic production that, like the poet's monogrammed sock under glass at the Dove Cottage Museum, has outlived its domestic use and remains the extravagant inscription of love's excess. In a literal sense, we may not have our cake, but figuratively, like William, we continue to consume it. Like Joanna Hutchinson's cookbook, Dorothy's has been mined too long now for what it tells us about William rather than what it tells us about herself. Conversely, William's poetry has not been sufficiently examined for Dorothy's authorial and editorial contributions as well as for his yielding and resistance to the pressure of her much-beloved, intrusive, undismissable presence. More importantly, Dorothy's representation of William in the Journals and its effect on his own resistance to feminization, have not begun to be examined.


The Grasmere Journals is a constructed text by a highly self-conscious and able literary person living in a household in which she is about to lose her position as the only woman (notwithstanding the presence of working-class village women) and the single partner. Dorothy uses rhetorical means and tropes both to represent her own anxieties and to convey them without danger to herself to the person directly responsible for her continuing existence at Grasmere. Dorothy's anxiety about her soon-to-be-diminished domestic position leads her not only to construct herself as indispensable to William, to the household, and to its connection with Grasmere and environs, but to construct a William hardly able to survive without her finely calibrated ministrations. Ultimately, whether the real Dorothy was happy is of no importance to us. What is of importance to us as readers of texts is Dorothy's creation of a text that through its representation of threatened domestic safety and of a self that fights for her centrality in her brother-keeper's life offers a masterly critique of male Romantic, especially Wordsworthian, figurations of poetic identity at the very time when Wordsworth himself was still in the process of articulating the identity that we now regard as fixed. To some extent, our reading of the Wordsworth of the 1800 “Preface,” of the 1798 and even of the 1805 Prelude,of the memorable lyrics whose production coincides with William and Dorothy's ménage à deux is an after reading, a hindsight organized by a canonization of the poet in the pantheon of the Great Six that began in William's own mid-life and continues, though not unchallenged, to the present day.6 In reading Dorothy's Journals, we must remind ourselves that William at that period was in possession of a far-from-established poetic identity and was deeply insecure about most aspects of his life from his poverty to the reception of Lyrical Ballads, to Coleridge's inhibiting hopes for his genius, to the enormous popularity of the very women poets into whose lyrical territory he and Coleridge had encroached with disastrous results in terms of reviews and financial consequence.

What I suggest is that Dorothy was far closer to William's state of mind in the years 1800 to 1802 than we can be, that she played upon his insecurities as well as undermined their culture's image of masculinity, and that she in this sense collaborated, unwittingly or not, with William toward his increasingly strident identifications of poetic genius with singular, originary, solitary masculinity. In the first part of the paper I have examined the ways in which Dorothy creates a literary, autobiographical persona for specific domestic (and the term is far more inclusive in the Grasmere of 1800-1802 than now) uses in the Journals. Here I will look at the way in which Dorothy captures William in her journal observations. The first point I made about an author creating a textual self different from the actual may seem self-evident, but in Dorothy Wordsworth studies, it is a point still disputed. The Dorothy of The Grasmere Journals is still being marketed as late as the most recent Oxford edition (1993) as the uncomplicated, transparent, ardent being whose unmediated emotions give us direct access to the places and the people of 1800-1803 Grasmere and, more importantly, as a context for her brother's and sometimes for Coleridge's poetry: “Dorothy evoked things and people, and let them be. One of our pleasures in the Journal stems from our belief that things were as she says they were” (Woof, Introduction xiv).

Dorothy begins The Grasmere Journals with an explicit statement of purpose: She writes so as to put herself on display for William, “to give Wm pleasure,” but also for herself, “so as not to quarrel with myself” (1). This double exposure should not obscure the third, more subtle but by far more subversive exposure of the Journals, namely that of William as the masculine body scrutinized by the female gaze and inscribed by her pen. In her article on Frankenstein, London suggests that “feminism might do well to alter its perspective, re-examining the structure of spectacle and the positions spectacle engenders,” so as to challenge the “voyeuristic mechanism” that, even in recovering the female author, “leaves criticism fixed on the self-display of the woman” (258). London regards the specular position of the woman writer versus the male body as an act fraught with transgression of a psychoanalytic kind.

Rather, the transgression is a sociopolitical subversion that is deeply embedded not just in the psychodynamics of family life, but in power politics within the family, which, as Virginia Woolf reminded us on the eve of World War II, replicates and sustains politics at large. In Dorothy's Journals, William at times becomes emphatically a spectacle, one that moreover contradicts his own deliberate and anxious self-constructions that precede and continue concurrently with and beyond the writing of the Journals. The Journals, then, serves as a break, a chink in the armor of masculinity for which William struggles in the years following the publication of Lyrical Ballads. It is beyond my scope here to do more than outline my perception of William's anxiety about his masculine poetic persona in the wake of the critical reception of Lyrical Ballads. His progressive elimination of Coleridge's poems and culling of his own, together with the “Preface” of 1800 in which the recurrent phrase is “real men,” point to William's realization that by poaching into the lucrative sensational and sentimental poetry written almost exclusively by women and in his collaboration with Coleridge, whose masculinity is not his most salient characteristic, he has damaged his own stance. He has departed from his inherited place in the line of English poets, the “strong” poets, as Bloom calls them, and has fallen in with a bunch of women, thus endangering his own connection to literary tradition. The “Preface” is not only a document either manifesting the Romantic Ideology or making room for Wordsworthian poetics by negating Augustan poetic achievements but a document whose author cries out, again and again, “I am not a woman” (Page 29-53).

Within this context, Dorothy's construction of William in the Journals transforms William into a feminized presence. This is not to deny both Alexander and Levin's points about William's mobility and the restrictions on Dorothy's ability to leave the house, his need to get away to walk on his own in order to compose while leaving Dorothy in the midst of daily duties or even household crises. Nevertheless, Dorothy's lovingly possessive eye takes in a William who has bodily existence and whose mental life afflicts his well-being. She creates a counter narrative to the poetics we have been taught to associate with Romanticism, namely the inspired moment, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity.” William approaches composition as hard labor, spirit- and body-breaking work. Dorothy's anxiety is two-fold: for the brother who wearies himself with overwork and upon whose good health depends their economic future and for the struggling poet to whose vocation she has dedicated herself. Here are several of the most telling and frequent instances in which William is weak, prey to his body and its infirmities, worn to the point of breaking by his labor. The first deals with the composition of the aforementioned “Preface”: “Wm & I were employed all the morning in writing an addition to the preface. Wm went to bed very ill after working after dinner—Coleridge and I walked to Ambleside” (5 Oct. 1800, 24). The next describes the early draft of “Michael”:

William worked in the morning at the sheep-fold. … William was disturbed in the night by the rain coming into his room, for it was a very rainy night.

(20 Oct. 1800, 28)

Wm had been unsuccessful in the morning at the sheep-fold.

(21 Oct. 1800, 28)

W composed without much success at the Sheep-fold.

(22 Oct. 1800, 29)

Wm was not successful in composition in the Evening.

(23 Oct. 1800, 29)

He was afterwards only partly successful in composition.

(24 Oct. 1800, 29)

Wm composed a good deal—in the morning.

(26 Oct. 1800, 29)

Wm could not compose much fatigued himself with altering.

(28 Oct. 1800, 29)

William working at his poem all the morning.

(29 Oct. 1800, 30)

W very sick & very ill.

(31 Oct. 1800, 30)

William better.

(1 Nov. 1800, 30)

Wm sadly tired, threatening of the piles.

(4 Nov. 1800, 30)

Wm not well.

(5 Nov. 1800, 30)

Wm somewhat better.

(6 Nov. 1800, 31)

Wm still unwell.

(7 Nov. 1800, 31)

Wm slept tolerably—better this morning. … W burnt the sheep-fold.

(9 Nov. 1800, 31)

William had been working at the sheep-fold.

(11 Nov. 1800, 31)

Wm finished his poem.

(9 Dec. 1800, 35)

The next entries concern a number of poems in progress, “The Pedlar,” “The Ruined Cottage,” and the poem to Coleridge—what we now know as the 1805 Prelude:

Wm sate beside me & read the Pedlar, he was in good spirits & full of hope of what he should do with it.

(21 Dec. 1801, 49-50)

Wm composed a few lines of the Pedlar.

(22 Dec. 1801, 50)

William worked at The Ruined Cottage & made himself very ill.

(23 Dec. 1801, 52)

William tired with composition.

(25 Jan. 1802, 58)

William had tired himself with working—he resolved to do better … Wm wrote out part of his poem & endeavoured to alter it, & so made himself ill.

(26 Jan. 1802, 58)

William worked at the Pedlar all the morning, he kept the dinner waiting till 4 o clock.

(30 Jan. 1802, 60)

William had slept very ill, he was tired & had a bad headache.

(31 Jan. 1802, 60)

Wm slept badly … William worked hard at the Pedlar & tired himself.

(1 Feb. 1802, 61)

William wished to break off composition & was unable, & so did himself harm.

(2 Feb. 1802, 62)

William had had a bad night & was working at his poem. We sate by the fire & did not walk, but read the pedlar thinking it done but lo, though Wm could find fault with no one part of it—it was uninteresting & must be altered. Poor William!

(7 Feb. 1802, 63)

William worked at his poem.

(8 Feb. 1802, 63)

William had slept better. He fell to work, & made himself unwell.

(9 Feb. 1802, 65)

After Molly went we read the first part of the poem & were delighted with it—but Wm afterwards got to some ugly places & went to bed tired out.

(10 Feb. 1802, 65)

William sadly tired & working still at the Pedlar … he got to work again & went to bed unwell.

(11 Feb. 1802, 65-66)

I almost finished writing the Pedlar, but poor William wore himself & me out with Labour.

(12 Feb. 1802, 67)

Wm very ill, employed with the pedlar … no walk—disaster pedlar.

(28 Feb. 1802, 73)

Wm got to work & was worn to death, we did not walk.

(3 Mar. 1802, 74)

Dorothy demystifies poetic composition as spontaneous inspiration in these passages and shows the poet made weak by mental struggle in a series of almost clinical observations that anticipate the scientific discourse which, later in the century, will associate bodily decay with intellectual activity in women. Not only is William the victim of his vocation—he is shown as fearful, tearful, and subject to a number of psychosomatic attacks. Here is William in a storm: “William walked to John's grove—I went to meet him—moon light but it rained. I met him before I had got as far as John Batys he had been surprized & terrified by a sudden rushing of winds which seemed to bring earth sky & lake together, as if the whole were going to enclose him in—he was glad that he was in a high Road” (24 Nov. 1801, 41). William gets tired walking and misplaces his belongings: “After we had left John Stanley's Wm discovered that he had lost his gloves he turned back but they were gone. We were tired & had bad head aches. We rested often—once Wm left his Spenser & Mary turned back for it & found it upon the Bank where we had last rested” (28 Dec 1801, 53). William is subject to morbid sensibility, against which Dorothy tries to guard him:

After tea I read aloud the 11th Book of Paradise Lost we were much impressed & also melted into tears. The papers came in soon after I had laid aside the Book—a good thing for my William.

(2 Feb. 1802, 62)

William still poorly—we made up a good fire after dinner, & William brought his Mattrass out, & lay down on the floor I read to him the life of Ben Jonson & some short Poems of his which were too interesting for him, & would not let him go to sleep.

(11 Feb. 1802, 66)

Apart from these passages, there are many instances in which Dorothy records William's headaches, fatigue, poor spirits, chest colds, hemorrhoids, in which she allays his fears, his nervous excitement, his insomnia. While she performs according to gender type by ministering to her brother, her minute, unforgiving recordings of his nearly daily indispositions revise the traditional view of masculinity as mind above the materiality of the body. We are offered a William prostrate by his efforts at poetry, frightened by storms, fatigued by walks and the cold, irritated by the unannounced visits of neighbors and by Coleridge's presence or his own complaints, uneasy and edgy about his impending marriage.

In addition to the spectacle of male genius as physical body and nervous sensibility, we hear a Dorothy who insists upon her collaborative function in the household, not only in the traditional role of seamstress, laundress, errand runner, baker, cook, decorator, shoe-maker, mattress-maker, etc., but emphatically as contributor to William's poetry. How are we to interpret such assertions as “Wm & I were employed all the morning in writing an addition to the preface” (5 Oct. 1800, 24)? We can dismiss the double subject by taking Dorothy to mean that her brother composed and she took down dictation, perhaps. But the collaborative instances are many: “I was so unlucky as to propose to rewrite the Pedlar” (3 Mar. 1802, 74); “I stitched up the Pedlar—wrote out Ruth—read it with the alterations” (7 Mar. 1802, 75); “William finished Alice Fell, & then he wrote the Poem of the Beggar woman taken from a Woman whom I had seen in May. … After tea I read to William that account of the little Boys belonging to the tall woman & an unlucky thing it was for he could not escape from those very words, & so he could not write the poem, he left it unfinished & went tired to Bed. In our walk from Rydale he had got warmed with the subject & had half cast the Poem” (13 Mar. 1802, 77). William's appropriation of Dorothy's sight does not occur without a struggle, a rivalry of voices, or Dorothy's sly insistence on her primacy of vision and language despite her stated reluctance to set herself up as a poet and be in overt competition with her brother: “I had many many exquisite feelings when I saw this lowly Building in the waters among the dark & lofty hills, with that bright soft light upon it—it made me more than half a poet. I was tired when I reached home I could not sit down to reading & tried to write verses but alas!” (18 Mar. 1802, 81).

In the entry following the record of her words' influence on William, March 14, she records William's composition of “To a Butterfly,” based once again on a discussion the two had and on her remembrances of childhood (78). Dorothy makes explicit the domestic nature of poetry making and its communal origin in a writerly household: “He [William] met me with the conclusion of the poem of the Robin. I read it to him in Bed. We left out some lines” (88). Here, clearly, Dorothy is no mere amanuensis—she participates in the creative process. At a time when William is once more injuring himself by composing poetry, Dorothy writes, “When I came home I found William at work, attempting to alter a stanza in the poem of our going for Mary which I convinced him did not need altering” (17 June 1802, 110-11). In an era in which we interrogate the existence of the unitary self and, more significantly in this case, the process from initial draft to publication as the property and single intention of one author, it is nothing short of astonishing that a revaluation of the Romantic Ideology within the domestic economy of Dove Cottage still meets with resistance, particularly given Dorothy's insistent recordings of her critical intervention in the composition of what would become Wordsworth's most famous lyrics.

How did William react to such a representation of himself? We do know that, according to Dorothy, he reacted rather brusquely to her open display of feeling about Coleridge: “C had a sweet day for his ride—every sight & every sound reminded me of him dear dear fellow—of his many walks to us by day & by night—of all dear things. I was melancholy & could not talk, but at last I eased my heart with weeping—nervous blubbering says William. It is not so—O how many, many reasons have I to be anxious for him” (10 Nov. 1801, 37). Does Dorothy feel that William resents her attention turning, however briefly, from him to another? Dorothy nowhere records similar instances of impatience with her constant surveillance of William's every mood and state of being. In fact, after the marriage and Mary's taking up permanent residence at Dove Cottage, William and his bodily needs continue to drive the expanded household.

The last entries of the Journals serve as an ironic display of William's self-absorption, which is beginning to strike even Dorothy as excessive (in letters of 1804 she will complain about his not doing the manly thing, working at the important poem instead of the less significant lyrics). At the time Dorothy lets The Grasmere Journals trail off, Mary is already pregnant. Yet it is William whose cravings must be satisfied, despite the cold, despite obvious lacks in the Grasmere economy. Like the gender reversals recorded by Dorothy in her description of her brother, the Journals ends, in a dash and an entry left blank for Monda[y], with an account of William's “fancy” and the household's efforts to appease it.

Was William oblivious, pleased, made uneasy over these lingering examinations of his chest, his piles, his headaches, his coughs, his appetites? In their minute inspections of the bodily and psychic wreck from which genius rises, Dorothy's Journals eerily foreshadow Leonard's diaries on Virginia Woolf's well- or ill-being. Is William, so scrutinized, so closely looked upon, so often subject of pity, “poor William,” not becoming the very poet he resists becoming in his “Preface,” a poet who does not live exclusively in his mind, immersed as his sister sees him in the materiality of the body and its discontents, a poet for whom the overflow of powerful feeling is not spontaneous, not even recollected joyfully in tranquility, but painstakingly and painfully resurrected, a poet for whom the effort at recall produces such upheavals that he needs to take to bed to recover from composing?

And what of Dorothy's motives in exercising the “power of the gaze,” this writerly control over William's construction as the presence in her Journals? We might ourselves speculate that it gave Dorothy intense satisfaction to present William as weak, as dependent on her ministrations for his continued success in his vocation. That role would indeed make her more than half a poet. On the other hand, given Dorothy's emotional and economic dependence upon William, seeing him overcome and ill must have given her a great deal of anxiety. It also surely brought them closer together in their concomitant moments of illness, fatigue, and depression, of which we know there were many. Irrespective of gender, they suffered and consoled one another, although it becomes clear from the later records of life at Grasmere that as more women entered the household permanently or for long periods of time, their concerns began to revolve around William and his comfort, despite their ills. But in the window of the Journals, we are allowed to see the Poet in his bodily existence, an existence as resistant to control and mastery as that of the “weaker” sex and as dominated by the unceasing demands of everyday living as that of ordinary men and women.

Although we have no record of William's reaction to his own appearance under Dorothy's pen in the Journals, some measure of this scrutiny which, though affectionate, nevertheless arrogates to itself the power to see and to assess, must have stung. Hypotheses about the kind of love Dorothy and William harbored for each other and about William's irritation with her have been in print for some time. The intensity of love first mentioned by Bateson is quite compatible with the resentment detected by Matlak in William's attitude toward Dorothy. Just as Dorothy writes of William's corporeality and gives him a decidedly earthly substance, so in his poetry William seeks to present a Dorothean presence that erases his sister's most disturbing, destabilizing traits (her sexuality, her mental strength, her “competition” with him for acuity of observation and expression). I am working backward in the sense that these traits, arguably present in Dorothy's character as recorded in her writings and the writings of unusually acute observers such as Coleridge and De Quincey, are the ones ruthlessly excised in William's representation of the sister/beloved of the Lucy cycle, “Nutting,” “Tintern Abbey,” and others.

That William's version of Dorothy has only recently begun to be questioned and that Dorothy's version of William has not, to my knowledge, been hitherto examined are testimony to the credibility of discourses, to the authority of genre, and to the domination of male-gendered accounts over female-generated ones. If we begin to unravel the assumptions underlying the conventions that make us acquiesce to the Lucy-Dorothy equation put forward by William and endlessly replicated by biographers and critics, if we begin to wonder why the portrait of William in Dorothy's Journals exerted so little influence in our reading of the poet's persona or even his life, we might wonder whether the most unexamined aspect of the Romantic Ideology is not precisely the gender struggle informed by household economies, as well as the economics of the publishing market, rather than the class struggle in the long eighteenth century. Perhaps the Wordsworths' vie de bohème might lead us to revaluate the illusion of separate spheres in the uses of domestic spaces not just in writerly families, but for conducting business and carrying on trade (as Wollstonecraft's Maria makes explicit), for labor agitation and organization, for army family accommodations and their problematics, for credit disbursed and debit counted in the family parlor, long into the twentieth century.


  1. Even Ross, in Contours of Masculine Desire, regards Dorothy as atypical of women writers in her “literary and intellectual modesty,” in her “concern … defined more as devotion than as friendly rivalry” (4).

  2. While domestic relations and concomitant textual production are not the primary focus of these recent revaluations of Romanticism, they provide us with the wide historical, material, and cultural background of the High Romantics in a literary world dominated by successful women writers (See Higonnet, xvii-xxxiii, Ross, Curran, Favret and Watson, Feldman and Kelley).

  3. Nancy K. Miller defines the practice of under-reading, exemplified among Wordsworthian new historicists by Barrell, who in his deceptively titled “The Use of Dorothy: ‘The Landscape of the Sense’ in ‘Tintern Abbey’” devotes three pages of 29 to Dorothy's presence in William's poem.

  4. Vogler, for instance, argues that Dorothy and nature are mother surrogates and that Dorothy's entries are a transparent narrative of events.

  5. Note William's erasure of Dorothy from the scene of poems such as “Resolution and Independence“and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” despite the evidence of Journals that Dorothy's own prose (even if we were to leave aside speculation on her participation in the actual event) contributed to the formation of the poems.

  6. Note, for instance, the continuing hunt for the absent mother and Lacanian paradigms in Collings's Wordsworthian Errancies and Laura Claridge's Romantic Potency, despite the challenges to de-materialized psychoanalytic readings by Curran, whose contextualizing male Romanticism in a gendered literary market opens the way for a whole new set of cultural and socioeconomic anxieties than those of Oedipal and pre-oedipal phantasms, and by Page, who examines closely William's adult struggles with the guilt of his abandonment of Annette Vallon and of their daughter as well as with his domestic scene of rivalry, possessiveness, and rebellion in relation to sister, wife, sisters-in-law, female friends, and especially daughter.

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———. Introduction. Wordsworth, Grasmere ix-xxii.

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Jill Ehnnen (essay date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Ehnnen, Jill. “Writing Against, Writing Through: Subjectivity, Vocation, and Authorship in the Work of Dorothy Wordsworth.” South Atlantic Review 64, no. 1 (winter 1999): 72-90.

[In the following essay, Ehnnen considers Dorothy Wordsworth's authority as a writer within the context of the intricate issues of female subjectivity found in the Romantic movement.]

In the past few years I've taught selections from Dorothy Wordsworth's journals to undergraduates several times—both in introductory surveys and in seminars on British Romanticism. This paper is motivated partially by my students' reader responses to Dorothy's work. Each time I assign the texts without introductory statements. And each time, the students' journal entries and class participation invariably present the same thought—a good percentage are convinced, as F. W. Bateson suggested over forty years ago, that an incestuous relationship existed between Dorothy and her brother, William.

Dorothy Wordsworth's Alfoxden and Grasmere journals (1798-1803) pose a problem for readers because her work does not fit late twentieth-century paradigms of sibling relationships or intersubjective power dynamics. In the 1990s' age of empowerment, the students feel, it's not normal for the individuated subject to efface the self. The students want a motivation for Dorothy's selfless devotion to William, and find that motivation in rationalizing that the siblings must have shared an incestuous love relationship. After reviewing some of the cultural differences between early nineteenth-century Britain and late twentieth-century America, the students reluctantly agree with my suggestion that their interpretation is, in part, due to historical differences in gender roles and Dorothy's use of a romantic rhetoric that is now forgotten. They concede that Dorothy's affection for William and her related daily activities are not necessarily an indication of sexual activity/desire, but they still maintain that she was unhealthily obsessed with William, and often shift their “diagnosis” to one of “codependence.” Her outbursts continue to mystify and exasperate them: “O the Darling! Here is one of his bitten apples! I can hardly find in my heart to throw it into the fire;”1 and they remain deeply troubled that Dorothy doesn't attend William's wedding after sleeping with his ring on her forefinger (GJ 154). Dorothy remains deviant any way you look at her—she is either a pervert, a martyr, or in need of intensive psychotherapy.

What's at stake in wanting to insist on incest, or the other unhealthy labels that Dorothy gets assigned? It seems that the students' discomfort with Dorothy is the result of a power dialectic that doesn't fall within recognizable models: they want to view Dorothy and William as unitary selves; and they want a binary that explains the power relationship between the two writers. Therefore, the students do not easily come to the interpretation suggested by most feminist critics: that instead of the notion of the aggressive ego, or appropriating self, which best articulates its perception of self and world through linear narrative, we should consider Dorothy's journals vis-à-vis models of fragmented, embedded subjectivities and non-linear experience.

This essay uses contemporary theories of women's writing and gendered subjectivity to discuss Dorothy Wordsworth's work in and for a domestic and writing community centered around her brother. My study examines what Judith Butler describes as “the conditions of the subject's emergence and operation” (10)—Dorothy's relationship to the Grasmere community—which is, I believe, the site of Dorothy's oppression and empowerment, as a writing, and as a female, subject. My essay begins to interrogate the power dialectics surrounding that relationship, as represented in selections from her diaries, poetry, and letters, and asks two questions: What does it mean for Dorothy to write for William, and what does it mean for Dorothy to write at all? Although my study draws upon recent theories of Feminine and Masculine Romanticism, it also problematizes this opposition, by showing the interdependence of Dorothy's and William's subjectivities, writing processes, and artistic vision. Exploring this interdependence allows us to read Dorothy's texts as they reflect a non-unified sense of subjectivity, as critics have previously argued. However, my reading also suggests that while she renounces Authorship, Dorothy nevertheless sees herself and negotiates authority as a writer.

Finally, after conjecturing about what the difference between “authoring” and “writing” might have meant to an early nineteenth-century woman, I must acknowledge my own position as a “postmodern subject” and thus, my argument's debt to postmodern ideas about subjectivity and writing. My students' resistance to perceiving Dorothy as a “fragmented subjectivity” suggests that perhaps it is problematic to “read the story backwards;” thus my study will conclude by considering the implication of applying post-structuralist theories of writing and subjectivity to a Romantic figure. Ultimately, I would like to suggest that a self-consciously ahistorical reading of women's writing is a responsible and productive position from which to begin to negotiate conflict between feminist and post-structuralist theory, and to interrogate the always already ambiguous position of female subjectivity and writing within the academic canon.


As Anne Mellor asserts, the “Romantic ego is potently male, engaged in figurative battles of conquest and possession, and at the same time incorporating itself into whatever aspects of the female it desired to possess” (7). Now that the canon of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British literature has begun to include the writings of women, critics have identified a “Feminine” Romanticism in which “texts by romantic women writers explore the powers of domestic, passive, natural continuities in the context of the powerful, assertive male revolutionary consciousness that we characterize as the High Romantic Vision” (192). My (predominantly white, Western) students largely elide the voice of Masculine Romantic writers with view of subjectivity they feel now applies to all subjects, male or female: a view of subjectivity composed of Cartesian tenets filtered through the values of the 1980s and 1990s “me-generation.” Their sense of confusion and dissatisfaction with Dorothy, I assume, reflects the observation that female Romantic writers' depiction of themselves in relation to the natural world and the social community does not project such a masculine consciousness, and thus does not reflect what they perceive to be the “normal” dialectic of Self and Other (Levin, “Romantic” 193).

Traditionally, female Romantic texts, with their unique style and concerns, have been assessed as inferior to other contemporary, male-authored literature, and relegated to the margins of academic study. This has been particularly true of Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, which have been negatively critiqued for her self-denigration, servitude, excessive cataloguing of quotidian activity, and minute natural detail. However, recent discussions of Masculine vs. Feminine Romanticism urge us not to read women writers such as Dorothy Wordsworth in relation to masculinist norms, which render the women's texts mere representations of a crippling self-abegnation in service to or dependence upon others. Instead, literary criticism influenced by the object-relations studies of Nancy Chodorow, and the related feminist psychoanalytic theories of Carol Gilligan, suggests that Dorothy's non-narrative, detail-oriented journal is not evidence of inferior artistic vision and/or arrested development, but should instead be read as evidence of her radical departure from William's view of self and world. In this reading, as Susan Levin glosses, Dorothy identifies with her environment, and processes the world and her position within it through attachment, not separation (“Romantic” 180). Thus she sees herself primarily in relation to the multiple roles she plays for William and her community, and not as an individuated self. Dorothy, then, provides an example of women's identification through a multi-faceted continuation which develops from the female child's identification with the mother—a continuity our phallocentric culture has chosen to devalue. Thus Dorothy's behavior can be analyzed in terms of female developmental models which challenge not only the masculinist Freudian and post-Freudian conceptions of development and subjectivity, but also challenge notions of the unitary assertive self of Romantic writers.

Certainly, there are merits to setting up such an opposition between male and female developmental narratives, and male and female Romantic texts. Indeed, the work and life of Dorothy Wordsworth was radically different from that of her brother. Dorothy's journal, critics have noted, presents a “seeing eye”—not a “subjective I”: she rarely uses the first person or talks about how she feels; instead her emotions are reflected in the details of nature as she catalogues her surroundings. For example, when William travels, the lake looks dull and melancholy, and when his letters are long in coming, Grasmere appears “so solemn in the last glimpse of twilight” that she cries (GJ 15). When she is happy walking with William in the wood, Dorothy notes “the Gleams of sunshine and the stirring trees and gleaming boughs, chearful lake, most delightful” (GJ 35). Dorothy painstakingly records her daily duties and the world around her—she orders her world through her writing and makes connections between things, creating sense from her life and her world. Thus, like her journal written “To give Wm pleasure” (GJ 15), Dorothy's writings and life show a concern for the individual within a community and the lessons and pleasures of life to be gained from connections to such a community, while William's writing and life show a concern with the individual mind of the Poet, and with lessons and pleasures to be learned from solitude.

Critics who study the voice of Feminine Romanticism usually make claims like: “women find in the traditional concerns of women's discourse the positive power of seeming feminine passivity” (Levin, “Romantic” 178). As accurate as labels of Feminine and Masculine Romantic writing seem to be, however, I find this kind of reading problematic because it encourages perception of culturally constructed difference as essential difference. If we valorize these differences—inverting the binary terms masculine and feminine—for the sake of claiming women writers' concerns, moderation, modesty, continuity, nonlinearity, and so forth as equal or better in value than those textual characteristics associated with Masculine Romanticism, I believe we fall prey to the kind of thinking critiqued by the feminists who point out that “there is nothing liberatory in claiming as virtues, qualities that men have always found convenient.”2 As Susan Levin acknowledges, “these suggestions about the structure of a female Romantic imagination can be construed as a cliché statement of passive feminine dependence” (“Romantic” 193). Feminist critics must question the responsibility of making assessments which reproduce the kinds of “ancient clichés” Levin is concerned about—to what ends, in what contexts are these observations being used—so that we ourselves do not contribute to essentialist ideologies which, traditionally, have furthered women's oppression.

Binaries such as “Masculine” and “Feminine” Romanticism are useful insofar as they provide alternative spaces that may be used to discuss previously ignored texts. Such generalizations are also useful, of course, for introducing material to undergraduates who are eager for “rules” by which to categorize groups of authors. However, now that women authors begin to be reclaimed as subjects of serious study, we may do well to consider that the ideological boundaries that divide “Feminine” from canonical “High” Romantic texts may be as permeable as the separate and gendered spheres that failed to contain their female authors. Therefore, I believe it would be useful to explore and problematize the theory of Masculine vs. Feminine Romanticism in order to emphasize the ways the differing artistic visions are interdependent.3 A power dynamic exists which is the locus of production of both William and Dorothy's writing subjectivities, and thus we can examine how Dorothy Wordsworth, as a woman writer of this time period, came to be who she was—and how her writing reflects that process of coming into being, and its relation to William, a “masculine writer.” I believe we will find that not only are William's and Dorothy's respective Romanticisms interdependent, but that Dorothy's writings testify to a power and a subjectivity not traditionally associated with “feminine qualities” or for that matter, with Dorothy at all.


The community at Grasmere, comprised of the Wordsworths, Coleridge, and Southey, and often visited by prominent artists, including Charles Lamb, was a community in nature, language and writing. Dorothy's domestic work greatly enabled the business of everyday living, while she also played the part of muse, secretary and editor. Her journals and letters deftly record the rhythms of the natural and the writing life for those within the community, and vividly report them to friends and colleagues outside. Yet, Dorothy, as an embodied subjectivity, largely disappears from concrete representation of life at Grasmere: it is mostly the results of her labor, that are seen and felt, in the tangible products of food, laundry, shoes, and of course, William's poetry. Dorothy embraces a seeming selflessness, and her letters and journals modestly protest that she will not be able to live up to her friends' high opinions of her. Her self-proclaimed life choice, as a single woman living in her brother's household, is merely to find fulfillment in the love and appreciation that come from useful service to others.

In immediately obvious ways, Dorothy's relationship to William, through the writing community at Grasmere, represents a power dialectic where she, the female amanuensis, or subordinate term, serves and enables him, the male Poet, or dominant term. Thus, Dorothy in many ways typifies the woman who facilitates a Masculine Romantic ego which achieves subjecthood through appropriation and transcendence. Through the service of his sister and colonization of a female Nature, William “sees into the life of things;” he “half creates and half perceives”4 not only his world, but his very sense of self. In many of William's writings, Dorothy becomes alternately a disembodied natural or hearth spirit, “wild eyes,” or is projected into the past and future, albeit lovingly, as figment or memory. In more general terms of panhistorical gender politics, as Judith Butler has pointed out in her recent reading of Luce Irigaray on Plato, Dorothy and William thus provide an example of Man coming into being by asserting a non-material soul which can exist only through dematerialization of the female body (35-55).

Clearly, the interplay between William and Dorothy works well for William. Through her, he receives support, and achieves subjectivity and Authorship; through symbolic troping of her in his poems—the fruits of his vocation—he expresses, via her physical or disembodied presence, his ideas about poetry, mind, memory, and the selfhood of an artist. In this relationship, usually perceived as Dorothy's willing servitude for William, he both profits from and depends on her service. But what does Dorothy gain? (What does she want?) And can we say, and if so, how, does Dorothy negotiate her situation in order to make her coming into being a locus of a mediated, if not a completely individuated, subjectivity and power?

Dorothy's journals and letters repeatedly indicate that she wants to be loved, useful, and needed. Thus, Alan Liu provides an accurate account of Dorothy's self-perception, I think, when he quips, “I work therefore, I am” (116). In a characteristic statement, made prior to their move to Alfoxden, Dorothy writes of their plans to care for young Basil Montague: “it will greatly contribute to my happiness and place me in a situation that I shall be doing something; it is a painful idea that one's existence is of very little use, which I really have always been obliged to feel” (DW to Jane Pollard Marshall, 2 Sept. 1795, her italics). Here, Dorothy elides her difficulty gaining a sense of her existence—a problem of subjectivity—with her lack of a useful vocation. Furthermore, the feminist critic suspects Dorothy's frustration with uselessness—of lacking a vocation—is linked to her limited opportunity as a woman, especially one who sees herself in comparison to her brother's productivity in a vocation which is both authoritative and valuable. Dorothy's life with William creates a solution to her complaint: he needs her, is dependent upon her, and consequently, she feels needed, loved and appreciated. As Levin notes, “women writers challenged central notions that have achieved canonical status in our standard account of Romanticism, while at the same time they depended upon those notions” (“Romantic” 179). Clearly, Dorothy's world and self-view contrasts notions of the Romantic egotistical sublime; yet her selfhood and vocation is ironically and inextricably linked to and dependent upon a service which enables, while it opposes, the Masculine Romantic vision.5

When friends suggest that she publish her own writings, Dorothy rejects “setting myself up as an Author” (DW to Catherine Clarkson, 9 Dec. 1810).6 Yet she does write, continually and passionately; her writing catalogues her environment, and fosters her own and William's work and sense of self. And while Dorothy denies she is an Author—the position occupied by William—she nevertheless does negotiate authority, not only through the importance of her service, but as a writer. As Dorothy's writing orders and enables the world around her, her writing self and the act of writing legitimates and orders her other selves and actions, and makes possible a set of discourses within which she can define and defend her subjectivity(ies).

For instance, many critics have persuasively argued that Grasmere Journal's organizing principle is William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson (Levin, DW & R [Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism]; Heinzelman). Dorothy's frequent depictions of abandoned, homeless women have been interpreted as betraying her own fears and feelings of abandonment during William's absences and courtship of Mary (Levin, DW & R 41). She records her unhappiness a