Dorothy Wordsworth – the sister who taught her brother to look and to listen
I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.
William Wordsworth had a sister, Dorothy, who he lived with for fifty-five years. In the first two years of their cohabitation at Grasmere, in the middle of the Lake District, Dorothy kept a journal in which she reported her and William's many walks. Almost every day, they would roam the hills for many hours, along the numerous lakes in the wide circumferences around their home, rain or shine. On 15 April 1802, a fierce wind blew. Along the shores of Lake Ullswater, the wind was enough to seize their breath. Heads of foam played on the water and a stray, unmoored boat floated across the lake's centre. In the tumult, daffodils under the dark trees suddenly lit up the shore. Not merely a few stragglers, but a whole strip, 'about the breadth of a country turnpike road'.
The scene with the countless yellow flowers made a deep impression on both Dorothy and William, the former recording it in an extensive journal note. Her description attends to the smallest details in a striking way. Her rich imagination lends the flowers almost human traits. The daffodils 'rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness', and it seemed ‘as if they verily laughed with the wind'. She was also alert to shape and colour. Before she and William stumbled upon the daffodils, they walked past hawthorn 'black and green' and beside birch, 'greenish here and there, but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs.' By the road, she spotted primroses, wood sorrel flower, anemone, strawberries and scentless violets.
Dorothy recorded many of the impressions gained during their walks in four small notebooks known as The Grasmere Journals. Together, they form a diary that served as a repository of raw material for her brother's poetry. The best known example is her description of the endless daffodil fields. Two years after their walk, William picked up the subject and wrote his most famous poem, I wandered lonely as a cloud, better known as Daffodils. He does not give his sister a role in the poem. As a true romantic poet, he transforms his sister's 'we' into the 'I' of a lonely walker. The words he uses unmistakably betray Dorothy's diary as a source of inspiration, but at the same time his virtuoso use of poetic means transforms the beautiful description of his sister into an unforgettable image of nature. Where Dorothy writes that 'under the boughs of the trees, we saw there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breath of a country turnpike road', William sings:
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The daffodils 'tossed and reeled and danced', writes Dorothy. William saw them 'tossing their heads in sprightly dance'.
Apart from form, the diary note and poem also differ in meaning and main focus. Dorothy records what she sees minutely. By doing so, she expresses her intimate connection with the natural environment by humanising the yellow flowers – thus applying a poetic style to her prose. William's approach, on the other hand, is more aloof. He uses the scene as an illustration of his poetics, his theory of writing. In the preface to his first collection, Lyrical Ballads, he writes that all good poetry stems from 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility'. The poet must contemplate his emotions long and deeply. In Daffodils, we read that the poet 'gazed and gazed', but at the time hardly realised what impression the endless row of waving flowers made on him. That epiphany springs up much later. The true emotion only breaks through in solitude, when the mind is receptive for the once-lived experience.
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
Dorothy's journal shows that William often, only after years have past, picks up an impression of long ago and then melts it, in his imagination, into a poem. Memory and imagination, being the poet's 'inward eye'.
Daffodils is by no means the only poem that Dorothy catalysed. Wordsworth's poetry contains many more examples of lines and subjects that originate from his sister's journals.
For example, we read in the note of Sunday, 14 March 1802 that William had slept badly and did not get up until nine. At breakfast he wrote 'with his basin of broth before him untouched, and a little plate of bread and butter', the poem To a Butterfly. A childhood memory mentioned at the table triggered the writing.
He ate not a morsel, nor put on his stockings, but sate with his shirt neck unbuttoned, and his waistcoat open while he did. The thought first came upon him as we were talking about the pleasure we both always feel at the sight of a butterfly. I told him that I used to chase them a little, but that I was afraid of brushing the dust off their wings, and did not catch them. He told me how they used to kill all the white ones when he went to school because they were Frenchmen. Mr. Simpson came in just as he was finishing the Poem. After he was gone I wrote it down and the other poems, and I read them all over to him.
This entry not only tells us that William drew inspiration from domestic conversations with his sister. It also reveals the difference in character between the two. The raw, rash brother against the cautious, empathic sister. While young William and his friends ran after the butterflies to slay or pinch them to death, his sister was aware of their fragile beauty, so we read in the final lines of the butterfly poem.
A very hunter did I rush
Upon the prey (...)
But she, God love her, feared to brush
The dust from off its wings.
Committing an outrage
From an early age Dorothy felt a strong intuitive relationship with everything that crossed her path: a delicate butterfly in the garden; the smallest flower between the stones; the homeless poor who knocked on their door almost every day.
This she wrote on Sunday, 31 January 1802:
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 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.
Dorothy's entry for Friday, 20 June 1800 reads as follows:
On Wednesday evening a poor man called, a potter – he had been long ill, but was now recovered, and his wife was lying in of her 4th child. The parish would not help him, because he had implements of trade, tc. Etc. We gave him 6d.
Dorothy's attention to detail, her gentleness and empathy were infectious. She had made her brother more attentive and milder, he confessed. William realised that he had always faced the world too seriously, too severely, with too much self-confidence. He was a rock with torrents roaring, he writes in The Prelude. But his sister, his 'dear Friend', brought him back to earth, planted him with both feet on the ground, softened his rigidity.
Thou didst soften down
This over-sternness; but for thee, dear Friend,
My soul, too reckless of mild grace, had stood
In her original self too confident,
Retained too long a countenance severe;
A rock with torrents roaring, with the clouds
Familiar, and a favourite of the stars:
But thou didst plant its crevices with flowers,
Hang it with shrubs that twinkle in the breeze,
And teach the little birds to build their nests
And warble in its chambers.
The Prelude (1850), Book XIV, 246-256
[Notice how Wordsworth here elevates the earthly to a higher status by letting the shrubs twinkle in the breeze. To twinkle is primarily a property of the stars, see Wordsworth's Daffodils, where he speaks of 'the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way.’]
William was well aware of Dorothy's important contribution to his character and poetry and gave her credit for this. 'She gave me eyes, she gave me ears', he writes in his poem The Sparrow's Nest. He also calls his sister 'the blessing of my later years'. In Tintern Abbey, William says that in the eyes of his sister he reads the pleasures of his early years; that he sees in her his former self.
For thou art here with me upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the soothing lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! - yet a little while
May I behold in thee wat I was once,
My dear, dear Sister!
Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, 13 July 13 1798 (fragment)
Bumming and booing
We already read above that Mr. Simpson (a close friend of the Wordsworths) came by the moment William finished the poem To a Butterfly. 'After he was gone I wrote it down and the other poems, and I read them all over to him.' From these and other notes, it appears that Dorothy was not only a source of inspiration to her brother, but that she also supported him in a practical sense. William abhorred the physical act of writing. Nor did he 'write' his poems in the literal sense of the word. He often composed them during the daily walks or while he and his sister strolled the same path up and down in their garden for hours on end. Then he mumbled the lines that welled up in him to the rhythm of his steps. Dorothy, who followed in his wake, wrote them down immediately, or a little later at the kitchen table, and then read them to him.
'William was working on his poems in the woods this morning,' Dorothy writes on Tuesday, 7 August 1800. Five days later, we read, 'Wm & I walked the road to Cockermouth - he adapted his poems.' It must have been a comical sight to see the two walking: he a tall man, she a small slender woman. According to Thomas de Quincey, a long time friend of the Wordsworths, William leant sideways like an insect and Dorothy hurried forward with a hasty stride. A local resident saw Mr. Wordsworth 'bumming and booing' the path up and down, with 'her, Miss Dorothy, right behind him, and she picked up the scraps he dropped and put them on paper for him'. It didn't stop there. For William, a poem was never finished. He always tinkered further and every new version had to be put on paper again. There were also copies for friends, the publisher and the printer. His sister had her hands full.
Dorothy had opened her brother's eyes to the simple and mundane. Her journals were a treasure house from which her brother drew inspiration. And besides being a personal assistant, she also acted as a sounding board, corrector, first critic and editor-in-chief. With all this you can say that William, without the distinctive look, the practical help, the moral support, the advice, the ideas and the substantive contributions of his sister, would have written other poetry. ►
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister!
William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey