Index  Dorothy Wordsworth

She gave me eyes

Far from all care I walk, and from all care

The Leech Gatherer – Teachings from a stoic

When William and I returned from accompanying Jones, we met an old man almost double. He had on a coat, thrown over his shoulders, above his waistcoat and coat. Under this he carried a bundle, and had an apron on and a night-cap. His face was interesting. He had dark eyes and a long nose. John, who afterwards met him at Wytheburn, took him for a Jew. He was of Scotch parents, but had been born in the army. He had had a wife, and ‘she was a good woman, and it pleased God to bless us with ten children.’ All these were dead but one, of whom he had not heard for many years, a sailor. His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches were scarce, and he had not strength for it. He lived by begging, and was making his way to Carlisle, where he should buy a few godly books to sell. He said leeches were very scarce, partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce. He supposed it owing to their being much sought after, that they did not breed fast, and were of slow growth. Leeches were formerly 2s. 6d. per 100; they are now 30s. He had been hurt in driving a cart, his leg broken, his body driven over, his skull fractured. He felt no pain till he recovered from his first insensibility. It was then late in the evening, when the light was just going away.

Grasmere Journals, Friday, 3 October 1800

Though William went to bed nervous, and jaded in the extreme, he rose refreshed. I wrote out The Leech Gatherer for him, which he had begun the night before, and of which he wrote several stanzas in bed this morning. It was very hot; we called at Mr. Simpson’s door as we passed, but did not go in. We rested several times by the way, read, and repeated The Leech Gatherer. We were almost melted before we were at the top of the hill.

Grasmere Journals, Tuesday, 4 May 1802

William had slept uncommonly well, so, 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.

Grasmere Journals, Friday, 7 May 1802

The air considerably colder to-day, but the sun shone all day. William worked at The Leech Gatherer almost incessantly from morning till tea-time. I copied The Leech Gatherer and other poems for Coleridge. I was oppressed and sick at heart, for he wearied himself to death.

Grasmere Journals, Sunday, 9 May 1802

Cold and rain and very dark. I was sick and ill, had been made sleepless by letters. I lay in bed till 4 o’clock. When I rose I was very far from well, I grew better after tea. William walked out a little, I did not. We sate at the window together. It came on a terribly wet night. Wm. finished The Leech Gatherer today. 

Grasmere Journals, Sunday, 4 July 1802

These quotes from Dorothy's Grasmere Journals shed light on the genesis of one of Williams' best-known poems. Its seed was planted in the autumn of 1800, when the Wordsworths made a walk and ran into an old man who had previously made a living catching leeches. The notes of the encounter first went into a drawer, from which they emerged only two years later. It took William two months to convert them into a poem. It was never easy for him to write poetry. Many times his sister reported in her journals that the effort made him sick and nauseous. It was the same this time, and as often she again suffered with him.

In fact it was very unusual that Wordsworth would choose a leech gatherer as the central figure of a poem. Until his time, poets were supposed to write about lofty subjects, about men of great merit, and not about such a pitiful anti-hero. In her journal Dorothy referred to the poem as The Leech Gatherer. When published, the poem was renamed: Resolution and Independence. That is because William uses the figure of the leech gatherer to tackle a broader theme. In fact, the poem is about himself, as a poet. In a broader sense, it is a poetic 'treatise' on fear of the future and dealing with fate. Before he gets to the core, he takes a long introductory run-up and sketches the beautiful backdrop of a spring landscape in which, after a stormy night with abundant rain, the sun rises 'calm and bright' and the birds start their daily ritual again. Everywhere the sound of water. The first two stanzas are a hymn to the new morning – ‘The sky rejoices in the morning’s birth’, to the resumption of life, as if this beginning of the day, like the beginning of all other days, is a repetition of the first creation.

There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.
All things that love the sun are out of doors;
The sky rejoices in the morning's birth;
The grass is bright with raindrops; - on the moors
The hare is running races in her mirthe;
And with her feet she from the plashy earth
Raises a mist, that, glittering in the sun,
Runs with her all the way, wherever she doth run.

In the third stanza, the poet introduces himself as the beholder of this birth of a new day. He summarises the paradisiacal image of the first two verses. And then he says that the harmony of life on the moor, which he witnessed, made him forget all the futile and sad human endeavours.

I was a Traveller then upon the moor;
I saw the hare that raced about with joy;
I heard the woods and distant waters roar;
Or heard them not, as happy as a boy;
The pleasant season did my heart employ;
My old remembrances went from me wholly;
And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy.

Then follows a sudden change of mood. Just at the moment of supreme rapture, a feeling of deep defeat arises, caused by the fear that the harmony will turn to sadness.  

But, as it sometimes chancet, from the might
Of joy in the minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me this morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness - and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.

I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful hare;
Even such a happy Child of Earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me -
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.

'Far from the world I walk, and from all care.’ The poet lives outside the world of ordinary men. By making and spending money, he would waste his talent and alienate from nature - that is from true reality. ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: little we see in Nature that is ours,’ as he says in another, titleless poem that begins with the phrase ‘The world is too much with us’. But now he has realised that no one can entrust the care of one's own welfare to another. One must take matters into one’s own hand, and that also applies to the poet. His spectre was Thomas Chatterton, according to stanza VII. This promising writer-poet put an end to his own life at the age of eighteen. Also Robert Burns, the Scottish poet-farmer ('Following his plough along the mountain-side') whom he admired greatly, died at a young age (37 years). The poet who flies too high eventually succumbs to despondency and madness.

My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life's business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits we are deified;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

Overpowered by these gloomy thoughts, the poet unexpectedly sees the shape of a very old man standing next to a pool, 'bare to the eye of heaven' - sharply outlined against the clear sky.

Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,
A leading from above, a something given,
Yet it befel that, in this lonely place,
When I with these untoward thoughts had striven,
Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven
I saw a Man before me unawares:
The oldest man he seem’d that ever wore grey hairs.

The figure of the old man looks like a huge stone resting on a bare elevation, and at the same time like a beast that has crawled out of the sea and is sunbathing on a rock.

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense:
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;

Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead,
Nor all asleep - in his extreme old age:
His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in life's pilgrimage;
As if some dire constraint of pain, or rage
Of sickness felt by him in times long past,
A more than human weight upon his frame had cast.

Meanwhile, as readers of the poem, we see that Wordsworth completely manipulates the leech gatherer of Dorothy's journal. He conceals that the old man they met, was no longer exercising his profession. He also does not mention anything about his origin and life history, while his sister describes it in detail. And they had met the old man somewhere near home, William is setting him in a wasteland, by a pool. By comparing him to a large stone and a sea creature on dry land - and in the next stanza to a motionless cloud - he suggests that the curved greybeard is one with his natural environment. He sculpts the man into a natural phenomenon and lends his shape mythical proportions. 

Himself he propped, limbs, body, and pale face,
Upon a long grey staff of shaven wood:
And, still as I drew near with gentle pace,
Upon the margin of that moorish flood
Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call;
And moveth all together, if it move at all.

At length, himself unsettling, he the pond
Stirred with his staff, and fixedly did look
Upon the muddy water, which he conned,
As if he had been reading in a book:
And now a stranger's privilege I took;
And, drawing to his side, to him did say,
'This morning gives us promise of a glorious day.'

The poet is curious about the origin of the 'sea-beast' at the pool and asks the man what he is doing there. The leech gatherer first looks at him slightly surprised with his gray eyes. Wordsworth uses the word 'orb', which means not only 'eye', but also 'celestial body'. When the man answers, he speaks the solemn language of a preacher.

A gentle answer did the old Man make,
In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew;
And him with further words I thus bespake,
'What occupation do you here pursue?
This is a lonesome place for one like you'.
Ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise
Broke from the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes.

His words came feebly, from a feeble chest,
But each in solemn order followed each,
With something of a lofty utterance drest -
Choice word and measured phrase, above the reach
Of ordinary men; a stately speech;
Such as grave Livers do in Scotland use,
Religious men, who give to God and men their dues.

He told, that to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God's good help, by choice or chance;
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.

While Wordsworth listens, the old man's figure fades into a dream. His voice mixes with the sound of the water flowing everywhere. At the same time he seems to come from another world, a messenger, sent by God or fate, who comes to teach the poet a wise lesson; a seer or prophet who reads the truth in the mud of a pool, ‘as if he had been reading in a book’. At this point, the curved old man has little to do with the leech gatherer of Dorothy's journal. The latter appears to be only the starting point for a, as it were, dreamed personification of a fundamental insight.

The old Man stood talking by my side;
But now 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,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.

Once again the poet is reminded of the hardships that threaten him, and fear wells up in him. And again he asks the old man how he makes a living.

My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
- Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
'How is it that you live, and what is it you do?'

He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
'Once I could meet with them on every side;
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.'

Leeches are scarce these days, the old man says. Nevertheless, he does not give up and still manages to find them. At first, this determination of the leech gatherer does not reassure the poet. Until the old man resumes his speech. What he says, the poet does not disclose, only that he speaks with dignity, kindness and cheerfulness. He lives a hard life, carries 'a more than human weight', but he does not give up. The poet now feels ashamed of his own despondency and decides to follow the example of the old man. In view of the foregoing, that means being resolute and independent, whatever may happen, ‘motionless as a cloud that heareth not the loud winds when they call’ (stanza 11).

While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
The old Man's shape, and speech - all troubled me:
In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
While I these thoughts within myself pursued,
He, having made a pause, the same discourse renewed.

And soon with this he other matter blended,
Cheerfully uttered, with demeanour kind,
But stately in the main; and, when he ended,
I could have laughed myself to scorn to find
In that decrepit Man so firm a mind.
'God,' said I, 'be my help and stay secure;
I'll think of the leech-gatherer on the moor!'

Uncertain future
While working on Resolution and Independence, Wordsworth was deeply concerned about his financial and creative future. His planned marriage to Mary Hutchinson, scheduled for six months later, brought new responsibilities, such as ensuring a decent income. Moreover, he had planned to make a definitive financial settlement with Anette Vallon in the run-up to that marriage. Ten years earlier, during a stay in France, he had had a love affair with Anette and conceived a daughter of her. In addition to these practical concerns, the feeling also gnawed at Wordsworth that his creativity had lost strength. The ‘heavenly light’ that had always shone over things for him seemed to have disappeared forever. He no longer saw as he once saw. In antoher poem from of the same time he questions desperately:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Eloquent sage
Plagued with concerns about the future, Wordsworth must have remembered the leech gatherer he and his sister had met two years earlier. In the old man, a model of poverty, he could easily mirror his own insecurities. He expresses this identification by describing himself as 'a traveler then upon the moor '' (stanza III), while he says of the old man that he roamed  ‘from pond to pond’ (stanza XV). The poet and leech gatherer also have in common that their profession is a heavy burden on health. The one stands in swampy water while leeches feast on his blood, rain or shine. The other feels each poem as a heavy delivery accompanied by heavy headaches and fatigue.

The identification of the poet with the old man also speaks from the gradual transformation of the latter. As the poem progresses, he changes from a fossil-like, taciturn half-animal into an eloquent sage who chooses his words like a literate man. And just as the poet lives in a world of language and books, the leech gatherer scans the water of mud pools 'as if he were reading in a book'. In Wordsworth's poetic imagination, the slob who is burdened with ‘a more than human weight’ transforms into a seer who takes life - however heavy - as it is. In attitude and behaviour, the old man personifies a life attitude of acceptance and equanimity.

Catching leeches: 'a miserable occupation'

The Dutch Magazine for the Distribution of Ingenious Utilities (Het Nederlandsch Magazijn ter verspreiding van kundige nuttigheden) - between 1834 and 1870 a widely read popular science magazine - published in 1839 a detailed description of the capture and medical use of leeches, including the wholesale trade in these animals. Some quotes:

  • The use of leeches in medicine is very old; but only since the end of the previous century has it become general again. The resulting blood stool differs from a bloodletting mainly in that a small amount of blood can be drained from the fine blood vessels of the skin, and in places where blood stool is in no other way possible, for which reason it can be very useful  in case of local inflammation in the the blood or in the body fluids.

  • When one travels through a lonely region, one encounters here and there a pitifully pale man, with hair flying wildly and unkempt beard. A dark nightcap covers the crown and forehead to the eyebrows, and a coarse piece of cloth the paltry body and loins.

  • If one sees such a man walking up to the hips in the water, then lifting one leg before the other, and looking carefully at all places, groping, and then again walking calmly, then it is not surprising that one thinks to see a madman who escaped his caretakers, and here pursues, undisturbed, confused images of his mortified intellect. Still, this man is neither insane nor ill, but just an ordinary leech gatherer. When he has found his booty in its hiding behind aquatic plants, in rushes, or under slippery rock and moss, he without fear gives up his legs to the leeches, who start sucking the blood in large numbers. This custom has so desensitized the man that he barely perceives the sharpest bites, and must therefore convince himself of their presence by sight. Repeatedly one sees him go along the bank, and after some repeated excursions take his catch home with blood dripping legs.

  • In whatever way the leech hunt is pursued, it always remains a pitiful livelihood [subsistence, occupation, a means of supporting one’s existence); for the leech gatherer is on, in and under water for half a day in a row; the air he breathes is always filled with the most damaging vapours from the swamps and with the most poisonous and stinking fumes, undermining health in a most miserable manner, and of which coughing, fever, rash, rheumatism and gout are the inevitable results. Unfortunately, many try to neutralise the ruining air through the excessive use of spirits, and thus shorten their wretched days in a deplorable way, as the drinking destroys even the strongest frame.

  • The leech gatherer on Lake Neusiedl in Hungary is fortunate when, in the course of a whole day, and indeed at the expense of his own blood and sweat, he can catch so many hundreds of leeches that he and his family can enjoy a meager meal, while the wealthy speculator in London charges a guinea per animal.

  • Consumption in London is so great that four suppliers each draw 150,000 from Hamburg and Stettin each month, thus yielding 7,200,000 pieces annually. Until about mid-October, in the year 1823, 3,500,000 leeches had been shipped from Hamburg alone to England and America, and in the year 1824, a single driver had a 5 million piece load only for England.

       Source: Het Nederladsch Magazijn, Volume 3, 1839, p. 35