The snow still lies upon the ground. Just at the closing in of the day, I heard a cart pass the door, and at the same time the dismal sound of a crying infant.

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals, 12 February 1802

Two beggars today

Dorothy's use of metonymia

Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals can be read in various ways. On the surface as a record of everyday life in an idyllic valley. We get a weather impression almost every day. There are many reports of long walks, of dinners with friends and talks with neighbours, of working in the garden, preparing meals, washing clothes and joint work on William's poems. Furthermore, the journals report Dorothy's quest for her own identity. We also read behind the lines through a chronicle of William's intended marriage, with all uncertainty about the possible consequences for the intimate relationship between brother and sister. Dorothy does not explicitly describe these last two, very personal themes, but she does so indirectly, through a literary figure of speech known as metonym.

Metonym versus metaphor

The metonym (or metonymy) is not, like the metaphor, based on a comparison between various phenomena, but on a juxtaposition of corresponding events. When Dorothy writes about the daffodils at Ullswater that 'some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness', that is one of the few times she uses a metaphor. Much more often she uses a metonym, such as when she speaks endearingly about a strawberry alone under a hedge, a buttercup alone in the forest or a solitary birch among other birches. The plants and tree all agree on one point, they are all 'beings' with their own identity distinguishing them from all peers. And Dorothy shares that quality with them. She is proud of it, but does not express that pride directly. She conveys her feelings and thoughts by sympathising with all those loners in the forest or along the roadside . In this way she makes – presumably unconsciously - the detour of the juxtaposition or metonym.

Two beggars today

Another deeply felt emotion that Dorothy's journal expresses metonymically is the fear of loss of home and hearth. She sees that fear personified in the many poor and homeless people passing by her house. Like the old grey-headed man, above 70 years of age. 'He had a beggar's wallet over his shoulder; a coat of shreds and patches (...). I talked a while, and then gave him a piece of cold bacon and a penny.' Or the little girl from Conniston, who came to beg. 'She had lain out all night – her step-mother had turned her out of doors.'

Sometimes Dorothy mentions such meetings only very briefly. 'Two beggars today,' she then writes, lost in the middle of an elaborate commentary on a book she reads to William in front of the fireplace in the evening. But often she dwells elaborately on the vagrants. In mid-February, 1802, amid freezing weather , a woman with a little boy comes asking for alms. The same woman had met Dorothy a year earlier. She was 'a woman of strong bones, with a complexion that has been beautiful', but now she looks 'broken'. Her son - then a 'pretty little fellow' - now looks 'thin and pale'. He is wearing 'a ragged drab coat and a fur cap, poor little fellow, I think he seems scarcely at all grown since the first time I saw him'. After the woman left, Dorothy could not help 'thinking that we are not half thankful enough that we are placed in that condition of life in which we are.' After which she concludes with 'This woman's was but a common case'.

New underclass

When Dorothy wrote her Grasmere Journals, England was at war with Napoleon's France. Trade with the continent was severely affected. Many English people became unemployed. In addition, there was the tax increase that the government had introduced to finance the war. Many smallholders got into trouble, had to borrow money, couldn't pay off their debts, and finally lost the land they lived on. Families fell apart, men, women and children roamed the streets and country lanes in search of food, shelter and work. Thus a new possessive underclass arose. Dorothy quotes from a conversation with a neighbour:

He talked much about the alterations of the times, and observed that in a short time there would be only two ranks of people, the very rich and the very poor, 'for those who have small estates', says he, 'are forced to sell, and all the land goes into one hand'.

Crying child

Dorothy is clearly committed to the victims of the economic downturn. She often gives them some bread or money, listens to their stories and shows compassion. She feels gratitude for the fact that she does not share their fate. At the same time, she is afraid that she once might suffer it. She does not openly bring up that fear either, but makes it tangible by stacking one heartbreaking impression on the other. She does so without comment, but always puts the prosperity of herself next to the misery of the other.

Immediately after the description of the 'broken woman' with her raggedly dressed son, who was 'but a common case', she switches to an even more poignant scene that she watches from behind the window of her comfortably heated room:

The snow still lies upon the ground. Just at the closing in of the day, I heard a cart pass the door, and at the same time the dismal sound of a crying infant. I went to the window, and had light enough to see that a man was driving a cart, which seemed not to be very full, and that a woman with an infant in her arms was following close behind and a dog close to her. It was a wild and melancholy sight. Wm. rubbed his table after candles were lighted, and we sat a long time with the windows unclosed.; I almost finished The Pedlar; but poor Wm. wore  himself and me out with labour. We went to bed at 12 o'clock.

Dove Cottage is Dorothy's bastion against the misery that passes by her window. At the same time, she realises how thin the line is between her modest existence and a life in dire poverty. The contrast between the destitute families outside in the freezing cold, and brother and sister inside in the warm candlelight couldn't be greater. Dorothy does not comment explicitly on the contrast, she does not comment on the connection. That connection lies in the direct succession and juxtaposition of the images. Thus the scene outside forms the negative of the scene inside and her own insecurity finds its resonance in the trials of the passers-by.