When I saw this lofty Building in the waters, it made me more than half a poet.
Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals, 18 March 1802
Dorothy Wordsworth: more than half a poet
Dorothy Wordsworth wrote prose with great evocative power. Each page of her journals shows an extraordinary sensitivity to the atmosphere of landscape, with everything she found in it: from a crowd of dancing daffodils to a solitary columbine, from nesting swallows to homeless bums. Again and again, she allows a bright light to radiate from the everyday.
Dorothy looked at the world with a poet's gaze, and was in constant company of a poet. So it would seem obvious that she regularly tried to express her observations in poetry. And so she did, but her efforts often ended in disappointment.
On the evening of Thursday, 18 March 1802, for instance, Dorothy visited a friendly couple in Ambleside, an hour's walk from Dove Cottage. On the way back home, the friends walked a long way with her.
As we came along Ambleside vale in the twilight, it was a grave evening. There was something in the air that compelled me to various thoughts - the hills were large, closed in by the sky. It was nearly dark when I parted from the Lloyds, that is night was come on, and the moon was overcast. But, as I climbed Moss, the moon came out from behind a mountain mass of black clouds. O, the unutterable darkness of the sky, and the earth below the moon, and the glorious brightness of the moon itself! There was a vivid sparkling streak of light at this end of Rydale water, but the rest was very dark, and Loughrigg Fell and Silver How were white and bright, as if they were covered with hoar frost. The moon retired again, and appeared and disappeared several times before I reached home. Once there was no moonlight to be seen but upon the island-house and the promontory of the island where it stands. 'That needs must be a holy place,' etc. etc. I had many very exquisite feelings, and when I saw this lofty 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. I was tired when I reached home, and could not sit down to reading. I tried to write verses, but alas! I gave up, expecting William, and went soon to bed.
When Dorothy, on her walk at Rydal Water, tries to capture the black clouds and white moonlight in a poem, she stalls. She 'tried to write verses, but alas!'. At such moments she realises that she lacks William's imagination. And in this case she knows nothing else to do than take refuge in a quote from one of his poems ('That needs must be a holy place').
In the shadow
Dorothy wrote poems all her life, but in the shadow of William's exceptional talent, her poetry could not possibly bloom. She had the ardent ambition to write verses, but she also felt her limitations and downplayed her own poetry. A letter from Dorothy to Lady Beaumont shows that William had read two of her verses to this friend. When the friend wrote that she liked the poems, Dorothy answered as follows:
Believe me, since I received your letter I have made several attempts (…) 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 moulding words into regular metre. I have often tried when I have been walking alone (muttering to myself as is my Brother's custom) to express my feeling 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.
From letter to Lady Beaumont, 20 April 1806
Poet or not, in her own eyes, Dorothy continued to write verses all her life. She gave them a title and a date, and wrote them out in clean copy. She did not consider publication, but at the age of 69 she did send her poems to a friend 'to leave something valuable for when she would no longer be there'. This action testifies to a broken ambition full of contradiction. But this assessment does not detract from the quality of her prose. Her beautifully detailed and empathetic descriptions of people, birds, flowers and trees are much more than simple stepping stones for her brother - the poet. And perhaps she was indeed 'more than half a poet', as she wrote in her letter to Lady Beaumont. More than half a poet: an adequate description of an authorship that is characterised by striking observations expressed in beautiful poetic prose. ►