Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dorothy Wordsworth, Naturalist, Poet, and Inspiration

Dorothy Wordsworth (4 October 1802)

The sister of the poet William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth recorded the following in her journal:
A drawing of Dorothy Wordsworth
On Monday, the 4 of October 1802, my brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. I slept a good deal of the night and rose fresh and well in the morning. At a little after 8 o'clock, I saw them go down the avenue towards the church. . . .  I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men coming up the walk coming to tell me it was over, I could bear it no longer and threw myself on the bed, where I lay in stillness, neither hearing, nor seeing anything.
Born on Christmas Day in 1771, Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William, just one year older, were separated in childhood after the deaths of their parents, but after they reunited, they remained inseparable. 

In her biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, Frances Wilson describes the two as living in a "vortex of poetry." Dorothy's literary diaries, which she kept, she says, in order to "give Wm Pleasure," contain not only an account of their daily life, their conversations and walks, and their meetings with friends, but also record Dorothy's own vivid descriptions and emotions. As William Wordsworth notes, his sister "gave me eyes" and "gave me ears." 

Dorothy's writing includes the "Alfoxden Journal," which covers the period between 1797-98, when Dorothy and her brother were living near the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and her "Grasmere Journal," begun when the two were living at Dove Cottage in May 1800 and kept for three years.

Dorothy Wordsworth's journals are now recognized not only for her exceptional descriptions of nature, but also for the way they inspired her brother--the most famous example of which is the way her journal entry for 15 April 1802, describing daffodils, inspires William Wordsworth's "Daffodils."

While some biographers of William Wordsworth have wondered whether their passionate relationship was incestuous, Wilson argues that "their relationship had nothing to do with bodies." Rather, the connection is "something stranger and darker and more complicated than sexual incest"--it is a complete entangling of their minds.

Dorothy Wordsworth's journal
Dorothy Wordsworth also wrote travel narratives, poems, and letters, all of which were unpublished in her lifetime.

For a biographical essay and a selection of Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry, you can access the Poetry Foundation's entry for her by clicking here. Her journals can be accessed online (via the Internet Archive, for example), or you can find a number of affordable paperback editions. 

As a biography, I recommend Frances Wilson's The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life, noted above. You might also enjoy listening to this wonderful NPR interview with Wilson, "Sister Act: A New Take on Dorothy Wordsworth."

Update, 4 October 2020: An account of the relationship between the description of daffodils in Dorothy Wordsworth's 1802 Grasmere journal and her brother William's poem used to be found on the website of the Wordsworth Trust--but it is no longer there.

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