William Wordsworth, one of the great British Romantic poets, died 160 years ago today. Although he was not a diarist, his sister, Dorothy, was - and not a bad one either. She never wrote for publication, nor was she published in her lifetime, but her journals, when they were finally put into print 40 years after her death, revealed not only a writer of great literary talent but also much about her brother’s life and, in particular, the genesis of his poems.
Both William and Dorothy were born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in 1770 and 1771 respectively. Their parents were reasonably well off but, when their mother died in 1778, they were separated. William was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School, near Windermere, and then, from 1787, he studied at Cambridge. That same year he made his debut as a writer with a sonnet in The European Magazine. Having already been to the continent on a hiking tour, he returned to France in 1791, and became passionate for the Republic cause. He also had an affair with Annette Vallon who, a year later, bore him an illegitimate daughter, Caroline. William, however, was obliged to return to England; and war with France kept him away for nearly a decade.
In 1793, William Wordsworth published his first poetry collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. Two years later he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset, and two further years later, William and Dorothy, moved to Alfoxton House, Somerset, just a few miles from Coleridge’s home. Together, William Wordsworth and Coleridge (with contributions from Dorothy) produced Lyrical Ballads in 1798 - which is considered an important work in the English Romantic movement.
The three friends then travelled to Germany before William and Dorothy moved to the Lake district, near Grasmere. William went on to marry Mary Hutchinson who bore him five children, two of whom died while young. When Robert Southey died in 1843, Wordsworth was named Poet Laureate. By 1805, William had already completed a first draft of, what is now considered, his autobiographical masterpiece, but it was only published posthumously, as The Prelude. He died on 23 April 1850 - 160 years ago today. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or The Victorian Web or Kirjasto.
Dorothy lived to 1855, but for the last 20 years she was plagued by physical and mental illness. None of her writing was ever published in her lifetime - mostly she wrote exclusively for herself and her brother - but the journals are considered to be beautifully written and important works of literature in their own right. Moreover, they are important because they throw light on William’s life and, in particular, the circumstances of the writing of many, if not most, of his poems. It is clear that William was often inspired by his sister, but some acedamics argue that he might have borrowed from her writing too.
Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth was first edited by W Knight and published in two volumes by Macmillan in 1897. These editions are freely available at Internet Archive, but many other editions were published in the 20th century. Further information and links for extracts from her diaries are available at The Diary Junction.
Here are two extracts from Dorothy’s journal written while at Grasmere (taken from a 1941 edition of the Journals edited by E de Selincourt). Both relate to poems her brother was writing or would write. The second extract is generally considered to be about the walk which inspired one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, Daffodils, which starts: ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’.
14 March 1802
‘William had slept badly - he got up at nine o’clock, but before he rose he had finished The Beggar Boys, and while we were at breakfast that is (for I had breakfasted) he, with his basin of broth before him untouched, and a little plate of bread and butter he wrote the Poem to a Butterfly! He ate not a morsel, nor put on his stockings, but sate with his shirt neck unbuttoned, and his waistcoat open while he did it. 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. We then called at Mr Oliff’s - Mr O walked with us to within sight of Rydale - the sun shone very pleasantly, yet it was extremely cold. We dined and then Wm went to bed. I lay upon the fur gown before the fire, but I could not sleep - I lay there a long time. It is now halfpast 5 - I am going to write letters - I began to write to Mrs Rawson. William rose without having slept - we sate comfortably by the fire till he began to try to alter The Butterfly, and tired himself - he went to bed tired.’
15 April 1802
‘It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us, but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large boat-house, then under a furze [gorse] bush opposite Mr Clarkson’s. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath. The Lake was rough. There was a boat by itself floating in the middle of the bay below Water Millock. We rested again in Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish, but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows - people working. A few primroses by the roadside - woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry, yellow flower which Mrs C calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. 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. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea. Rain came on . . .’