Tate, London

Samuel Palmer: Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep, circa 1831-1833

The Wordsworth family was gentlemanly. John W. Wordsworth, father of the poet and three more sons, as well as a daughter, Dorothy, was an attorney and the agent of a rapacious magnate who, on the father’s early death, declined to pay his children a large sum that had been due to him. Since their mother had also died, the whole family now consisted of orphans. William, the second child, was thirteen years old; Dorothy was twelve. Their poverty did not prevent William from attending a good grammar school and, later, with the support of an uncle, St. John’s College, Cambridge; but it did keep Dorothy on the move from one relative to another. She attended two different schools in Halifax, Yorkshire, lived above a shop in Penrith, and was taken in by a clergyman uncle in Norfolk. She was granted a glimpse of high life when this uncle became a canon of Windsor and lived in Windsor Castle with his family for three months in 1792, when Dorothy was twenty-one.

Meanwhile William was missing classes in Cambridge and walking prodigiously in France, where he experienced a surge of pro-revolutionary excitement and also impregnated Annette Vallon, whom for various reasons, chiefly expressed as shortage of money, he did not marry. Annette became something of a heroine in the royalist cause. It is often argued that the poems Wordsworth was writing on his return to England show how upset he was about deserting Annette, but he seems, characteristically, to have left to Dorothy the task of informing the family of her existence, and that of their daughter Caroline.

Dorothy herself complained that she had so far seen very little of her brothers, but it was above all with William that she wanted to share a home, and a home in their native Lake District. When he returned from France in 1793 they had been parted for three years. Wordsworth then had one of those strokes of luck that Thomas de Quincey later marveled at; without doing much about it himself, William seemed to attract benevolence. A fellow student named Raisley Calvert bequeathed him £900. The will that made the bequest contained a codicil stating that part of this sum should be used for the benefit of Dorothy. Wordsworth celebrated the legacy in the opening lines of his long autobiographical poem The Prelude:

Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will….
The earth is all before me….
Long months of ease and undisturbed delight
Are mine in prospect

—and presumably Dorothy’s also.

At this stage of their lives William and Dorothy gave little thought to prospects of future income. The Calvert legacy provided for suitable housing in the Lake District. Meanwhile they had a house in the southwest of the country, provided free, by a Bristol merchant’s family. They undertook, for pay, to look after Basil Montagu, a two-year-old boy, on behalf of his widowed father. Brother and sister were now a step nearer the achievement of their ideal. They even had a bright child to complete the picture.

At this point, in 1797, the indispensable Coleridge arrived at their door, to the delight of both Dorothy and William, and an epoch in English poetry began. The poets liked to be in touch, if not in the same house then within a sometimes fairly strenuous walking distance of each other. To Wordsworth, Coleridge was “the only wonderful man I ever knew.” And for some years he was to Dorothy simply “a wonderful man.” During the year they spent living and walking near the village of Nether Stowey in southwest England, the poems that made up the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads were written. Reviews of the volume were beginning to appear in October 1798, by which time they had all gone to Germany: the Wordsworths hoping to learn the language and set up as translators, Coleridge to get closer to the sources of modern German philosophy. The trip was not a success, and after two weeks Coleridge left the others to be cold, lonely, and snubbed in Goslar in Lower Saxony, where it was assumed that “sister” meant “mistress.”

Yet the years when the three were settled as neighbors in the Lake District were probably the most productive of their lives. Wordsworth was working on such highly original poems as “The Prelude” and “The Leech Gatherer.” Each of the men was sure of the genius of the other, and Dorothy found herself their secretary and housekeeper—copying, reading aloud, taking prodigiously long, hilly walks, observing, baking, ironing, mending, gardening, consoling, protecting her brother from all annoyance and interruption. But Coleridge grew more and more hectic and miserable; his marriage was collapsing under the weight of his many absences and the death of their second son, and his constitution was weakened by heavy doses of opium. He was in love, hopelessly, dejectedly, with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law and perhaps a little with Dorothy also, despite her short stature and what Thomas de Quincey described as her “unsexual awkwardness”; but he added that she made up for this disadvantage by having originality and “freshness of intellect.” Her most striking features were, it was agreed, her “wild eyes.” De Quincey expanded this compliment: Dorothy was “the very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known.”


The close association of the poets was bound to break up, and not only because of Coleridge’s troubles. Words- worth could be difficult to live with—he was demanding, haughty, often ill, easily exhausted by the act of composition, and he hated the very act of writing, which he delegated whenever he could to Dorothy. The irregular lifestyle of the friends was spartan but not at all healthy. Dorothy herself was so often struck down by headaches and bowel complaints that she still prompts biographers, most recently and elaborately Frances Wilson in the book discussed here, to offer detailed diagnoses.

Dorothy’s journals record many illnesses—she was sometimes “ill” and “well” within the same day. Coleridge is often “poorly,” “very ill in his bowels.” Wordsworth was frequently “sick” or “ill,” the words apparently applying to a variety of conditions; or he was sleepless and staying in bed the next day. They had little or no access to doctors, who would probably, in any case, have prescribed laudanum, which the patient was already abusing. De Quincey, a neighbor for twenty years who took over Dove Cottage when the Wordsworths moved on, observed that William and Dorothy, brother and sister alike, “had a peculiar depth of organic sensibility,” which was presumably expressed in part by all these nervous symptoms, and by Dorothy’s stammer.

We have to think of them in the early days at Dove Cottage on the shores of Grasmere as enjoying the simple life they had chosen, but cramped for space and often cold and wet, cut off by their beautiful hills and lakes from the rest of the country. The Wordsworths’ visit to France to see Annette before William got married to Mary Hutchinson was a serious journey involving several days of travel by coach, cheerfully described at some length in Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal. Dorothy was again seeing something of the great world. They were often desperate for news of it, and would walk many miles every day to pick up letters and newspapers. References in Dorothy’s journals to food largely preclude the idea of regular and sustaining nourishment, though members of the family fished assiduously for pike in the lake, where the men also swam and sailed.

Hardships there were, but Dorothy was living with her brother as she had always wished. As Virginia Woolf remarked, “she could ramble all day on the hills and sit up talking to Coleridge all night without being scolded…for unwomanly behaviour.” With the genius of Coleridge as additional inspiration, she began to be a writer, and not just of letters, though she was already a copious and informative correspondent. She made notes on interviews that might be of use to William in his poetry, and her inspired natural observations produced those flashes of accurate poetry that have made her a favorite of many good writers. “The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow,” she notices, and she comments on “the glittering silver line” on the ridge of the backs of sheep. A note in another journal describes a scene in the Isle of Man: “The moon rose large and dull, like an ill-cleaned brass plate…and sends over the calm sea a faint bright pillar…boats in motion, dark masts and eloquent ropes.” Here is part of her journal entry for July 26, 1800:

The lake was now most still & reflected the beautiful yellow & blue & purple & grey colours of the sky. We heard a strange sound in the Bainriggs wood as we were floating on the water it seemed in the wood, but it must have been above it, for presently we saw a raven very high above us—it called out & the Dome of the sky seemed to echoe the sound—it called again & again as it flew onwards, & the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from their center a musical bell-like answering to the birds hoarse voice. We heard both the call of the bird & the echoe after we could see him no longer.

Other notes record the weather, the state of the garden, above all the tireless walking, often done at night and in almost any weather. Dorothy kept going despite her short stature and odd gait. William, a man of rather severe and domineering manner, had a slanted way of walking that could almost push his companion off the road, but she did not complain.


What with the bathing, sailing, and fishing in the lake, the years at Dove Cottage can sound more like a vacation than a period of extraordinary creative success, but that is what it was, and Dorothy’s journals, notably the Grasmere Journal, show how large was her part in this achievement. She gave William subjects for his poems and nursed Coleridge through his ailments. In their various houses she was the hardest worker yet also the mistress. That William should live, as far as possible, untroubled by ordinary cares was her most abiding concern.

The history of one of the greatest poems in the language gives some idea of her part, and the part of others, in the intellectual activities of the family. On October 3, 1800, the journal describes how, on a bleak wet morning, William and Dorothy met a leech-gatherer. The old man, patient in his poverty, complained that leeches, sought after for their medical uses, had become hard to find, but he persevered in the search for them. Dorothy records the encounter in a long note, though the poet’s own much later account of the origin of the poem omits to mention her. The poem was not published until 1807, but it had been discussed in Wordsworth’s circle. On June 14, 1802, Wordsworth and Dorothy wrote to Sara and Mary Hutchinson in reply to their criticisms of “The Leech Gatherer.” They had said they found the old man’s story tedious. In a reply that is essentially a strong reproof, Wordsworth offers a prose version of the passage:


Rischgitz/Getty Images

Dorothy Wordsworth, circa 1820

Though I believe God has given me a strong imagination, I cannot conceive a figure more impressive than that of an old Man like this, the survivor of a Wife and ten children, traveling alone among the mountains and all lonely places, carrying with him his own fortitude, and the necessities which an unjust state of society has entailed upon him. You say…that the Poem is very well after the introduction of the old man; this is not true, if it is not more than very well it is very bad, there is no intermediate state.

Dorothy supported him: “Ask yourself whether you have hit upon the real tendency and true moral.” Nevertheless, between the date of those letters and the first appearance of the poem in print, Wordsworth made some changes seemingly intended to avert the charge of “tediousness.” They do not spoil the poem and the Hutchinsons’ criticisms are not in themselves sufficient motive for the further changes introduced between 1800 and 1807, when the poem was published under the title “Resolution and Independence.” Revision was for Wordsworth, as for Yeats, an essential part of the business of poetry.

The Grasmere Journal covers the years 1800–1803, and together with the Alfoxden Journal, an earlier and briefer diary concerned with the Wordsworths’ stay in the southwest of England, is now best read in Pamela Woof’s fine Oxford edition. The journal, supported by Dorothy’s correspondence, is obviously a prime source for biographers, and at the heart of the journal is Wordsworth’s marriage to Dorothy’s old friend Mary Hutchinson. Frances Wilson has understandably begun her book with Dorothy’s account of that strange alliance.

It was recognized from the beginning that the relationship between William and Dorothy was unusually close; de Quincey knew that very well, but dismissed the notion that it was incestuous. That notion has been revived in various forms over the years. Dorothy was staying with the Hutchinsons, and her remarks on her brother’s wedding, written four days after the event, in part read thus:

On Monday 4th October 1802, my Brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. I slept a good deal of the night & rose fresh & well in the morning—at a little after 8 o clock I saw them go down the avenue towards the Church. William had parted from me up stairs. I gave him the wedding ring—with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before—he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [sister of the bride] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer & threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing nor seeing any thing, till Sara came upstairs to me & said “They are coming.” This forced me from the bed where I lay & I moved I knew not how straight forward, faster than my strength could carry me till I met my beloved William & fell upon his bosom. He & John Hutchinson led me to the house & there I stayed to welcome my dear Mary.

Frances Wilson, who has a habit of asking too many unanswered and usually unanswerable questions, wants to know whether it is “a marriage or a divorce [that is] taking place in the bedroom.” What symbolic meaning should be attached to the business with the ring, worn and surrendered? It was surely unusual for a bridegroom to return from church with his sister on his arm and allow her to welcome the bride on her return to her own house. Recalling the walking habits of the Wordsworths, Wilson asks whether their returning together to the house is not a recapitulation of many walks during which William, with his slanted walk, has edged his sister off the road.

There was yet more dubious symbolism, for this wedding took place on the seventh anniversary of Coleridge’s failed venture into matrimony; and somehow it happened that Coleridge published in a newspaper on this very day the first version of what later was named his “Dejection: An Ode” (first addressed to Sara Hutchinson, his unobtainable love, and intimately linked with Wordsworth’s great “Ode” (“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,…/To me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light…”). The first lines of Wordsworth’s poem are answered in Coleridge’s “Ode,” and the remainder of Wordsworth’s poem, added late to the opening, constitutes a reply to Coleridge. Coleridge could also report an ominous dream, in which Dorothy appeared as quite unlike her real self, “fat, thick-limbed & rather red-haired” instead of brown-faced and wild-eyed.

Whether William and Dorothy Wordsworth committed incest is of course an unanswerable question. No one doubts that their affection for one another was very warm, but such warmth may have then been more usual in sibling relationships than it has since become. Wilson consults many authorities but obviously cannot offer an answer. And the text of the passage in Dorothy’s journal, which is heavily crossed out, can be deciphered in quite different ways, a point well discussed by Pamela Woof in her edition.

Wilson’s book is not a biography—in that respect we are already well provided—but a sort of speculative fantasy deriving primarily from the Grasmere Journal and a deep and intelligent interest in its strange author. She points out that the Grasmere Journal opens with a parting: William and his brother John set out with “cold pork in their pockets” on the long walk to the Yorkshire home of Mary Hutchinson, a journey that presumably had something to do with the proposed marriage.

Dorothy, left alone for the first time, sits weeping by the lake. But she resolves to keep a journal, “because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again.” Already, before he could even have reached his destination, she is longing for a letter from him: “My heart was so full that I could hardly speak to W when I gave him a farewell kiss.” Whatever else remains to be said about the nature of their relationship, it was certainly based on love; but Dorothy discriminates: “Love will never bring me closer to any human being than Friendship binds me to William, my earliest and my dearest Male Friend.” Weeks later William comes home, having been accepted by Mary. “It was William——after our first joy was over we got some tea. We did not go to bed till four o clock in the morning.” After that the garden, the rain, the walks, the beggars—the routine, the calm before the storm of the wedding.

Dorothy then had to share her brother with Mary Hutchinson. Henceforth she was, as Wilson says, “the perpetual third party”—her share of the housekeeping and child care increasing as Mary produced a family, but still studying daily and reading determinedly as well as writing. She was often “sick & ill,” never altogether well for long, and Wilson finds a pattern in these illnesses: “Dorothy will rarely mention William’s health without then commenting on her own, as if their two bodies were in correspondence.” She had about two migraines a week, and Oliver Sacks is called in to explain the varieties of migraine; some, it seems, are preceded by auras, and some lead to trances and euphoria. Dorothy’s medical history might contain both sorts, and William’s, too.

William and Dorothy became “a single poetic voice,” says Wilson censoriously: “he pours out poems in celebration of Dorothy’s daisies, linnets, and small celandines; she only has to open her mouth for William to write a poem.” Wilson doesn’t much like most of William’s work in the period of the Grasmere Journal, and her astringency is welcome. Even more daring, she compares the relationship of this brother and sister with that of Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights: “The two of them shift between dread of separation and fear of engulfment”—language more appropriate to Wuthering Heights than to the more quotidian sentiments of the Wordsworths. More appropriate is the reminder that if Annette and Caroline had been part of Wordsworth’s life there would have been, for Dorothy, “no Coleridge, no Germany, no part in William’s poetic imagination, none of the intimacy she had relished with her brother, no writing of her own.”

She survived her brother by five years, and died in 1855, having, in many senile years, come to be more like Coleridge’s dream of her than like her more youthful self. She could not walk or read and behaved like a spoiled child. The services she had done others were now returned in full, since Mary and William tended her patiently for many years. It was said that her “wild eyes…kept their life and light,” but they really belonged to a memory, an image of the girl who walked with William and was already

my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! Yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once….

Notoriously egotistical, Wordsworth here makes over his sister’s voice and her wild eyes to his own use, much as he had done to her journal.

This Issue

October 22, 2009