Dorothy Wordsworth: The Muse of the Lyrical Ballads | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 11, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:32 AM, January 11, 2020

Dorothy Wordsworth: The Muse of the Lyrical Ballads

This article is a tribute to Dorothy Wordsworth, who was born on December 25, 1771 and died on January 25, 1855. Her extended contribution behind her brother’s work is something that has taken up an important critical space in the last few decades.

“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,

My dear, dear Sister!”

(William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)

It might seem strange to many that the muse of the revolutionary work Lyrical Ballads is no other than Dorothy Wordsworth, the younger sister of William Wordsworth. Stranger still is the fact that she inspired the two pioneers of Romanticism, namely Wordsworth and Coleridge, through the recording of her daily life in Grasmere Journals. Contradicting her brother’s emphasis on the glorification of the self, Dorothy’s journals present the intricate detail of nature and people surrounding her, and thus distance her from the male egocentric Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Contrary to the notion that journals are private documentation, Dorothy’s Journals were not quite private as both her brother and his friend Coleridge took liberal help from her observations. Therefore, even though they did not get published during her lifetime, they found admirers in at least two avid readers. Moreover, it records the story of Dorothy Wordsworth and her life at Grasmere, thus giving the journal a kind of fiction like semblance.

Dorothy Wordsworth started to write the Grasmere Journals right after her brother had decided to marry Mary Hutchinson and left to visit her in Yorkshire. The very first entry records: “I resolved to write a journal of the time W (William) & J (John) return, ....I will not quarrel with myself, & because I shall give William pleasure by it when he comes home again.” It is now widely known among Wordsworth critics that Dorothy was not the happiest woman when her brother William decided to get married. She did not even attend their wedding ceremony though she did welcome them at home. Yet, she replaced her initial feelings of despondency resulting from William’s decision by beginning to write a journal for that same brother. This journal served more than one purpose; firstly, she presented before William her detailed and minute observation of the world around her, thus helping him with ideas for his poems. Many of her vagrants became isolated characters in William’s poetry. Secondly, this was also her gesture of showing that even though she did not quite approve of her brother’s marriage, she was choosing to remain by his side, supportive as ever. At the same time, she was able to present before William in a discreet, and indirect way her own sufferings and her ways of coping with that pain.

Grasmere Journals thus began in disappointment and frustration of a woman on the verge of losing her home. At the mere age of six, right after her mother’s death, Dorothy was compelled to live with other people some of whom made her life miserable. Deep inside her heart she continued to look for a home, a home she wanted with her blood relations. The tie of blood was of utmost importance for both Dorothy and William, and therefore, when William could not return to his mistress and daughter in France because of war, he settled with his sister for a substitute home. But later in Grasmere, Dorothy Wordsworth lost her home too, or rather the central role she played in her brother’s life, for William continued to remain the centre of her life. For her, the “self” was never important the way it was to him. In Romanticism and Feminism, Anne Mellor summarizes the attributes of the female Romantic spirit, which goes for Dorothy as well, “Romantic ego was both potently male, engaged in figurative battles of conquest and possession, and at the same time capable of incorporating into itself whatever attributes of the female it desired to possess” (7). The Romanticism of women assimilate submission, passivity, and negation of the self. If the works of Dorothy Wordsworth are read against those of her brother’s, it might seem that whereas he celebrates the ego, she is absolutely unconscious of it. The traditional idea of Romanticism upholds the male vision of freedom and assertion of the self, but the female writers express themselves in a different way. Dorothy’s love for nature and the community actually reflects her inner self-- the self that has no existence just by itself.

Initially in Grasmere Journals, Dorothy describes the nature around her in great detail, and it reflects the dejected mood of the writer herself. However, as the details are developed, Dorothy’s life at the community start teeming with life and activity. William is undeniably the pivotal force of her life, but she also has many other things to do. She has friends, family members and numerous acquaintances to write letters to.She has a communal life at Grasmere full of various interesting on goings, and the bits of gossip about the community also keep her alive and well. She has a very busy domestic life in baking, cooking, sewing and gardening. On top of that, she has a passion for walking and enjoying nature for its own sake. Initially, she had taken up gardening for economical reason, but her journal entries and letters to Catherine Clarkson and Jane Pollard reveal her immense joy in working with elements of nature. Therefore, even though Dorothy started writing her journal in sorrow and disappointment, soon she is able to find other avenues to channel her negative emotions. Susan Levin suggests that Dorothy “does not tell the story of her life to create a personal myth of the self, but rather describes the natural world and her own being as they exist together” (17)

Her daily choresinitially sustain her like a ritual, and then little things of nature; “a rich reflection of the moon, the moonlight clouds & the hills, & from the Rays gap a huge rainbow pillar”(Grasmere, 15), the homeless vagrants along with the other people of her community, especially women and children, help her to retain her well-being. Whereas William revels in the glorification of the self, Dorothy thrives in communal life where harmony is the most important element. For her, even the uprooting of a strawberry blossom is suggestive of consequences, and therefore, is planted back again, because she feels, it is “an outrage” against nature. In all probability, it also symbolizes herself, about to be uprooted from her home, and then thrust back again. Moreover, the half-hidden flowers, the stony banks covered by moss, and insects creeping out of their hiding places are all a reflection of herself-- a woman rejoicing in her creative powers.

The tribute of William Wordsworth, the greatest poet of Nature, to Dorothy was, “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears.” As has been mentioned before, Dorothy did not write her journal for a literary audience, but for the pleasure of her brother. Yet, in many ways, her depictions of nature are like short poems about little things. Different shades of yellow, green, silver, crimson and grey are splashed through the pages of her journals, suggesting ample ideas for William’s poems. Thus, Dorothy Wordsworth actually portrays the nurturing and sustaining characteristics of nature:

If the study to which you apply                     yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting to human mind (Mary Shelley 37).

Dorothy thinks of taking in orphans and old women under her wing. She had a good word to put in for everyone she considered unfortunate. Her thoughts and actions sustained her through a most wretched and sad part of her life, and she was also able to be the anchor in the life of her brother William, and thus an integral part of a revolutionary literary creation, the Lyrical Ballads.

 

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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