Sometimes history reveals the truth of the saying that 'behind every great man there is often an even greater woman.' In the case of William Wordsworth perhaps this could be applied to his sister Dorothy, although it's doubtful that the truth of such a saying would have been generally acknowledged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) was totally devoted to her brother, and as their mother died when Dorothy was only seven years old, (she was born on Christmas day, twenty-one months after the birth of William) she seemed to have also assumed a maternal role in William's life, at least for as long as her health permitted her to do so.
What is less known however, is her considerable writing talent. Although she was voluntarily and lovingly acquiescent to her brother's needs and his development as a poet, one might be willing to discern a more penetrating sense of observation, a more refined sensitivity, and an even deeper poetical feeling in her journals than that found in her brother's poetry.
It's possible that the many admirers of the work of William Wordsworth would scoff at such an insinuation, but often when poets wish to convey a poetical thought, and are intent on the technical aspects of the challenge, such as metre and rhyme, there is always the danger of losing the honest spontaneity of the original emotion, the essential source that inspired the idea and desire to write the poem in the first place.
One could liken this to the work of an artist, satisfied with a drawing which conveys precisely what the artist wished to convey according to his or her initial emotions and intention. But now the artist must try to reproduce, transfer, and ideally improve upon this drawing on water-colour paper or on whatever other surface. This represents a similar challenge.
For when one has to concentrate on a technical problem and process, there is always the real danger of losing the original spontaneous truth, that primordial essence of visual or written art.
Dorothy Wordsworth thus freely wrote her journals between 1798 and 1828. No doubt she wrote also for personal pleasure, but her priority was always her brother. 'I shall give William pleasure by it,' was always her main objective.
One is reminded of Pepys' spontaneous sense of observation, but in spite of the eminent historic events, down to the 'private pastimes' that Pepys records so vividly, endearingly and amusingly in his diaries, naturally he lacks that feminine touch, the refined sensitivity expressed by Dorothy Wordsworth regarding details that Pepys most likely would have dismissed as being unimportant.
William Wordsworth and even Coleridge were considerably influenced by Dorothy.
She lived with her brother in Dorset, and then in the Lake District they were so fond of. It was perfectly naturally for her to subordinate her considerable talent to her brother's needs and aspirations. Such also were the times.
But Dorothy often suffered from ill health. Finally in 1835, following a serious illness, she had a physical and mental breakdown, and had to spend the rest of her life either confined to bed or to a wheelchair. From then on, even during the summer months she always needed the warmth of a well stoked fire.
Apart from short intervals of relative lucidity, she became exigent, difficult and even violently aggressive. Could this indicate that she was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease? Even so, it's to William's credit that he looked after her devotedly until his own death in 1850, five years before she finally followed him.
In her journals there are examples of her sensitive, luminous observations which undoubtedly influenced Wordsworth, as well as perhaps Coleridge. One might be reluctant to accuse these famous poets of plagiarism, but certainly during his life time, Coleridge (whose poetry, in my modest opinion, is far more imaginative than Wordsworth's) was denounced for this.
Times were then hard however, and it would have been considered perfectly normal that William's sister, as well as his wife, Mary Hutchinson, be totally supportive in all respects.
Although there is often Freudian speculation regarding the relationships of brother and sister orphans, the devotion of Dorothy towards her brother, was unquestionably pure. There was never the slightest discord between Dorothy and Mary. Whilst Dorothy remained reasonably healthy, harmony reigned in the Wordsworth household, and William's children also benefited greatly from his sister's presence.
The following pieces were written by Dorothy on the 15th and 16th April, 1802 (The Grasmere Journals). If her description of the sight of the daffodils in the first passage is discerned as being even more vivid and intense than what Wordsworth managed to convey in his most famous poem, 'The Daffodils,' wouldn't this emphasise even more the enormous value of his sister's contribution and her considerable influence?
(Incidental mistakes and mannerisms have been left according to the text as published by The Norton Anthology).
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 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 the 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, wood-sorrel 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 and 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- we were wet when we reached Luffs but we called in. Luckily all was chearless and gloomy so we faced the storm- we must have been wet if we had waited- put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the Landlady looked sour but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper. Excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/- when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the library piled up in a corner of the window. He brought a volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow park like skeletons.
(Wordsworth did not rush to compose his famous Daffodils poem following this enchanting sight promptly recorded by his sister. In fact 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' was composed two years later, in 1804).
Apr. 16 (Good Friday).
When I undrew my curtains in the morning, I was much affected by the beauty of the prospect and the change. The sun shone, the wind has passed away, the hills looked chearful, the river was very bright as it flowed into the lake. The Church rises up behind a little knot of Rocks, the steeple not so high as an ordinary 3 story house. Trees, in a row in the garden under the wall. After Wm had shaved we set forward. The valley is at first broken by little rocky woody knolls that make retiring places, fairy valleys in the vale, the river winds along under these hills travelling not in a bustle but not slowly to the lake. We saw a fisherman in the flat meadow on the other side of the water. He came towards us and threw his line over the two arched Bridge. It is a Bridge of a heavy construction, almost bending inwards in the middle, but it is grey and there is a look of ancientry in the architecture of it that pleased me. As we go on the vale opens out more into one vale with somewhat of a cradle Bed. Cottages with groups of trees on the side of the hills. We passed a pair of twin Children 2 years old- Sate on the next bridge which we crossed a single arch. We rested again upon the Turf and looked at the same Bridge. We observed arches in the water occasioned by the large stones sending it down in two streams. A Sheep came plunging through the river, stumbled up the Bank and passed close to us, it had been frightened by an insignificant little Dog on the other side, its fleece dropped a glittering shower under its belly. Primroses by the road-side, pile wort that shone like stars of gold in the Sun, violets, strawberries, retired and half buried among the grass. When we came to the foot of Brothers water I left William sitting on the Bridge and went along the path on the right side of the Lake through the wood. I was delighted with what I saw. The water under the boughs of the bare old trees, the simplicity of the mountains and the exquisite beauty of the path. There was one grey cottage. I repeated the Glowworm° as I walked along. I hung over the gate, and thought I could have stayed for ever. When I returned I found William writing a poem descriptive of the sights and sounds we saw and heard. There was the gentle flowing of the stream, the glittering lively lake, green fields without a living creature to be seen on them, behind us, a flat pasture with 42 cattle feeding to our left the road leading to the hamlet, no smoke there, the sun shone on the bare roofs. The people were at work ploughing, harrowing and sowing- lasses spreading dung, a dog's barking now and then, cocks crowing, birds twittering, the snow in patches at the top of the highest hills, yellow palms, purple and green twigs on the Birches, ashes with their glittering spikes quite bare. The hawthorn a bright green with black stems under the oak. The moss of the oak glossy. We then went on, passed two sisters at work, they first passed us, one with two pitch forks in her hand. The other had a spade. We had some talk with them. They laughed aloud after we had gone perhaps half in wantonness, half boldness. William finished his poem before we got to the foot of Kirkstone.¹
° Wordsworth's 'Among all lovely things my Love had been,' composed four days previously. 'my Love' in this poem refers to Dorothy.
¹Wordsworth's 'Written in March' (when it was in fact written, or completed in April).
(Naturally there is quite a large choice of portraits of William Wordsworth, but there seems to be only one mediocre effort of his sister, which is to no one's honour, including Dorothy, her dog and the artist who painted them. For this reason I prefer to use the most appropriate image of daffodils that I could find. It does her more credit, and I hope that whoever took the picture, also deserving to be credited, will agree).
Text © Mirino. Source and passages from The Grasmere journals- The Norton Anthology of English Literature. With thanks. Top image (unknown photographer) with many thanks.