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William Wordsworth had an unusually intense affection for his sister, Dorothy

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, History on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about William and Dorothy Wordsworth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 389 published on 28 June 1969.

Dorothy and William Wordsworth, picture, image, illustration

Dorothy Wordsworth was the inspiration for many poems by her brother William

William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw very little of each other during their childhood. After the death of their father and mother, the youngsters were forced to live apart. It was not until William was 19 and Dorothy 18 that they came together again.

This event took place in 1789, when William was on his summer vacation from Cambridge. He met Dorothy as he might have met a stranger, and thought “she seemed a gift then first bestowed.”

Dorothy was a striking-looking girl with a dark, almost gypsy-like skin, and bold, vivid eyes. A friend of the Wordsworths, the essayist Thomas De Quincey, said that a “subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her.”

But, despite her undoubted intellectual qualities, she feared she might be a burden to her hard-up brother, and felt that her scheme for them to live together might “prove a shadow, a mere vision of happiness. . . .”

Her fears were soon shown to be unfounded. William inherited £900 from a friend, and from the start of their companionship, Dorothy proved to be an invaluable aid and inspiration to the romantic young poet.

On some of the long walks they took, the Wordsworths were accompanied by the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, co-author with William of the Lyrical Ballads, a “revolutionary” collection of poems because of their “down-to-earth” treatment and realism of approach. The two men would compose aloud as they strode along, and Dorothy later wrote out her brother’s verses for him.

In 1799, after living in Dorset and Somerset, William and Dorothy moved to Grasmere in their native Lake District. There, in Dove Cottage, they led a quiet, happy life, devoted almost entirely to the fostering of William’s genius.

Apart from her intellectual strength, Dorothy was also the perfect housekeeper. She was never happier than when baking bread, pies, and cakes for her brother. She even kept a daily record of their activities because, she said, “I shall give William pleasure by it.”

Her published Journal contains many instances of the Wordsworths’ mutual affection and esteem. The entry for 23rd August, 1800, gives an account of a typical day spent together.

“A very fine morning. Wm. was composing all the morning. I shelled peas, gathered beans, and worked in the garden till ¬Ω past 12. Then walked with Wm. in the wood. . . . Did not reach home till 7 o’clock – mended stockings and Wm. read Peter Bell (one of his longer poems).”

* * *

So, while William embarked on a career that was one day to make him Poet Laureate, Dorothy found her time fully occupied. Some of the poems she copied ran to hundreds of verses, but it was as an artistic collaborator that she proved most useful to her brother.

This was never more clearly demonstrated than on a walk they took on a “threatening, misty morning,” in April, 1802.

“I never saw daffodils so beautiful,” wrote Dorothy, after she and William had strolled along the banks of Grasmere lake. “They grew among the mossy stones; 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 charmingly expressed description later led William to write one of his most well-known poems, The Daffodils, which was published in 1807.

The poem begins:

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils.
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. . . .”

The Wordsworths spent six harmonious years together. Then, in the winter of 1802, William decided to marry.

For some time their cousin, Mary Hutchinson, had been a constant visitor to Dove Cottage. She adored the poet, with his look of a “Spanish monk,” and was prepared to serve him as faithfully as Dorothy did.

Dorothy wrote to a friend saying that, “. . . I look forward with perfect happiness to this connection between us; but, happy as I am, I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings past, present, and future, which will come upon me on the wedding morning.”

As soon as the ceremony was over, Dorothy threw herself on her bed, “neither hearing nor seeing anything. . . .” But her despair did not last long. Wordsworth had no intention of turning her out of their home, and the three lived together at Dove Cottage (and later at Rydal Mount, Westmorland) in complete harmony.

In other respects, however, Wordsworth’s star never shone as brightly again. In 1829 Dorothy had a nervous breakdown from which she never completely recovered; at the same time, William’s work, in the opinion of many people, showed a marked falling off.

Although he continued to write and publish more poems than ever before, his early inspiration seemed to have faded. He never quite recaptured the fresh, individual vision of his youth although a number of academic and other honours were bestowed upon him.

As for Dorothy, her faithfully kept Journal came to a speedy end. After gradually losing enthusiasm for it, she made her last entry on 16th January, 1803. It was an “intensely cold” day, she noted, but despite this she went out and bought “6 pennyworth” of her brother’s favourite gingerbread from a blind man and his family.

The Wordsworths’ long and fruitful partnership was finally dissolved with William’s death in 1850. Dorothy outlived him by five years, consoled by the knowledge that she had been his trusted companion and “most precious Friend.”

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