William Wordsworth was the famous Romantic poet. His sister Dorothy was his quiet strength, support and inspiration. Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) devoted her life to her brother (1770-1850).
Intimate friends and close confidants, they shared an immense mutual dependence and were of extreme significance and value to each other. As William put it in his poem, "The Recluse," as quoted in the title above, brother and sister journeyed not only to Grasmere, but through all of life, "side by side," blown by the winds of life, "like two birds, companions in mid-air,/Parted and reunited by the blast (Clark 28).
Dorothy and William's mother died in 1778. Dorothy, age six, was separated from all her brothers, including William, age eight, and raised by various relatives, while he lived at school. As young children William and Dorothy were very close, and it was perhaps this separation that contributed to their later need to be always together. When their father died a few years later, they were destined to remain apart, living in near poverty. It wasn't until 1795 when William received a bequest of £900 from a close friend that he and Dorothy managed to set up housekeeping together, first living in Racedown, Dorsetshire, then in 1797 moving to Alfoxden, Somersetshire, near Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. In 1798 -1799 William and Dorothy traveled to Germany with Coleridge. Returning to England in 1799, brother and sister settled at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Westmorland, in the Lake District. Their lives were constantly entertwined, as they lived together for the rest of their days, even after William's marriage. Wordsworthian authority, de Selincourt, notes that William wrote the lovely poem "Among all lovely things my love had been" dedicated to Dorothy, on his return trip after becoming engaged (Clarke 14). Although William's decision to marry her best friend, Mary Hutchinson, was emotionally traumatic for Dorothy, the devoted sister stayed on to keep house for the couple and to help with their children as the family grew. In 1813 they all moved to Rydal Mount, not from Dove Cottage, where, except for periods of travel, they spent the rest of their lives.
Colette Clark begins her introduction to Dorothy's Home at Grasmore with these words:
Dorothy Wordworth was one of those sweet characters whose only life lies in their complete dedication to a man of genius. Without self-consciousness or self-congratulation she absorbed herself in her brothers life and work and starts the Journal 'because I shall give William pleasure by it.' This was the only way in which she could fulfil herself, and through it she became an artist in her own right. She is to us, as she was to William 'a breath of fragrance independent of the wind'. (Clarke 9)
Dorothy and her brother shared a spiritual harmony (Clarke 10). She was continually his go-between with nature. Her spontaneous observations, recorded in her journals, often became the precise words of his poems. Scholars speculate endlessly on exactly how much William relied on his sister's descriptions and words. It was the habit of brother and sister to take long walks together daily during which the great poet shared whatever was on his mind with his beloved sister. She served very much as his sounding block.
Often when scholars discuss the bond between William and Dorothy Wordsworth they include a third intimate in the union, Samuel Colleridge. Brief discussion of this additional connection with Coleridge may serve to shed light on the bond between Dorothy and her brother. As Mallaby describes it: "Dorothy Wordsworth, had the distinction of being the indispensable sister for two men of genius." Especially in the years from 1797 to 1802, Dorothy was sister to Coleridge as well as William. "In that golden period," says Mallaby, these three persons were an undivided and indivisible trinity. When the triune spell was broken each of them failed -- Coleridge fell into a self-deceiving idleness, morbid imaginings of jealousy and mistrust, an opiate confusion of mind and heart; Wordsworth, arming himself with the shield of a rather self-righteous duty, moved boldly but remorsefully away from "the vision splendid"; Dorothy, overburdened with household cares and perplexed with spiritual disappointments and dismay, surrendered to a senseless melancholy (Mallaby unpaged).
The bond between them was spiritual. They were -- "three persons and one soul," as Coleridge put it. For Coleridge and Wordsworth the bond was intellectual. Dorothy added the realm of feeling. When Dorothy was with them, the spirits of both men were enlarged in vision and in feeling. What she gave to her brother she gave also to Coleridge:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy (Mallaby unpaged).
Mallaby and many other scholars agree that Dorothy's untrained mind offered the gift of natural description and spontaneity to the more intellectually disciplined males. As to whether there was any sexual energy between Dorothy and Coleridge, or even her brother, scholars are less in agreement. Most, however, argue that this was a "true spiritual union," and poetic bond far beyond "shallow and vulgar" considerations. (Mallaby unpaged). Dorothy, though not "in love," felt deep love for both Wordsworth and Coleridge. She identified with what they were trying to do. She was part of their poetic urge. Her sympathy with their needs was so intense that she understood that, "without her delicate perception, her sensitive and tender approach," these males would lose themselves in "disputing, argument and theory." Her sensitivity provided their muse. As Mallaby puts it: " She saw for herself the moods in which they were happiest and most creative and she knew that it was her presence which induced these moods." Her role was to provide support and sustenance, spiritual and physical (in the way of food and household comforts) to their poetic genius. Dorothy's role of "sympathetic service" when extended to Coleridge, amplifies our understanding of how she saw herself in regard to her brother, as indispensable helpful muse whose job it was to nourish and "soften" that powerful imagination (Mallaby unpaged).
Among scholars much is written about Dorothy's personal capabilities as poet and writer. Her journals are straightforward and simple, often eloquently poetic in descriptive phrases. Examples like the following abound: "The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow" (Wordsworth 75).
We had a very fine walk by the gloomy lake. There was a curious yellow reflection in the water, as of cornfields. There was no light in the clouds from which it appeared to come" (Wordsworth 64) "We walked out before dinner to our favourite field. The mists sailed along the mountains, and rested upon them, enclosing the whole vale (Wordsworth 85). The moon shone like herrings in the water" (Wordsworth 85). "The reeds and bullrushes or bullpipes of a tender soft green, making a plain whose surface moved with the wind" (Wordsworth 41). In his letters to Coleridge, William regularly quotes Dorothy's manner of describing scenes from nature. He obviously admires her descriptive talents. What he himself saw as "rocks wrinkled over with masses of ice, white as snow," Dorothy saw as "congealed froth" (Clarke 21).
Dorothy's poems record, for the most part, personal experiences centering on her intense relationship with nature. There is almost no assertive ego or self-consciousness in her work except for honest expression of emotion. That Dorothy collaborated with William in the creation of his work goes without question. He read his/her works in progress, on walks, by the fireside, in drifting boats. He solicited her help in his "altering" of poems and she forever "copied" his work for him before sending it off to be read by others or published. In Home at Grasmere Dorothy speaks often of sitting before the fire with William and writing or correcting poems and preface for Lyrical Ballads. The descriptions and notes that Dorothy recorded in her journal were drawn upon heavily by her brother (Wordsworth 74-85). These incidents, carefully documented by scholars include Dorothy's description of meeting with the tall woman and her children, recorded in Home at Grasmere, as closely relied upon in William's "Beggars" (Wordsworth 43).
Sometimes their spirits were so closely intertwined that it is hard to tell who initiated a poetic line. For example, as Clark points out in her editing of Home at Grasmere a description of yellow broom being like veins of gold appears three times in the journal, once in quotes, as well as is in Willliam's poem "Joanna" (Wordsworth 43). Dorothy's description of a funeral finds its way into her brother's poem "The Excursion." (Wordsworth 70). "Michael" and other pastoral poems were no doubt influenced by descriptions from Dorothy's journals such as the following:
The colours of the mountains soft and rich, with orange fern; the cattle pasturing upon the hill-tops; kites sailing in the sky above our heads; sheep bleating and in lines and chains and patterns scattered over the mountains. They come down and feed on…