Her eyes were wild

John Bayley

  • Letters of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Selection edited by Alan Hill
    Oxford, 200 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 818539 1
  • Dorothy Wordsworth by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton
    Oxford, 318 pp, £12.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 818519 7
  • The Pedlar, Tintern Abbey, The Two-Part Prelude by William Wordsworth, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Cambridge, 76 pp, £7.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 521 26526 6
  • The Ruined Cottage, The Brothers, Michael by William Wordsworth, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth
    Cambridge, 82 pp, £7.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 521 26525 8

Wordsworth’s genius lay in its own sort of negative capability. The most striking feature of his poetry, as of his personality, is their intense and intimate relations with what always remained outside them. He never seems identified with his own discoveries, even with the drama of his own sensibility. Yet what he writes is subtly and comfortingly self-confirmatory, never more so than when the world, the human heart, the music of humanity, the mountains, are speaking to him (‘as if admonished from another world’, ‘To give me human strength by apt admonishment’). The writing of an ‘Ode to Duty’ shows how much the poet enjoyed the exhortation of that concept, whereas Coleridge’s Dejection Ode is a powerful and poignant analysis of the actual state the poet is in.

Even desertion and misgiving (‘The things that I have seen I now can see no more’) confirmed and supported Wordsworth’s powers. The Immortality Ode has all the gusto of a celebration of his uniquely creative form of solipsism, whose powers of sympathy are as great as its powers of attracting love, or of blessing, as in that wonderful line from ‘The Ruined Cottage’, ‘in the impotence of grief’. As so often in Wordsworth, the line suggests its opposite, a singular potency, as the decrepitude of the Leech Gatherer summons the idea of a strong and supportive God. There is nothing in the least hypocritical about the process: it is as natural as the strength that flowed into Antaeus from the earth beneath his feet. Women whom Wordsworth went to bed with – Annette Vallon, his own wife Mary Hutchinson – instantly conceived. He was a natural magnet for love and fortune, a fertility spirit who himself retained a spirit’s anonymity, the image in the shrine whose passivity is emphasised by the devotion of its cult, the loving women who attend on it and rub its features with butter.

The display was of course irksome to a rival who lacked these particular magic powers. Coleridge came to see Wordsworth ‘living wholly among Devotees – having every the minutest Thing, almost his very Eating and Drinking, done for him by his Sister, or his Wife’. In the syllables, the commas and capitals of that, we can hear the expression of Coleridge’s growing irritation, the pathos of his envy and jealousy. ‘Though the world praise me,’ he wrote in the same notebook, ‘yet have I no dear heart that loves my verses.’ The ‘two beloved women’, Mary Hutchinson and her sister Sara, for whom Coleridge felt affection, sisters who with Dorothy had petted and admired and made much of him, soon became wholly absorbed in their worship of the Egotistical Sublime. We can hear Dorothy’s accents as vividly in what she came to write of Coleridge as in what he was writing about her beloved brother. When in the winter of 1803-04 he was an unasked guest at Dove Cottage he was, she says, ‘lame and sick, screamed out in the night, durst not sleep etc etc, continually wanting coffee, broth, or something or other’. She and Mary had to sit up to wake him from nightmares. ‘You may think we were busy enough.’

Busy indeed they were, incredibly, devotedly busy, and only about poor Coleridge does Dorothy ever reveal any resentment of the fact. Frugal and temperate as he was, William was not always demanding coffee ‘or something or other’, but he was not much use in the house, and at one of the many moments of domestic crisis Dorothy wrote to a friend that they hoped to ‘get William out of the way’, since his help was not worth the cooking of his meals. The wholly admirable account by Gittings and Manton brings out even more effectively than their previous biographies the texture and development of these famous lives. To read them on the relationship of William and Dorothy with Coleridge and their other friends is to see these things as if for the first time.

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