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.

This is not because there are any new facts and theories to retail, but because their perspective is unusual, and their grasp of the individuals involved quite unusually understanding. Their approach to Dorothy in particular is almost acoustic: we hear her voice, we hear Coleridge’s and the Hutchinsons’, even those of the children, and the accents – far away in France – of Annette Vallon and her daughter Caroline. The only voice unheard is that of Wordsworth himself. In Shakespearean fashion, it has got dissolved in his poetry; paradoxically for such an egotist, Wordsworth has no accent of his own, while that of his sister is as clear as if she were in the next room. Even Wordsworth’s touchingly passionate love letters to his wife, Mary Hutchinson, are strangely devoid of any personal note, while Dorothy’s could only have been written by her. Alan Hill, who is editing the new complete edition of William’s and Dorothy’s letters, has made a selection of her letters that reads like a narrative, and follows her from the dependent state as orphan with the Cooksons at Penrith to the premature onset of senile decay – Alzheimer’s syndrome – which overtook her in the spring of 1838, fifty years later.

Dorothy’s attachment to her brother is a wholly straightforward matter, as is his to her. The rumours of incest which began in Grasmere when the pair were living in Dove Cottage, with William still unmarried, were picked up by De Quincey, and have been used by F.W. Bateson and others as an aid to the critical understanding of Wordsworth’s poetry. But the reader can divine, what Gittings and Manton bring out very well, that Wordsworth’s strong – even unusually strong – sexual passions were both specific and conventionally monogamous. Had he married Annette, he would no doubt have remained faithful to her, and felt the same increasing love and desire that he did for Mary. As for Dorothy, her attachment to him was that of the orphan who finds a lifetime’s fulfilment, a home, a vocation, and a love she could share with a woman who was her closest friend.

The self-sacrifice of Dorothy and Mary, the ‘perfect woman’ of Wordsworth’s poem, does not seem specially admirable today, though it is still going on in innumerable homes unvisited either by art or by women’s lib, but the narrative of Dorothy’s biographers brings it very close to us and fills it with an unexpected interest. There was mutual inspiration between Coleridge, Dorothy and William, of a kind that appears most clearly in Coleridge’s notebooks and in Dorothy’s Journal. They all gave eyes and ears to each other (Coleridge’s wife Sara alone being excluded, though by her own inclination) and the intoxication of the days at Alfoxden and Nether Stowey shows how a fashion of the time – the close observation of nature – could become a joyfully personal way of life. To Dorothy it always remained so, and the ability to see and describe which never left her (in a late letter she describes a Rhine ferry boat as being ‘like a piece cut out of a Market Place’) is inextricably a part of that accepted absence of self which made her observation so eager and happy.

It was an absence, none the less, which deprives her journal of essential interest. There is no reason why it should have any, because it was no more intended for publication than were Coleridge’s notebooks, but Coleridge’s perceptions engage in a naturally dramatic play with his thoughts and personality. Dorothy began to keep a journal at Racedown, but she took it up again at Dove Cottage after William and his brother John had gone off on a visit, leaving her alone a few days. ‘I resolved to write a journal of the time till W and J return and I set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give William pleasure by it when he comes home again.’ The phrase ‘I will not quarrel with myself’ might remind us of Yeats’s saying that ‘out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.’ Like Dorothy’s obsessively loving activities in the house, and for her brother’s children, her writing was an offering to him: looking out of her own eyes was an act of love to be presented. Her writing has none of that endearing and secret vanity which Francis Kilvert’s diary was to have, and in which the reader can now share. The ‘quarrel with himself’ was for Wordsworth the simultaneous assertion of his private vision and of his human heart and principles. When he writes of ‘the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering’ – a phrase quite impossible for his sister – it is a kind of unconscious shamelessness which appeals, the subtle interrelation of male egoism with compassion. The appeal is as direct as that of his sister’s ‘transparent record’, as Gittings and Manton rightly call it, but far more complex.

The contrast appears most obviously in Dorothy’s account of the occasion which became William’s daffodil poem. Dorothy records how they saw the flowers when returning home along the shore of Ullswater, noting the detail that many were growing among mossy pebbles on which, beaten by the wind, they seemed to rest their heads. That makes us see them and share the pleasure, which, from Dorothy’s point of view, was intended only for William. In composing his poem William invents a solitude for himself, begins with the word ‘I’, stresses that he is a poet (‘A poet could not but be gay/In such a jocund company’), and carries off the experience in order to add it to his collection. A point worth making is that William’s attitude is far more typical of human behaviour than Dorothy’s. It is he, not she, who shows the common touch and utters the sentiment to which every bosom returns an echo, for most of us do not really look at beautiful things, any more than William did here, but prize the memory of them by adding it to our sense of our own being. The jocund company enhances our self-approval. It is this human process which Wordsworth so perfectly encapsulates in his poem, which must have been the reason for its extraordinary popularity.

Gittings and Manton make an interesting suggestion about the development of Wordsworth’s characteristic blank-verse line. Something in its movement, and conceivably in that of Coleridge’s too, may have been insensibly inspired by the artless cadence of Dorothy’s prose. From Racedown she could look out on ‘a very extensive view terminated by the sea seen through different openings of the unequal hills’. As her biographers point out, this makes a line that could be straight out of The Prelude: ‘Through different openings of the unequal hills.’ Since William and Dorothy lived in each other’s consciousness at this stage, the thing is natural enough, and William was speaking no more than the truth when he wrote that ‘She in the midst of all preserv’d me still/ A poet.’ They shared so deeply that there is no point in calling either generous: but even in such a relationship the partners have an image of themselves which some fashion of feeling in the age has supplied. In this case it was the famous romantic novel by Bernardin de St Pierre, Paul et Virginie, in which a young couple are brought up together in the beauties of the tropic wilderness, are all in all to each other, and die together before any hint of sexuality can appear in their relations. William knew the book well, and so did Dorothy. This has been mentioned before, but the present biographers are surely right to emphasise its importance. One cannot help wondering, though, what our pair made of de St Pierre’s coy stress on Virginie’s sexual modesty – touches which undoubtedly enhance the rather steamy atmosphere of the novel. Dorothy, in fact, was obviously as sensible about sex as about everything else, but where William was concerned she was also romantic about it, living it vicariously through his feelings and experiences, entering with sympathetic passion into the drama of Annette and her daughter Caroline. It is clear that nobody entertained sexual feelings for Dorothy herself. Much as Coleridge, and later De Quincey, admired her, they stress her sexlessness, and her total devotion to William must have been a bar to any lover who might have fallen for her.

Stress there must have been, for both she and William suffered continual psychosomatic upsets. Dorothy is always going on about her bowels, and it is clear that she suffered from what is now called spastic colon. Yet this was probably not the result of secret stress but of general excitability and prodigious hard work. Just to read of her walkings, bakings and child-mindings is enough to make one sympathise with Coleridge, who when staying at Allan Bank never got up in the morning, ate his dinner in silence and immediately retired again to his room. The comradeship of Nether Stowey days had evaporated, leaving the usual exploitation of enthusiastic women by preoccupied and self-protective men. The house itself, a pretentious new villa, must have been a nightmare, abysmally cold and with chimneys that furiously smoked. Dorothy and Mary were all for leaving, but ‘the men would not hear of it.’ Coleridge was immersed in The Friend and Wordsworth in his pamphlet on the Convention of Cintra, an impassioned appeal to the people of England not to ratify their cowardly rulers’ gentleman’s agreement with the French in Portugal. ‘Every human being on these islands,’ he maintained, ‘would rather have perished to a man than agree to such terms.’ William’s absorption in political questions often obsessed him to the point where he was still beavering away on something that everyone else had forgotten about: he would mull such things over for decades, as he did his poetry. When the pamphlet eventually appeared, Dorothy wrote loyally to a friend that ‘many are astonished with the wisdom of it – but nobody buys.’ While ‘the men’ remained engrossed in such matters the exhausting routines of housework and family life went on, even though the women had sometimes to huddle in a bed with the baby at noon because the house was so cold.

Hardship contributed to tragedy. The child, Catharine, William’s ‘little Chinese maiden’, died, and little Thomas after her of pneumonia following measles, brought about by the dampness of Grasmere Rectory, into which the family had moved. Both parents were away at the time, and Dorothy’s grief was pitiable; this pair were the universal favourites. Only Mary, wonderfully calm as always, could comfort her. Later, Dorothy turned her particular affections to the eldest boy, John, the dunce of the family, and when well into her fifties went to comfort him at his lonely curacy in the Midlands, washing, cooking and mending for him as she used to do for her brother. The strength of this attachment is like that of Sonya in War and Peace (herself modelled on Tolstoy’s aunt), whom the married Natasha inexcusably calls ‘a sterile flower’ – Mary Wordsworth would never have said such a thing. Dorothy’s reward – if it can be called that – was to be tenderly cared for in the bosom of the family during endless years of near-lunacy, when she struck out at her brother and patient sister-in-law, making ‘unseemly noises’ and crowing like ‘a partridge or a turkey’. It was William’s loving consolation to wait on her then, heating her nightcap ‘20 times in the last 1/4 of an hour’.

The reversal is curiously apt since her love for him had never been reverential, and they had once shared a sense of humour in which she was the major partner and natural outlet – she had recorded the moment when, after clearing a path through the snow to ‘the necessary’ outside Dove Cottage, he had proudly summoned her to view it, and been promptly drenched by a fresh fall from the roof. And yet she had also faithfully followed her brother’s road to social respectability, brought about as much as anything by his acquaintance with the charming, generous and talented aristocrat, Sir George Beaumont. Dorothy doted on the Beaumonts, and they returned her affection without a hint of patronage. It was typical of our pair – rebels as they had been – to become converted to the landed interest by meeting such an enlightened member of the class. But in this, as in so much else, the brother and sister are remarkably representative of the changes in attitude and feeling that had taken place in their lifetime.

Jonathan Wordsworth, a direct descendant, has done a superb labour of love in two annotated Cambridge editions, intended for advanced students, of ‘The Ruined Cottage’ and ‘The Two-Part Prelude’, with their associated or companion poems. Wordsworth’s poetry needs notes, and not only notes but a full and sympathetic commentary on the ways in which its ‘silent overgrowings’ wove around and often inspissated themselves. Wordsworth never gave The Prelude a name, and ‘The Two Part Prelude’, its earliest and shortest version, written before 1799 at the time of greatest communion with Coleridge and with Dorothy, was thought of only as ‘the Poem to Coleridge’. It contains some of the best writing of the final over-long poem. As Jonathan Wordsworth points out, the preponderant emotions are those of fear and awe, as in the sequence where the poet steals the boat and feels the mountain coming after him as it towers above the lake. By means of a diagram the editor makes the visual mechanics of this clear.

The verse and feeling are close to Coleridge’s own, and addressed to him in terms of sometimes deliberately facetious intimacy:

Nor will it seem to thee, my friend, so prompt
In sympathy, that I have lengthened out
With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale.

Combining as it does the accents of 18th-century Miltonic diction and new-style religious sensibility (‘It was a joy ...’), this intermasculine badinage would have been lost on Dorothy, whose contribution to the poem is much more impalpable. These ‘joys’ and images, ‘spots of time’ stored up and ‘intensely brooded’, were felt by their owner to lead to a mystical relation with God, and were originally influenced, as the editor points out, by Coleridge’s more orthodox Unitarianism. They produce the accents and conclusions of a sermon, which today sounds all too familiar when preached by the poet or by his spokesman, the Pedlar who was to tell the story of Margaret in ‘The Ruined Cottage’, and who subsequently metamorphosed into the Wanderer of The Excursion. Like other mystics, Wordsworth came to realise eventually that the complete message could never be expounded. Rereading him in these beautifully clear and accessible texts, one cannot but feel the growth of the unconscious self-worship that so often goes with religious utterance, while feeling, too, that Wordsworth was always a deeply and genuinely religious man. Coleridge, perhaps, only hoped and thought he was, while Dorothy, though so close to her brother, was innocent of religion altogether.