Did William Wordsworth ‘wander lonely as a cloud‘ through the Lakeland Fells? Was he the solitary poetic genius writing some of the greatest nature poetry in the English language? His sister Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal reveals a slightly different picture.
Those Dancing Daffodils
Actually it was Dorothy who first noticed those dancing daffodils beside Ulleswater lake when walking with William on a blustery Maunday Thursday. She wrote this in her journal:
‘I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew about 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.’
Those famous, much quoted words ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud‘ were not William’s either. They were his wife Mary’s suggestion. Behind his poetry there was a supporting, caring household encouraging him in his poetry, suggesting ideas, often walking with him in those fells and freeing him to work on his poems.
William said of his devoted sister:
‘The Blessing of my later yearFrom ‘The Sparrow’s Nest’
Was with me when a boy:
She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble care, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.‘
This plot of orchard-ground is ours; My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers; Here rest your wings when they are weary; Here lodge as in a sanctuary!From William’s poem ‘To a Butterfly‘.
The semi-wild garden at Dove Cottage was Dorothy’s delight – her happy place. We can imagine her pottering with her plants while William sits on a bench working on a poem. Apparently his butterfly poem was written during one breakfast! She said of this place:
I think these years have been the very happiest of my life.
Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal
‘Friday Morning, 16th.—Warm and mild, after a fine night of rain…. The woods extremely beautiful with all autumnal variety and softness. …. Rydale was very beautiful, with spear-shaped streaks of polished steel…. Grasmere very solemn in the last glimpse of twilight. It calls home the heart to quietness.’
As we read Dorothy’s journal we feel her sensitive heart, discerning eyes and a gentle spirit. She was great walker and an observant naturalist, with a heart for what she saw in the different moods of the landscape.
“It was a sweet morning – Everything green and overflowing with life, and the streams making a perpetual song with the thrushes and all the little birds“
“The columbine … is a graceful slender creature, a female seeking retirement, and growing freest and most graceful where it is most alone. I observed that the more shaded plants were always the tallest.”
A drooping columbine is a good picture of Dorothy’s humble soul. She was always willing to play a supporting role to her brother. The journal records the visits of Coleridge and others and gives a glimpse of the peasant life of Westmoreland at the beginning of the 19th century. Many travellers called at Dove Cottage, or were met on the road, all of them with stories to tell: “we met an old man whose trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches are scarce and he had not the strength for it – he lived by begging…” (3rd October 1800) ‘
Was this the origin of William’s ‘The Leech Gatherer‘ poem?
Rydale water has its own beauty second only to its nearby sister Grasmere. It has its own small islands and is a mirror image to Grasmere. The reflections of the surrounding fells paint the quiet water in soft landscape colours while the woods wait for the coming of spring.
Rydale Mount next door to St Mary’s church was the Wordsworth’s home from 1813-52. Dorothy wrote her Rydale Journal here.
The Daffodils are Here too
Not so much dancing this time, rather they carry an air of the sadness of a father’s loss of a dear daughter. Dora was William and Mary Wordsworth’s only surviving daughter. William bought this field and planted daffodils here in her memory.
Dorothy never intended her private journals to be made public, but we are all so indebted that they have. They are a masterpiece of nature writing – her own lasting memorial. In later life her health deteriorated, and she was confined to her room. Her last poem ‘Thoughts from my Sickbed‘ ends with these words:
‘- I thought of Nature’s sweetest scenes,
And with Memory I was there.‘
Thank you, Dorothy for enabling us to be ‘there’ too!
Top photo of Dove Cottage by Graham Robson – geograph