Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth as a Young Woman

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth as a Young Woman

Article excerpt

  Wordsworth & his exquisite Sister are with me--She is a woman
  indeed!--in mind, I mean, & heart--for her person is such, that if you
  expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary--if you
  expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!--But
  her manners are simple, ardent, impressive--.
    In every motion her most innocent soul
    Outbeams so brightly, that who saw would say,
    Guilt was a thing impossible in her.--
  Her information various--her eye watchful in minutest observation of
  nature--and her taste a perfect electrometer--it bends, protrudes, and
  draws in, at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults. (Coleridge, c.
  July 3, 1797) (1)

Coleridge had known Dorothy barely a month. Her first Journal, begun some six months later on January 20, 1798, confirms his estimate, adds to it, for it shows that she had the power not only to be watchful, but to translate her responses into words, a power she discovered at age twenty-seven. She recorded "noticings"--outdoors or indoors Dorothy noticed. Here, through a window, "The snow still lies upon the ground. Just at the closing in of the Day I heard a cart pass the door, & at the same time the dismal sound of a crying Infant. I went to the window & had light enough to see that a man was driving a cart which seemed not to be very full, & that a woman with an infant in her arms was following close behind & a dog close to her. It was a wild & melancholy sight.-" (February 12, 1802)

Dorothy Wordsworth was thirty years old when she caught from her window in Grasmere the human family in its ancient struggle against poverty and the elements. Born on Christmas Day, 1771, she was the third child and only daughter among four brothers of John and Ann (nee Cookson) Wordsworth. Her father was law-agent to Sir James Lowther, and the family lived in a handsome eighteenth-century Lowther house in Cockermouth. Wordsworth offers the only two recollections of Dorothy as a young child: seeing in the orchard at Grasmere in 1802 (2) a sparrow's nest that held five blue eggs, Wordsworth recalled from days some twenty-five year past

  The home and shelter'd bed,
  The Sparrow's dwelling, which, hard by
  My Father's House, in wet or dry,
  My Sister Emmeline and I
  Together visited.
  She look'd at it as if she fear'd it;
  Still wishing, dreading to be near it ... ("The Sparrow's Nest," 6-12)

He remembered Emmeline's (i.e. Dorothy's) delicate feelings and expressed gratitude that he knew these in her as a child, and knew them still as an adult. His second memory, not recorded until the 1840s, but "from my earliest childhood," is of a moment when Whitehaven and the sea-coast about it had come into sudden view from a high road: "My Sister when she first heard the voice of the sea from this point & beheld the scene spread before her burst into tears. Our family then lived at Cockermouth & this fact was often mentioned among us as indicating the sensibility for which she was so remarkable." (3) This is the sensibility, one that often left her, as here, not undisturbed, that Coleridge responded to in 1797.

In 1805, she recalled the garden at Cockermouth, both as she had first known it and as she saw it again when passing through with William in 1794. The garden bordered, she wrote, "on the River Derwent or rather a Terrace which overlooks the River, a spot which I remember as vividly as if I had been there but the other day, though I have never seen it in its neatness, as my Father and Mother used to keep it, since I was just six years old, a few months before my Mother's death. I visited the place again at the age of twenty three and all was in ruin, the terrace-walk buried and choked up with the old privot hedge which had formerly been most beautiful, roses and privot intermingled--the same hedge where the sparrows were used to build their nests. …

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