Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth's "Gratitude to Insensate Things": Gardening in the Grasmere Journals

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Dorothy Wordsworth's "Gratitude to Insensate Things": Gardening in the Grasmere Journals

Article excerpt

" ... am I fanciful when I would extend the obligation of gratitude to insensate things?" (WW Letters, 274-75)

In this paper, I analyze Dorothy Wordsworth's presentation of nature in the Grasmere Journals from two perspectives: wild nature in and around Grasmere and the garden that Dorothy cultivates at Dove Cottage. Dorothy Wordsworth's attraction to images and objects of refuge in nature--nest-like summer houses, natural bowers in a mountain scene, protected and secluded slips of ground--all reveal her domesticating impulses, her desire to make the un-home-like places and objects of the world homey and welcoming. When she sees a threatening scene, she attempts to find a way to redeem it with an image of protection or hope. A similar asethetic operates in the garden Dorothy nurtured around Dove Cottage. This garden, which came about primarily through Dorothy's imagination and labor is a microcosm of the large drama of gardening history, in which women gardeners embraced small spaces when the reigning aesthetics valued the grandeur and sweeping views of the landscape park. Dorothy's commitment to her "small orchard" and "smaller garden" (DW, Letters, 295), her diminutive garden-making, was both a financial necessity and an imaginative desire. As William later claimed in the sonnet "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room," there are advantages to working within a "narrow plot of ground"--in this case, "two or three yards of ground between us and the road."(WW Letters, 275).

Two different theoretical works have helped formulate my ideas about Dorothy Wordsworth, nature, and gardening: Gaston Bachclard's The Poetics of Space and John Dixon Hunt's Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory. First published in 1958, Bachclard's phenomenological meditation on what he calls "simple images of felicitous space" argues that humans are attracted to such spaces of intimacy, memory, and dreams as houses, rooms, nests, shelters, and corners. Bachclard illuminates several of the images in Dorothy Wordsworth's writing, her constant desire to recapture a lost intimacy associated with the safety and comfort of home. Her early imagination is not haunted by the uncanny but obsessed with the homey.

And how does Dorothy's garden fit into the meaning of gardens and their history? In Greater Perfections, Hunt states that "Gardens are privileged ... because they are concentrated or perfected forms of place-making" (11). For Hunt, the garden, a subset of landscape architecture, is a constructed place that always involved some type of enclosure, even if only the sense of enclosure that is implied by the concentration of effects. As an enclosed (whether literally or suggestively) and constructed space, the garden involves an interplay of within and without, a preoceupation with the meaning of real and implied boundaries. This interplay is central to Dorothy's version of place-making, which I have called home-making. She yearns for the protection of bench and bower, but is keenly aware of the world outside and of herself and her garden as objects of interest: "A coroneted Landau went by when we were sitting upon the sodded wall. The ladies (evidently Tourists) turned an eye of interest upon our little garden and cottage" (Moorman, 25). Sitting on the wall that she and William have made, the boundary between inside and beyond, Dorothy participates in both worlds at the moment that the pricey (and regal sounding) carriage goes by. She seems not only aware of but also amused by her status as an object of interest. As John Murdoch explained in The Discovery of the Lake District: A Northern Arcadia and its Uses, a catalogue from an exhibit at the Victorian & Albert Museum in 1984:

  Until Humphrey Repton published views of his own house, the Hare
  Street Cottage, in 1816, the idea that the cottage, especially in
  a constricted site, close to a road and with other houses pressing
  in, could be the creation of an aesthetically sophisticated
  sensibility, was not widespread. … 
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