Half a Poet and Wholly Woman: The Simplicity and Warm Strength of Dorothy Wordsworth

JOURNALS OF DOROTHY WORDSWORTH. Edited by E. de Selincourt. Macmillan. 2 vols. $10.00
IT HAS long been recognized that Dorothy Wordsworth, who never wrote a line for publication in her life, had a gift for expression which in its smaller and more limited way was as fine as the more pretentious talent of her famous brother. Though she was, to use her own phrase, only “half a poet,” she had a sharp and sensitive eye for the details of external nature and for human character; and, as everyone knows, the notes in her Journals frequently supply the source for her brother’s poems. Both for her own sake and for the sake of the brother she so much loved, it is good to have her Journals in the complete and well-edited form in which Mr. de Selincourt presents them.
Her writings, to be sure, vary in interest. The early Alfoxden Journal of 1798 and the Grasmere Journals of 1802 have a freshness and a revealing spontaneity which is missing in the more deliberately written accounts of the Scottish and Continental tours. In those earlier years William’s genius was at its height, he had no family distractions, the wonderful friendship with Coleridge showed as yet no signs of being tarnished with misunderstanding, Dorothy was absorbed in the country and in her brother. A typical entry in the Grasmere Journal gives us a characteristic picture of their life together during those years: ”I went and sate with W. and walked backwards and forwards in the orchard till dinner time. He read me his poem, I broiled beefsteaks. After dinner we made a pillow of my shoulder — I read to him and my beloved slept. I afterwards got him the pillows, and he was lying with his head on the table when Miss Simpson came in. She stayed tea. I went with her to Rydale — no letters! A sweet evening as it had been a sweet day, a grey evening, and I walked quietly along the side of Rydale Lake with quiet thoughts — the hills and the lake were still — the Owls had not begun to hoot, and the little birds had given over singing.”
Throughout the Journal she gives us a vivid and touching picture of her devotion to William, of her anxious affection for Coleridge, of her curiosity about what went on around her. And her account of the tour she made in Scotland in 1803, with William and Coleridge (Coleridge went only part of the way), is an excellent piece of travel literature, though it lacks the day by day interest of the more informal Journal. She describes landscape with accuracy and enthusiasm, and her pictures of the Scotch way of living — the huts, the farmers, the inns — are lively and clear. Even the later journeys — to Scotland a second time, and, in 1820, to the Continent — are recorded with freshness and zest.

Sister and friend

But it is the role she played as a sister and friend that interests a modern reader most, and to have a complete picture of that, one must go beyond the Journals to her letters or to Mr. de Selincourt’s admirable biography of her (1933). The Journals give only a partial portrait; they need to be put in their setting, and most readers of Mr. de Selincourt’s otherwise admirable edition wall feel a need for a chronological table which would describe the main events in the lives of Coleridge and of William which were her primary interest. She was an entirely unselfish person, and she would have thought it only just to have had her life seen in relation to others.
Yet she deserves to take her place, which is well established by this time, as an author in her own right. The simplicity and warm strength of her life as she reveals it to us can be a solace in times of difficulty. That was the impressions he made on Coleridge. “ W. and his exquisite sister are with me,” he wrote in 1797. “She is a woman indeed! in mind I mean, and heart; for her person is such, that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her rather ordinary; but if you expected to see 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.”
The reader of the published Journals comes away with the same impression; Dorothy Wordsworth’s devotion gives her still a living radiance.