Dorothy Wordsworth: The Perfect Sister

Dorothy Wordsworth, though never a poet herself, had the distinction of being the indispensable sister for two men of genius. For a portrait of her —of what she was and of what she was not —we turn to George Mallaby, author of a volume on Wordsworth, who graduated from Merton College, Oxford, in 1923; served as Secretary of the Joint Planning and Intelligence Committee during the Second World War, and is today a key figure in Western Union and Assistant Secretary of the Ministry of Defense.  

We, who are alive, hardly know when we are happy. We are always looking ahead, thinking, or at least hoping, that “the best is yet to be.“ When we ponder and judge the lives of dead men, we say to ourselves, taking credit for the acuteness of our intellectual perception, “That was the climax of their happiness; in those years they lived to the full.“ There are no three persons, at least in the history of literature, about whom it is easier thus to express ourselves, than about Coleridge, Wordsworth, and his sister Dorothy. Even in their own lifetimes they knew that from 1797 to 1802 they shared a lustrum of sympathy and love and achievement which were proof against worldly accidents and tribulations. In that golden period these three persons were an undivided and indivisible trinity. When the triune spell was broken each of them failed —Coleridge fell into a self-deceiving idleness, morbid imaginings of jealousy and mistrust, an opiate confusion of mind and heart; Wordsworth, arming himself with the shield of a rather self-righteous duty, moved boldly but remorsefully away from “the vision splendid”; Dorothy, overburdened with household cares and perplexed with spiritual disappointments and dismay, surrendered to a senseless melancholy.

The bond between these three persons was spiritual —“three persons and one soul,“ Coleridge rightly called them. The bond was not, so far as all were concerned, intellectual: Miss Wordsworth was never that. She was sensitive, percipient, but in no sense a “bluestocking.” Coleridge and Wordsworth were intellectual, Coleridge formidably so. Together they discussed and philosophized: when Dorothy was with them, they saw and felt. What she gave to her brother she gave to Coleridge also: —

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.

When they disputed about Ben Jonson, as they did one evening in March, 1802, she was agitated and upset. It was she, more than her brother, who mistrusted “the meddling intellect.” She read and appreciated literature, of course, but she had undergone no basic intellectual training. Her diaries and her letters are fresh, spontaneous, and natural, not at all elaborate, self-conscious, or stylized, not even carefully and deliberately composed. In matters of the mind she was untamed, undisciplined, choosing her own pasture, yielding herself, as she pleased, to chance impressions and random visitations of mental activity.

Nor, in my opinion, did physical attraction, as it is usually understood, play any part in the strong communion of these three. A true spiritual union is so rare that men have come to dispute its possible reality, and there have consequently been many attempts to explain away this exceptional trinity in terms of sex. Dorothy was in love with Coleridge, it is said; and though no one has yet dared to accuse Wordsworth of incest, it has been put forward in print as an explanation, requiring denial. Such stuff is shallow and vulgar.

So far as I can judge, Dorothy was not “in love,“ in the ordinary sense of the term, with anyone. She loved Wordsworth and Coleridge, it is true, loved them equally perhaps at one time, and certainly in the same way. She knew, by instinct and by a divine gift of sympathy, what they were striving for and she understood that, without her delicate perception, her sensitive and tender approach, they were too much given to “disputing,” to argument and theory. She saw for herself the moods in which they were happiest and most creative and she knew that it was her presence which induced these moods. They told her so. How could she not love them? How could she not be happy? What other woman ever had two men of profoundly original genius so dependent upon her spiritual comfort? There was nothing physical about it. She was surely too busy, too preoccupied, too enchanted, to give much thought to that side of her life. She was creating poets and beyond that she had no desire.

And yet, just as in ourselves we cannot isolate in sealed compartments the intellectual, the spiritual, and the physical, cannot deny their continuous interaction, so it must have been with Dorothy. She cannot have particularly relished the relationships her brother and Coleridge formed with other women. She understood, she did not complain, she went on with her sympathetic service. She did not seek relief for herself by marrying, though according to De Quincey she had several offers, one, he says, from Hazlitt. That could never have succeeded —the delicate, sensitive Dorothy with that awkward, disagreeable fellow who had a permanent chip on his shoulder.

When Wordsworth and Dorothy first started their daily companionship at Racedown in 1795, the Annette episode had already taken place. The bitterness, the disappointment, the remorse, which Wordsworth suffered as a result of his illicit love affair and the enforced neglect of his paternal duty were gradually assuaged by the tender offices of his sister. She did not reproach him, she understood. She understood, I think, that her brother’s animal sensations were strong and could not be ignored. She understood also that his imagination was exceptionally powerful and virile. Her task was to nurse, to cultivate, to soften that powerful imagination. He would need also satisfaction for his physical desires: that she foresaw and planned to provide.

The Annette episode must first be closed —not ignored or repudiated but brought to a gentle and affectionate ending. Annette, she rightly felt, was not likely either to get or give happiness by marrying her brother. So much must have been clear from what he told her and from those garrulous and rather illiterate letters. And so she took upon herself most of the burden of that strange romance, wrote affectionate letters full of tender inquiries for the child, went with her brother on that curious visit to Calais in 1802, when they passed a whole month with Annette and the child. How that month was spent, how its daily difficulties were overcome, we do not know; but there was no bitterness any more and the two families, suddenly and dramatically linked in a moment of revolutionary ardor, remained friendly and affectionate. That was Dorothy’s gentle work. She rescued her brother from an entanglement, not an embrace.

She rescued him, not for herself, but for Mary Hutchinson, whom he married immediately after this Calais visit. Now he would be complete; he would have the delights of married life, the joy of children, without losing the spiritual understanding which she alone could give him. It is in some ways an affront to set these things down on paper. They were not precisely reasoned and coldly calculated. She felt them to be right: she moved towards them in her wild affectionate way, carrying her brother with her. It is idle and unprofitable to speculate what course he would have pursued without her: he might after all, with his high standards of morality, have married Annette. He might, on the other hand, in his tough matter-of-fact way, have driven the whole incident out of his mind. What is certain is that it is utterly ridiculous to picture Wordsworth as heartlessly scheming to abandon Annette, confer marriage with an air of patronage upon Mary, and enslave his sister to his selfishness. Dorothy understood these things better than he did and, even if she brought them to an issue which suited him, it suited all the actors in this drama too, and it suited the world, which might otherwise have lost the fruits of his great spirit.


With Coleridge the problem was different. He and Dorothy liked each other from the moment he came running across the field and into their house at Racedown, eager, enthusiastic, unannounced. She liked him for the freedom of his talk and his boyish spirits. She liked him because he admired and encouraged her brother. He liked her for her sensitive perceptions, her ready sympathy, her natural eager demeanor —so utterly different from the shallow, contained, conventional, fussy attitude of his wife. But he did not precisely compare her with his wife; he did not think of her in those terms. She was a companion, bright, amusing, sympathetic, high-spirited, sensitive; she was a link with Wordsworth, of whom in the ardor of his admiration he stood a little in awe. She interpreted the one to the other, not consciously or deliberately, but by understanding both she realized the harmony of their thought and feeling. That was her true position, and if she could have married Coleridge, if there had been that passionate bond between them, her relationship with her brother would have been altered and there would have been no “three persons and one soul.”

I do not say they all three understood this at the time; I do not say that Dorothy never wished, even for a moment, that she could have been Coleridge’s wife. Perhaps she did, but the physical attraction, if it existed at all, was not so strong as to make all other communion painful and impossible. She continued to love and serve Coleridge, as she loved and served her brother, and in equal measure and in the same kind they returned her love.

Coleridge was not happily married. He had chosen badly, if indeed he had chosen at all; for the choice had perhaps been made as much by Southey as himself. His marriage was never a passionate romance, and of spiritual and intellectual companionship there was little. Coleridge was not in the mood at Racedown to look upon Miss Wordsworth and, feeling that he had made a bitter mistake, long for what he could not have. He was, however, surprised and delighted by a form of companionship which he had never imagined, and in the months that followed at Alfoxden and Nether Stowey he and Dorothy spent many enchanted hours alone together or in the company of Wordsworth, whom they equally honored and loved.

Mrs. Coleridge was not jealous: she did not think Miss Wordsworth’s charms gave her any cause. She did not believe her husband was in love in the ordinary sense, and she was right. What she resented at first and continued to resent for many years was the encouragement which she felt her husband received from the Wordsworths in his waywardness, his incompetence, his self-indulgences. There she was wrong. If the paths of Wordsworth and Coleridge had never crossed, the pitiable decline of Coleridge would have begun much earlier, there would have been no Ancient Mariner, no Christabel, and no Kubla Khan. Mrs. Coleridge can hardly be blamed for not understanding that. She was an ordinary woman, beset with family responsibilities and without the money to meet them. Her husband gave her no practical help, and during that idyllic time at Nether Stowey, while she occupied herself with the insistent demands of the infant Hartley, he roamed the countryside with the Wordsworths, with little regard to her time or her convenience. Miss Wordsworth, in her free spontaneous manner, borrowed Mrs. Coleridge’s clothes if a wet walk made a change desirable, while Wordsworth, never a courteous or gallant man, paid her little attention. She felt excluded: that trinity of persons had no need of her. But she was not jealous of Dorothy in the vulgar sense.


The unhappiness of Coleridge, his mental and physical unrest, increased as the years advanced. While Wordsworth married a woman of a placid, patient nature, self-effacing, kind and loving, Coleridge’s relations with his wife grew hourly more torturing and insupportable. He must have the physical and romantic love, which he could not get at home. Dorothy neither would nor could supply it; there was never any question of that. But she can hardly have relished the passionate interest which he now began to show in Sara Hutchinson, Mrs. Wordsworth’s sister. He imagined himself deeply in love, but it was a passion that could have nothing but a miserable issue. Quite apart from the conventional impediments, Coleridge was already too far gone in self-indulgence and self-pity to make any woman happy, and the Wordsworths could only grieve for Sara, whom they dearly loved.

It is absorbing to play with the “ifs” of history, and the big “if” of Wordsworth and Coleridge is not “if only Coleridge had married Dorothy Wordsworth,“ but “if only he had married Sara Hutchinson.” If there had been no pantisocracy and no Sarah Fricker, if Coleridge and Wordsworth had married Sara and Mary Hutchinson, then there might have been the equilibrium which would have preserved them from their fates and sustained their inspiration for a longer spell. Then Dorothy could still have presided with her sensitive touch over the imaginations of those two beloved men, who, contented in their married lives, would have found in her that spiritual element which transmuted into poetry the powerful feelings that worked within them.

However, to disprove this agreeable fancy is the history of Wordsworth’s own decline. He was a happy man, fortunate in his wife and children, fortunate in his circumstances, blessed in his sister. And yet, abruptly almost, when he was thirty-eight years old, his Muse deserted him, and Dorothy had no power to arrest the decline, to soften his hardness, to check his increasing vanity.

By 1808, the year in which Wordsworth’s genius had begun its dull and downward path, that great friendship of the three was stretched and strained. By 1810 it was snapped. For the last year Coleridge had lived in Wordsworth’s house, apart from his wife, whom he had left for good, but the Wordsworths were now powerless to make him happy. He imprisoned himself in his own selfishness; he fed upon his morbid sensations and suspicions; he surrendered his poor aching body to opium and alcohol. He was not an easy inmate. He rose late; he was inconsiderate; he was silent and sulky with all except Sara, whom he pestered with his attentions and burdened with his demands for sympathy. He brooded on his imagined wrongs; he encouraged his “most lawless thoughts”; he accused Wordsworth, his wife, and Dorothy of turning Sara against him, of stealing her love from him, of reading her letters. His mind and body were disordered; his “shaping spirit of imagination” had forsaken him; he gave nothing now to Wordsworth and received nothing back, the well was dry. And then came the open quarrel, caused by the garrulous impertinence of Montagu, but not in itself important, because the discord was already there, because the triune spell was already broken.

Dorothy never saw Coleridge again: he was dead to her and dead to most things. Wordsworth she saw every day, but a Wordsworth deprived of one part of that triple force, given over more and more to politics and domestic cares, and forging for himself an armor of self-complacency. No wonder that she drooped and failed, no wonder that her nervous powers were exhausted and that she sank into a melancholy confusion of wits. But she had done her work and fulfilled her destiny, and through the workings of her delicate spirit the world is richer by two English poets.