By Lucy Newlyn
I was in the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere on Friday 30th August to see the Wordsworth Trust’s fascinating exhibition, “Dorothy Wordsworth: Wonders of the Everyday”. The sad news of Seamus Heaney’s death could not have reached me in a more appropriate spot, for the Nobel Laureate opened the Jerwood Centre, adjacent to the new museum, in 2005.
Heaney was a ‘Wordsworthian’ in the true sense of the word. His deep affinity with both William and Dorothy Wordsworth found expression in a reverence for ordinary objects, obscure lives. His poetry has repeatedly re-visited and drawn imaginative nourishment from the work this brother and sister produced collaboratively, at the height of their powers, in their beloved Westmorland. He shared their passionate belief that ‘men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply’, and took particular pleasure — as they did — in the domestic, the quotidian. Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths’ home for a decade, has proved for Heaney — as for many contemporary poets – a place of pilgrimage and inspiration. He made a BBC documentary on location in Grasmere in 1974. In several contexts he has reflected on things once owned by the Wordsworths, or places familiar to them. Occasionally his poems have even seemed to ‘inhabit’ Dove Cottage itself, as if finding there a kind of second home.Heaney would undoubtedly have enjoyed the current exhibition at the Wordsworth Museum, which celebrates the life and writings of a woman who ‘knew what home was’ – who ‘put into words moons and clouds and poor people on the roads, plants of fell-side and garden…bread and pies, the silences of evening by the fire, poetry read, and those she loved sharing the comfort’. This is the first exhibition to concentrate on Dorothy Wordsworth in her own right – looking closely at her relationships with female friends, her journals, letters and poems, not just her role as William’s sister. There is an impressive range in the materials selected for display; and a marvellous catalogue-book written by the exhibition’s curator, Pamela Woof, from which I have just quoted.
It wouldn’t do to rush a visit to this exhibition; one needs a whole morning to take everything in – manuscripts, contemporary paintings, books, personal possessions. Short excerpts from Dorothy’s journals are arranged high up on the walls, like ‘found’ imagist poems. There are recordings to be listened to: Pamela has made an excellent selection from the journals, and reads them with beautiful slow distinctness. Very movingly, there is also a free-standing monument at the centre of the room, on which appears a list of unnamed travellers who wandered through Grasmere during the war years — people whose lives Dorothy glimpsed very briefly, and captured in her Grasmere Journal. (In 2013, this Journal was added to the UK’s Memory of the World Register — along with Domesday Book, the Winston Churchill Archives, and other important documents.)
Pamela Woof confesses that she found it hard to keep William out of her exhibition; but she is to be congratulated on getting the balance exactly right. There’s nothing sensational in the way the Wordsworths’ intense relationship is handled here. Visitors are able to see, in Dorothy’s own handwriting, the famous journal entry in which she describes her feelings on the day of William’s marriage to Mary; and they can reach their own conclusions about why some of this description was later crossed out. There is, too, a welcome opportunity to listen to a long section of the 1802 Grasmere Journal in which Dorothy describes how she responded to her brother’s experience of ‘writer’s block’ — reading to him, accompanying him in walks and gardening, selecting the right passage from Shakespeare to get his creative juices flowing.
The exhibition deals very briefly — and tactfully — with Dorothy’s later years, which were blighted by arteriosclerosis and dementia. Severely limited in her access to the natural world, she sought comfort in writing, reading aloud, and copying her verses out in different versions. There was a therapeutic dimension both in creating and ‘performing’ poetry, which by all accounts she found uplifting.
Here is one of the poems Dorothy sent from her sick room in 1839 to a friend, Isabella Fenwick. It gives us some insight into her state of mind as she looked back on a crisis when her life was in danger. She made the poem by joining together (and revising) two poems she had already written. A version of the first three stanzas is already known to scholars as a stand-alone poem addressed to her doctor. The last five stanzas are a shortened and revised version of ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’.
See what you think of the poem — newly acquired by the Wordsworth Trust — which is published here for the first time. How smoothly does it flow, and do the eight stanzas make a unified whole?
Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr
Five years of sickness & of pain
This weary frame has travelled oer
But God is good & once again
I rest upon a tranquil shore
I rest in quietness of mind,
Oh! may I thank my God
With heart that never shall forget
The perilous path I’ve trod!
They tell me of one fearful night
When thou, my faithful Friend,
Didst part from me in holy trust
That soon my earthly cares must end.
Harmonious Powers with Nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake & sea;
Sunshine & storm, whirlwind & breeze,
All in one duteous task agree.
Once did I see a slip of earth
Self-loosened from the grassy shore
Float with its crest of trees adorn’d
On which the warbling birds their pastime take
Food, shelter, safety there they find;
There berries ripen flowrets bloom;
There insects live their lives, & die
A peopled world it is – in size a tiny room.
Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn – the Isle is passed away.
Buried beneath the glittering Lake
Its place no longer to be found;
But the lost fragments shall remain
To fertilize some other ground.
Published with kind permission of the Wordsworth Trust, from a transcript made by Jeff Cowton, Curator of the Wordsworth Collection. This manuscript was sold at the Roy Davids Collection sale at Bonhams, London, on 8 May 2013. Do not reproduce without permission.
Since I first posted this article, there has been much interest in Dorothy Wordsworth’s poem, and especially in that portion of it usually referred to as ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ (which was composed between 1828 and 1832).
The Wordsworth Trust have therefore kindly supplied an image of the first surviving version of ‘Floating Island’ (in 7 stanzas) which Dorothy entered in her Commonplace Book. Jeff Cowton and his colleagues have also made a transcription, which enables readers to look at the 2 manuscript versions alongside each other.
The three stanzas addressed by DW to Dr Carr were written in 1836, according to a letter written by Dorothy Wordsworth to Edward Ferguson on 8 Oct 1837. (Susan Levin, in her Longman Cultural edition, dates them a year earlier.)
Until we have a scholarly edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Complete Works — something which is long overdue — readers will not be able to give her compositional processes the same kind of detailed attention that her brother’s writing has received through the Cornell Wordsworth edition.
Dorothy’s writing certainly deserves such attention. As we can see in this case, tracking a text through its various versions can give us much food for thought. I am very grateful to Jeff and his team for their work, which gives a foretaste of what such an edition would be like.
Lucy Newlyn is Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall. She has published widely on English Romantic Literature, and her latest book is William and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in Each Other’.
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Image credit: (1) Dove Cottage. By Christine Hasman [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons; (2) and (3) Images of the manuscript of ‘Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr’ published with kind permission of the Wordsworth Trust. Do not reproduce without the express permission of the Wordsworth Trust; (4) and (5) Images of the manuscript of the first surviving version of ‘Floating Island and Hawkshead’ and of the transcription published with kind permission of Jeff Cowton and the Wordsworth Trust. Do not reproduce without the express permission of the Wordsworth Trust.
In my honest and rather rapidly arrived at opinion — I don’t think the stanzas do hang together all that well. But no doubt lots of people will spring forward with the opposite view. I’m also not sure about ‘the Lake is passed away’ — it’s presumably the slip of earth that’s passed away? and the line doesn’t scan, does it?
I wish I could see the exhibition but I live in France now so not much change. It sounds wonderful. Anyway, thanks, Lucy — very interesting.
Thanks, Harriet — this is very helpful. You must be right about ‘Lake’, I think. If you magnify the page, the word does resemble ‘Isle’ (though the handwriting is pretty difficult to read, by this stage in DW’s life.) I will confer with Jeff Cowton and make a revision if he agrees.
I also agree with you that the cobbled together poem doesn’t work that well as a whole. The registers of the two sections are different — the first three stanzas are confessional, while the last five are densely figurative/allegorical. Tonally the two sections are also very different…
Do we react this way, in part, because we already know the two sections as different poems? ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ is, after all, one of DW’s most famous poems, beautifully self-contained and complete — so we have come to think of it as a discrete entity, and it jolts us to see it ’embedded’ in an explicitly biographical context.
The first three stanzas are also pretty well-known; but it has always struck me that this is a short poem — I might almost say an ‘unfinished’ one. Personally I don’t feel quite so surprised to see additional stanzas added to this part.
There is a thematic unity though, despite our initial reactions; and the poem does make sense, as an argument. I think we can legitimately read the words ‘in size a tiny room’ as referring to DW’s sick room, when we see them in relation to a poem on the subject of her illness. (They didn’t necessarily have a sick room reference when first composed; but perhaps they acquired that resonance in the household, as time went on?)
What I think is really interesting is the insight this MS gives us into Dorothy’s creative processes. She used to recite ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ right on into old age; and there are reports that when she recited she returned to her earlier self. I think she was using the poem therapeutically — it helped her to return to memories of happier, healthier times; something many patients of dementia find when they listen to familiar poems and music.
In the poem we are looking at, the ‘Floating Island’ section seems to work as a kind of ‘answer’ to the frightening memory resuscitated in the first section. It’s as though DW is using ‘Floating Island’ to reassure herself, and those around her, of her resilience and faith.
It’s also very interesting, isn’t it, to see that her creative processes are so similar to her brother’s? We can think of many cases where WW requisitions earlier passages of writing, turning them to new uses as his life moved on. Stephen Gill’s book, Wordsworth’s Revisitings, shows us this process at work across a lifetime; and ‘Revisiting’ would be a very good way of describing what is going on in DW’s poems, at so many levels. (I talk a lot about shared revisiting — literal and figurative — as a therapeutic process in my book.)
btw — If you haven’t yet seen it, there’s a lovely reading of the Trust’s ‘new’ DW poem (well, not so new, as we know) by Felicity James, in the BBC History Magazine article which picked up on the publication of this MS.
Thanks ever so much for getting the ball rolling by submitting your thoughts — I’d love to know what you think!
Harriet — a quick update. DW didn’t choose the wrong word! I’ve now double checked Jeff Cowton. He and Pamela Woof both agree that ‘Lake’ should be ‘Isle’. (I’ve asked OUP to make the change). Jeff will post a full transcript with variants when he has a spare moment. Many thanks.
It’s really great to see that poem transcribed having seen the manuscript at the Wordsworth Trust during this year’s Wordsworth Summer Conference.
I don’t if it’s just because I want it to, but for me that poem does hold together. I can’t help reading the microcosmic image of the line ‘A peopled world it is – in size a tiny room’ as referring back to Dorothy in her sick-room. And for me the lines ‘Perchance when you are wandering forth / Upon some vacant sunny day’ echo Coleridge in ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’. To this extent, the re-worked stanzas do seem to chime nicely with the first three.
Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly moving poem, Lucy. I would argue that, for me, the eight stanzas do make a unified whole. As you mention above, there is indeed a thematic unity to the poem, which is, at its heart, about faith. The ‘weary frame’ of the first stanza, literally Dorothy’s sickly body, is likened to the ‘slip of earth / Self-loosened from the grassy shore’ in the fifth stanza. It is interesting that Dorothy chooses the phrase ‘Self-loosened’, for it implies agency—the ‘slip of earth’ is not passive; it is not being acted upon; it is the agent. Therefore, that Dorothy associates herself with this agentive ‘slip of earth’ suggests that she retained a sense of control even in the midst of corporeal decline. Moreover, it is through her illness, that ‘perilous path’ she will never forget, that Dorothy achieves both an awareness and acceptance of her own mortality. The anaphora that occurs in stanzas one and two with ‘I rest’ reiterates the restfulness, the tranquility of Dorothy’s state of mind: she ‘rest[s]’ upon a tranquil shore’ and ‘rest[s] in quietness of mind’. That is, she learns to accept that her ‘weary frame’ will inevitably pass away. Moreover, she gains solace from the fact that her very mortality is what connects her to the natural world, which is moving in ‘one duteous task’ towards death. And just as the ‘slip of earth / Self-loosened from the grassy shore’ (a microcosm of Dorothy’s own life) provides sustenance for other living things, so Dorothy will provide sustenance for her future readers, for ‘the lost fragments [her writing] shall remain / To fertilize some other ground’. Dorothy’s readers can, like Dorothy herself, treat the poem as a panacea, the faith expressed within its lines reminding the reader that ‘Harmonious Powers with Nature work’, that there is an eternity in time, in the recurring cycles of the natural world.
Great feedback, thanks! I hadn’t spotted the Coleridge echo, Tom — very interesting.
Bryn, I think you’ve read the poem very perceptively and I am interested by what you say about ‘self-loosened’, a phrase which I had been puzzling over. The idea of agency is an intriguing one, in the context of illness, isn’t it? DW clearly isn’t describing herself as a victim here, though in the more familiar version of this poem she wrote ‘Loosed from its hold; — how no one knew’, which is significantly different.
Another thing we need to think about is this. In making her new poem out of old materials,DW has shortened ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ by two stanzas…how is the meaning of the original version altered in the process?
‘Recycling’ might be a useful word to think about as we read the new version. Just as DW finds acceptance in the faith that that her body will be recycled after death, so the poem is itself a re-cycling of earlier material. I’m reminded of Coleridge’s description of the secondary imagination, which ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create’.
Watch this space for Jeff’s transcript and variants — to be posted shortly.
What a lovely poem. It achieves such a sense of calm, complete acceptance of what lies ahead (or really, “below” – that is, “Buried beneath the glittering Lake”). I most like the image of the Isle, a self-contained paradise inhabited by creatures who simply “live their lives, and die.” It’s really quite as simple as that, Dorothy tells us, as the voyage of the Isle becomes a metaphor for that of her own life – a life which, for the past five years has been spent mostly confined in a “tiny room.” Her room, like the Isle, has nonetheless been “peopled” with beauteous things and wondrous recollections. In the final stanza, Dorothy foresees her own death as the Isle sinks under the Lake. But this is not a total disappearing act, since “the lost fragments shall remain / To fertilize some other ground.” These final lines remind me of two of my favorite quotes: the first, from Edvard Munch – “From My Rotting Body, Flowers SHall Grow, and I Am in Them, and That is Eternity”; the second, Wordsworth’s “After-Thought” Sonnet of The River Duddon volume, in which he records his hope that “something from our hands [will] have power / To live, and act, and serve the future hour.” I wonder if Dorothy foresees her death as an act of both organic, physical fertilization and imaginative fertilization – her body and soul decomposing in order to generate future life.
Again, this is such a beautiful poem – thank you for bringing it to my attention!
Mandy, thanks very much for your thoughtful comments — and for the two quotations, from Munch and WW, which both seem highly relevant to the poem’s spiritual meaning.
I wonder, too, if DW may be imagining — even perhaps foreseeing — a kind of posthumous life for herself, in her readers? WW was the ‘other ground’ fertilised by her ‘fragments’ — but so are we…
It was very interesting to be able to read the two versions side by side. It is fascinating to see how such small alterations can change the meaning. Having said that, I think the same sense of agency remains in both versions in the phrases ‘self-loosened’ and ‘loosed from its hold—how no one knew’. Although ‘self-loosened’ is much stronger and conveys the sense of agency better, ‘loosed from its hold—how no one knew’ suggests that it was a kind of miraculous, solitary act, thus underlining this idea of DW not being a ‘victim’ of her illness.
I really like what you say about ‘recycling’; Coleridge’s description of the secondary imagination is perfectly applicable here.
To me, the tonal quality of ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ is much more negative. The word ‘dissevered’, for example, is deeply affecting, implying a sense of utter disconnect. Moreover, the stanza that was wholly removed—‘And thus through many seasons’ space / This little Island may survive; / But Nature, though we mark her not, / Will take away – may cease to give’—introduces hope only to reintroduce the notion of loss, with nature ‘tak[ing] away’ or ‘ceas[ing] to give’.
Also, I have recently been re-reading an article by William D. Brewer entitled ‘Mary Shelley on the Therapeutic Value of Language’. What he says about Mary Shelley is applicable to what we have been saying about the therapeutic writing process as it relates to Dorothy Wordsworth. For example, Brewer cites Mary Shelley’s journal entry from October 2, 1822 (her first entry after Percy’ death), in which she writes, ‘“Now I am alone! . . . The stars may behold my tears, & the wind drinks my sighs—but my thoughts are a sealed treasure which I can confide to none. White paper—wilt thou be may confident [sic]? I will trust thee fully.”’
Lucy, thank you for bringing Dorothy Wordsworth’s poem to us, itself an island peopled with sounds and life, and an interior universe in which the poet has carefully placed her own suffering and gratitude for surviving a long illness. To me the two halves are weaved together as a parable: the self in the first half is reconfigured as an island in the second. I treasure the directness of her tone, that ability to say to the world “I have almost touched death and I am so grateful to be back” in a language that reverberates with emotion. That one poem can be made out of two is a result of recollection and reflection, so that the self, out of danger, can be likened to an island that set itself loose from the shore of the world, teeming with the world it left behind. I think this is a contemplation of a moment past through an image that invests the initial experience with some form of clarity.
Because of my own experience I read the poem through the metaphor of exile. The self, broken and torn from its world, like the torn earth with its clump of trees that becomes a moving island in the middle of the lake, is the exiled person who carries, until he or she disappears, the essence of the place from whence they left. I love how in her poem the self returns to tranquil shores but the island disappears into the lake, invisibly fertilizing the earth, becoming thus an object of meditation of the transition between life and death. All of this is sounded out through gentle rhythm that is a cross between a prayer and a lullaby. Dorothy Wordsworth has found in nature the right images and the inspiration to produce a deeply moving poem that I think will speak with many, many of us. I can’t help but think back of St. Francis of Assisi’s Cantico delle Creatures: ‘Blessed are those who endure suffering patiently’.
Bryn, I think you’re right that the earlier version of the poem is more negative, especially in the line ‘But Nature, though we mark her not, / Will take away – may cease to give’. Here DW seems to be bleakly questioning Nature’s un-ending beneficence, much as STC did in his great Dejection Ode — ‘we receive but what we give/And in our life alone does Nature live’. By contrast, in the later version of her poem, DW’s faith in the endless reciprocity of nature and human beings is actively present — and she sees this as extending beyond death.
Carmen — it makes absolute sense that you are reading the poem through the metaphor of exile, so strongly relevant to your own life. In your case exile is literal; in DW’s case there is the metaphorical exile which comes through ageing, illness, and withdrawal from nature into the sick-room. Like you I hear prayer and lullaby in the rhythms of the poem — perhaps also there’s a touch of hymn in these lines: ‘Oh! may I thank my God/ With heart that never shall forget/ The perilous path I’ve trod!’
The registers in the poem are interestingly mixed, aren’t they? DW’s descriptive language in the last five stanzas becomes richly allegorical when we read it alongside the first three stanzas, and her mention of the ‘tranquil shore’ helps to smooth the transition.
One can’t help but think that in transcribing Dorothy’s ‘Floating Island at Hawkshead’ in its various incarnations Lucy has shown us something akin to an ethic of reading and writing. For in addition to Susan Levin’s edition of ‘Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr’, we now have access to two manuscript versions of this highly allusive and figurative poem alongside each other.
In projecting her own death, and afterlife, Dorothy re-envisions herself – through a series of metamorphoses that even Ovid would approve – as a generative force, a naturalised genius loci even, for friends, family, strangers, and travelers not just for a time but for all time. The stanzas certainly have their chimeric elements, as one should expect from deeply reflexive poetic ‘revisitings’, but they are nevertheless unified in a pervading spirit of independence, modesty, resistance, generosity, and endurance. Though ‘Loosed’ from the continent of life (and sanity!) by nature and by the force of circumstance as a ‘mortal slip of earth’, the poet’s resistance comes forcefully through in the form of an imaginative resolution to transform her increasingly fractured self and mortal dissolution/separation into a garden of life. The ‘Floating Island’ becomes a ‘peopled world’, effectively reintegrated into a still larger, far more interfused, and far more durable community of inspired feeders and pollinators. Though set adrift – as in an exile, but a productive exile like that of Robinson Crusoe – the dissipating self-elegist is determined to provide ‘Food, shelter, safety’, ‘berries’ and ‘ripen flowrets’ for ‘insects’ as ephemeral and susceptible to influence as we are. One can hear Keats’s bees droning in the background. And in this ‘tiny room’ of the ‘Floating Island’, we imagine ourselves friends and heirs to this Dorothy. Even as we feed off her legacy, we are equally determined to protect her ‘lost/last fragments’ so that what remains of her may ‘fertilize some other ground’, just as they did for Heaney, for Wordsworth, for Levin, for Lucy, and for countless others.
I love the ideas in your post, Tim — I am fully persuaded that what we have in this poem is an ‘ethic’ of writing/reading. The poem lends itself equally well, it seems, to ecological and ethical allegories.
I would be very interested to hear more about your response to the stages of DW’s writing process; and also to know if you think the two poems work together well, making up a new unity…
Both poems, in my view, share an optative plea for some form of continuity or chanced dissemination whilst and after the author sinks ‘beneath the glittering Lake’ in permanent obscurity. But the precariousness, hopefulness, and uncertainty of this understated, self-questioning appeal – ‘This little Island may survive’ – exude a fuller psychological profile, and reflexive restraint, in the Commonplace Book. The Island is self-generated, but it is also vulnerable, as Dorothy acknowledges with seeming resignation, to the inexorable elements of Nature (‘Will take away – may cease to give.’). As is often the case with English elegiac writings, the appropriation of seasonal and ecological motifs demonstrates what Jacobus describes as the ‘sheer heterogeneity of things and meanings’ and ‘the disconcerting capacity of persons to become things or of things to act like persons’. Nature, conceived as an entropic (ethical) countervailing force to the homocentric impulse of self-interest, can take on a fertile range of references: health and sickness, human and natural history, remembrance and forgetting, influence and misappropriation, etc.
Dear Ms. Newlyn,
As an admirer of your work. esp. on Resolution and Independence (see my “The Influence of Anxiety: Spenser and Wordsworth,” Studies in romanticism, 2012, originally read in the summer at Grasmere), am delighted to see this finding on Dorothy, which doesn’t hang so badly together to my mind. She must have been an inspiration for the original daffodils poem too. Would you divulge a snail mail address?
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
UConnecticut, Storrs, CT 06269 USA
[…] & medical attendant,Thomas Carr. It was published for the first time in 2013. Where? On the Oxford University Press Blog together with a fascinating article about Dorothy. If you are at all interested in Dorothy, it is a […]
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