Dorothy Wordsworth and the Grasmere journals

The spectacular Lake District landscape

Catherine Kay from the lovely team at The Wordsworth Trust tells us about Dorothy Wordsworth and her wonderful journals of life in the Lake District.

Dorothy Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth on Christmas Day 1771. Her early childhood was spent with her four brothers, but, with the death of her mother when she was just seven, Dorothy left the family home for a succession of relatives: an aunt in Halifax, grandparents in Penrith, an uncle in Norfolk. It is only when Dorothy moves into Dove Cottage with her brother William in December 1799 age 28 that she is able to regain a sense of ‘home’. It is from this period that her greatest writing dates.

Dorothy Wordsworth

The only image of Dorothy as a young woman. Image © The Wordsworth Trust

Dorothy keeps her Grasmere Journal between May 1800 and January 1803. The journal chronicles the Wordsworths’ lives at Dove Cottage, but is also full of vivid descriptions of people and places. Dorothy observes the Lake District landscape in all seasons, all weathers and at all times of day and night and provides us with varied descriptions. Here is one of many descriptions of Rydal Water: “Rydale was very very beautiful the surface of the water quite still like a dim mirror. The colours of the large island exquisitely beautiful & the trees still fresh & green were magnified by the mists” (19 October 1800). By contrast, here is a single tree: “it was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs, the sun shone upon it & it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshiny shower – it was a tree in shape with stem & branches but it was like a Spirit of water –” (24 November 1801).

Dorothy’s sensitivity to nature is recognised by those around her. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge comments: “her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature – and her taste a perfect electrometer – it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties and most recondite faults”. William pays tribute to Dorothy in several poems, writing in ‘The Sparrow’s Nest’ (where he calls her ‘Emmeline’): “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears”.

The journal has William as an intended reader: she begins writing it partly “to give William pleasure”. He found her descriptions invaluable and several of his poems can be traced back to Dorothy’s journal. The most famous example is his ‘Daffodils’ poem where the “dancing”, “laughing company” of daffodils in the poem echo Dorothy’s journal entry for 15 April 1802 – two years before William wrote his poem: “… they tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake”.

It is not just nature, however, that Dorothy captures in her journal. Many travellers called at Dove Cottage, or were met on the road, all of them with stories to tell: “we met an old man almost double, he had on a coat thrown over his shoulders above his waistcoat & coat. Under this he carried a bundle & had an apron on & a night cap … his trade was to gather leeches but now leeches are scarce & he had not the strength for it – he lived by begging … He had been hurt in driving a cart his leg broke his body driven over his skull fractured …” (3 October 1800).

Dorothy never thinks of herself as a ‘writer’, but her journal is full of poetic imagery. Trees on a winter’s night are “like black skeletons”, moonlight lies upon the hills “like snow” and stars “seemed almost like butterflies in motion and lightness”. Here, in an entry from December 1801, we have a scene from close to her home brought wholly to life: “Helm Crag rose very bold & craggy, a being by itself, & behind it was the large Ridge of mountain smooth as marble & snow white …The Birches on the Crags beautiful, Red brown & glittering – the ashes glittering spears with their upright stems … The moon shone upon the water below Silver-how, & above it hung, combining with Silver how on one side, a Bowl-shaped moon the curve downwards”.

The unselfconsciousness of the writing means that there seems to be no barrier between us and the world Dorothy is recording. We are with her on her walks, or sitting with her by the family fire-side: “& now at about 7 o’clock we are all sitting by a nice fire – W with his book & a Candle”.

Dorothy’s journals enable us to step back into Dove Cottage and ‘in our mind’s eye’ share an evening with William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge eating seed cake and reading poetry.

Dove Cottage Young Poets

The Wordsworth Trust runs a Young Poets group for people aged 14-19. The group meets every other Friday at Abbott Hall in Kendal, and is run by award-winning poet Kim Moore.

Dove Cottage Young Poets
Every other Friday 3.45pm -5.30pm
Abbott Hall, Kendal, Cumbria, LA9 5AL

For more info contact Zoe McLain: z.mclain [at] wordsworth.org.uk / 01539 35544

 

Wordsworth Trust logo

Catherine Kay has worked for The Wordsworth Trust since 1996. For the past 10 years she has been the Education Officer, developing and delivering a diverse programme of educational workshops and resources. The Wordsworth Trust comprises Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum and Jerwood Centre. Dove Cottage was the first family home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who lived their with William’s wife Mary and their three children. Visit to take a trip back into the world of the Wordsworths and be inspired by the surrounding Lakeland countryside which they both so loved. 

Published September, 2015

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