Sheltering and Space in Dorothy Wordsworth’s “The Grasmere Journal” and “Grasmere–A Fragment”

Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings and life have too often been viewed in the shadow of those of her brother, William. But far from being the other Wordsworth or simply “William’s satellite” (Brownstein, 48), her observations and experiences preserved in The Grasmere Journal and “Grasmere—A Fragment” reveal a woman whose intellect and grasp of the poetics of space are more than equal to her more famous sibling’s. While she was clearly “devoted to his ambition” and recorded events and scenes as one of her “labors of love” (Comitini 317) so he would “gain profit as well as pleasure” from them, Britain’s poet laureate also “valued her perceptions” (Brownstein 49) and agency while constructing a “domestic space out of what they [found] in nature” together around their Lake County home. Through her “narrative structure” and “careful delineation of details” of Nature and daily life, and her “metonymic association of those details with herself” (Levin 21), The Grasmere Journal stands as a vivid example of Romantic-era sensibilities regarding mankind’s vulnerability and kinship to Nature.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s creative impulses were epitomized in her efforts to harmonize wild and cultivated spaces “peopled by animated flora, wind-blown banks of trees, and flocks of sheep” (Weiger 657). Constructed upon her desire for “place-making” amid the “immediate topography” of Lake County, her determination to facilitate but not violate Nature was “guided by her homemaking impulse” and view of outdoor spaces as extensions of home – spaces to be enjoyed and enhanced, but never intruded upon. She respected and found comfort in their innate beauty and simplicity. Upon arrival in Grasmere following William’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson, Dorothy only superficially addressed her own or “dear Mary’s feelings,” instead defaulting to intimate relationship in taking “candlelight into the garden” where the women were “astonished at the growth of the brooms” and “Portugal laurels” on the property (354). In daylight a neighboring “tuft of trees” amid the countryside’s “beautiful…cottages” (Grasmere—A Fragment, 2-4) and outbuildings symbolized comfort and home for both the “joyful heart” and “feeble frame” of the sometimes lonely and ailing woman:

Many and beautiful they are;

But there is one that I love best,

A lowly shed, in truth, it is,

A brother of the rest.

Yet when I sit on rock or hill,

Down looking on the valley fair,

That cottage with its clustering trees

Summons my heart; it settles there. (Grasmere– A Fragment, 5-12)

The humble mediations of cottages and sheds, nestled among the trees which were Nature’s provided shelter, were welcoming landmarks during Wordsworth’s country wanderings, and where inadequate native cover from the elements existed, Nature graciously tolerated the addition of the unobtrusive home she returned to to prepare “baked bread” and engage in other domestic activities she held dear.

A morning walk in Rydale vale provides another glimpse into Dorothy’s remarkable attention to detail as she chronicled her sensory experiences within and around Grasmere:

Rydale vale was full of life and motion. The wind blew briskly

and the lake was covered all over with bright silver waves that

were there each the twinkling of an eye, then others rose up and

took their place as fast as they went away. (Wordsworth 347)

Wordsworth’s musings about her surroundings are more than “alternating flat and excited fragments” of observation of random trees and buildings and bodies of water, but demonstrate her “impulse to find unity and coherence” in both the natural and manmade elements of her environment (Brownstein 51).

Wordsworth’s gardening aesthetic reveals a subtly feminist rebellion against the prevailing Romantic-era philosophy regarding female domesticity. She was keenly “interested in both the beauty and utility of her garden, as well as their spiritual significance,” and not content with the stylistic norm of women’s gardens “emphasizing ornamental rather than useful plants,” and as a “limiting” and only slightly “more liberating…arena of independence” (Page 20). Wordsworth also employed “graduated forms of mediation” such as “adjudicated landscape architecture” and “promiscuously…tangled” edible and ornamental cultivars such as beans and roses as “constructed products of her imagination and work” in the garden (20). Alexander suggests Dorothy’s garden may indicate an independent “sense of her own body” and thus indicative of “how gender might be constitutive of what she saw” (208). In light of these possibilities, Wordsworth’s garden may be emblematic of the evolving nature of the Romantic female body politic.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – her “rather ordinary, chatty” style (Brownstein 50) and “spare descriptive passages” (Weiger 657), Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing is accessible and charmingly appropriate to her well read but contentedly rural roots. The plentiful and detailed observations of Nature, and intimate if emotionally muted narratives on relationships and experiences of The Grasmere Journal and “Grasmere—A Fragment,” reveal the natural world as more than a backdrop for the domestic woman’s “regulated…ebb and flow of activities” (Comitini 314). They reveal the imagination and techniques of a writer and poet in her own right, a Romantic wordsmith’s notebook from which images and experiences spring actively even today, sensorily and emotionally alive, and of lasting instructive value.

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. “Dorothy Wordsworth: The Grounds of Writing.” Women’s Studies 14.3 (1987): 195-210. Web. 2 July 2016.

Brownstein, R. M. “The Private Life Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals.” Modern Language Quarterly 34.1 (1973): 48-63. Shapiro Library. Web. 2 July 2016.

Comitini, Patricia. “”More Than Half a Poet”: Vocational Philanthropy and Dorothy Wordsworth’S Grasmere Journals.” European Romantic Review 14.3 (2003): 307-22. Taylor & Francis. Web. 2 July 2016.

Page, Judith W. “Dorothy Wordsworth’s “gratitude to insensate things”: Gardening in the Grasmere Journals.” Wordsworth Circle Winter/Spring 39.1/2 (2008): 19-23. Shapiro Library. Web. 2 July 2016.

Weiger, Sarah. ““A Love for Things That Have No Feeling”: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Significant Others.” European Romantic Review 23.6 (2012): 651-69. Web. 1 July 2016.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. “Grasmere—A Fragment.” Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Age of Romanticism. Ed. Joseph Black. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. S.l.: Broadview, 2010. 354-355. Print.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. “The Grasmere Journal.” Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Age of Romanticism. Ed. Joseph Black. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. S.l.: Broadview, 2010. 342-56. Print.

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