Lying in bed nursing my damaged knee I have been reading Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals in Moorman, M. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. OUP 1971. Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) was the sister of William, the poet, and they were close friends of Samuel Coleridge who was often with them at the house where Dorothy and William lived in the Lake District. The Grasmere Journal covers the period from May 1800 to January 1803. In the autumn of 1802 William married and his new wife Mary came to live with him and Dorothy. Through most of the journal Mary is a beloved but distantly background figure. Coleridge, however, is very present throughout and in a way the journal is the story of this threesome, William, Samuel and Dorothy. She clearly has deep affection for the two men and they for her.

They go for many walks, sometimes just for the scenery, sometimes to collect provisions or firewood, sometimes to visit friends in neighbouring villages and she describes the plants, weather and sky in poetic prose that often subsequently stimulated the imaginations of the two men in their writing of verse. The places they walk to are ones I know fairly well, though I have not been to Cumbria for some years now. The natural beauty of the place is legendary and deservedly so. Dorothy's life was one of domesticity, gardening, washing, making clothes. 'Woman's work' was a full time job in those days. Sample entries:

Tuesday 5th August 1800: Dried the linen in the morning, the air still cold. I pulled a bag full of peas for Mrs Simpson. Miss Simpson drank tea with me and supped on her return from Ambleside. A very fine evening. I sate on the wall making my shifts till I could see no longer. Walked half way home with Miss Simpson.

Sunday 12th October: Beautiful day. Sate in the house writing in the morning while Wm went into the Wood to compose. Wrote to John in the morning – copied poems for the LB [Lyrical Ballads], in the evening wrote to Mrs Rawson. Mary Jameson and Sally Ashburner dined. We pulled apples after dinner, a large basket full. We walked before tea to Bainriggs to observe the many coloured foliage, the oaks dark green with yellow leaves, the birches generally still green, some near the water yellowish. The Sycamore crimson and crimson-tufted, the mountain ash a deep orange, the common ash Lemon colour but many ashes still fresh in their summer green. Those that were discoloured chiefly near the water. William composing in the Evening. Went to bed at 12 o'clock.

Shopping was not retail therapy in those days. It involved walking to town and carrying things back, perhaps stopping to see a friend en route. Produce was bartered or given away. There are many references to beggars – the truly poor as well as the less trustworthy sort.

Dorothy reads a lot, classic books – Shakespeare, Boswell, Spencer, Chaucer – as well as current works of her time and those written or translated by the two men, though she also read German. They also read aloud to one another, they their poems and she her journal, and have many discussions about writing and poetry. She was clearly an important catalyst of ideas and also scribe, helping to revise their works between doing the ironing.

All three were often ill and, in addition to supporting each other's work, had to care for one another. It gives a picture of a kind of idyll, even though one beset with all the common problems of that era. At the same time, we know that Coleridge was unhappily married, prone to melancholy and often his illnesses were due to his opium habit, and Dorothy was ceaselessly anxious for him. There was also a very full social life with much visiting and being visited to take tea of meals together with friends living in the vicinity.

Most people read these journals either for the descriptions of nature or for the influence that DW had on her poet brother WW and their friend STC. I find I am more focussed upon the social conditions and manner of life of the people described. A touching description of the funeral of a pauper woman presided over by an inebriate priest. A leech collector. Various travelling folk. Soldiers passing through. The sail-maker telling his tales of distant lands. The man who sold scissors and had so many grand-children.

Dorothy W starched her linen

and watched the hollyhocks grow.

She harvested peas for Mrs S

and walked to town for post

for news of distant friends

so often absent. Life much slower then,

yet intimate; anxiously

embraced by closest souls that, meeting,

then figured in the journal

she penned to please her William,

composed of fine prose between pea pickings.

How it pleases still!

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Replies to This Discussion

Enjoyed this very much, thank you.

My first encounter with that extraordinary three-way friendship came from Ted Hughes' account of it in his essay The Snake in the Oak, which is mainly about STC's troubled relationship to prayer and the in, to the divine feminine.

Would like to read DW's journal very much, will see if I can track it down.

I'm not sure if you're up and about or still resting your knee (condolences to said knee), but in case you have some spare time, last year I went to a wonderful Temenos Academy lecture by the Anglican Priest, poet, academic and rock musician (not sure in which order), Fr. Malcolm Guite. Found it a very moving account of STC, his difficult life, his bright nature. And it dispelled some misconceptions for me about him. Most interesting of all, for me, are his comments about the famous marginal notes to The Rime, that STC added some 18 years later, as he was recovering from the laudanum addiction that darkened his life and brought him to death's door, and now, had finally found some deep homecoming peace, and healing. 

Namo Amida Bu, Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat

I have not had time to listen to the whole thing yet but I have heard more than half. It is an excellent talk. The image of albatrosses dying on Midway Island from eating plastic is indeed a chilling symbol of what we are doing to the planet and, in the context of STC's poem, horribly eerie. Thank you for bring it to my attention. Nice that you were able to be there for the real thing.

Very glad the good Fr Guite spoke to you too. 



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