Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wordsworths, Daffodils, and Collaborative Writing

When I was in undergraduate school, we spent a good deal of time studying William Wordsworth, but almost no time talking about William's sister, Dorothy. It wasn't until I got to grad school that I learned how instrumental Dorothy was to William's writing. And let me stress, I pieced it together on my own. I read Dorothy's journals and was struck by how much scut work she did: gardening, cooking, cleaning, washing. All that, and keeping a journal, and transcribing the poems of William and Coleridge. All those tasks and all that walking! I once calculated that their average daily walk was twelve miles.

I have these thoughts this morning because The Writer's Almanac notes that today is the day in 1802 that Dorothy first commented on the daffodils that she saw in her journal. And later, William turns that journal entry into a poem.

Here's Dorothy's journal:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing."

And here's William's poem:

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William gives his wife Mary credit for these two lines: "They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude."

My inner angry feminist still can't forgive William for not giving Dorothy more credit. My middle-aged merciful self acknowledges how much the Grasmere household meant to Dorothy and that William never kicked out his sister, even as she became more difficult to live with.

If you want a great book on the traditionally overlooked female compatriots of the earlier British Romantics, I highly recommend A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle by Kathleen Jones (St. Martin's, 2000). It's a wonderful book. It makes me both long to be part of that group and very happy to be a woman living in our current age. Dental care alone makes me happy to be a 21st century girl--not to mention tampons, oral contraceptives, antibiotics, laws that protect women, even though they don't go far enough and aren't enforced worldwide. I'm always deeply conscious that I'm lucky to live in the 21st century, but for all intents and purposes, most of the rest of the planet's women might as well be living in the nineteenth century.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Yes, and Yes.

Re your last line: a black friend of mine, an professor who bought a lovely house on Puget Sound, was visited one day by an old friend who wandered through the multi-story house in wonder, and finally said, "man, what happened to the revolution?"

"Haven't you heard? It's over. We won," said my friend.

"It's a pretty finite victory," said his friend.