Two pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal, 15 April 1802

Page from Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journal. 1802

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Description: In 1799, when they were both in their late twenties, William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved to make a new life together in Dove Cottage, Grasmere, UK. In May 1800, William left Grasmere for a short absence and Dorothy decided to write a journal for his ‘pleasure’ when he returned. So began a journal that she continued to write for the next thirty or so months. Four notebooks survive; a fifth, covering most of 1801, is now missing. Written largely within the Dove Cottage household, the journal contains Dorothy’s vivid observations of domestic life, her neighbourhood and the natural world, from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the sixth delivery of the coal, to the remarkable sight of reflections off the lake. As a result, as the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register entry puts it, ‘From the journal we can picture the scene of brother and sister walking, talking, reading and writing together. It is an intimate portrait of a life in a place which, to them, was an earthly paradise.’ It not only provides evidence for the nature of the relationship between brother and sister but for their creative working practices. The two pages shown here offer clues to two mysteries: the genesis of one of the most important of all Romantic poems, known popularly as ‘Daffodils’; and why Dorothy left off writing her Journal.

Dorothy’s account of a walk taken on the shores of Ullswater on the 15th April 1802 with her brother may reflect a conversation she may have had with William:

& at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of [daffodils] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb…

This is the background to Wordsworth’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’, written in 1804 and first published in 1807. Its words reflect the language used by Dorothy in this journal entry: the dancing and laughing daffodils are present in both. It is thought that Wordsworth returned to the Journal account in the writing of the poem two years later.

Attending to the materiality of the manuscript offers an even more intimate encounter with Dorothy’s creative and emotional life. Reading the Journal in print, it looks as though Dorothy wrote an entry per day. However, looking at the manuscript, we can see that she most likely wrote several entries at the same time. The unique combination of pen nib, colour of ink, and style of handwriting makes it very easy to distinguish entries written at the same sitting. The manuscript shows that every week or so Dorothy would pick up the pen to write about the events of the previous few days, and this explains why some entries have minimal detail, and why incorrect datings can be found over a number of consecutive days. It also reminds us of her ability to hold her observations and memories in sharp focus until she had the opportunity to set them down.

Similarly, imagine we had only a printed transcript of this page on which Dorothy Wordsworth recounts the events and her feelings the occasion of her brother’s marriage. It would tell us that lines were erased, but only seeing the real thing prompts us to ask who erased them and when and why. This was a private journal, never intended for publication, so the desire to obliterate the words so that they could never be read again is very striking. The OUP edition transcribes the crossed-out words as follows: ‘I gave him the wedding ring—with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before—he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently.’ The ink used for crossing-out looks to be a similar age to that of the original – but after that what happened is a mystery. Was it Dorothy who did it? Did she do it alone? Did she do it on William’s advice? Or was it someone else, possibly William’s new wife, Mary? Whatever happened, three months after the wedding, Dorothy ceased to write her Journal, conjecturally because the relationship between brother and sister had fundamentally changed.

The manuscript notebooks of the Journal can be seen in the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere. Together with Dove Cottage itself, their power rests not simply upon Dorothy’s undoubted abilities as a writer but upon the immediacy of the access they promise to the quotidian and local intimacy of the creative life. Their ever-increasing celebrity exemplifies a continuing fascination, characteristic of European Romanticisms, with the localised, timebound, material and obscure traces of the creative process. This is what has drawn literary pilgrims from across Europe and the world to Dove Cottage for well over a century, and this is why in April 2020, as part of its ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’ Heritage Lottery Funded redevelopment project, one of the manuscript notebooks returned to Dove Cottage itself so as to say truly that the thing is kept in the very place in which it was written.

Date: 1802

Creator: Dorothy Wordsworth

Subject: Dorothy Wordsworth

Media rights: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Object type: bound manuscript notebook

Format: ink on paper

Language: English

Publisher: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Digital collection record: The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere

Catalogue number: DCMS 19, DCMS 31