Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


WORDSWORTH, DOROTHY (1771-1855), English writer and diarist, was the third child and only daughter of John Wordsworth of Cockermouth and his wife, Anne Cookson-Crackanthorpe. The poet William Wordsworth was her brother and a year her senior. On the death of her father in 1783, Dorothy found a home at Penrith, in the house of her maternal grandfather, and afterwards for a time with a maiden lady at Halifax. In 1787, on the death of the elder William Cookson, she was adopted by her uncle, and lived in his Norfolk parish of Forncett. She and her brother William, who dedicated to his sister the Evening Walk of 1792, were early drawn to one another, and in 1794 they visited the Lakes together. They determined that it would be best to combine their small capitals, and that Dorothy should keep house for the poet. From this time forth her life ran on lines closely parallel to those of her great brother, whose companion she continued to be till his death. It is thought that they made the acquaintance of Coleridge in 1797.

From the autumn of 1795 to July 1797 William and Dorothy Wordsworth took up their abode at Racedown, in Dorsetshire. At the latter date they moved to a large manor-house, Alfoxden, in the N. slope of the Quantock hills, in W. Somerset, S. T. Coleridge about the same time settling near by in the town of Nether Stowey. On the 20th of January 1798 Dorothy Wordsworth began her invaluable Journal, used by successive biographers of her brother, but first printed in its quasi-entirety by Professor W. Knight in 1897. The Wordsworths, Coleridge, and Chester left England for Germany on the 14th of September 1798; and of this journey also Dorothy Wordsworth preserved an account, portions of which were published in 1897. On the 14th of May 1800 she started another Journal at Grasmere, which she kept very fully until the 31st of December of the same year. She resumed it on the 1st of January 1802 for another twelve months, closing on the 11th of January 1803. These were printed first in 1889. She composed Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, in 1803, with her brother and Coleridge; this was first published in 1874. Her next contribution to the family history was her Journal of a Mountain Ramble, in November 1805, an account of a walking tour in the Lake district with her brother. In July 1820 the Wordsworths made a tour on the continent of Europe, of which Dorothy preserved a very careful record, portions of which were given to the world in 1884, the writer having refused to publish it in 1824 on the ground that her object was not to make a book, but to leave to her niece a neatly-penned memorial of those few interesting months of our lives. Meanwhile, without her brother, but in the company of Joanna Hutchinson, Dorothy Wordsworth had travelled over Scotland in 1822, and had composed a Journal of that tour. Other MSS. exist and have been examined carefully by the editors and biographers of the poets, but the records which we have mentioned and her letters form the principal literary relics of Dorothy Wordsworth. In 1829 she was attacked by very serious illness, and was never again in good health. After 1836 she could not be considered to be in possession of her mental faculties, and became a pathetic member of the interesting household at Grasmere. She outlived the poet, however, by several years, dying at Grasmere on the 25th of January 1855.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Dorothy Wordsworth’s companionship to her illustrious brother. He has left numerous tributes to it, and to the sympathetic originality of her perceptions.

She, he said, gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares, and delicate fears,
A heart the fountain of sweet tears,
And love, and thought, and joy.

The value of the records preserved by Dorothy Wordsworth, especially in earlier years, is hardly to be over-estimated by those who desire to form an exact impression of the revival of English poetry. When Wordsworth and Coleridge refashioned imaginative literature at the close of the 18th century, they were daily and hourly accompanied by a feminine presence exquisitely attuned to sympathize with their efforts, and by an intelligence which was able and anxious to move in step with theirs. S.T.C. and my beloved sister, William Wordsworth wrote in 1832, are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted. In her pages we can put our finger on the very pulse of the machine; we are present while the New Poetry is evolved, and the sensitive descriptions in her prose lack nothing but the accomplishment of verse. Moreover, it is certain that the sharpness and fineness of Dorothy’s observation, the shooting lights of her wild eyes, actually afforded material to the poets. Coleridge, for instance, when he wrote his famous lines about The one red leaf, the last of its clan, used almost the very words in which, on the 7th of March 1798, Dorothy Wordsworth had recorded One only leaf upon the top of a tree. . .danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind.

It is not merely by the biographical value of her notes that Dorothy Wordsworth lives. She claims an independent place in the history of English prose as one of the very earliest writers who noted, in language delicately chosen, and with no other object than to preserve their fugitive beauty, the little picturesque phenomena of homely country life. When we speak with very high praise of her art in this direction, it is only fair to add that it is called forth almost entirely by what she wrote between 1798 and 1803, for a decline similar to that which fell upon her brother’s poetry early invaded her prose; and her later journals, like her Letters, are less interesting because less inspired. A Life by E. Lee was published in 1886; but it is only since 1897, when Professor Knight collected and edited her scattered MSS., that Dorothy Wordsworth has taken her independent place in literary history.

(E.G.) [Edmund Gosse]

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

WORDSWORTH, Dorothy (1771-1855) by Susan J. Wolfson

Sister, Friend, also Writer: Edmund Gosse’s Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth
Miniature portrait of Dorothy Wordsworth as a young woman, c.1800. Courtesy of Rydal Mount Original image

Edmund Gosse wrote 150 entries for the 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Dorothy Wordsworth is the last (alphabetically, and perhaps in composition) and the only Romantic-era writer. Was this an orphan slot, which Gosse gallantly filled, or an actual interest? There is no Wordsworth, Dorothy in the 9th edition (1875-1889). Gosse’s entry in the 11th, at 1030 words, is no little squib, though it is mostly biographical. The historical Dorothy Wordsworth matters chiefly to him, as she did for most nineteenth-century literary historians and editors, as a lens on her closest brother, the poet William Wordsworth (elder by 20 months), as well as sometimes their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Gosse values Dorothy Wordsworth as proximate sibling, her journals, tour-recollections, and correspondence an archive for better understanding the life, situations, and compositional process of her brother. At the same time, Gosse’s article intimates an independent value to her writing, according high praise to her art in picturesque description. This is the extent of his measure, with no mention of her arts as a poet, or her acute perceptions on other levels of description, especially the social and economic textures of life, but also her own autobiography as a woman coming of age in the 1790s and living her life (except for those tours) entirely in northern England. These elements will be filled in—and filled out—much later in the twentieth century, and to his credit Gosse manages to spring her writing from merely relational value to her great brother: It is not merely by the biographical value of her notes that Dorothy Wordsworth lives. She claims an independent place in the history of English prose.

Gosse had accumulating resources on which to draw. William published some of Dorothy’s poems in his collections of 1815, 1836, and 1842, naming her circumspectly as Sister or Friend (the mode of Tintern Abbey, 1798). In 1851, their nephew Christopher Wordsworth published passages from her journals and letters. Most consequentially, in 1874, was J. C. Shairp’s edition of her Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland A.D. 1803 (with a 30-page preface, biographical and appreciative), and was so popular that a third edition came in 1894. Meanwhile, in 1889, William Knight published excerpts from her journals in his Life of William Wordsworth, and in 1896 he included some of her poems in volume 8 of The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth; other poems appeared in The Monthly Packet. Knight improved the record in 1897 with a two-volume edition of her journals—in addition to the famous ones from Alfoxden and Grasmere, there were several tours and recollections of tours—and then Letters of the Wordsworth Family, 1787-1855 (1907). While the archival labor was motivated chiefly in service to the Wordsworth, it was not just this. Knight’s independent production of the journals at once reflected and advanced a developing interest in Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings as interesting reports and imaginative filters in themselves.

Still, the surname was crucial. She was the only woman, with a half dozen pages from her journals, in David Perkins’s 1200-page anthology, English Romantic Writers (1967). In the 874-page unit on The Romantic Period in the third edition of the Norton Anthology (1974), supervised by M. H. Abrams, her early journals got 14½ pages (one page for Ann Radcliffe was coughed up in a sub-unit of Satanism, the only other woman in the unit). And there was no thought to give either, or any woman, a seat in the ten-man caboose of Romantic Lyric Poets. Even so, Dorothy Wordsworth would likely be surprised to find herself in an anthology, let alone Encyclopædia Britannica. While she wrote from girlhood up to age 70 of her 83 years—letters, poems, stories, narratives, journals, recollections of tours and, not to put too fine a point on it, fair-copying William Wordsworth’s poems, long, and short, and very long, as well as managing a good deal of his correspondence and writing his letters from dictation—she did not identify as a writer. To a friend she insisted, I should detest the idea of setting myself as an Author. She wrote for herself, for family, for friends, and once for a project to raise funds for a local family of suddenly orphaned children, and always with William in her mind as her primary reader. Yet she scarcely had a room of her own, or a life of her own. If her journals and letters record some solitary and companionable rambles, contemporaneous letters tell more: ceaseless household labors, every day but Sunday (laundry, ironing, sewing, cooking, cleaning, gardening, childcare, errands).

Her protests notwithstanding, Dorothy Wordsworth was a writer and an author (if not Author), and her assiduous fair-copying of her brother’s work, draft after draft, work he often discussed with her, made her more than any mere amanuensis. In-house scribe and fair-copier, she had a fine-grained intimacy with the fluxes and refluxes of poetic composition, word by word, line by line, revision by revision, version after version. Secretary, sounding-board, and devoted companion: all in one. Beginning in the 1980s, with notable critical essays by Margaret Homans and Susan Levin (also a superb textual editor), Dorothy Wordsworth’s poetry, journals, and narratives received fresh attention for her own way of seeing, her own way with words. Oh brother William, I will walk by myself, she once said, exasperated after a quarrel one evening along a Lakeland path. In the 1990s, anthology editors—Anne Mellor, Duncan Wu, and myself—made a point of including some of her poetry (she wrote about 30 poems) along with selections from her journals, and Levin’s Longman Cultural Edition produced the first independent volume of Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing, in a range of genres.

While no divorce, the separation of brother and sister Wordsworth opened new perspectives on both. The journals from Alfoxden (1798) and then Grasmere (1800-1803) not only record circumstances important to (and imported by) her brother’s poetry, but also provide a fascinating chronicle of turn-of-century life in southwest England and then, especially, Lakeland. Dorothy Wordsworth’s entries render brilliantly detailed descriptions (admired by Virginia Woolf, 1932), accounts of household labor and life, precise observations of the people, social currents and economic distresses of life in rural England. In the characters that cross her pages—children, neighbors, laborers, tinkers and itinerants, vagrants, beggars, abandoned wives and children, a leech-gatherer, discharged and injured soldiers and sailors, farmers and their families displaced by enclosure or incursive agribusiness—she captures, as much as her brother hoped his poetry would, the textures of real life and the language really used by men (and women and children).

If, as Gosse writes, Dorothy Wordsworthʼs life ran on lines closely parallel to those of her great brother, one could also say that her great brother’s lines of poetry sometimes run closely parallel to her lines. And more: comparisons show that even as her brother availed himself of her records, ideas, tropes, and wordings, he canceled her presence from the poems so created—most famously, the lyric I wandered lonely as a cloud that blithely clouds the fact that Dorothy is a co-wanderer on the occasion: the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime, in Keatsʼs phrase. Dorothy Wordsworth’s poetry, written in their shared world, and sometimes in close intertextual relay with her brother’s (Grasmere, a Fragment, Floating Island, Thoughts on my Sick-bed) also displays complementary, even divergent and sometimes quite different investments of imagination, alternative views of their shared world and shared adventures, and a different sensibility: one more sociable than solitary, more material than visionary, one more domestic than excursive, more self-effacing than self-centered, especially about the vocation and practices of writing poetry.

Gosse’s article is a turning point in her reception history, a deliberate new entry in the canonical record. On this turn, it cannot but reflect the nineteenth-century story of Dorothy Wordsworth, from her brother’s poems about her, to Thomas De Quincey’s midcentury Recollections of the Lakes, to her honors in The Prelude (published, 1850). This Sister was as much mythical as documentary, although De Quincey is commendable for noting how at odds with feminine codes and modes was this gypsy tan, physically vigorous, self-educated, intellectual woman. The tenor of Gosse’s vocabulary is rather more standard: she captures the fugitive beauty, the little picturesque phenomena of homely country life: little bits of ivory (Jane Austen’s self-described genre), Lakeland issue. She’s sensitive, delicate, and, not least, devoted to the point of incorporation. She gave me eyes, she gave me ears, writes her brother (The Sparrow’s Nest), lines Gosse makes iconic. This is the soul-sister who restored her brother, broken by his years in France during the Terror: she maintained for me a saving intercourse / With my true self and preserved me still / A Poet (Prelude Book 11).

Gosse’s narrative is inevitably William-centric: the main line is Dorothy’s companionship to her illustrious brother.De Quincey took the Greek meaning of her name, gift of god, as a prophecy of the relation in which she stood (Tait’s Edinburgh, 1839). The value of the records preserved by Dorothy Wordsworth, especially in earlier years, writes Gosse, is hardly to be over-estimated by those who desire to form an exact impression of the revival of English poetry by her brother. On his ledger, William Wordsworth’s (oft-called) decline after 1803 is also Gosse’s track for Dorothy’s Wordsworth’s story: her later journals, like her Letters, are less interesting because less inspired. Gosse can still say that her best powers of description bid fair as New Poetry by another name, lacking nothing but the accomplishment of verse (as William Wordsworth said of some men in The Excursion). And he’s willing to write, in sum, that after Professor Knight collected and edited her scattered MSS., . . . Dorothy Wordsworth has taken her independent place in literary history. He got that right, along with not reducing her, as so many professional literary critics still do today, to just Dorothy. She deserves both names.

Contributor Biography On Dorothy Wordsworth: in addition to developing and editing independent units in The Longman Anthology of British Literature (1997-2012) and inviting Susan Levin to edit a volume on her for Longman Cultural Editions (2009), Wolfson has two chapters on Dorothy Wordsworth in Romantic Interactions (2010).

to Top