Saturday, 8 March 2008

Dorothy Wordsworth finally gets her 15 minutes

I would hardly describe myself as Wordsworthian; indeed, in my Wordworth/Keats seminar in grad. school I had a tendency to skim the old fellow and then improvise madly when asked to elaborate on the text. I always thought Wordsworth was a bit of a bore, actually.

I am not terribly Wordsworthian when it comes to appreciating the glories of nature, either. I function best in that temperate zone between 60 and 80 F. and will notoriously avoid venturing out in hostile weathers. This works out pretty well for me as I am perfectly happy to spend the entire day in bed reading -- if I am allowed to do so. (Of course I am not allowed to do so, but I do always insist on a leisurely weekend session spanning at least two cups of tea.)

Having thus established that I am not in any way obsessed with Wordsworth, I will now devote my second in a two-part series of blogs on, or at least concerning, him. Blame it on the daffodils, which are just about to peak . . . that is if their tender frilled heads aren't ripped off by the gale-force winds that are supposed to hit tomorrow.

Having recently mentioned Wordworth's famous image of the dancing golden daffodils, I was intrigued to learn that he basically ripped off his sister Dorothy for this, one of his best-known phrases. Apparently, the words were lifted straight from her private journal.

A biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to William, has just been published over here and all of the papers have been falling about to describe her rather strange and emotionally incestuous relationship with her brother. The theory is that William plundered Dorothy's journals on a regular basis: not just for her words, but also for access to her emotional experience.

"She was intense, romantic in the sense of having a heightened sensibility, and her emotional responses were both encouraged and cannibalised by her brother in the service of his work."
(Virginia Rounding, The Observor)

I've had a pet theory for years that "unemotional" (ie, repressed and not very talkative) men invariably choose women with strongly emotional and gregarious natures -- and then feed off them. However, the very repressiveness of their own taciturn nature tends to have a dampening -- whether deliberately or just inevitably -- effect on the singing-bird nature of the woman.

The review suggests that Dorothy started going off the deep end later in life -- the pressures on her to act decorously and modestly at odds, apparently, with her rather wild, emotional nature. After her brother married, she continued to live with the couple in a somewhat awkward threesome. Then when William dies, she ends up being taken care of by his wife -- quite mad by the end.

Although literary criticism has always been aware of her important role in William's life, it does make me cheerful to think of her journals living on and being reassessed -- 200 years after they were written. Wordsworth may have gotten the credit for the dancing golden daffodils, but perhaps Dorothy was the one who truly thrilled to them.

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