Sarah Doyle on transforming Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal into poetry
Christmas Day this year will mark the 250th anniversary of Dorothy Wordsworth’s birth. The sister of William Wordsworth is perhaps best known for her journal observations about the daffodils they saw while out walking, that “tossed and reeled and danced”, and which contributed to his most famous poem. Poet Sarah Doyle encountered Dorothy’s writings while researching for a PhD, and decided that her journals contained a poetic voice that needed to be heard. Sarah has composed a pamphlet of new poems based entirely on Dorothy’s journal writings. As she says in her foreword: “The structures and the suggestions of each poem are mine; the words are all Dorothy’s.” In this interview Sarah talks to Write Out Loud about how Something so wild and new in this feeling came into being.
How did you discover Dorothy Wordsworth’s writings?
I was seeking greater context for some weather-rich Romantic poems that I’d identified as relevant to my PhD, researching the poetics of meteorology, at Birmingham City University, and I had turned to Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals as secondary reading. In particular, I was examining Dorothy’s account of the daffodil encounter on April 15th, 1802, which prefigures (and would provide an aide memoire for) her brother, William Wordsworth’s, poem, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. I was aware of the journals, and had encountered extracts, but had never engaged meaningfully with the work before. Although I’d intended a quick skim, I was drawn immediately by the freshness and vitality of Dorothy’s writing voice, which is so distinctive and direct, and by her extraordinarily vivid descriptions of and responses to the natural world. I was so enchanted by the music and imagery in Dorothy’s description of the daffodils, that I was compelled to extract the passage in its entirety, and I set about making a poem of it on the page! In reading the journals further, I formed connections between Dorothy’s thematic preoccupations and my own. As a means of expanding my own creative practice, and in order to investigate imaginative ways of responding to and using a variety of meteorological texts within my research, I undertook a search of an electronic version of the journals to create new documents full of phrases and fragments that were thematically pertinent to my PhD research – rain, sun, snow, frost, clouds, wind, storm, sky, mist, and so forth – with the intention of creating further new poems. Although challenging, I found the process so enjoyable and rewarding, that one poem led to another.
Why did you want to write these poems, using Dorothy’s language?
There is a richness and vibrancy to Dorothy’s writing which lends itself to poetry, and her natural world engagement feels powerfully relevant to me, as we face ecological crisis in the 21st century. I felt a great thematic sympathy between Dorothy’s journals and my own poetic preoccupations, and I was keen to explore that relationship. I wanted to draw out the poetic elements of Dorothy’s writing and to elevate her voice beyond the journal form; to develop my own creative practice; and contribute to fresh considerations of the journals and of the woman who wrote them. In writing these poems, which are a hybrid of Dorothy’s voice and my sensibilities, I have strived to remain true to the preoccupations and values that Dorothy exhibits in the ways she marvels at and cherishes the natural phenomena that surround her, such as birds, trees, insects, water, plants; as well as weather, of course.
Can you identify the elements in her prose that come across to you as poetry?
Dorothy’s journals bear many poetic signifiers: her language is sensory and evocative, frequently musical, often alliterative, and makes use of simile and metaphor. She expresses herself very imaginatively. The rich vocabulary and engaging imagery of Dorothy’s writing manifests through the musicality of her phrasing, and via the frequent rhymes, half-rhymes, and repetitions that echo through her language choices. She has a brilliant way of both describing and responding to the world around her, and I think this relationship between exteriority and interiority, between the observational and the experiential, makes her journal writing extremely poetic. I love how her focus shifts effortlessly from panorama (mountains, sea, skies) to minutiae (birds, flowers, insects); how she paints incredibly beautiful pictures with her words, bringing to life entire landscapes with a couple of sentences.
How important was weather to her? I suppose the obvious answer is, she did a lot of walking. But apart from that!
The Alfoxden and Grasmere journals display a significant meteorological preoccupation. Many of Dorothy’s observations of the natural world, her descriptions of social interactions, and the recording of her thoughts and feelings are framed within a scaffold of weather. My PhD researches the occurrence and function of weather in selected poetry, and I’m writing my own collection of weather poems, so this is very interesting to me! Dorothy observes weather from inside her house, but is often outside in the elements, and she writes frequently of prevailing and changing meteorological conditions. She is an enthusiastic gardener, she washes and hangs linens, she walks miles and miles either for pleasure or for practical purposes, so weather is absolutely central to her life. Dorothy displays a remarkable awareness of and sympathy for the natural rhythms of the world, the ways in which flora and fauna respond to and signify seasonal change. It’s also worth remembering that weather impacted on the domestic space, too – necessitating candles and fires, for example, when conditions were dark or cold or damp.
Why do you think she didn’t write poetry herself? What do you think stopped her?
Fascinatingly, Dorothy did write some poetry. She’s not well known for that medium, but some of her poems can be read online. She read widely, and her journals display a keen intelligence, so I imagine that she would have had a sound critical sense, given how extensively William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge read or recited their poetry in her company (including works in progress), and how often she transcribed. However, my own view is that the poetry Dorothy wrote is restricted by (and, therefore, suffers due to) the formal straitjacketing imposed by poetic conventions, resulting in an artificial stiffness that is thankfully absent in her journals.
It might be more illuminating to consider why journal writing served her needs better than poetry, and Dorothy addresses this question for us herself. She starts her journals in 1798, when William is travelling to Yorkshire with their brother, John, and Dorothy bids him a tearful farewell. She writes: “I resolved to write a journal of the time, till W. and J. return, and I set about keeping my resolve, because I will not quarrel with myself, and because I shall give William pleasure by it when he comes home again.” Although she doesn’t write her journal every day, and some sections are clearly written via retrospective reflection, Dorothy appears in this quotation to ascribe a veracity to journal writing which, perhaps, poetry cannot claim. “I will not quarrel with myself” suggests notions of ‘truth’ in her mind, an endeavour to record events faithfully and without narrative embellishment. The stylistic freedoms of prose clearly suit Dorothy’s linguistic exuberance. With the adoption of the journal form, her writing is free from the formal poetic constraints of the time – and free, perhaps, from comparisons with William that any poetry she wrote would inevitably attract – so her descriptions and her images absolutely soar.
‘Among the mossy stones’ is your poetic version of Dorothy’s journal entry of 15 April 1802 in which she says of the Ullswater daffodils, ‘the rest tossed and reeled and danced’. Wordsworth’s famous poem written two years later has them ‘tossing their heads in sprightly dance’. How closely did he rely on Dorothy’s initial recollection of the scene, do you think?
As indicated in the quotation above, Dorothy determines that writing her journal “shall give William pleasure by it when he comes home again”, which tells us that she would have shared her writing with him. The relationship between Dorothy’s daffodil recollections and William’s poem is evident, although of course the two pieces of writing differ in many regards as well. It’s fascinating to consider the literary cross-pollination between the two siblings; to imagine Dorothy reading her journals to William as they sat together in Dove Cottage, or to think of him referring to the journals for inspiration.
Do you think she is an important figure from a feminist perspective?
This is a complex question, because it first depends on one’s definition of feminism, and I don’t have the scope to debate that here. I will say that by choosing not to marry, Dorothy led a somewhat more liberated life than she may have done as a wife. She was free from the conventions and expectations of child-bearing, for example, and made the most of these freedoms, certainly as a younger woman, by walking extensively (often alone), by writing and by reading widely, by keeping the hours she chose (she was quite the night owl!), by unencumbered travel, and so on. However, the domestic arrangements that Dorothy shared with William until his marriage in 1802 bore many of the hallmarks of a traditional marriage in terms of the roles they each occupied. She clearly doted on her brother, prioritising his happiness and fretting over his wellbeing. We know she was aware of Mary Wollstonecraft, though, because there’s an intriguing journal entry on April 14 1798, when Dorothy writes, “Walked in the wood in the morning. The evening very stormy, so we staid [sic] within doors. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, etc., came.”. Unfortunately, Dorothy doesn’t record her opinion on Wollstonecraft’s life or writing, but she does, of course, remark on the weather!
What are the elements in her journals that are most important to you? How much does she mean to you, to us all, as a literary figure?
In terms of my PhD research, the meteorological content of the journals has the greatest relevance, which is meaningful to me because this provided my way into the journals, and was the fertile ground from which those early collage poems grew. On a more personal level, Dorothy’s natural world engagement and those passages in the journals where she expresses her emotions resonate profoundly with me. Due to the journal form, the writing feels intimate and immediate, and I get such a strong sense of Dorothy’s character from reading them.
Many of my poems in Something so wild and new in this feeling are rooted in natural world imagery – whether meteorological, botanical, astronomical, avian, etc. However, in other poems in the collection I have quite deliberately illuminated Dorothy’s interior life; which, though often present in the journals as subtext, is nonetheless rich and complex. The tone of the journals ranges from despondency to ecstasy, even if these feelings are not always named. This, for me, is an important and relevant aspect of Dorothy’s character and of her writing – and something I felt a great need to express in these poems.
Dorothy’s literary legacy is significant, providing scholars with the most precious insights into daily rural life of late 18th and early 19th century England; chronicling journeys abroad; and giving comprehensive accounts of the development of William’s poems and of his writing practices, along with lots of marvellous details about the Coleridges, too. But I’m not a historian or a biographer; I engaged with the poems as a poet, and my relationship with the text, and with the woman who wrote it, is deeply personal. Dorothy feels to me like a beloved friend. Reading and working so closely with her journals has been the most wonderful creative gift.
Among the mossy stones
When we were in the woods beyond
Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils
close to the water-side. We fancied
that the sea 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 above 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. This wind
blew directly over the lake to them.
© Sarah Doyle 2021
Further poems from Something so wild and new in this feeling can be read at Atrium Poetry, where it was Featured Publication for March:
Sarah Doyle is the Pre-Raphaelite Society’s poet-in-residence. She holds an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway College, University of London, and has been published widely in magazines, journals and anthologies, and placed in many poetry competitions.