Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals shine with moonlight and rain-washed landscapes, but did her later illness inhibit such vision? No, writes Iona Glen, who, when considering the poetry and criticism of Polly Atkin, sees Wordsworth’s creativity flourish in her periods of ill health.
The journals of Dorothy Wordsworth are full of weather. It is the texture of the landscape, shaping her daily rhythms of walking, homemaking, gardening, poetry, sociability, and illness. Reading the Grasmere Journal (1800-1803), it is rain & moonlight that lingers in the mind. Almost every page will note the moon or whether it has rained that day.
Moonshine like herrings in the water
a wild moonlight night
A showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.
It is appropriate, then, that Polly Atkin’s recent biography, Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021), uses weather as a guiding metaphor to explore the neglected parts of Dorothy’s life, particularly her experience of long-term ill health. Herself a poet with chronic illness living and working in Cumbria, Atkin finds ‘interlinked weathers’ between the body and the outdoors, ‘repeated parallels between the external weather of the Lake District, and the internal weather of the body in pain.’
Dorothy and her brother William Wordsworth formed a collaborative literary household at Dove Cottage in Grasmere where they lived from 1799 to 1808. Here, William wrote many of his most famous poems, forging a lasting connection between nature and poetry in the Romantic imagination, with the act of walking the conduit of creativity. Famously, William composed while perambulating (it is estimated that he walked 180,000 miles during his lifetime).
The interrelationship of Dorothy and William’s writing gives shape to the intense bond between them. Dorothy’s description of daffodils that ‘tossed & reeled & danced … ever glancing ever changing’ became William’s ‘host of golden daffodils … fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’ But Dorothy’s affinity with nature and devotion to walking has made her an inspiration for subsequent nature writers. The characterisation of her contemporaries, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincy and William himself, evokes an elemental figure wandering across the fells with unladylike tanned skin and ‘wild eyes’, and whose powers of perception render her an ‘electrometer’.
Yet when Dorothy’s internal weather grows stormier following acute illness in 1829, many contemporary scholars grow despondent. The journal written between 1829 and 1835, known as the Rydal Journals, has never been published alongside her celebrated earlier writing. After 1835, her life is largely ignored as the journals cease and she can no longer walk as before, becoming mostly housebound and dependent on carers. Atkin identifies a language of shadows and obscurity used to define this period.
Rachel Trickett, editor of Illustrated Lakeland Journals (1991), uses similar vocabulary, describing the ‘cruel’ and ‘tragic conclusion’ to Dorothy’s life, a ‘sad supplement to the radiant early years.’ Cultural history is often tempted to encapsulate historical figures in moments of time easily mythologised. Yet this style of thought limits deep explorations of the complexities of human experience. It is exclusionary, risking the further marginalisation of the historically disadvantaged and perpetuating blind spots in archival research. Atkin suggests that a perceived narrative untidiness in Dorothy’s life, rooted in ableism, has discomfited writers and biographers. For too many, Dorothy’s value has ‘become tied to her physical capacity’. She is rightly scathing about these interpretations:
Could the problem be that it does not occur to later readers … that Dorothy could be at the same time sharply intelligent, wildly vivacious, and also sick, or disabled? … It had not occurred to me how casually readers would assume that a person cannot be both active, and sick. Creative, and sick. Mobile, and sick.
By contrast, Atkin has written a recuperative biography, looking at Dorothy’s life in the round and focusing on her later years. She speculates with caution over the exact nature of her illness, which may have encompassed bowel disease, a circulatory condition, chronic fatigue, migraines and cognitive impairment. Dorothy’s symptoms are examined in detail, many of which she began to experience in milder forms early on. Atkin explicitly eschews the sexist and ableist ideas put forward over the years that her sickness was primarily psychological, revenge for the sublimation of her own talents to the nurture of William’s poetry and the demands of her later care-giving role as spinster aunt. Instead, Recovering Dorothy shows how she left a record of her later life ‘not of a long twilight, or of darkness encroaching, but of the shocking persistence of growth’.
The Rydal Journals chart the years when Dorothy’s embodiment was particularly precarious, with frequent health crises and times when her family readied themselves for her death. Dorothy navigated a life of restricted movement and long periods in the sick room that induce a molten experience of time. Atkin notes that these journals are full of ‘pain, fatigue, and frustration’ alongside ‘beauty and joy; moments of sudden gladness’ and goes on to identify three things that provide the most comfort: ‘nature, memory and poetry.’ As well as a valuable document of social history, Dorothy’s daily habits, struggles and use of strategies like pacing, align with present-day methods used by individuals negotiating their own arena of the unwell. During this time, Dorothy continues to write constantly of the weather and the natural world, her attentiveness and sensitivity unaltered.
every leaf a golden lamp – every twig bedropped with a diamond
snow drops in warm places – hanging their bead like heads
a sweet gleamy morning
Poems are sent to friends and collected in a commonplace book as ‘sickbed consolations.’ As Atkin points out, Dorothy remains in close dialogue with William’s work. One poem begins with the line ‘Five years of sickness & of pain/This weary frame has travelled o’er’, echoing the famous five years that open ‘Tintern Abbey’. Considering that William’s work is a foundational statement about his sense of self as a poet, Dorothy’s poem suggests that her experience of illness has been just as profound.
When Dorothy is too unwell to leave the house, the outdoors come indoors, with flowers and greenery brought to her room. Her shifting health entangles the natural world. It is in the Rydal Journals that Atkin notices how ‘the weather outdoors’ and ‘the weather of her body’ are dependent on each other. A pattern emerges of turbulence in winter and recovery in warmer months.
the inexpressible comfort of fresh air
a mild thaw & the sick may be thankful
there is something in the air that oppresses me
I feel the weather.
Atkin’s poetry collection Much with Body (Seren Books, 2021) can be read as a companion volume to Recovering Dorothy. It contains a central section of found poems created with snippets of Dorothy’s writing. ‘Dorothy’s Rain’ consists of precipitation, containing every reference to rain made from 1824 to 1833. Its intensity varies: ‘rain falling without respite’, rain is ‘slight’, ‘gentle’, ‘threatening’. She is ‘caught by rain’. Rain is ambiguous. It nourishes the land that Dorothy loves; it constrains and worsens her symptoms. In her coda to the biography, Atkin explains her thinking behind this catalogue of rain:
The accumulation and persistence of rain reflects the accumulation and persistence of pain: the repetition and the length encapsulate the repetitive nature of chronic illness.
The alternative is a poignant ache throughout the poem, summoned by the exchange of just one letter: ‘a few drops’ of pain, pain ‘& twilight’, pain ‘but not heavy’. Writing on illness possesses a complicated relationship with language itself. The difficulty of relating ‘what it feels like’ and the legacies of moralism around sickness can make those with chronic illness feel isolated, judged or willfully misunderstood by everyone from doctors to loved ones to strangers. In Ill Feelings, Alice Hattrick writes: ‘There is no metaphor for everything hurts.’ Yet they still keep notes on their phone trying to approach description of experiencing ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS):
What does it feel like to be struck by lightning
My body is rigged
So folded up in myself I can barely walk
Dorothy’s journals also contain this dynamic, sometimes noting instances of ‘violent pains’, headaches or fatigue without elaboration. At other times she writes that her limbs are ‘like marble’ and ‘the cold air wrecks me’. Despite its central critique of the use of metaphor, the most quoted part of Susan Sontag’s essay Illness as Metaphor (1978) is its preface imagining wellness and sickness as two kingdoms to which we all hold dual citizenship. Metaphorical language remains integral to the way humans’ experience existence and embodiment, and the communication of that experience to others, however imperfectly.
Weather as the vagaries of embodiment is a more intimate metaphor. The remoteness implied by demarcated (and patrolled) geographical regions is a distance preferred by many, drawing clear boundaries around health and sickness. But illness, like weather, is a force of nature. It is always there, ever changing, ever returning, mediating our sense of being in the world. We must acclimatise ourselves to it. Shelter may be discovered and built, but we will always be held within weather.
Rain and moonlight thread throughout Dorothy’s writing, demonstrating the continuity of personhood too often erased by incurious and uncareful hands. The implication that through unwellness people like Dorothy shed first their essential selves and then their historical significance justifies this biographical indifference. But Dorothy’s narrative cannot be broken into unequal portions of activity and inactivity, health and sickness. The parallels between her life and contemporary accounts of living with chronic illness demonstrate the importance of recovering the gaps, whether through archival or imaginative discovery.
Atkin’s poem ‘Unwalking’, also from Much with Body, slices through the knot tying together physical capability, nature-worship and a meaningful creative life. The poem is both a powerful exposition of the aims of Recovering Dorothy and a subversive reworking of the legacy of Wordsworthian Romanticism:
people have not walked, veining the earths with unpaths, unlines
of desire, so you have called them invisible. No footsteps.
Waiting is not the opposite of walking.
Unwalking is not the same as waiting.
I do not have to move to be moved. Are you moved?
Dorothy Wordsworth’s life is not worth less when, as Atkin reveals through scholarship and poetry, her ‘keen eye’ is ‘turned not just on the world around her, but on the world inside.’ Weather does not separate, for there will always be
Rain by pailfuls driven against my windows
a glittery hailshower
a cold fine moon
Polly Atkin’s Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth is published by Saraband and Much with Body by Seren; both are available to purchase online and in bookshops around the UK.
About Iona Glen
Iona Glen is an aspiring writer based in London, working in museums’ visitor services. She loves writing about women artists, nature, memory, and people’s relationships to their environments.
Her creative non-fiction has been published by DearDamsels’ (SEALSKIN | Iona Glen explores her changing relationship with the skin she exists in. (deardamsels.com) and her analysis of Margaret Tait’s film Blue Black Permanent was published by Girls’ on Top’s blog Read Me (Selkie Song: Female Creativity in Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent — Girls on Tops (girlsontopstees.com).
She recently launched a newsletter called ‘natural longings’ on substack, exploring humankind’s complex relationships to the natural and non-human world. Her most recent essay, ‘Earth-born companions’ was about the appeal of wild animal-human companionship narratives (Earth-born companions pt. 1 – natural longings (substack.com)).
This piece was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
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Feature image: Yates, Frederic; Rydal Water; Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/rydal-water-15848