Iona Glen meets award-winning poet, Polly Atkin, to discuss her recent biography Recovering Dorothy, how Dorothy Wordsworth’s illness has been overlooked in academic scholarship, the marginalisation of those with chronic ill health, poems as time machines and much more.
On 18 March 1802, while walking back to Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Cumbria, the home she shares with her brother William, Dorothy Wordsworth stands under sudden moonlight. The surrounding fells, ‘white & bright as if they were covered in hoar frost’, inspire a famous entry in her journal, where ‘many exquisite feelings’ make her ‘more than half a poet.’
Over two centuries later, poet Polly Atkin takes me to this exact spot. It is a moment that induces one of those jolts of intimacy with the past. A Grasmere resident of over fifteen years, researching and writing extensively about the Wordsworths and the Lake District, Atkin is the ideal host with which to experience this. From our vantage we can see two lakes on either side: Grasmere and Rydal Water. They are almost two quotation marks pinched into the landscape, paired like the Romantic siblings whose words have indelibly marked this terrain.
I meet Atkin to talk about her recent biography Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth (Saraband, 2021). Despite being a lauded figure in British nature writing through her Grasmere Journal, the full spectrum of Dorothy’s life experiences has often been overlooked. As Atkin explains, the ‘golden decade’ of 1799-1808, spanning the years at Dove Cottage, has attracted the most mainstream attention since the Victorians. In response, the biography focuses on the hitherto unpublished Rydal Journal and charts the impact of deteriorating health on Dorothy’s life after 1829. Atkin’s own poetry collection, Much with Body (Seren, 2021), recently longlisted for the 2022 Laurel Prize, is anchored by a series of poems collaged from this neglected journal. This formed the ‘seed’ of Recovering Dorothy.
Diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Genetic Haemochromatosis in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Atkin often uses landscape to evoke experiences of pain and long-term illness in her poetry. In ‘Mountain’, for example, a fell is a ‘Scar on the skin of the land, hypertrophic, memory/of conflict’ that is ‘formed out of pain’. Nature is not a simple restorative site in the vein of the conventional ‘nature cure.’ Other poems explore an affinity with the natural world combined with a wry clarity about the risks of self-projection or un-nuanced romanticisation, a necessary counterweight to many interpretations of the Wordsworths’ legacy here.
Atkin shows me around her local area with a striking responsiveness to her surroundings. Sentences are frequently paused to point out various details: the attic window of the room where she first stayed while working with the Wordsworth Trust, the whirring apparition of the Mountain Rescue helicopter, or the birdsong of a willow warbler high in a tree on Grasmere Common.
We wander to high ground to find a spot for our interview. Hoarse wind often obscures our words on the audio recording, so I must rewind constantly to transcribe, listening again and again. But the noises bring back the experience of sitting there in the grass, the lake in my peripheral vision, discussing distorted literary legacies, the marginalisation of those with chronic illnesses, the need to ask new questions of historical sources, and poems as time-machines.
When I was younger, my family went to all these Wordsworth sites. We had William wandering around composing his poetry, Dorothy wandering around composing her journals. They made it seem like quite an empty landscape. But I’ve been reading Dorothy’s journals. It’s absolutely full of people. She meets people all the time. I find that so interesting, that the perception I grew up with is so different.
I think it’s skewed. It’s skewed by the fame of the poems, as well, isn’t it? The whole idea of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, which I’ve always kind of thought as some kind of weird Lake District in-joke. When is a cloud lonely in the Lake District? This year I saw a single cloud in a blue sky and thought: ‘Oh my God! It can happen!’ It’s the only time I’ve seen it.
But people take that as an unpeopled landscape. And Wordsworth’s poems are full of people as well. They’re always meeting people, and that was one of the things that really fascinated me when I was doing my PhD, was all these people that pass through, and for Dorothy they become these signifiers of other lives that she could have as well. They’re both really concerned with homelessness, and unrootedness. All these people who come through, particularly for Dorothy; the women who are begging, or had bad things happen to them, she always writes their stories down. And you can see that she’s seeing other versions of herself in those people.
She’s been at the mercy of other people her entire life, really. She was orphaned so young and was at the mercy of the kindness or non-kindness of family members and family friends. She’s super aware of what it’s like to feel precarious. [When the Wordsworths’ mother Ann died in 1778, Dorothy was sent away to live with relatives. Her father died in 1783. William and Dorothy are only properly reunited in 1795, settling at Dove Cottage in 1799].
William and Dorothy were obsessed with homemaking. They were orphaned so young, and they were separated. So that idea of Dove Cottage as a home they can create together is important.
When people envisage this perfect English cottage in their minds, this cosy family group, they don’t realise what was at stake for them, the continual presence of this fear of separation and of homelessness, which drives their desire to create this home, to cultivate family, the home, and all that kind of domesticity that we associate with them. Even making the garden, which is so important to them, is all part of trying to lay down roots. To find a place for themselves when they didn’t feel that they’d had that before.
To go back to your idea of precarity – your poetry and the biography is so much about that idea of precarity in your body. Having a precarious body, and what it means to go for long walks. How, in nature writing, it seems to be a legacy of our reading of the Wordsworths that it is so much about pushing your body to its limits. So, people who need to pace, who need to strategise in a different way are excluded. We have a simplistic idea of Dorothy’s life. Early in the Grasmere Journal it’s clear she is experiencing pain and all the symptoms that you write about in milder forms early on. It complicates our idea of that legacy of walking and writing.
Yeah completely, as I say in the book, for me it was obvious that those things could coexist because I knew they coexisted in my own body. It hadn’t occurred to me until I went to conferences and read more books about Dorothy and realised how people talk about her. They were skipping over all the bits that seemed so obvious to me – as someone who experiences pain and fatigue myself – and just focusing on the fact that she walked really long distances. Without any thought of what that means. Just skipping over the parts where she spends days in bed. Or has to stop on walks and go and lie behind a wall. Or, in a more serious example, having to borrow someone else’s coach to get back from Ambleside. She can’t walk the rest of the way home because she’s too ill.
It’s like they can’t compute those parts of her life, so they skipped over them completely or they didn’t know what to do with them, so then they’ll do an aside about it, or discount them completely. Whereas, to me, it was obvious that this precarity is there all the way through. The more I began to look at it, the more it became entirely, unavoidably obvious. How have other people ignored this? Well, you know why they’ve ignored it, because it doesn’t fit a narrative. But I think as well, in recent decades, as Dorothy has been reclaimed as this Outdoor Woman, that’s then made this narrative even more dominant. This repeats some of these very simplistic versions of Dorothy as this vital, energetic great walker, and results in completely missing these other aspects of her life, which are there the whole time as well.
Your personal experience of chronic illness really is central to the biography because you have these perceptive moments. I always think about the fireplace. There’s an episode when Dorothy wants to be near the fireplace, and it being read as her petulant behaviour, rather than that she feels cold. People with long-term sickness often have different experiences of heat, but when you have different illnesses, or quite a few illnesses intersecting with each other, that really opens a window into her experience that requires first-hand insight and knowledge.
This is a part of her life where we have (Dorothy’s sister-in-law) Mary Wordsworth’s accounts rather than Dorothy’s. Mary sees it as something petulant and silly and a sign of Dorothy being not right, so that’s how other people have read it too. But all the way through the journals Dorothy is talking about being really really cold, talks about her limbs being ‘starved to marble’, frozen to marble. The thermometer is high, but she still feels cold. She knows there’s something slightly odd about it, but she also knows that’s how she feels.
For decades, I had my own testimony of how my body feels discounted by doctors and medical people. There’s no evidence for why you’re feeling that way, so you can’t be feeling that way. I recognise those accounts of Dorothy’s, that everybody has just gone: ‘Well, clearly, she’s having a cognitive issue because she thinks she needs to be by the fire when everything else is warm’.
No one else for one second thought: ‘Maybe she’s actually cold?’ And that’s one of those instances that really got me. Nobody takes her own account seriously, even these people who admire her so much. It’s one of those things I find so confusing about it, really, is that people who have dedicated their entire life to writing about Dorothy, are still ready to go: ‘We can’t trust her when she’s saying that’. In the same way that people who love you can say the same thing about your bodily symptoms. ‘Well, are you sure that’s really what you’re feeling?’
The aspect of asking different questions of our sources is so important. I hope that this book is going to prompt more of those questions, and a realisation that those questions are there to be asked.
There is a lot about the landscape and weather as a metaphor for living in a sick body, a body with limitations. And it’s the same in Dorothy’s work.
I really feel that. I find weather completely changes how I feel. I think this is something that a lot of chronically ill people share. For Dorothy, because she has this belief and evidential theory that the cold and the damp make her more ill, she becomes increasingly aware of the weather. She can’t ignore it.
This whole ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothing’ malarkey really winds me up. If it’s really cold and wet, there is literally nothing that will make me feel comfortable. The cold and the damp get into my bones, get into my joints. You know, I feel all of that so completely and keenly in my body that I can’t ignore it. It then affects the way everything functions, and the way I feel, and the way I’m able to work. And I’ve known that all my life. To me those links are self-evident. But maybe we don’t always think about it. We have this culture of ‘just put your waterproof trousers on and go for a walk in the rain. Why not?’.
One of the wonderful bits that really stood out for me in those later journals is a moment where William comes into Dorothy’s sick room when there’s a massive rainstorm. For Dorothy, we know at this point it’s: ‘Oh, doom!’ It’s going to make her feel really ill. William comes into her room and goes: ‘It’s so lovely to see the rain, isn’t it? It really reminds me of all those “moist tramps”, all those lovely rainy walks we used to take.’ Dorothy can’t feel nostalgia for it anymore because she knows how much that hurt her physically. That’s how I feel in relation to a lot of nature writing. Nature writing wants us to go: ‘Taking a walk in the rain is lovely!’ And my body’s going: ‘No.’
It’s a search for an extreme experience, extreme weather, climbing the highest mountain, being in torrential rain. Whereas if you have an experience of long-term illness, you are already in extremity.
People are looking for that sense of risk, the frisson of risk in the outdoors. For me, crossing the room is risky! For a lot of my life, I just thought: ‘I’m not trying hard enough to be able to do these things easily’ and not realising that some people really are able to ignore their body. Even before I had such constant and continual pain as I do now, my body has always been a loud companion that makes its needs very felt and heard. It won’t let me ignore it. My own baby in a sense is my body. It’s a very demanding companion!
Some people are having a very different experience of the world because they’re not having to fight their body. You can get away with it. If I did that, it would take six months to heal. I wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere for six months.
Another fascinating part of the book is the ‘green therapy’ that Dorothy and her family use, which seems to produce for her a balance between pleasure and pain.
There’s always this weighing up of the pain and fatigue of being outside and the pleasure that she’s going to get from it. What’s nice about the balance that Dorothy creates is that she brings that green therapy into her room. It’s one of the few really nice examples that we have of somebody adapting to their disability. Dorothy has this need to be around nature. But she can’t physically get outdoors. She brings it into her room instead. I think that’s really beautiful, really moving, and really useful as well.
I’ve often found it frustrating to read ‘Go for a walk, you’ll feel better’ because sometimes it’s impossible. It’s getting there that’s the issue. The idea of transplanting the natural world and getting it to you, there’s a lot of relief to that idea. That nature isn’t something you only get outdoors.
Definitely. A lot of nature writing and ‘nature cure’ writing is rooted in the wilderness-body ideal. This is similar to Kathleen Jamie’s idea of the Lone Enraptured Male, who is not only white, middle class and male but also healthy. You know, he has to be healthy to strike out into the wilderness.
I think it owes a lot to a colonial mindset about conquering emptiness. Even the idea of wilderness is a western concept that erases native people. So much British nature writing is wrapped up in the idea of empty wilderness. And obviously, when you look at the Wordsworths’ writing, you see a peopled landscape. We’re within a peopled landscape. And the idea that you can have anywhere in the UK which is empty! If there’s anywhere that’s empty in the UK, it’s because someone has been cleared off it. And that’s not a good thing.
What really worries me about the social prescribing aspect of the nature cure on the NHS is that there could be a kind of victim-blaming that goes on. ‘Oh, you didn’t go on your walk up the mountain today. Well, no wonder you’re depressed!’ This is levied against people all the time anyway. There’s so much victim-blaming with illnesses, especially chronic illnesses. So many people go: ‘You’re not living right in some way. What are you doing wrong?’ Which is why people are so keen to prescribe things to you. ‘Have you tried hugging a tree?’ Wild swimming. Any of these kinds of things that are posited as cures rather than therapies. If you do them right, then you’ll be better. But that’s not how it works. It’s never how it works. It makes you feel like a failure if you don’t feel better. Or if you go for a walk and you feel bad. What’s happened then?
The legacies of Wordsworthian Romanticism fed into ideas of the nature cure and the wilderness-body ideal. But even in ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, William’s out and about, seeing the daffodils. But then –
He’s on his ‘pensive couch’!
He’s resting! And the lines beginning ‘they flash upon that inward eye’ were Mary’s suggestion, so it’s also collaborative.
It’s about the famous concept of ‘recollecting in tranquility’. That’s so important. Poetry isn’t an instantaneous process. When William writes that poem, he’s reflecting on something that happened years earlier, and that Dorothy wrote down. They’ve revisited her journal and are thinking about that moment. It’s one of those ‘spots of time’ moments. What you’re getting in the poem is the poet lying on his couch in the house, remembering the walking.
It’s Dorothy’s memory. That’s almost a description of her in later life.
Yeah, completely. I often think that William thinks of poems as time machines, a portal into a moment. And his poems often literally ask you to ‘come and walk with me along this path.’ But they’re ways to re-enter a moment which is long past. And then Dorothy uses them in that way too. This is one of the most amazing ways again which puts nature in her sick room. Through poetry and remembering moments which have passed through a poem, which then become portals. You can escape a room into the portal of a poem, which is absolutely magic. It’s next level stuff. Poetry as sci-fi!
You’ve lived in Grasmere for fifteen years. Do you feel you have accumulated layers of connections to Dorothy and Dove Cottage?
Yeah, totally, and always overlaid with my own memories as well. I have a very peculiar experience of time and moments of things where I can see all the layers at once. Seeing yourself on a different day over there at the same time. The snail trails of ourselves around the place. And then you become aware of the snail trails of other people around the place too. When I’m walking here, I’m walking with myself in every other time that I’ve ever walked here, and I’m also walking with every other person who’s ever walked here, including Dorothy, and the neighbours who were gathering wood, and the horses, and the navvies who lived down here in the 1890s. All of that is co-present to me.
Certain landscapes make me feel like that, like I’m falling through centuries, and I can catch an echo of something that happens ten thousand years ago. And this is one of those places I think that can feel a bit like that. And I wonder if in some ways that’s why the Wordsworths were drawn to it too.
Polly Atkin’s Recovering Dorothy (Saraband) and Much with Body (Seren) are available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Follow Polly on Twitter @pollyrowena and Instagram @pollyrowena
This interview was commissioned for our mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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