IX. IDYL IN GRASMERE: 1800–03

From May 14, 1800, to January 16, 1803, Dorothy kept her “Grasmere Journal.” Through those 150 pages we are enabled to see and feel the daily life of brother and sister, and later, briefly, of brother, sister, and wife. The climate of Grasmere was not made for health: rain or snow fell almost every day, and the winter’s cold—even with snow—might reappear in June or July.36 Sunny days were ecstasies, and the occasional emergence of the moon was a transfiguring revelation. The cottage was heated with coal in fireplace and stove, but sometimes, Dorothy noted, “I could not sleep for sheer cold.” They took the weather stoically, grateful for spring and the usual gentleness of the rain; “it rained very mildly and sweetly” occurs repeatedly in the journal. “Sometimes Grasmere looked so beautiful that my heart almost melted away.”37

Many a walk they took, together or apart, sometimes a mile to Ambleside for mail, sometimes half a day’s journey to Keswick after Coleridge had settled there. Wordsworth seemed content with his sister-bride, calling her

The dear companion of my lonely walk,

My hope, my joy, my sister, my friend,

Or something dearer still, if reason knows

A dearer thought, or, in the heart of love,

There is a dearer name.

And as late as 1802 (the year of his marriage) he referred to her as “my love.”38 She was content to call him “Sweet brother.”39

She now had an income of forty pounds, he seventy; this (added to some dribblings from his publications), amounting to some one hundred forty pounds ($3,500?), was their yearly income. They had one or two servants, for poverty was so general that many a woman, spouseless, was willing to work for bed and board. Poet and sister dressed simply: Dorothy in garments usually made by herself, even to shoes;40 William in peasant garb, or in cast-off clothing sent him by friends.41 But they kept a vegetable garden, and sometimes caught fish in the lake. Moreover, the journal records, “I made tarts and pies,”42 “bread and pies,”43 “pies and cakes.”44 William was pampered.

But he worked too. Part of each normal day he composed, usually on his solitary walks, from which he returned to dictate lines to Dorothy. Also he chopped wood; dug and planted in the garden; and “William cleared a path to the necessary,”45—i.e., through the snow to the outdoor privy. Add that Dorothy brewed ale,46 and “we borrowed some bottles for bottling rum.”47 Despite the vegetables, William suffered from hemorrhoids,48 and (after 1805) from weakened sight, and insomnia; many an evening Dorothy had to read him to sleep.49

Those Theocritean days were suddenly confused by money and marriage. On May 24, 1802, Sir James Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, died, leaving his property and title to his nephew, Sir William Lowther, who arranged to pay the money owed by Sir James to the heirs of John Wordsworth, Sr. Apparently four thousand pounds was divided among the children. Though the shares of William and Dorothy were not paid till 1803, William felt that his reasonable expectations warranted him in at last offering his hand to Mary Hutchinson.

But the memory of Annette Vallon rankled in his conscience. Should he not clear up his relation with her before asking Mary to take him? On July 9, 1802, he and Dorothy left Grasmere by coach and foot for Mary’s present home at Gallow Hill. On July 26 they left Gallow Hill by coach for London. There, awed by the majesty of the city as seen in the early morning from Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth composed one of his many memorable sonnets—”Earth has not anything to show more fair.”50 They went on to Dover, took the packet across the Channel, and on July 31 found Annette and her nine-year-old daughter, Caroline, in waiting for them in Calais.

We do not know what agreement they came to; we know only that fourteen years later, when Caroline married, Wordsworth, then prospering, settled upon her an annuity of thirty pounds ($750?). The four remained at Calais for four weeks, walking the seashore in apparent accord. Wordsworth spun off another excellent sonnet—”It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, / The holy time is quiet as a Nun / Breathless with adoration,”—ending with a benediction for Caroline. On August 29 Wordsworth and Dorothy left for Dover and London. Apparently he was in no hurry, for not until September 24 did brother and sister get back to Gallow Hill.

On October 4, 1802, William and Mary were married. No presents came to the bride, for her relatives disapproved of Mary’s marrying “a vagabond.”51 Dorothy, who only recently had written of William in her journal as “my Beloved,” could not trust herself to attend the ceremony. “Her feelings were wrought to an almost uncontrollable pitch.”52 She went upstairs and lay “almost insensible” until Sara Hutchinson called to her that “they are coming” back from the church. “This,” she wrote in her journal that afternoon, “forced me from my bed where I lay, and I moved, I knew not how,… faster than my strength could carry me, till I met my beloved William and fell upon his bosom. He and John Hutchinson led me to the house, and there I stayed to welcome my dear Mary.”

That same day, in a chaise, the poet, his wife, and his sister began the long ride to Grasmere. Dorothy gradually adapted herself to the ménage à trois, and soon learned to love Mary as a sister and confidante. Besides, Mary brought to the household her own income of twenty pounds a year. When the Lowther payment finally arrived, it lifted the family to bourgeois comfort. William became an ardent patriot, and enlisted in the Grasmere Volunteers for the domestic defense of England against Napoleon.

To the Grasmere idyl belong some of Wordsworth’s finest lyrics (”To a Butterfly”); the powerful sonnet to Milton; the ode “Resolution and Independence,” chiding his own melancholy; and (between 1803 and 1806) the most famous of all his compositions—”Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Seldom has a philosophic fantasy been so beautifully expressed.

It begins on a somber note about his dimming eyesight: “Turn wheresoe’er I may, / By night or day, / The things which I have seen I now can see no more.” He makes this a symbol of our idealistic visions vanishing with our youth—”Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”—and he wonders may not the helpless miracles that we are at birth have come from a heavenly home whose memory brightens our childhood and fades as we grow:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;

The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home;

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy;…

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

Therefore the poet hails the child as

Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep

Thy heritage,…

Thou, over whom thy Immortality

Broods like the Day…

But even we adults have some dim consciousness of that lost horizon—

Blank misgivings of a Creature

Moving about in worlds not realized…

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither,

Can in a moment travel thither,

And see the children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling ever more.

This is anthropology theologized: the child, still an animal, rejoicing in its animal motions, limbs, and freedom; resenting every garment, prohibition, and restraint; inwardly longing for the freedom of animal life and movement in fields or woods, in seas or the air, and slowly, resentfully losing those liberties as the child becomes adult and the youth submits to civilization. But Wordsworth would have none of this; he was recalling Pythagoras, and hoping to find in him some bridge back to his childhood creed. The aging man seeks the womb of his feelings as of his life.

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