1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wordsworth, Dorothy

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WORDSWORTH, DOROTHY (1771–1855), English writer and diarist, was the third child and only daughter of John Wordsworth of Cockermouth and his wife, Anne Cookson-Crackanthorpe. The poet William Wordsworth was her brother and a year her senior. On the death of her father in 1783, Dorothy found a home at Penrith, in the house of her maternal grandfather, and afterwards for a time with a maiden lady at Halifax. In 1787, on the death of the elder William Cookson, she was adopted by her uncle, and lived in his Norfolk parish of Forncett. She and her brother William, who dedicated to his sister the Evening Walk of 1792, were early drawn to one another, and in 1794 they visited the Lakes together. They determined that it would be best to combine their small capitals, and that Dorothy should keep house for the poet. From this time forth her life ran on lines closely parallel to those of her great brother, whose companion she continued to be till his death. It is thought that they made the acquaintance of Coleridge in 1797.

From the autumn of 1795 to July 1797 William and Dorothy Wordsworth took up their abode at Racedown, in Dorsetshire. At the latter date they moved to a large manor-house, Alfoxden, in the N. slope of the Quantock hills, in W. Somerset, S. T. Coleridge about the same time settling near by in the town of Nether Stowey. On the 20th of January 1798 Dorothy Wordsworth began her invaluable Journal, used by successive biographers of her brother, but first printed in its quasi-entirety by Professor W. Knight in 1897. The Wordsworths, Coleridge, and Chester left England for Germany on the 14th of September 1798; and of this journey also Dorothy Wordsworth preserved an account, portions of which were published in 1897. On the 14th of May 1800 she started another Journal at Grasmere, which she kept very fully until the 31st of December of the same year. She resumed it on the 1st of January 1802 for another twelve months, closing on the 11th of January 1803. These were printed first in 1889. She composed Recollections of a Tour in Scotland, in 1803, with her brother and Coleridge; this was first published in 1874. Her next contribution to the family history was her Journal of a Mountain Ramble, in November 1805, an account of a walking tour in the Lake district with her brother. In July 1820 the Wordsworths made a tour on the continent of Europe, of which Dorothy preserved a very careful record, portions of which were given to the world in 1884, the writer having refused to publish it in 1824 on the ground that her “object was not to make a book, but to leave to her niece a neatly-penned memorial of those few interesting months of our lives.” Meanwhile, without her brother, but in the company of Joanna Hutchinson, Dorothy Wordsworth had travelled over Scotland in 1822, and had composed a Journal of that tour. Other MSS. exist and have been examined carefully by the editors and biographers of the poets, but the records which we have mentioned and her letters form the principal literary relics of Dorothy Wordsworth. In 1829 she was attacked by very serious illness, and was never again in good health. After 1836 she could not be considered to be in possession of her mental faculties, and became a pathetic member of the interesting household at Grasmere. She outlived the poet, however, by several years, dying at Grasmere on the 25th of January 1855.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Dorothy Wordsworth’s companionship to her illustrious brother. He has left numerous tributes to it, and to the sympathetic originality of her perceptions.

“She,” he said,
“gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
And humble cares, and delicate fears,
A heart the fountain of sweet tears,
And love, and thought, and joy.”

The value of the records preserved by Dorothy Wordsworth, especially in earlier years, is hardly to be over-estimated by those who desire to form an exact impression of the revival of English poetry. When Wordsworth and Coleridge refashioned imaginative literature at the close of the 18th century, they were daily and hourly accompanied by a feminine presence exquisitely attuned to sympathize with their efforts, and by an intelligence which was able and anxious to move in step with theirs. “S.T.C. and my beloved sister,” William Wordsworth wrote in 1832, “are the two beings to whom my intellect is most indebted.” In her pages we can put our finger on the very pulse of the machine; we are present while the New Poetry is evolved, and the sensitive descriptions in her prose lack nothing but the accomplishment of verse. Moreover, it is certain that the sharpness and fineness of Dorothy’s observation, “the shooting lights of her wild eyes,” actually afforded material to the poets. Coleridge, for instance, when he wrote his famous lines about “The one red leaf, the last of its clan,” used almost the very words in which, on the 7th of March 1798, Dorothy Wordsworth had recorded “One only leaf upon the top of a tree . . . danced round and round like a rag blown by the wind.”

It is not merely by the biographical value of her notes that Dorothy Wordsworth lives. She claims an independent place in the history of English prose as one of the very earliest writers who noted, in language delicately chosen, and with no other object than to preserve their fugitive beauty, the little picturesque phenomena of homely country life. When we speak with very high praise of her art in this direction, it is only fair to add that it is called forth almost entirely by what she wrote between 1798 and 1803, for a decline similar to that which fell upon her brother’s poetry early invaded her prose; and her later journals, like her Letters, are less interesting because less inspired. A Life by E. Lee was published in 1886; but it is only since 1897, when Professor Knight collected and edited her scattered MSS., that Dorothy Wordsworth has taken her independent place in literary history. (E. G.)