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Virginia Woolf, Reading Over Dorothy Wordsworth’s Shoulder: A Birthday Tribute

Wordsworth & his exquisite Sister are with me …. Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive …. Her information various — her eyes watchful in minutest observations of nature — and her taste a perfect electrometer — it bends, protrudes, and draws in at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
from a letter, July 1797

It’s late at night, the wind is blowing, and for the first time in too many years, I’m reading Virginia Woolf, who was born on January 25, 1882. In a piece about Dorothy Wordsworth, who died on January 25, 1855, Woolf is writing so lucidly and thoughtfully, in prose so nuanced and true, you feel that you’re there, in the moment, in the room, the sentences glowing like the embers of a fire you’re warming your hands by:

“For did not Coleridge come walking over the hills and tap at the cottage door late at night — did she not carry a letter from Coleridge hidden safe in her bosom?”

In that paraphrasing of passages in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal from the winter of 1801-1802, Woolf could be quoting from a child’s storybook of England where the author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes walking over the hills of night to tap at the door of Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister.” She’s waiting, “tormented by feelings which almost mastered her, still she must control, still she must repress, or she would … cease to see,” for she knows that only “if one subdued oneself, and resigned one’s private agitations” would one be rewarded. It’s as if Virginia has been reading over Dorothy’s shoulder before becoming her, sitting in her place, pen in hand, arranging the journal as I’m arranging her commentary.

An Uncommon Reader

Reading The Common Reader and The Death of the Moth in handsome online texts provided by the University of Adelaide Library in Australia, I came to Virginia Woolf’s Dorothy Wordsworth fresh from the passionate intensity of her Mary Wollstonecraft and “the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life,” she who was “at once so resolute and so dreamy, so sensual and so intelligent, and beautiful into the bargain.” When a certain unworthy lover attempted to escape her “quickness, her penetration, her uncompromising idealism,” Wollstonecraft followed him with letters, “torturing him with their sincerity and their insight.” Fishing “for minnows,” Woolf writes, “he had hooked a dolphin.”

Woolf’s responsiveness to Dorothy Wordsworth is less passionate, but no less eloquent and intimate. Comparing the two women, she writes that Dorothy “never railed against the cloven hoof of despotism” and “never confused her own soul with the sky” but “ruthlessly subordinated” herself “to the trees and the grass.” Otherwise she would be letting her own ego get in the way of the object she was observing, “would be calling the moon ‘the Queen of the Night’” and “talking of ‘dawn’s orient beams’” while “soaring into reveries and rhapsodies and forgetting to find the exact phrase for the ripple of moonlight upon the lake.” In other words, she would be bound by poetical conventions like those sometimes observed by Coleridge and her brother William, with his “metrical arrangement” of “the real language of men.”

Woolf and Coleridge

Meanwhile in “The Man at the Gate” (from The Death of the Moth), “the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge” inspires Virginia Woolf to transcend the brilliant, gossipy portraiture of contemporary observers like Thomas DeQuincey, whose image of S.T.C. “standing in a gateway” offers her an opening. After quoting DeQuincey’s description (“his eyes were large and soft in their expression” etc), she points out that by the time DeQuincey met Coleridge, in 1807, “the Kendal black drop” (as medicinal opium was called) “had robbed [Coleridge] of his will” but had “left his mind unfettered,” and so “as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate, his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned” (DeQuincey’s among them of course). Woolf then proposes Coleridge as the “immortal character” a “great novelist” such as Charles Dickens might have created.

Using examples of passages from Coleridge’s letters that Dickens might have incorporated in the portraying of such a character, including one she identifies as “the very voice … of Micawber himself,” Woolf takes full command of the analogy, becoming great herself in respect of her subject’s greatness:

“But there is a difference. For this Micawber knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.”

Woolf ends the paragraph by imagining “the Dickens Coleridge” and “the Henry James Coleridge perpetually [tearing] him asunder,” as one “sends out surreptitiously” to the chemist “for another bottle of opium” while “the other analyses the motives that have led to this hypocrisy into an infinity of fine shreds.”

How They Looked

On first meeting Dorothy Wordsworth in 1897, when she was 27, Coleridge wrote of her to a friend: “a woman indeed! — in mind & heart.” DeQuincey sketches an intriguing picture of Dorothy at 30 (except for a silhouette, the only image we have is a dull, dowdy portrait painted when she was 62), beginning with a phrase from her brother’s poem “Beggars”: “‘Her face was of Egyptian brown’; rarely in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gipsy tan.” Her eyes “were wild and startling. and hurried in their motion” and “some subtle fire of impassioned intellect burned within.” Wordsworth himself writes of “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes.” Coleridge was more straightforward: “her person is such that, if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary — if you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty.”

In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008), Francis Wilson compares the bond between Dorothy and her beloved William to the fictional one between Catherine and Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. While it’s easy to see flashes of Dorothy’s wildness in the moor-roaming Catherine, it’s a stretch to picture the waspish William in the same dark glass as Heathcliffe. Remove him from the radiant aura of his most inspired poetry and his sister’s adoration, and you find someone with an ego as big as the Lake District (when skating on a pond, it’s said that he liked to spell his own name in the ice). And try imagining a Heathcliffe small enough to fit into Thomas DeQuincey’s picture of Wordsworth, “upon the whole, not a well-made man … pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs,” not that there was an “absolute deformity about them,” for they had been “serviceable legs beyond the average,” having “traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles.”

While Dorothy’s references to her brother are almost always loving, if not adoring, she seems never to really see him the way she (after subduing her “private agitations”) sees a landscape. She regards Coleridge, however, as clearly and honestly as she perceives objects in nature: “At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes” with his “wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair,” but he is “a wonderful man” whose “conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit.” As natural and devoted as Dorothy’s sisterly love for William may have been, her feeling for Coleridge sometimes overwhelms her, breaking through, spiritedly and spontaneously, as it does in a journal entry from November 1801: “C. had a sweet day for his ride. Every sight and every sound reminded me of him dear, dear fellow, of his many talks to us, by day and by night, of all dear things. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping — nervous blubbering says William.” Contrast this glimpse of William’s callousness (which Dorothy instantly rebuts: “It is not so”) to her appreciation of the opposite qualities in Coleridge, “so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful.”

Lake Country Mystique

When Van Morrison sings, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge smokin up in Kendal by the Lakeside” in “Summertime in England,” he’s playing on the mystique embodied by, as Coleridge phrased it, “three persons and one soul” wandering the hills and valleys and cliffs of Devon and the fells of the Lake Country between 1798 and 1808. While Morrison throws Bristol and Avalon, Blake and T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Lady Gregory, and Mahalia Jackson into the mix, there’s no room in his rock and roll vision of Avalon for the Bloomsbury set. Even so, it’s easier to see a “gipsy-tan” Virgina Woolf hiking the Lake District with Dorothy than it is to picture Wordsworth sharing a joint or even a taste of the “Kendal black drop” with Coleridge.

Her Departure

Surely Virginia Woolf must at some point have registered the fact that January 25, the month and day of her birth, coincided with the month and day of Dorothy Wordsworth’s death. A picturesque version of Virginia’s own death, on March 28, 1941, can be seen in The Hours (2002) as Nicole Kidman walks resolutely into the River Ouse. There’s something closer to Dorothy Wordsworth’s subdued “seeing” in the account of Virginia’s last walk in Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (Oxford 1996) by Panthea Reid, who lives in Princeton:

“… Virginia walked across the bowling green unobserved. She passed along the fence by two elm trees and let herself out at the top gate. With huge black rooks cawing in the tall trees above, Virginia set out toward the river valley. She walked across the meadows, buffeted by the wind from the sea, until she reached the River Ouse, put stones in her pocket, left her walking stick on the bank, walked into the water, and sank into a tidal current, hoping to find ‘rest on the floor of the sea.’”


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