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Saturday, 24 August 2013

Literary Gossip: The Wordsworth Threesome


William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a British romantic poet whose poems are about mainly about the beauty of nature. They often describe the countryside in the Lake District in NW England, where he went to live in the village of Grasmere with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), who was also a writer. His best-known book of poetry is Lyrical Ballads, which was written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his most famous poems include Daffodils and The Prelude.
The winter 1798-99 Wordsworth spent with his sister and Coleridge in Germany. There he wrote several works, including the enigmatic 'Lucy' poems. After return he moved Dove Cottage, Grasmere. In 1802 married Mary Hutchinson. They cared for Wordsworth's sister Dorothy for the last 20 years of life – she had lost her mind as a result of physical ailments. Almost all Dorothy's memory was destroyed, she sat by the fire, and occasionally recited her brother's verses.
Dorothy was 21 months younger than William. She was to lose her mother at age six, her father at eleven. She was separated from her brothers and sent to live with her mother's relatives. With no father and having been separated from her brothers since the age of six, at the age of fifteen, now a young woman, Dorothy was reintroduced to her brother, William: she fell in love with him, it was to be a deep and an abiding love which was to last a lifetime. William was off to university (Cambridge) in 1787; and, beginning in 1790, was traveling around quite a lot, including being in France for a year in 1792. After wondering around England, in particular through Wales, it will be recalled that William returned, in 1794, to the lands he knew as a boy. It is at this point that we may see the beginnings of the close and lifelong relationship as did exist between William and Dorothy. In September of 1795, they determined to live with one another, moving into their first little cottage at Racedown, Dorset. They continued to live together until William's death in 1850. The Wordsworth relationship, became a threesome, when, in 1802, William married Mary Hutchinson.
 William likely first met Mary when she was but young, at dame school, at Penrith. It seems, however, that the childhood friendship was more between Dorothy and Mary, a friendship that was to continue throughout their lives. As has been seen, during their adulthood, Mary and Dorothy were to pay regular visits with one another; and, because of the distances and the difficulty of travelling in those days, these visits would last for weeks on end. When Dorothy and William took up living with one another, these long visits continued, with Mary spending considerable periods of time with both William and Dorothy, beginning in 1795, at Racedown and then, after that, at Dove Cottage at Grasmere. In 1802 -- likely inspired by the delightful Coleridge children that now lived nearby -- William and Mary married. Thereafter, brother/husband, sister and wife lived together, first at Dove Cottage and then at Allan Bank (1808) and then, for the balance of their years at Rydal Mount (1813): this arrangement worked wonderfully for all three of them.

Mary, William's Green Willow

Coleridge adored Mary, his "beautiful green willow." Keats described her as Wordsworth's beautiful wife. Wordsworth's biographer, Burra, writes: "[Mary] ... served him and protected him, urged him to his poetry, and attended its labour through nearly fifty years of their lives. Writing his letters, copying his poems, nursing Dorothy, keeping the house, she served him with absolute devotion yet lost nothing of her own character, and gave him equally the wit and the criticism which was almost as useful as her love."
Dorothy, in the physical comparison, was “shorter, slighter.” Unlike most English women, she was of dark complexion, her “face was of Egyptian brown.” There was something about her eyes, which were wild and startling, and hurried in their motion. Were "the Lucy poems" dedicated to her? Whether Lucy was based on a real woman or was a figment of the poet's imagination has long been a matter of debate among scholars. Generally reticent about the poems, Wordsworth never revealed the details of her origin or identity. Some scholars speculate that Lucy is based on his sister Dorothy, while others see her as a fictitious or hybrid character. Most critics agree that she is a literary device upon whom he could project, meditate and reflect.

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