Oxford Professor and poet Lucy Newlyn’s recent book William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All In Each Other is unquestionably one of the best books about literature that I’ve ever read. I reached out to Lucy after reading a newspaper piece about her book; she and I exchanged books and have since become virtual friends. I’m honored and delighted to present our conversation about everything from the Wordsworths to higher education, the therapeutic dimensions of literature to the creative life more generally.
Why Wordsworth? What about him especially appeals and is of interest to you?
Wordsworth’s poetry has always been a source of emotional and spiritual nourishment to me. I grew up in an atheist household, and although I had access to religion at school, it was primarily through poetry that my sensibilities developed. As a youngster I learned ‘Daffodils’ by heart; a bit later I came to know and love the ‘Immortality Ode’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’ – these poems are always there, like an underground stream, in my consciousness. Until I was 18, I lived in Leeds, a large industrial city in the North of England, but my family was lucky to spend a lot of time in a farming village in Yorkshire, where my responses to the natural world and the local community were shaped by reading Wordsworth. When I was at secondary school, Lyrical Ballads fascinated me: I was drawn to WW’s compassionate portraits of travellers, war-veterans, marginalised and homeless people, and I read the ballads again and again while listening to Pete Seeger’s protest songs on our record-player in Leeds. Later, as an undergraduate, I became absorbed in WW’s explorations of selfhood and imagination in The Prelude; and as a young academic I delved into his literary language, his dialogue with Coleridge, and his engagement with Milton. As I’ve grown older, what I have valued most is his concern with the healing processes of memory and mourning. My understanding of his genius has gone through many different stages, but I’ve never lost my astonishment at his power to ‘think into the human heart’ as Keats put it.
Can you describe your first encounter with Wordsworth?
I have two childhood memories in connection with him. The first is of my mother explaining to me, when I was very little, that she had named me ‘Lucy’ after Wordsworth’s Lucy, before reading aloud his beautiful poem ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’. The poem struck a deep chord with me. It was when listening to the last stanza that I first came to realise the finality of death:
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
The second memory is of being in Wensleydale with my family (I must have been about 11), and having the poem ‘Michael’ perpetually in my head as I got to know a local farming boy and his father. I think my happy summers in the Yorkshire countryside may be responsible for much of my lifelong passion for Wordsworth. He understood the sheer joy a child feels in exploring nature; and he valued the bonds of kindness that hold small rural communities together – I experienced these things in Wensleydale as a youngster.
What is your favorite Wordsworth poem and why?
For the last year or so, my favourite has been ‘Stepping Westward’, a beautiful poem written in response to a chance encounter between the Wordsworths and a woman walking near a lake in Scotland. I love the way the voice of the un-named woman comes out of nowhere, ‘What, you are stepping westward?’ prompting thoughts about home, and reminding us of the vulnerability of these two fellow travellers as they journey towards an unknown destination. The poem is full of stillness – evoking the almost total solitude that you can feel as a walker in the Highlands. Yet there is companionship, too – with the unknown woman who speaks so softly (‘The salutation had to me/the very sound of courtesy’) and with Dorothy, who walks alongside her brother. The poem uses the plural pronoun ‘we’ to signify Dorothy’s inclusion in this shared encounter, which she also remembered in her prose account of their Scottish tour.
When did you first become interested in Dorothy Wordsworth, as a writer and creative figure in her own right?
As a graduate student, when I was working on a D Phil thesis about the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, I studied Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal in detail. Of course I understood then how fascinating her writing is in its own right, as well as how closely her own creativity was bound up in her brother’s. But I didn’t do justice to this in my thesis (which became my first book), and it wasn’t until more recently that I decided to look closely at the full range of her writings, tracing the development of her prose in detail. I think this change in focus may have had something to do with events in my own life – the death of my sister, becoming a poet, and developing an acute awareness of creative community. In writing this new book, I was trying to make restitution to Dorothy for having ‘missed out’ so much of her story when I was a young scholar.
Explain the significance of your book’s subtitle.
‘All in each other’ is a quotation from a poem written by Coleridge in 1798, when he was separated from his close friends, William and Dorothy. ‘You have all in each other – but I am lonely and want you’, he wrote. The words betray a sense of exclusion, and a feeling of envy for their intimacy. I chose this quotation as my sub-title because I wanted to evoke the extraordinary strength of the Wordsworths’ bond, which lasted the entirety of their lives and prompted their intertwined writings.
What can William and Dorothy’s creative habits, pursuits, and their relationship to each other teach writers and anyone who aspires to a creative life?
I think the Wordsworths had a holistic understanding of life, from which any aspiring writer could learn a great deal. Their example teaches us two very important things. Firstly, that creativity is not a solitary pursuit; it relies on community, shared endeavour, generosity, and connection with the environment. Secondly, it teaches us that creative collaboration is most rewarding when it is prompted and/or accompanied by communal activities – walking, talking, enjoying and remembering things together. These activities can provide a powerful means of alleviating loneliness and sorrow, as the Wordsworths found.
The siblings were separated when they were very young by their mother’s death, and grew up apart – so although they had early childhood memories in common, many years of separate experience came between them. Once they were reunited, they worked as fellow-labourers to re-build a home and re-establish their family’s attachment to the Lake District. ‘Creative collaboration’ in their case was not simply a division of labour, with Dorothy collecting observations in her journal and William writing them up in poetry; it was a symbiosis involving every dimension of their lives as brother and sister: home-making, gardening, child-rearing, grieving, entering into the hardships and suffering of neighbours; caring for the local environment, looking after each other in illness and old age. Writing happened in amongst all this – the fruits of collaborative labour were not viewed as a species of property in which each contributor held a share, but as an exchange of priceless household gifts, signifying kinship, love, and gratitude to the natural world.
In the Preface to your book, you write: “Because I share the Wordsworth’s concern with homesickness– and their belief in the healing power of nature, memory, and shared creativity– my account of their life together has a therapeutic dimension, and is intended to be of some practical use and inspirational value to non-specialist readers.” Can you elaborate on the therapeutic dimensions of your account and how and why you hope your book will be of practical use and inspirational value to non-academic readers?
The Wordsworths spent much of their lives working through the trauma of early separation, finding consolation in each other’s company and coming to terms with the grief caused by their parents’ deaths. The loss of their childhood home in Cumberland was absolute; but walking, talking, remembering, grieving, and writing were therapeutic activities, enabling them to recover their communal identity. They saw the beautiful landscape that surrounded them in the Lake District as their spiritual home, and by living together in Westmorland for fifty years, they created a bond with the place that was restorative. When Dorothy developed Alzheimers, and was confined to her room for twenty years with arteriosclerosis, William cared for her and helped her to return in memory to earlier, happier times.
There are many things in the Wordsworths’ story that I find inspiring and uplifting. In writing about them, I think I was writing a personal story as well – about my own homesickness for Yorkshire, the grief I feel for my dead sister, and the healing power of memory. I didn’t know when I started that this book would turn out to be a biography, but as I worked on it the human story took over and became more important than anything else. Of all my books, this is the one that has mattered most to me. I hope that my readers might find the same kind of inspiration as I have found, in learning how the Wordsworths came to terms with loss.
How are these therapeutic dimensions not sufficiently valued in academia and higher education more generally?
Academic books can be dry and inaccessible, offering over-elaborated theoretical frameworks, critical exegesis, and scholarly apparatus. As academics, we are trained to distance ourselves from our subject matter. Detachment, rationality and critical distance are valued much more highly than empathy and emotional involvement. We write using the left side of our brains, cutting ourselves off from emotions, which are the well-springs of creativity.
The lines from Wordsworth’s “The Sparrow’s Nest” that I quote at the very end of The Anti-Romantic Child feature prominently in your book as well. Can you tell us about how and why these lines are significant to you?
In this poem, WW pays tribute to Dorothy’s role in his life, thanking her for all that she has given him, as his sister and dearest companion. There are many tributes to Dorothy in his poetry, but none so absolute and moving in their devotion as this heartfelt expression of gratitude:
“She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble care, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.”
William’s many poetic tributes to Dorothy were part of a highly developed system of gift -exchange which began soon after the siblings were reunited and continued over the entirety of their shared life. In my book, I look at the gifts anthropologically, as kinship rituals. The importance of these gifts was that they reinforced already existing kinship bonds, acknowledging the sister’s time-honoured place at the centre of the household. But I’m afraid that sounds a bit dry! I love these lines because they are a beautiful and deeply moving declaration of love.
Why do you think there is such resistance to Wordsworth on the part of so many readers? How would you relate contemporary resistance to and dismissals of Wordsworth to the kinds of criticisms and ridicule levelled at Wordsworth and his poetry during his own lifetime?
There are at least two anti Wordsworthian traditions, or ways of expressing dislike. According to one tradition, WW’s poetry is overly concerned with humdrum themes, adopting a childish voice and simple rhyme schemes to write about trivial, everyday matters: the sound of a bird, a conversation with someone gathering leeches, a nest found in a cottage garden. But there is also dislike that some readers expressed for his allegedly ‘conservative’ views. The targets of parody in this tradition are WW’s alleged smugness, his tone of moral superiority, and his betrayal of the radical cause. To writers like John Hamilton Reynolds (who wrote a famous parody of ‘The Idiot Boy’), WW was an arrogant turncoat, a Tory Anglican whose writing was empty and vacuous. Keats, who was a friend of Reynolds, once described WW as a poet who embodied the ‘egotistical sublime’. It is very hard to shift such unfair prejudices, once they have become entrenched. Many readers nowadays think of Wordsworth as lofty and removed: a solitary figure who wrote on elevated themes, preferring the company of lakes and mountains to people. They associate him with reclusiveness, an extreme dislike of urban life, a culpable resistance to modernity.
Why do you think Wordsworth is so vulnerable to parody? What is your favorite parody of Wordsworth?
Any great writer is vulnerable to parody, and the decision to parody a writer – taking time to craft an imitation which is both recognisable and humorous — is a form of homage. Wordsworth made his writing vulnerable to parody by writing great, distinctive poetry, which he supplemented with a series of prefaces, deigned to instruct his readers in the art of reading his work. His earnestness of purpose, and his clearly identifiable poetic persona, made him an easy target. My favourite parody of WW is by Lewis Carroll, ‘I met an aged aged man’, because it is so full of affection for and understanding of the poem parodied. Carroll takes the original storyline of ‘Resolution and independence’ – the poet’s encounter with a leechgatherer in a deserted place –and turns their edifying conversation into comedy. If you’re giving WW the benefit of the doubt, his conversation with the old man is a source of gentle irony long before Carroll gets hold of the poem. I think WW was an immensely subtle poet, often one step ahead of his critics. All Carroll had to do was to develop a thread already planted in the original poem, which he did brilliantly.
How can we make great poetry less intimidating and more accessible to people?
Priscilla, you have done so much that is exemplary in this field, and your enthusiastic followers will want to join me in thanking you for what you have done. How can I answer you but by echoing the tenets of your remarkable book, and your equally remarkable blog? We can – and should – make great poetry less intimidating and more accessible: by reading great poetry aloud to our children when they are very young; by giving it the same centrality in our (and their) daily lives as music; by enabling kids to engage imaginatively with great poetry throughout school; by working hard to ensure that everyone has access to great poetry on the internet, in public talks, and at poetry readings; by quoting it in conversation, emails, blogs; by holding as many literary festivals as possible to celebrate it; by writing about it creatively in books; by engaging with it passionately at every opportunity, so that people never forget its relevance to thoughts, beliefs, choices, actions; and by reminding everyone, in all walks of life, that they too can write. This last point is key. Once you begin to think of yourself as a writer – as someone who can craft language to create certain effects – you feel a greater kinship with the role models you emulate. They begin to seem less terrifyingly remote.
Tell us about your own poetry and how it’s been influenced by the Wordsworths.
I started writing poetry in 2000 — very late in life – because I had to. My sister died, and there was no other way of working through my grief. The discovery that I could create poems came as a huge surprise (and relief), because for thirty years I had been teaching poetry without any notion that I could be a creative writer. At first I wrote only about my bereavement, which was all-consuming. Later I showed my work to poet friends who encouraged me, and this led (eventually) to my writing on different subjects. My first collection, Ginnel, came in response to a second bereavement, when my father died. In this collection, I turned back to memories of my childhood in Leeds, where I used to play in the back streets with my sisters. ‘Ginnel’ is a Yorkshire word meaning a passage between buildings, and in the poems I explored the hinterlands of middle-class Headingley and working-class Meanwood, mapping out the terrain that I came to know intimately as a child. The collection is unashamedly Wordsworthian, celebrating the remembered places of childhood, and childhood as a place. It is filled with heimweh or nostalgia — a profound longing for home, of the kind that the Wordsworths experienced throughout their lives; and it is marked by the same kind of regional pride – the same intensity of ‘local attachment’ – that one finds in Dorothy’s journals or her brother’s poems. The collection is also pervaded by memories of my father and my sister, and is intended as homage to them both.
Since writing Ginnel, I have gone on writing poetry, and teaching in Creative Writing workshops: I regard being a poet as the biggest blessing of my life – second only to the birth of my daughter. This new creative role has led to different teaching methods and concerns in my research, as well as a whole new way of valuing literature and the academy. The fact that this transformation came in response to my sister’s death is in some ways disconcerting, in other ways uplifting. I find the pattern of loss and recompense deeply Wordsworthian.
Can you summarize the kinds of attitudes towards and arguments about the Wordsworths that your book is intended to revise, correct, or dispel?
Since the 1980s, much scholarship in Romantic studies has been recuperative, championing neglected female writers who presented an alternative to ‘the great Western myths of masculine power, of authority and fulfilment’ (Susan Levin, 1987). In the important work of reconfiguring the literary canon, critics have seen Dorothy’s writing in opposition to her brother’s – typically alleging a contrast between her ‘poetics of community’ and his ‘egocentric poetics’ (Wolfson, 1988). However, there is little evidence that gender difference caused ideological divisions between the Wordsworths, or that their use of different media expressed competitive aims.
A separatist approach to William and Dorothy’s relationship is fundamentally flawed, because of the incalculable contribution they made to each other’s writing. Their creative processes were bound up in joint activities. Whether they saw things alone or together, they discussed what they wrote. This was a context where much material remained unpublished, where work was read aloud, and some composition was done together, orally. Dorothy’s journals often recorded natural phenomena noticed with William or other members in the circle – Coleridge, Sara Hutchinson, or Mary Wordsworth. The journals contained observations and recollections that could be used as prompts for poems. In their turn, poems helped to form habits of observation and recollection in the circle. The boundaries separating one writer’s work from another’s become blurred under these conditions.
Many recent accounts of Dorothy’s work have suggested that her ability was under-valued by her brother, and that her domestic role circumscribed her creativity, but nothing could be further from the truth. The monolithic, egotistical model of genius that is still all too commonly associated with the name of William Wordsworth came into being because of some deeply entrenched misconceptions, which date back to his reception in the nineteenth century. The poet of the ‘egotistical sublime’ – one who lived in ‘the busy solitude of his own heart’, seeing ‘nothing but himself and the universe’ – was a straw man set up for adversarial purposes, and it is high time we dispensed with him. As I hope my book shows, WW was a poet of community, who believed with his sister that ‘we have all of us one human heart’.
What advice would you give to a young person who was debating whether or not to apply for a Ph.D. program in literature?
Think long and hard before you make this choice. You have to be outstandingly determined, ambitious, and focused on academic goals if you are going to make it in a ferociously competitive market. There may be better ways to develop your capabilities. By ‘better’ I mean more life-enhancing, more conducive to happiness – your own and others’. If you want to teach, be sure that you choose the kind of teaching that will best suit your temperament. If you want to write, be sure that it is academic writing you want to do. Above all else, make sure that you do not lose touch with your humanity and creativity, which are among the most important gifts you have.
Why should we read Wordsworth?
Because he wrote the following definition of what a poet can and should be; and because the body of work he produced collaboratively with his sister bears out the truth of this definition:
“[The poet] is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.”
Lucy Newlyn is a scholar-critic, a poet, a literary biographer, an editor, and an anthologist — but above all else a teacher. She read English at Oxford University, going on to hold lectureships at various Oxford colleges before being elected to a Tutorial Fellowship at St Edmund Hall in 1986, where she has remained throughout her career. She gained the title Professor of English Language and Literature in 2005, and in the same year became an Honorary Professor at the University of Aberystwyth. She is an Advisory Editor of the journal Romanticism, a Fellow of the English Association, and a Patron of the Wordsworth Trust.
Newlyn is an authority on Wordsworth and Coleridge, and has published extensively in the field of English Romantic literature, including three books with Oxford University Press and the Cambridge Companion to Coleridge. Her book Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay prize in 2001: ‘a signal contribution to British Romantic studies and literary theory.’ More recently, she has been working on the prose of Edward Thomas. She co-edited Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry with Guy Cuthbertson; and she is general co-editor of Edward Thomas, Selected Prose Writings, a six-volume edition for Oxford University Press. She is also a published poet. Her first collection, Ginnel, was published in 2005 with Carcanet; and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and poetry magazines. She is Literary Editor of the Oxford Magazine, and she also runs an online Writers’ Forum for students, staff and alumni of her college.