20 January, 2014Issue 24.1BiographyLiterary CriticismLiteraturePoetry

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Sibling Sympathy

Bryn Jones Square

Lucy Newlyn
William & Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other
Oxford University Press, 2013
386 pages
ISBN 978=0199696390

“The web of our Life is of mingled Yarn”, observes John Keats in a letter to Benjamin Bailey on 8 October 1817, borrowing a metaphor from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well to describe the entangled network of relationships within Leigh Hunt’s circle of friends, which included such literary heavyweights as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Keats himself. The communal lives of these Romantic-era writers brought rivalries and creative reciprocities, shedding light on the social nature of artistic production. Although these poets did not collaborate directly, their works reveal a profound mutual interdependence.

A similar web of influence is evident within William Wordsworth’s literary coterie, consisting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and Thomas De Quincey, to name a few. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798)—a collaborative collection of poetry that many argue inaugurated the Romantic movement in England—illustrates well the efficacy of literary partnerships. But it is the meeting of minds between William and his sister Dorothy that best exemplifies the value of shared artistic labour, the symmetry that can emerge from a confluence of creative energies. To use a phrase from Shelley’s ‘On Life’, the literary productions of the Wordsworths were the result “of a multitude of entangled thoughts”; the siblings were, to quote William’s epitaph to Charles Lamb, “collateral stems sprung from one root”. In her latest book, William & Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other (2013), Lucy Newlyn, professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, captures the intricacies and subtleties of the Wordsworths’ creative partnership, showing a deep attunement to the interplay of feelings, memories, associations, ideas, and ideals that governed the life and writings of these famous siblings.

Newlyn opens her book with an excerpt from a letter written by Coleridge to the Wordsworths in December 1798; separated from his friends, Coleridge opines (with a hint of bitterness), “You have all in each other, but I am lonely, and want you.” Coleridge’s phrase, “all in each other”, is fitting, for, in Newlyn’s words, it encapsulates “the deep, almost exclusive intimacy” that grew between the Wordsworth siblings. After the death of their mother in 1778, William and Dorothy were separated from one another (and from their home in Cockermouth); Dorothy (just six years old) was sent to live with a cousin in Halifax, and William (along with his three brothers) was sent to school at Hawkshead. The siblings’ separation lasted for nine and a half years, and when they met again at Penrith in the summer of 1787, their reunion was overshadowed by collective grieving for their father, whose death in 1783 left them orphaned and financially dependent. Although the siblings met intermittently throughout the 1790s, they did not live together permanently until 1794, the year that inaugurated their shared life, one of continued co-habitation and creative output.

The siblings’ permanent settlement in the Lake District (first at Town End and later at Rydal Mount) had a “renovating Virtue”, to quote from William’s The Prelude (1805), “nourish[ing] and invisibly repair[ing]” their “mind[s]”, and thus instilling in them an understanding of the importance of memory and regional belonging. According to Newlyn, the Wordsworths were able to “recover memories associated with the lost home of their childhood, and to accumulate a store of shared associations which bonded them jointly to their local environment.” Through the collective workings of memory and imagination, and through a mutual understanding of the “humanness of place”, William and Dorothy repaired the damage that the “[l]oss of parents, of home, and of all the possessions that go with home” had inflicted on their psyches. The Wordsworths’ literary partnership was thus therapeutic at heart: “In the absence of living parents or inherited property”, Newlyn explains, “memories—especially when made into artefacts—became ‘surety’ for continuing kinship bonds.”

Delving into the psychology behind William and Dorothy’s “intertwined writings”, Newlyn’s book, which involves a moving exploration of the innermost recesses of the siblings’ emotional and spiritual lives, shows that what lies beneath the Wordsworths’ collaborative creations is a deep-seated desire to rebuild (and eternalise) familial and regional ties. As Newlyn illustrates so well, the vital and interconnected forces of “[c]reativity and companionship” enabled William and Dorothy to “transform homesickness, and its associations of disease and melancholia, into more positive feelings of communal longing and belonging.” Through what Newlyn refers to as “rituals of communal recall”, William and Dorothy were able to map “their unfolding lives onto their dwellings”, reconstruct and revivify past memories, and overcome the traumas of their early lives. As Newlyn tells her readers, “[t]hat each sibling was essential to the other in this healing process—which continued across the entirety of their intertwined lives—is the central argument of this book.”

For the Wordsworths, writing was at once an act of recovery and giving, providing “[a]bundant recompence”, to borrow a phrase from William’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798), for things once lost. Through writing, William acknowledged his deep attachment to his sister and to the natural world (sister and environment are often intimately linked in William’s poetry), meditated on (and immortalised) memory, and bound himself to Dorothy and his region by offering his poems as gifts. Newlyn notes that the anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s contention “that bonds are created through gifts, in a mutual interdependence of giver and receiver” is particularly relevant to the Wordsworths, whose gift-giving and co-creative processes fostered in them an understanding of the value of mutual giving (whether offering their writings as gifts to one another or to their shared environment, to give thanks for restoring in them a sense of harmony and belonging, the siblings adhered to an ethic of reciprocity).

The notion of gift exchange is one of the guiding principles of Newlyn’s book. She suggests that William and Dorothy “saw their memories as gifts—tokens of love—to be offered to each other, in reparation for the years they had spent apart.” Newlyn comments on how frequently the word “gift” resurfaces in William’s poetry, often “in the context of gratitude for Dorothy’s existence”. One of the many iterations of the gift motif in William’s poetry is found in The Prelude, in which he recalls his reunion with his sister:

Now, after separation desolate
Restored to me, such absence that she seemed
A gift then first bestowed.

Dorothy (whose name, significantly, means “Gift of God”) became for William “the muse of memory”, in Newlyn’s phrase: her presence awakened in her brother an array of associative memories that would sustain him throughout his life and invest his poetry with meaning and authentic feeling.

In its acknowledgement of Dorothy’s enduring influence on her brother’s writings, and in its attentiveness to both sides of the creative partnership, Newlyn’s book stands apart from other critical studies and biographies of the Wordsworth siblings; it is, in fact, the first literary biography of the lifelong creative collaboration that occurred between William and Dorothy, and it “brings the full range of Dorothy’s prose into the foreground alongside William’s poetry”, providing evidence of the two-sided nature of the siblings’ literary alliance (and thereby countering claims that Dorothy “play[ed] an undervalued or exploited role in the household”). According to Newlyn, Dorothy’s Alfoxden Journal (begun in 1798) “may well have sharpened William’s awareness of the poetic possibilities of prose”. As Newlyn’s book is at pains to show, Dorothy was more than a passive muse: her writings served to shape and, at times, to guide William’s poetry. Through a careful examination of William and Dorothy’s writings, Newlyn “uncovers detailed interminglings in their work”, illuminating for the reader the nuances of feeling and meaning that arose from the siblings’ “creative symbiosis”.

Thomas Carlyle’s observation that “[t]he lightning spark of thought generated in the solitary mind awakens its likeness in another mind” perfectly encapsulates the creative sympathies of William and Dorothy; the private thoughts of one sibling, when articulated to the other (during their periods of “walking, talking, remembering, and grieving”), served to ignite a common creative impulse. The ideas inscribed within Dorothy’s Alfoxden Journal—which records “an intense period of collaborative creativity centred on friendship and conversation”—were especially influential for William. As Newlyn observes, “Dorothy laid the foundations for an understanding of the relation between local attachments, memory, and moral growth” that was to pervade William’s writings.

In ‘Tintern Abbey’, in which Dorothy figures as “friend, sister, and muse”, William openly acknowledges Dorothy’s abiding influence, giving thanks for her power to enhance and elevate his “spiritual and creative life”. Drawing on his experience of seeing Tintern Abbey (first in 1793 and later in 1798—this time with Dorothy), William, in true Wordsworthian fashion, composed the poem in retrospect. In it, he incorporates Dorothy’s understanding of “the vital link between nature and human beings”—which, Newlyn tells us, is the subject of her Alfoxden Journal—and meanders between “the prosaic and the poetic”, showing his affinity for Dorothy’s writing style. As Newlyn maintains, “‘Tintern Abbey’ remained throughout the Wordsworths’ lives both a memorable credo and a touchstone for their creative collaboration”. By incorporating biographical details, journal entries, letters, and poems, Newlyn’s book provides the reader with a meticulous map of the genesis and evolution of William and Dorothy’s literary partnership. She is able not only to trace the history of this collaborative relationship but to pinpoint the origin of its generation. As Newlyn shows, the siblings’ “creative symbiosis” sprang from a need for psychological nourishment, a desire to conquer death, and a will to reconstruct and solidify familial and regional bonds.

In a review in the Telegraph on 24 August 2013, Allan Massie noted the “severely academic” nature of Newlyn’s book. Although academic in the sense that it involves careful critical readings of the Wordsworths’ writings, Newlyn’s book is not “severely” so. In fact, in its flowing, and, at times, conversational prose, Newlyn’s book is both accessible and enjoyable. Moreover, in her acknowledgement of a deeply personal connection to the writing of this book, Newlyn shows it to have an almost universal appeal: “Because I share the Wordsworths’ concern with homesickness—and their belief in the healing power of nature, memory, and shared creativity”, writes Newlyn, “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.” Newlyn’s book, then, has a prescriptive register: knitting together her exploration of the shared lives and creative processes of William and Dorothy Wordsworth is a compelling argument for the ameliorative and life-preserving potential of art, whether for creator or receiver.

Bryn Jones Square is studying for a D.Phil in English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.