Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

When the Path is a Story

20th July 2014

Sometimes the path is a story.

No, that’s not true.  The path is always a story – somebody’s story – if we but knew it.  We are up in the bracken-strewn hills of Easedale Tarn near Grassmere, my old man and me, and the person whose path (and story) this is is, in all probability, that 18th century wild child, Dorothy Wordsworth, who roamed all over these hills.  She and her brother William came here in the winter of 1799 – the very end of the century – having walked more than 30 miles over the snow-strewn Pennine Hills, Dorothy dressed in a striped dress and straw bonnet.  They were middle-class hippies but also orphans and they came here to mend themselves and each other as well as to write poetry.  Dorothy loved her brother with a love that is indistinguishable from worship.

I have only just discovered her Diaries and I am transfixed with admiration for them.  She took the  Diary form, that had never had much status, and – a bit like Gertrude Jekyll and the herbaceous border – did what women sometimes do, and made it both local and domestic but also transcendentally beautiful.  She writes about bird song and cold pork and anemones and tooth ache.  Her style is artless, fluent, slightly mystical, composed as if written on water – and also utterly uncopyable.  Try copying it and you’ll discover that it’s not only about the words she uses;  it’s also about the way she sees the world – and no one has ever seen the world like Dorothy Wordsworth.

This is her writing on a summer’s day: – ‘The lake was now most still & reflected the beautiful yellow & blue & purple & grey colours of the sky.  We heard a strange sound in the Bainriggs wood as we were floating on the water.  It seemed in the wood but it must have been above it, for presently we saw a raven very high above us – it called out & the Dome of the sky seemed to echoe the sound – it called again & again as it flew onwards, & the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from the centre, a musical bell-like answering to the bird’s hoarse voice.’

And this is her writing on the moon: – ‘The Moon hung over the Northern side of the highest point of Silver How, like a gold ring snapped in two & shaven off at the Ends it was so narrow.  Within this Ring lay the Circle of the Round moon, as distinctly to be seen as ever the enlightened moon is . . . ‘

Her Diaries, which are in the Wordsworth Museum, are things, each one far more chunky and physical than these virtual words that you are reading.  Her scrawled writing slopes upwards in its urgency, and the pages are strewn with random capital letters and ampersands by which I am so charmed that I am, momentarily, a fully-paid up member of the Save the Ampersand Brigade.

Dorothy was never published in her lifetime and even in the face of her exquisite writing has always been treated with faint mockery – a thread of ‘Poor Dorothy’ runs down the centuries.  So I am perversely pleased to discover that the Diaries are full of crossing-outs and amendments. She may have been poor, plain and insignificant but she had enough pride in her talents and was enough of a craftsman to work at her effects. When the Diary opens she is sitting on a stone beside the waters of Lake Windermere, weeping – and you can’t get much more knowingly theatrical than that.

The Diary ends with the marriage of her brother William to another woman.  She never wrote anything as good again;  but then perhaps, having written this, it didn’t matter?