Lilian Simmonds, Hospice Nurse, on Dorothy Wordsworth // New Perspectives


Hello my name’s Lilian Simmonds. I am a
nurse. I work for Hospice at Home West Cumbria, and for the last 10 months our
organisation has been working with the Wordsworth Trust to introduce our
patients, carers, staff and volunteers not only to Wordsworth’s poetry but also to
the healing and transformative power of words. I’ve been asked today to come and talk about my interest in Dorothy Wordsworth,
and I suppose like many people I came to know Dorothy through her far more
famous brother. I was introduced to the daffodils poem as a child, and then in my
twenties I rediscovered Wordsworth’s poetry when I was going through a difficult
time. And all I can say is that his words connected me to the sublime he writes:
‘While with an eye made quiet by the deep power power / Of harmony and the deep power of
joy, / We see into the life of things.’ It’s as though through his love of nature and
his incredible gift of language he had found a way into a secret world. He
writes: ‘I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of
elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused’.
William was the first person I had found who was able to describe those rare
moments when we experience connection to the infinite. It was a very different
connection to his sister Dorothy. I think I’d always known that William had a
sister but my interest was first piqued when I discovered we shared the same
birthday. We were both born on Christmas Day 190 years apart. I bought a copy of her illustrated Grasmere journals and I have to confess that
when I first read it I was irritated by what I call her ‘peas, pies and pains’
accounts. But I’d recently started my own journal and I was quite horrified when I
look back to read how many entries began ‘I don’t feel well, I’m having a bad day, I
didn’t sleep last night.’ Dorothy’s journal connects us to the
realities of everyday life. Journal is French for daybook. It’s how
things are at a given moment in time. And while it is wonderful to be connected to
the sublime, it is in the mundane realities where our lives are lived. So I
began to read everything I could about Dorothy. Through her life and writing, I
built a picture and found more connections. And what I’m going to say
today, I just want to point out, are my own views. I’m not an expert. What I’m saying
comes from a layman’s point of view and please forgive me for reading from my
notes. It was far easier to compose my thoughts at home with a pen and paper
than in front of a camera. And that brings me to another personal connection.
Both Dorothy and myself have highly sensitive highly sensitive personalities. Dorothy
was well known for her sensibility. It’s recorded that she cried when she
first saw the sea. She was also bitterly upset by a broken swallows nest. Those of
us with highly sensitive natures often struggle in our early years, particularly
if like Dorothy we have had a traumatic childhood and we can get easily
overwhelmed when too many demands are placed on us. It is noticeable throughout
her journal that Dorothy didn’t often write when away from home or when the
house was full of visitors. People with high sensitivity are drawn to caring roles. Dorothy Wordsworth cared for people all
of her life, as I have done in my work as a nurse, but problems can arise when we
get caught up in other people’s needs and forget our own. We have a protective
barrier around ourselves and we can be prone to compassion burnout. Caring can
be our greatest gift, but also our greatest weakness. The other gift and
drawback of a highly sensitive personality is that we are very good at
picking up on other people’s emotions and feelings. Coleridge compared Dorothy to ‘a perfect electrometer’. That was a device used to
respond to minute fluctuations in electrical charge. De Quincey wrote of Dorothy: ‘The pulses of light are not more quick or more
inevitable in their flow and undulation, than were the answering and echoing
movements of her sympathizing attention.’ We’re also very good at being what
everyone else wants us to be. It was said of Dorothy that she quickly took on the
colouring of her environment and her companions. But the danger is that if you
spend all your time being what others want you to be, you don’t spend a great
deal of deal of time being yourself. It’s so important to develop self-awareness.
And as well as personal connections with Dorothy, she’s also been my teacher. She
showed me the importance of paying attention and of slowing down. I think
like many people, we have this romantic picture of Dorothy and William rambling
about Grasmere writing and reading poetry, yet the life was very busy and it
was Dorothy’s job to keep body and soul together. As well as being William’s scribe
and muse she baked bread and pies, planted a garden, made shoes and clothes.
She painted and decorated. And yet she still found time to pay attention, to be
still. She writes: ‘I sat a long time looking at the mountains. I sat a long
time watching the hurrying waves. I sat till I could hardly drag myself away.’ How
important it is in our crazy and often busy lives to pay attention and to slow
down. Dorothy has also taught me the importance of connection to nature. When
her brother wrote these words: ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, /
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:- / Little we see in nature that is
ours’ he was certainly not talking about his sister Dorothy. For when William was
going through a crisis of identity and questioning his vocation it was Dorothy
who not only helped him to recover his ambition to be a poet, but who rekindled
his love for the natural world. He writes: ‘she maintained for me a
saving intercourse with my true self.’ He said to her: ‘In thy voice I catch the
language of my former heart’. Dorothy Wordsworth has been described as one of
the most remarkable writers about life in the English countryside. There are
endless examples in her journals of her wonderful descriptions of the natural
world. Here is just a very small example: ‘The lake was perfectly still, the Sun
shone on Hill & vale, the distant birch trees looked like large golden
Flowers – nothing else in colour was distinct & separate but all the
beautiful colours seemed to be melted into one another, & joined together in one mass so that there was no difference though an
endless variety when one tried to find it out.’ Dorothy’s words written over 200 years ago are so relevant to us today when our
beautiful world is so under threat. In Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing I find lessons
and warnings for my own life and work. When I read her words it’s as though
she’s standing over my shoulder telling me to pay attention to my life Dorothy
teaches me about meaning and purpose. In her journal she states why she wrote
what has become known as the Grasmere journals: ‘I resolved to write a journal […]
& I set about keeping my resolve because I will not quarrel with myself, &
because I shall give Wm pleasure by it’. Those of us with highly sensitive personalities know exactly what Dorothy
meant by quarrelling with oneself. We live in our minds for most of the time and it
is so important for us to have a creative outlet that distracts us from
our endless thinking about our thinking. Like Dorothy, I have discovered that
writing takes me out of myself and helps me to process my thoughts in a creative
way and to put my life into perspective. But it is Dorothy’s second reason for
writing the journal that flags a warning: ‘to give William pleasure by it’. Dorothy
was well aware of the necessary and important part she played in her
brother’s life and work. We will never know the extent of the collaboration
between them but I suspect it was a great deal more than we know about. But
the danger is if our meaning and purpose are centred around another, then when
they no longer need us we can easily lose our focus. This is what I think
happened to Dorothy after William’s marriage to Mary. Yes she was still
needed, yes she still wrote, but not I believe with the same passion and
eloquence as she did in her Grasmere journals. Also in Dorothy’s life and
writing I find lessons and warnings about creativity. That Dorothy Wordsworth
was a highly creative person with her own unique voice is beyond question.
Although very little of her writing was published in her lifetime, those around her
were aware of her talents. Coleridge wrote: ‘Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of our
great poet, is a woman of great genius, and but for the absorption of her whole
soul in her brother’s fame and writing would perhaps in a different style have
been as great a poet as himself.’ And what was Dorothy’s response?
‘I have not these powers which Coleridge thinks I have.’ In fact here is her own
view about her writing: ‘I can hardly read it myself. I have no
command of language, no power of expressing my ideas and no one was ever
so inept at moulding words into a regular metre’. Not only did Dorothy
suffer from lack of self worth but I feel she was trying too hard to be like
her brother rather than find her own unique voice. I often wonder what Dorothy
would have given the world if she had written for herself and not to please
her brother. Yet I do understand. Dorothy’s personality, her desire to
please others, the fact she lived with and was friends with such talented
people would have made it very difficult. I often feel like this when I come into
the Jerwood rooms, surrounded by the works of titans of English literature. Yet how
important it is for us to recognise that we each have a unique voice and have the
courage to find it and give it back to the world. And so I’d like to finish with
Dorothy Wordsworth’s unique voice. I’ve had great pleasure over the past year of
taking Dorothy’s sublime prose and putting it into poetry on different
subjects. So here is ‘Mountains’ by Dorothy Wordsworth. ‘The yellow autumnal Hills
wrapped in sunshine overhung with partial mists. The colours of the mountains
soft and rich, Cattle pasturing upon the hills. Kites sailing in the sky above our
heads . The mountains forever varying, now hid in the clouds, now with their tops
visible, Helm Crag bold and craggy of being by itself as if belonging to a
more splendid world a glorious world solitude under that lofty purple crag.
Mountains like stonework wrought up with huge hammers gave back the sound and
I’ll pin fire like bread upon the tops snow-covered mountains spotted with
sunlight the prospect most divinely beautiful. A spectacle of the grandeur of
heaven and earth commingled. My heart dissolved in what I saw and thought I
could have stayed here forever.’

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