Dorothy Wordsworth poem published for first time

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A poem by 19th century writer Dorothy Wordsworth has been published for the first time.

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Written while confined to her sick room suffering from arteriosclerosis and dementia, Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr has been published on the Oxford University Press blog.

Penned in 1836, the poem gives an insight into Dorothy Wordsworth’s mental state and reveals how poetry was used as a therapeutic tool in the Wordsworth household, with regard to her Alzheimer’s disease.

Parts of the poem have been seen before in different versions. The last five stanzas are a re-working of Floating Island at Hawkshead (published late 1820s), while a version of the first three stanzas, which look back at the night a severely ill Dorothy was not expected to survive, is already known to scholars as a stand-alone poem addressed to her doctor.

However, this version has not been published before. It has been made available by professor Lucy Newlyn in connection with her new book William and Dorothy Wordsworth: All in Each Other, published by Oxford University Press.

Newlyn, a professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford, told historyextra: “1835, the year in which Dorothy stopped writing her journals, is seen by many scholars as the cut-off point at which she is considered interesting.

“So it’s fascinating when one finds evidence of later activity.

“She was being looked after very tenderly in the Wordsworth household, by William and his wife Mary.

“She was cared for physically, with accounts of William rubbing her legs, which I find very moving. But William also read his poems to her and she too would read aloud.

“Witness accounts show that when Dorothy read aloud she returned to her former self – it triggered memories.

“Everyone writes off late Dorothy but there’s evidence that the collaboration between her and William was incredibly strong. He was keeping her alive with her poetry, it was a tool towards health.

“They wrote to and for each other, and poetry was a therapeutic tool.”

The transcription of Lines addressed to my kind friend & medical attendant, Thomas Carr was made by Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Collection.

Cowton told historyextra: “It was a very exciting manuscript to acquire because it had tremendous support. We had some larger donations but then also people chipping in with £20, because of the interest in Dorothy.

“It’s two poems stitched together but we are left with the question – how easily does it flow, does it read as one?

“The poem is about a very important part of Dorothy’s life. We were delighted to acquire it.”

Dr Felicity James, lecturer in 18th and 19th century literature at the University of Leicester, said: “This isn’t a new poem, as such – it’s a melding of different versions of poems already known to scholars, as Prof Newlyn points out.

“But what’s new here is the insight it gives us into Dorothy’s creative mind at work, going back to different aspects of her experience and putting them together to create a fresh piece which perhaps helped her through a time of particular difficulty with her health.  

“Does the new poem work? You can certainly see the join where the two halves have been put together, but it has a haunting poignancy when you read it through as a whole.

“I especially like the closing lines where she imagines that the ‘lost fragments’ of the island will ‘fertilise some other ground’. Those ‘lost fragments’ are a good way of understanding what’s actually going on in this poem itself: bits and pieces of Dorothy’s earlier verses are floating in her mind and coming together to form new poems – slightly battered, but still beautiful.

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“To be able to see the manuscript of the poem is a moving experience. It shows us that even in her late years of illness, when she suffered a great deal, Dorothy was continuing the Wordsworths’ life work of rewriting and revising poetry – not only her brother William’s, but also her own.”