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On Writing About Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal

The amount of time that has passed since I read Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal with the intention to write about it academically has become the longest gap between reading with that intention and, in the end, beginning to do it, that I have undergone.

It is so long—no need to retreat from this fact—it has become its own kind of history, a story of having not been written, but thought toward, and shied away from, more occasions than it is worth counting. This is to say that the time elapsed has become interesting to me to consider as an unusual phenomenon, an episode of near-and-not writing.

What distinguishes this period, for instance, from the day of my thirtieth birthday, its original deadline, until today? What I’m reaching to describe is a heaviness of a period defined by the task unfulfilled, of having will but not means, means but not will, expanded over the course of several months. It feels like when I am beset by a migraine—when external engagements are acute, limited, and I am in bed, still sensing and thinking, but overwhelmed by what feels like an embodied grace note radiating out from one corner of my skull.

It is not, I should clarify, the task itself that I am likening to an episode of pain—actually writing is always in that liminal territory between that and meditation, which, to a migraine receiver, is not so paradoxical in experience. It is an expanse which, in approaching it, feels more like revived material than completion, or the extinguishment of task or pain.


At the time of reading The Grasmere Journal, I experienced many severe migraines, occurring more frequently than ever in my history of having them, which began when I was a child. One early occurrence I noticed was that Dorothy Wordsworth too experienced headaches, and I began tracking her notation of them. Headaches—pain that surrounds the physical carrier of the mind—would end her entries, or she would retroactively note the term—swiftly in comparison with prior details, it feels.

I felt kindred, recognizing the effect of headache, perhaps over-reading my own feelings of restrained frustration into my pattern of tracking it, looking for signs of common situations that initiate the headache—does she mention diet, sleep, does her prior entry annotate distressing episodes, indirectly relate them, mute them, minimize circumstances such that she can forget, or progress from, that pocket of time delimited by pain. Migraines are as unpredictable as weather. They are a form of weather; they cyclically occlude the sun. A heron swimming with only its neck out of water.


The Grasmere Journal contains seventeen mentions of “head-ache”, beginning on the very first page. It is not my interest to retroactively diagnose Wordsworth’s headaches as being representative of any particular condition, but I am drawn to that frequency of their mention, recognize it as a topographical feature of my own experience. I wonder about their presence as a demarcation of sensory experience in a text which so thoroughly tracks the topological, or maps, the quotidian activity of walking, foraging, household work, writing, discomfort.

While it is the nature of journaling to note the condition of the body, her frequency of illness, punctuated by headaches, appear to this reader as something like an affective measurement of sensory experience recorded. Through my reading of The Grasmere Journal, tracking its descriptions of physical pain alongside descriptions of bliss, I was able to locate myself in closer relation to the text, enter into a community built on recognition of various kinds of pain, though specific, occasional, and distant. Wordsworth’s own recording of ache—explicit (thought still reserved) and intuitive—deepens my understanding of her mapping activity, which Lucy Newlyn describes as a metric for Wordsworth’s process of finding her stylistic preferences through the practice of writing.


“backwards and forwards in that flat field”

I think about The Grasmere Journal as I drive from Denver to Arkansas with my dog. I think about The Grasmere Journal then but I have not read it completely. I think about The Grasmere Journal as I begin to panic in Mississippi, now that I’m beginning to be close to Georgia, home. I think about The Grasmere Journal as I carefully slide it between New Materialisms and On the Nature of Things in my carry-on bag to London, not wanting to damage the copy Rachel has lent me out of kindness. I think about The Grasmere Journal at the Anni Albers exhibit. I think about The Grasmere Journal from my partner Jonathan’s childhood bedroom in Swadlincote, where I will spend the next month hardly moving. I think about The Grasmere Journal as I read a passage, look out his window on the housing estate, at the small patch of public grass where the woman with the purple hair walks her two small white dogs each afternoon. I think about The Grasmere Journal and how I am in the landscape of The Grasmere Journal, how even in winter, the dead plants there are rebellious and articulate, how the nettles still catch my skin on our walks through a field an old woman tells us has long been called Lover’s Lane. I think about The Grasmere Journal in relation to R.F. Langley’s journal, and purchase a copy of the latter for my father for Christmas, hoping he will appreciate the message I am communicating to him, but knowing that he will not say either way. I think about The Grasmere Journal and dread my inability to think clearly, and believe there is something wrong with me, that perhaps I don’t belong in a PhD program. I think about The Grasmere Journal and can hardly stand its beauty and recognize that this is a very conventional response. I think about The Grasmere Journal and how, when my father dropped me off at the Atlanta airport, he handed me a wad of American dollars to offset the cost of actually going to Grasmere, which I excitedly described to him as a possibility, except that Jonathan has said he can’t afford the trip, and, in truth, neither could I, and I hoped that even a description of going to Grasmere, and how my professors had given me time to write something really good, would invite connection with my father, or acknowledgement. I think about The Grasmere Journal when it is decided that we will not go to Grasmere. I think about The Grasmere Journal in the hours when I am not asleep, in the night, when I do my best sorting-through, but I cannot willingly separate the composite parts of The Grasmere Journal. I think about The Grasmere Journal and how thinking about The Grasmere Journal has become a kind of journal, and want to write an essay about this experience, but cannot. 


On another night I sat outside listening to the wind fill the small depression of my backyard in Denver, considering Wordsworth’s descriptions of sound. The lake looked to me I knew not why very dull and melancholy, the weltering on the shores seemed a heavy sound.


Montaigne also exerts some consideration of another kind of regular pain, which we understand to be not headaches, but kidney stones, in his essay On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers. His impulse, in response to writing about pain, is to locate a small history of other descriptions of pain. It does seem that the nature of writing about pain is to displace it, and through description, allocate its sensory properties into language others might recognize, but by its nature, it is never recreated. It is a gesture of isolation.

Montaigne includes a comparison of the febrility he experiences to his family’s bodies, which were, he recites somewhat ruefully, marked not by pain or suffering but by lifetimes without visits to a physic, which gives him no logical source for his affliction. The family connection, the bodily one, does not present itself as an obvious explanation. I read, in the vast and unmoored body of literature on migraines, that one avenue of speculation is that migraines are not hereditary, after all, but an expression of epigenetics. I have a mind to represent the progress of my humours, and that every one may see each piece as it came from the forge. I could wish I had begun sooner, and had taken more notice of the course of my mutations. 

What provides solace, it seems, for Montaigne, is the referential act of building his own literary genealogy of others writing about pain—the ancients provide ample company amidst his own suspicion of the available varieties of remedies. What matter the wringing of our hands, if we do not wring our thoughts? 


Pain trickles through the essay; Montaigne’s pain, and his material experience of writing into its spread, discursively and physically, produces words recording that pain like which feels like an insufficient gauze. I imagine it was not lost on writers, working with ink, that appearance of encoded liquid, a measurement of pain, into paper which was once (and still in the historical imaginary) skin. I cannot take my hand from the paper before I have added a word concerning the assurance they give us of the certainty of their drugs, from the experiments they have made. Here too I think about Rachel Feder’s argument in her essay The Experimental Dorothy Wordsworth about the sociality of Wordsworth’s archive, what it expresses as a body, literally, of work, and the image of her Sick-bed Consolations_composed during the Spring of 1832__. While much later than The Grasmere Journal, the poem offers a refinement of the notions of embodied experience that she works toward in particulate, lyric prose, thirty years before.


Another presiding feature of the period of my failure to write this essay and the present was the coinciding predicament of not being able to write anything, at all. This was in part, beyond the abstracted romance of the knotted creative process, because my brain had begun, quite literally, ceasing to function.

A physiological description of a migraine is that it is the constriction of blood vessels in one area of the brain is so acute that blood ceases flow, and the pain is the pain of that part of the brain beginning to die. While dramatic, and while this accounts for the urgency of that particular pain, this was not the dull drain which I felt, but also could not explain, as words had left me. It is a complicated nest of perception, signals emitted from a body and the lack of accurate means to interpret them.

What was happening was that for other reasons, my body had ceased to absorb nutrients—nothing, literally, was happening, except it was another form of slowly dying. Writing was the first sense to disappear. Then came reading, then thinking. The period of heaviness between then and now was my own vacancy, a muted and prolonged malady. Dorothy Wordsworth eventually moves past the language of “headaches”, instead favoring other, more general notations of sickness: ill, fever, fits leading to bed-going, an ongoing annotation of Coleridge’s failing health, or more poetic abstractions, as with this later, fortuitous transition between phrases: poorly, bad spirits—canaries....

As The Grasmere Journal begins to feel less personal, so too is Wordsworth’s language of pain dispersed into other narratives—the phase of idyllic happiness, that recovery of family, ineluctably changed by William’s marriage. From then, Dorothy’s poetics shift from flowers and pain to the realm of the social, something of herself retreating beyond words.


Joan Didion’s famous essay on migraines in The White Album concludes with a description of concentration of pain, and the heightened sensory appreciation which comes in its wake. Its penultimate sentence: I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. Dorothy Wordsworth last makes mention of a “headache” in May of 1802, though the rhythm of feeling ill, going to bed, and fits of worrisome fever persist until the journal’s end. The term itself seems like a concentration of descriptive specificity, occurring, in end of May 12th’s entry, after a sequence reciting the day’s butterflies and flowers: We brought home heckberry blossom, crab blossom, the anemone nemerosa—Marsh Marygold—Speedwell—that beautiful blue of the colour of the blue-stone or glass used in jewelry, with its beautiful pearl-like chives—and William having pulled ivy with beautiful berries—I put it over the chimney piece… Wordsworth notes.


In Lucy Newlyn’s “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Experimental Style”, I found much to admire, though I wonder if the identification of poetic continuity in terms of self-realization might be too loose an underpinning. When is a process of rendering not an aesthetic one? Writing about the transforming effects of weather on landscape enabled her to explore an implicit analogy with the transforming mind, while remaining true to the independent reality of nature.

What if, yes, we can source a kind of ecocritical origin in The Grasmere Journal, distinct from her brother’s convergence of exterior and interior perception through metaphorized landscape, but we also attributed a sensory register not of beauty—instead, of pain and pleasure, to that “implicit” analogy? What if we allowed the detail it so painstakingly charts to be an expression of a highly-attuned mind enacting an aesthetic mode of writing in what is, effectively, an organic form responding to physical experience?

Through the lens of headache and illness, a kind of materialist reading emerges. Newlyn quotes Pamela Woof: ‘There are no rules and structures for diary writing, as there are not for living’, Pamela Woof observes; ‘we take the fast and slow of it as it comes’.


Today, the day of writing this piece, I lost six hours to a migraine. That it was only six, as opposed to thirty-six, is a surprising relief. Lately the medicine I take, where before its efficacy in clearing the pain ranged around 75%—virtually erasing three of every four onsets of agonized thrum, of color fading from my vision to a piercing grey scale—has decreased to 50%.

That the pain made its entry right as I woke up felt inevitable, and grimly amusing. belying what must have become a somatic connection between the looming cloud of writing this essay and the condensation of vessels occluding the right side of my brain, which, densely forming, produces language, or rain.


Alicia Wright’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in EcotoneThe Paris Review, and jubilat, among others. She contributes monthly literary criticism to the Ploughshares blog, and is a PhD candidate in English & Literary Arts at the University of Denver, where she will serve as the Denver Quarterly Editorial Fellow (Associate Editor) beginning in July.

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