“On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals”

Citation: “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals.” Criticism 26 (1984): 115-37.

Beginning of essay (page 115)

A genius of the journalistic is Dorothy Wordsworth, who in 1801 became the keeper of William’s memorial genius. Writes Dorothy to Coleridge on May 22, 1801:

Poor William! his stomach is in bad plight. We have put aside all the manuscript poems and it is agreed between us that I am not to give them up to him even if he asks for them.

After William’s work on Home at Grasmere trailed off in early 1800, and after brother and sister finished sending Lyrical Ballads to the publisher at the end of that year, there was virtually no poetic composition by William until his renewed interest in The Pedlar in early 1802. No comparable period in the poet’s early career, except those occupied by extensive trips or visits, was quite so empty. In this white space of suppressed manuscripts, the labors of poetic memory subsided back into the elemental gut-comfort of day-by-day existence. And the regulatory muse of the day-by-day was Dorothy, whose Grasmere Journals spoke on throughout the period in a perpetual embroidery of the lived present.

But what can the present “be”? . . .

Excerpt from page 116

Dorothy’s Journals never fully command the disciplines of memory, confession, or meditation, yet nevertheless command presence: despite their seemingly undisciplined form they are always profoundly a representational or “autobiographical present.” If we were only to read what is “on the page,” however, the “undisciplined,” The work of Grasmere, we now see, is Dorothy’s Prelude. On this holiday or illud tempus embedded within the schedule of work, William writes “part of the poem to Coleridge” (The Prelude) on the way things were, and she writes a letter to Coleridge on the way things are. (p. 132)“primitive,” or “naive” form of the Journals would make them seem only a poorer sister of the established disciplines of presence and so belie what seems to me to be the sophistication of Dorothy’s experience. The true idiom of Dorothy’s autobiography lies not in the finished writing on the page so much as in the laborious motions of hand, body, and heart behind the writing–in writing, in other words, that is first of all part of a daily regimen of work. The Journals sketch what I will call a “complete and shared” structure of work, an outer form of presence, grounded upon an inner representation by which the working self throws itself into daily correspondence with being: “I work therefore I am.”

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