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Experimental Prose and the Reconfiguration of Incestuous Bonds: from the Grasmere Journal to Tender Buttons

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by Joshua Wilner

Suppose one were to approach Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal as a radical complement to William’s efforts to demonstrate that “there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and the language of prose.” Suppose, that is, one were to view the pages of her journal as participating in a history of experimental prose that includes such figures as De Quincey, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Woolf and Stein. What follows is a preliminary attempt to pursue this speculation by suggesting that the Grasmere Journal and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons are situated in comparably anomalous relations to Lacan’s “law of the father,” i.e. the incest prohibition, as the guarantor of symbolic order.


 “Then our life without a father began a very pleasant one.” Thus Gertrude Stein writes in Everybody’s Autobiography about the death of her father in 1892, when she was eighteen and her brother Leo twenty, their mother having died four years before.

A famous, though perhaps not entirely pleasant, chapter in this pleasant “life without father” was to begin in 1903, when Gertrude Stein’s brother – the only way Leo is identified in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – rented the flat at 27 rue de Fleurus that was soon to be, in her words, at “the heart of an art movement of which the outside world at the time knew nothing.” Gertrude first joined him there later that year and then moved in permanently in June of 1904, not to leave until 1938. In 1907 Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas met, and by 1909 Alice had moved into 27 rue de Fleurus, taking as her bedroom what had been Leo’s study on the first floor. By late 1913, Gertrude Stein’s brother had decided to move out and go to Florence. The writing of Tender Buttons had begun in 1912 and the book was published in 1914, a few months after  Leo’s departure. As Linda Martin-Wagner observes in Gertrude Stein and her Family, the final section of Tender Buttons is “a single long text that describes peacefulness in a home after a difficult person has moved out” (118). Then our life without a father began a very pleasant one.

Because her routine was to write every night, Gertrude Stein referred to her writing as “the nightly miracle,” and also (in Paris France) as “the daily miracle,” thus playing more or less openly on “The Daily Mirror,” the name of the British tabloid that had in fact started out as a women’s paper at the end of the 19th century. The daily mirror-miracle-oracle that was Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal was produced in circumstances that exhibit a family resemblance with those surrounding the writing of Tender Buttons.

Like Leo and Gertrude, Dorothy and William were grown orphans – again an elder brother and younger sister two years apart possessed of a modest inheritance (though at this time its source was not primarily paternal) – when they set up house together, first at Racedown in 1795, and then in 1797 in Alfoxden, where much of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads was written, thus constituting, to adapt Stein, the heart of a poetic movement – with Coleridge nearby in Nether Stowey – of which the outside world at the time knew nothing.

Something of the emotional tenor and symbolic significance of this moment for both Dorothy and William captured in his “Lines Written at a Small Distance from My House, and Sent by My Little Boy to the Person to Whom They are Addressed.” “My Little Boy” was in fact Basil Montagu Jr., whom the Wordsworths had taken into their care after the child’s mother had died and his father became unable to care for him. That  Dorothy and William’s shared role as foster parents also fostered a sense of themselves as quasi marital partners is clear, I think, from such lines in the poem as the following:


Edward will come with you – and pray
Put on with speed your woodland dress,
And bring no book, for this one day
We’ll give to idleness.

No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living calendar;
We from today, my friend, will date
The Opening of the year.


It is not far-fetched, I think, to hear “woodland dress” as  “wedding dress,” and to read the whole poem in fact as a kind of epithalamion, but an epithalamion celebrating a moment and a form of relationship for which there precisely were not and could not be publically established forms of consecrations and which it thus becomes the task and raison d’être of the poem to create.  My point in suggesting is not, I would emphasize, to purvey a lurid reading of what I find to be an exceedingly beautiful poem, but to offer some sense of how deeply the act of creating and sustaining a familial household that would both mirror and transgress symbolic social norms was related to both the intensity and the structure of the poetic activity this period generated.

Dorothy and Williams “unusual life style” (in Pamela Woof’s phrase) and evident political sympathies were sufficient, however, to dissuade the owner of the Alfoxden property, a Mrs. St. Albyn, from renewing their lease (once that is, she learned of it, her bailiff having concluded the original transaction without her knowledge), so that by the summer of 1798 they were effectively homeless. Following their famously dismal winter together in Germany, and a summer spent at Gallow Hill, the farm of their friends Tom, Mary, Sara, and Joanna Hutchinson – another household of orphans –  William and Dorothy finally moved into Dove Cottage late in 1799.

Their settlement at Dove Cottage did not simply reconstitute on a more stable basis the fragile arrangements of Alfoxden and before that Racedown, however. Sometime around the time of their settling at Dove Cottage, William seems to have intensified his courtship of Mary Hutchinson (a courtship that perhaps had begun in the preceding summer), for the Grasmere Journal begins with William and brother John departing for a three week’s visit to the Hutchinsons, “cold pork in their pockets,” and Dorothy recording her resolution “to write a journal of the time till W & J return.” The entries were to continue, of course, for another two and a half years. Among many other goings on, they record frequent visits and correspondence between the two households, and also, as several commentators have noted, show signs of the emotional strain the impending marriage placed upon Dorothy.  The occasion of the wedding itself in October of 1802 is registered in a searing entry which Dorothy was then at great pains to cross out but which her editors retrieved using infra-red light in the 1950’s (around the time then that F.W. Bateson was first propounding the “incest theory”). Following the return of Dorothy, William and Mary to Dove Cottage, the journal quickly becomes more intermittent and trails off, with a final entry three months later in January of 1803. Like Tender Buttons then, the Grasmere Journal is produced at a time that a quasi-conjugal arrangement between brother and sister is under transformative stress.

The idea that William and Dorothy shared an intimacy that might be characterized as, in some sense, incestuous (though Bateson would have had little patience with so cautious a formulation) is of course no secret and no scandal – unless one happens to be teaching a class of uninitiated undergraduates. And, as noted, various commentators have been alert to the undercurrents of jealousy and resentment that may occasionally be detected in the stream of Dorothy’s journal entries. But the literary, as opposed to thematic and psychological, interest of the situation remains largely unsounded, especially with respect to Dorothy’s writing. An important exception would be Alan Liu’s essay “On the Autobiographical Present: Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals,” which includes in its analysis a consideration of the possible role of the incest prohibition in shaping the division of labor, both textual and non-textual, at Dove Cottage.

Liu also points out that William largely ceased composing poetry from early 1800 to early 1802 (113)- an otherwise odd corollary, it would seem, of settling at Dove Cottage. That not only Dorothy Wordsworth’s life circumstances but her manner of journal writing changed in the period during which the Grasmere Journal was kept is clear if one compares it to the Alfoxden journal, which covers the period from January to May 1798. Consider, for example the following two entries, the first for March 6th, 1798 (thus contemporaneous with the period from March 1 to March 10 during which William was composing “Lines, etc.”), the second for March 6th, 1802, thus exactly four years later:


6th. A pleasant morning, the sea white and bright, and full to the brim. I walked to see Coleridge in the evening. William went with me to the wood. Coleridge very ill. It was a mild, pleasant afternoon, but the evening became very foggy; when I was near Woodlands, the fog overhead became thin, and I saw the shapes of  the Central Stars. Again it closed, and the whole sky was the same.

Saturday Morning (6th) I awoke with a bad head ache & partly on that account partly for ease I lay in bed till one o clock. At one I pulled off my nightcap – 1/2 past one sate down to breakfast – a very cold sunshiny frost. I wrote the Pedlar and finished it before I went to Mr Simpsons to drink tea. Miss S at Keswick but she came home. Mrs. Jameson came in I stayed supper. Fletcher’s carts went past & I let them go with William’s letter. Mr. BS. came nearly home with me. I found letters from Wm, Mary & Coleridge. I wrote to C. Sate up late & could not fall asleep when I went to bed.(75)


One obviously shouldn’t make generalizations based on the comparison of two brief passages. But the differences between these two particular entries do seem representative of the more general pattern described by the journals’ editor, Pamela Woof, who, having noted that the Alfoxden Journal is characterized by an “emphasis on natural description” (xx), goes on to remark that “its calm depiction of night skies, landscapes, sea-colours, weathers and walks, makes an unhurried overture to the more impassioned Grasmere Journals where description of the natural world has to jostle with so much else: feelings, friends, neighbours, beggars, thoughts about poetry, travel, domestric ‘trivia,’ illness – and more” (xxviii-xxxix). With Woof’s general observation for guidance, let us take a closer look then at the two entries.

The overall impression conveyed by the Alfoxden entry is of a world at once expansive and radically simplified. As with many, many of the Alfoxden journals, Coleridge is the only person mentioned besides William and Dorothy, natural description indeed predominates, walking is the only activity, and there is no reference to conversation or writing – something that perhaps wouldn’t bear remarking on except that it is indeed surprisingly characteristic of the journal as a whole. Note too, how the passage of time is marked by reference not to the clock but simply to the movement of the sun – “morning,” “afternoon,” “evening”  – and a broad landscape conjured from a few elemental designations – the sea, the wood, the sky (think of what a fine piece of non-description is the observation, “the whole Sky was the same), the fog, the stars – so that the two proper names, “Woodlands” and “Central Stars” read more like intensifications of common names than proper names per se.

Turning now to the Grasmere entry, one differentiating feature that immediately obtrudes itself is the use of the journal as a sleep log, and, correlative with that, more frequent and acute registrations of clocktime. While the entries in the Alfoxden journal will often plot the course of a day from morning to evening, they almost never make reference to waking, going to bed, or sleeping. By contrast, the Grasmere Journal is replete with such references, most often to note, as here, disturbed sleep patterns. Since these notations usually mark the beginning and/or end of an entry the effect is both to reinforce the connection between the rhythm of the journals and the diurnal cycle and to stress a measure of disjunction.

More generally, lateness and delay constitutes something of a leitmotif for the entire entry. Having noted the late hour of her waking, Dorothy then pointedly marks her slowness in actually getting up: “At one I pulled off my nightcap – 1/2 past one sate down to breakfast.” Not until her habitual reference to the weather, “A very cold shiny frost,” does she engage with the day. The motif of lateness then reappears in the notation, “Miss S at Keswick but she came home,” which may resonate in other ways as well, first because Miss Simpson and Dorothy are both unmarried and in their early thirties, and secondly because William is away at Keswick, from where she has just come home, as this entry is written. The arrival of Mrs. Jameson, the Simpson’s elder and widowed daughter, further complicates the web of identifications, and Dorothy’s decision to stay past tea for supper reintroduces the morning’s motif of lingering – lingering this time not in, but away from home. The displacement is underscored by the sentence which follows: “Fletcher’s carts went past & I let them go with William’s letter,” since Dorothy is noting that she had to let pass the letter from William that she would have received were she at home. Thus even the subsequent note “I found letters from Wm, Mary & Coleridge” marks that discovery as late in relation to when it might have occurred. Small wonder that the entry concludes with Dorothy sitting up late and unable to sleep.

Amid so many minor dissonances, the pivotal notation “I wrote the Pedlar and finished it before I went to Mr Simpson to drink tea” offers a provisional measure of finality. The reference here is to Dorothy’s preparation of what she seems to have intended as a fair copy in view of publication of the long poem first composed in 1798 at the revision of which William had been working throughout the early months of 1802. The alacrity and intended finality of her activity are clear from the beginning of the next day’s entry, “A very fine frost. I stitched up the Pedlar…” and all the more noteworthy given the frequent references in earlier entries to the difficulties it seems William experienced in “having done” with the poem. A typical entry reads “William wished to break off composition, and was unable, and so did himself harm” (p. 62, 2/3/02). Another reference is condensed into the two words: “disaster pedlar.” Or again, “After Molly went we read the first part of the poem & were delighted with it – but Wm afterwards got to some ugly places & went to bed tired out” (65) 2/10/02. Nor is William the only one wearied by his struggles, since his ambivalence about the poem meant that Dorothy’s labors as transcriber could be rendered comparably fruitless. Thus she writes three weeks before the entry of March 6, “I almost finished writing The Pedlar, but poor William wore himself & me out with Labour.”

There is a great deal then that is being condensed in Dorothy’s laconic notation: “I wrote The Pedlar and finished it before I went to Mr Simpsons to drink tea.” Consider, too, that “I wrote The Pedlar” is in fact a compression of “I wrote out The Pedlar.” Although the elided form is used with some frequency in the days immediately preceding the March 6th, Dorothy more customarily referred to her work of transcription as “copying” or “writing out,” as one would expect. Why the elision? Something of its force is conveyed, I would suggest, by the following occurrence going back to October (5) 1800, when William and Dorothy were busy preparing the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads for publication: “Wm & I employed all the morning in writing an addition to the preface.” Here the use of the word “writing” in such a way as to encompass indifferently composing, discussion, dictation, and transcription clearly expresses her sense of being engaged in an intensely collaborative activity. There are grounds then for reading in the elided grammar of “I wrote The Pedlar and finished it” a certain fusion of William’s poetic labors into Dorothy’s own work as copyist, a fusion that is all the stronger given William’s absence from the scene of completion. Thus the supplementary specification “and finished it” refers back to the completion not only of her activity of transcription but of the whole difficult labor of the poem’s coming into being, a process that is not “finished” until the text has been polished and sealed, – in a fair copy – and thus made ready for bringing to market. (Four days later we read, “William has since Tea been talking about publishing the Yorkshire Wolds poem [Peter Bell] with The Pedlar.)

Or such at least was Dorothy’s hope, for four months later in the journal entry for July 8th (the day before William and Dorothy left Dove Cottage to go together, first to Mary Hutchinson at Gallow Hill, then to London, then to Calais for a meeting with Annette Vallon and Caroline, then back via London to Gallow Hill, where William and Mary were married on October 4, and finally returning collectively to Grasmere on October 6″): “William was looking at the Pedlar when I got up – he arranged it, & after tea I wrote it out – 280 lines.” (118) Especially in retrospect, then, Dorothy’s “writing” and “finishing” of The Pedlar suggests the possibility of a preemptive effort, in William’s absence, to take the poem out of his hands and finish it off for good before he should undertake yet again to reanimate its corpse.

The Alfoxden journal makes no reference to questions of publication nor, unless I am mistaken, to Dorothy’s work as amanuensis. If the context of the Grasmere journal is defined in significant part by William’s impending marriage to Mary it is equally so by heightened preoccupation with the possibility, process, and consequences of publication, preoccupation, that is, with the circulation of Wordsworth’s poetry and name within a burgeoning economy of symbolic goods. Evidently Wordsworth’s insertion into that symbolic economy and his definitive enrollment into the symbolic order as pater familias were two sides of the same coin. Conversely Dorothy’s position outside the marriage contract and the exteriority of the journals to the realm of publishing are complementary facts. Yet to state the matter thus is also a simplification for the sphere in which the Grasmere Journal is produced is no more merely “exterior” to the world of publication than Dorothy herself was “exterior” to the Dove Cottage household following William and Mary’s marriage. Look again at these four sentences:


“I wrote the Pedlar & finished it before I went to Mr Simpsons to drink tea. Miss S at Keswick but she came home. Mrs Jameson came in I stayed supper. Fletcher’s carts went past & I let them go with William’s letter.”


The brief sentences desubordinate, but they also disarticulate: we are led to feel that the ladies at the Simpsons have no more idea of how Dorothy has just spent her afternoon than the eventual publishers of the Pedlar will have any inkling of her role producing the poem that bears her brother’s name. The gap is precisely the same one preserved in letting William’s letter go. Stitching those gaps together, not to close them, but to bind each day to each, may be the work of the Grasmere Journal’s prose.



Joshua Wilner is the author of Feeding on Infinity: Readings in the Romantic Rhetoric of Internalization (Hopkins, 2000). Current projects include “Wordsworth and Mandelbrot on the Coast of Britain: Romantic Poetics and the Fractal Geometry of Nature” and “Thinking in Pieces: Pascal, Dickinson, Wittgenstein.” He is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at City College and The Graduate Center – CUNY.

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