Monks and bones

On June 21, 1828, Wordsworth and Coleridge, famous poets in their mid-fifties, set off on an impromptu tour of the Rhine valley, accompanied by Wordsworth’s daughter Dora. The plans had been hatched with such haste that Wordsworth’s wife, Mary – who was then helping their eldest son, John, settle into his parsonage in Coleorton – was caught by surprise. Did the party sail from Dover or start from the Thames, she wondered? “They have not only played us all a pretty trick by flying off in this way”, Mary wrote to a family friend, Edward Quillinan, “but have also left me somewhat in the Dark.” It was not that Wordsworth, a compulsive mover, had wandered off again; there was no surprise there. It was that he had done so in the company of Coleridge, with whom he had not been intimate since the catastrophic falling-out of 1810. Was Coleridge, Mary asked, their only companion? The tour was to be a poets’ reunion, which is why what happened in those weeks is of especial interest.

Having sailed from Margate to Ostend, they went by coach to Bruges to look at the churches, and to Brussels, where they visited the field of Waterloo, by now a popular tourist location. They took a carriage lined with “yellow plush damask & yellow leather” to Namur, continued to Liège by barge (“a wooden house at each end & an awning of wood between the houses”), by carriage again to Spa, Aix-la -Chapelle and Cologne, to Bingen by steamer, by coach to Arnhem and Utrecht, to Amsterdam by barge, to Antwerp by steamer, and returned to Ostend by barge. Coleridge, who had not left England since returning from Malta in 1806, had yet to see the Rhine valley, while Dora, having never before crossed the English Channel, was “half out of my wits at this unexpected pleasure”. Wordsworth, however, was revisiting. He had trodden much of this path with Mary in 1823, with both Mary and Dorothy in 1820, and alone on the walking tour of 1790 recalled in Book VI of the 1805 Prelude.

On this occasion his literary output was two sombre poems, one of which, “Incident at Bruges”, recalled Dora’s response to the “solemn grandeur” of the city. The “vein”, Wordsworth said later that year, was “run out”. Coleridge, as a consequence of “Life unendeared(Wordsworth, in other words), no longer considered himself a poet and produced instead two good-humoured squibs, the first recording the “body-and-soul-stinking” town of Cologne and the second commemorating Cologne as a place of” monks and bones, / And pavements fang’d with murderous stones”.

Dora’s “Continental Journal”, written for private circulation and little noticed by scholars and biographers, is now published in full for the first time. Cecilia Powell has edited the text with care, providing a clear introduction and a set of excellent end notes and appendixes. Because artists, including Turner, were busy recording the beauty of the Rhine, that “great highway of Europe”, Powell has included a number of contemporary sketches and watercolors of the sites the travelers would have passed. Canals, Castles and Catholics is itself an object of great beauty: the paper, binding, design and reproductions are all of a quality that would have embarrassed Dora, who set no store by her literary skill, dismissed and then lost her own sketches, misnumbered her pages, muddled the dates, confused the churches and left unfilled spaces to insert poems by her father that never appeared, and the forgotten names of “celebrated pictures”, such as Hans Memling’s “St John Altarpiece” in the Hospital of St John.

The journal was “visibly unfinished”, notes Powell, but then so too was its twenty-three-year-old author, who, having been sent away to school between the ages of four and eighteen, was now not allowed to leave her father’s side. Powell attends to the minutiae of the tour without speculating too deeply about the tourists. “What does Dora’s journal reveal about the young woman herself?” she asks, before blandly concluding that Dora was “home-loving” and “family orientated”. Is this really all the journal reveals? Where, in Powell’s reading, was the girl described by her aunt Dorothy as “wild-eyed”, “impetuous”, “wayward” and “given to ecstasy”? “Dora’s presence probably paid a major part in its success”, Powell suggests of the tour as a whole. Why “probably”? Her presence was clearly essential, not least because she had the misfortune to replace Mary Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson as Wordsworth’s handmaiden and amanuensis, and the dynamic between the poets – never more fragile than now – had always been dependent on the presence of a female third party. On both previous occasions that Wordsworth and Coleridge had traveled together – to Germany in 1798, following the completion of Lyrical Ballads, and to Scotland in 1803 – they had been accompanied by Dorothy, after whom Dora was named, and Coleridge, irritated by the Wordsworths, had broken away in order to travel alone. That he remained in situ during the Rhine tour was more to do with his frail health and the excessive heat than with his love of William, who refused to speak French (owing to his hatred of Bonaparte) and whose tireless parsimony was noted even by Dora .

Journal-keeping was a tradition among the Wordsworth women. Dorothy, who recorded the Scottish tour, also kept journals in 1798 and between 1800 and 1803, to record her life with William in Alfoxden and Grasmere. Mary had kept a journal of her 1823 tour of Belgium and Holland, which was then read aloud to the children, and both she and Dorothy had recorded the continental tour of 1820. The purpose of hercontinental journal, Dorothy explained (it does not contain her most inspired writing), was to “but to leave my Niece a neatly penned Memorial of those few interesting months of our lives”, while Mary’s was kept in the hope that “my Daughter, & perhaps her brothers might one day find pleasure should they ever have the good fortune to retrace our steps, in recognising objects their Mother had seen”.

The onus was therefore on Dora to produce something of merit, and the burden of responsibility is felt on every page. “Both you Mother & my Aunt”, she writes of Bruges in only her second entry, “have described this never to be forgotten City so sweetly & faithfully that it would be idle in me to say another word.” Because the family were bound by a shared sensibility, it was difficult for Dora to make her own mark, and the ghost of Dorothy is everywhere. When Dora describes “the Moon & one lonely star making their way”, we hear Dorothy’s infinitely superior description, in her “Grasmere Journal”, of “the moon travel[ling] through the clouds, tinging them yellow as she passed along, with two stars near her, one larger than the other.” My own sense of Dora is of a woman straining at the leash, bored by the conventions of the travel journal and wanting to write something more amusing instead.

Powell notes her “sharpness of observation and directness”, but is hard pushed to find examples. What is interesting is how little of what Dora must have observed she felt able to report, and how indirect she is. She records none of the conversations she was party to and says nothing about their hosts, despite being more interested in people than places. Happiest when the landscape reminds her of “English Vale scenery”, she is exhausted by the “church hunting”, “bewildered among” the ruins, and uninspired by the art. Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” in the Church of Our Lady, Bruges, is dismissed as “a celebrated statue of the Virgin & Child which we did not much admire—they have given the Virgin a double chin”.

Routine descriptions of the picaresque are interrupted by occasional impressions of her guardians. “Castles at every turn – two or three visible at once – Convents at the foot of the mountains … with a few clustering trees … ruined castle with which the poets were in ecstasies.” Dora’s humour rises to the surface when she gives us a memorable image of August Schlegel (brother of Friedrich) as a “Dandy Batchelor”, and of the poets perching “like a pair of Monkieys” on the roof of the carriage that took them to Waterloo. There is a marvelous account of Coleridge unknowingly denouncing a “tasteless” modern novel called “High-ways & By-ways” (which he had not in fact read) to its own author, Thomas Colley Grattan, who then joined the party for three days. The best Coleridge stories, however, were saved for her letters home. “Doro says they get on famously”, Mary reported to Edward Quillinan, “but that Mr C sometimes detains them with his fiddle faddlingand that he likes prosing to the folks better than exerting himself to see the face of the Country and that Father with his few ½ dozen words of German makes himself much better understood than Mr C with all his weight of German Literature.”

In his own account of traveling with the triumvirate (included in the appendix), Grat describes Coleridge as lost in “a total abstraction of thought and feeling” while Wordsworth, more like a farmer than a poet, keeps up an inventory of sights seen: “Ah! There it is – there’s the bridge! Let’s see how many arches there are – one, two, three”.

Six years later Coleridge was dead and Dora, prevented by her father from marrying Quillinan, was starving herself. She was thirty-nine when Wordsworth finally permitted the marriage to take place, and four years afterwards she was dead herself, from the tuberculosis she had harbored all her adult life. Wordsworth’s demands on Dora, said Sara Coleridge, “frustrated a real talent”, and this reluctant and dutiful journal, which might so easily have been a comedy, reads instead as the prelude to a tragedy.

Frances Wilson‘s Burning Man: The ascent of DH Lawrence was published in 2021

The post Monks and bones appeared first on TLS.

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