Amy Clampitt’s Grasmere and Poetic Synchronicities

Back in August 1997 when The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt was published, my husband Aaron and I had recently moved back to the States after living four years in Vienna, Austria. I was trying to finish my Master’s in British Literature at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, while mourning the loss of my European life.


I’m not a serious poetry reader normally, but I was looking for inspiration and perspective, and poetry gives that in abundance.  So, I picked up the collection, front and center on the new book rack, and found myself dipping in and out of the poems, stumbling ultimately upon Clampitt’s dark and rather sinister poem Grasmere (Clampitt 234), named after the village in the English Lake District where the Romantic poet William Wordsworth and his spinster sister, Dorothy, lived.  Clampitt’s Grasmere is both a celebration and lament for Dorothy, her brother’s intellectual equal and emotional touchstone.  Some argue that his sister was his soul mate.  Some have gone further and implied that they were in love with each other.  Dorothy was someone I had become fascinated with the year or two before when I was teaching English at the Bundesbildungsanstalt für Kindergartenpädagogik Maria Regina in Vienna.

There in the middle of the Follett college bookstore in Southwestern Ohio, I began reading Clampitt’s opening lines where she describes the natural beauty of Grasmere and the Lake District with a brooding, darkly Romantic undertone,

Rain storms that blacken like a headache
where mosses thicken, and the mornings
smell of jonquils, the stillness
of hung fells thronged with the primaveral
noise of waterfalls–

Images feminine and pregnant and disquieting, setting the tone for Dorothy’s world and choices.  As I quickly devoured the rest of the poem, suddenly one of the last English literature lessons I co-taught in Vienna rushed back to me.  I was in the classroom with my supervising teacher, Gabi, and about 20 young women. There was a worksheet with William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and his sister Dorothy’s companion piece to that poem from her Grasmere Journal which she kept during their life together there, an entry about a field of daffodils that she and William observed while on an excursion.  Students were meant to compare and contrast the two passages, finding the metaphors and connections between them.  His poem and her journal shared words and images freely between them, the “dance” of the daffodils mesmerizing them both.

Here’s William’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, written in 1804:

          I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
          That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
          When all at once I saw a crowd,
          A host, of golden daffodils;
          Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
          Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

          Continuous as the stars that shine
          And twinkle on the milky way,
          They stretched in never-ending line
          Along the margin of a bay:                                  10
          Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
          Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

          The waves beside them danced; but they
          Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
          A poet could not but be gay,
          In such a jocund company:
          I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
          What wealth the show to me had brought:

          For oft, when on my couch I lie
          In vacant or in pensive mood,                               20
          They flash upon that inward eye
          Which is the bliss of solitude;
          And then my heart with pleasure fills,
          And dances with the daffodils.

(Wordsworth, William. The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888;, 1999.

Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal entry from two years before in 1802 reads:

Thursday 15 [April 1802] It was a threatening, misty morning—but mild.  We set off after dinner from Eusemere…When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway” (Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803, ed. Mary Moorman (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), 109-110.)

I remember the students becoming fascinated by the brother’s famous lines and the direct connections they could draw between his work and his sister’s journal.  Reading Amy Clampitt’s modern interpretation of the Wordsworth’s relationship in her Grasmere, a long way away from that foreign classroom, I was reminded both of the hope inspired by nature when one is feeling dejected and lonely, as well as the fascinating artistic incestuousness shared between the brother and sister.  Oddly appropriate for someone in mourning for the beauty and melancholy of Vienna. And it also reminded me that morning or afternoon or evening how much I loved teaching high school students and what a thrill I had had leading the discussion about the texts in that English class in Vienna.

Back in the Miami U bookstore, weighted down with reading and writing and a final examination looming, I continued to brood and despair in true Romantic-poet fashion, seeing no clear way to get myself back into a classroom and back to Europe.  I stood there in the store and read on and finally bought Clampitt’s Collected Works in hardcover which I could ill afford, but had to have after it spoke to me and reminded me of who I was in Vienna.  And then yesterday, in April 2009, I picked up Clampitt’s Collected Works again this time off my bookshelf re-discovered the poem Grasmere and felt like I was transported into an old movie clip of my life 12 years ago.  Here I am reading it now as a Teacher Librarian working with international high school students and living in Europe.  All my ambitions realized.   I am overwhelmed with the knowledge of both my good fortune and the steady, circuitous slog of work it took to get here, to this couch, to this new foreign city, to find Amy Clampitt’s poetry in front of me once more.

But back to the Wordsworths, which are just as fascinating now as then.  In my travels online to find some context for the poem Grasmere and to see if Clampitt had, as I suspected, indeed gone on a pilgrimage of a sort to visit the area in Britain, I was surprised to find her discussion of the poem in an online text, Titanic Operas: A Poet’s Corner of Responses to Dickinson’s Legacy.  There, Clampitt connected her poem Grasmere about the life and choices of Dorothy Wordsworth with the literary tradition and poetics of Emily Dickinson.  Clampitt loosely connects Dickinson’s poetry with her own work and with Dorothy Wordsworth in her essay “The Stone Face of Emily Dickinson”, interpreting Dickinson’s use of “stone” as a metaphor throughout her work as a point of boundary or moment of resolute decision (Clampitt “The Stone Face”). “The Soul selects her own Society” is the first example from Dickinson’s work that Clampitt draws on,

I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

(JP 303)

And then Clampitt goes on to discuss her poem Grasmere, “another poem about the life of a woman” (Clampitt “The Stone Face”).  Clampitt writes that she wrote the poem after visiting Dove Cottage at Grasmere where the Wordworths lived, and after reading Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal entries for the weeks surrounding her brother’s marriage to her best friend.  Echoing Dickinson’s imagery of stony resolution, Clampitt suggests that Dorothy’s soul chose a risky, passionate partnership with her biological brother to her own peril and ultimate unhappiness.  Clampitt uses imagery from the natural world to accentuate Dorothy’s loss after her brother married, the springtime “would bring/birch foliage filmy as the bridal veil/she’d never wear”.  Couldn’t Dorothy have married someone else?  But when she was a young woman she traveled with her brother and his married friend Samuel Coleridge to Germany, carefully building their intimacy and reliance upon each other, and then made her home with William at Dove Cottage, the moment Dorothy called “The Day of My Felicity”, instead.  Perhaps she was as stubborn as Emily Dickinson appeared to be.  She deliberately selected her brother as her life partner, she adored him, she wanted no one else, just the intimacy of living with him.  Unfortunately for her, that goal then meant living with him and his wife and children in the home that had once been theirs alone.

Looking closely at the moments in Dorothy’s life and the consequences of her choices in Grasmere, Clampitt writes of both the pleasure and the pain Dorothy had to endure to be a part of her brother’s artistic and domestic worlds.  She’s allowed to share his cozy family life, his poetry, his affection “‘Wednesday . . . He read me his poem. After dinner/he made a pillow of my shoulder–I read to him/and my Beloved slept'”, yet the price was high “(the circle/of domestic tranquility cannot/guard her who sleeps single/from the Cumbrian cold)” (Clampitt 235).  Perhaps one of the most poignant observations about the brother and sister is from Dove Cottage, The Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery where, describing the influence Dorothy’s journal had on her brother’s poetry, “The poem was not written until two years later and the similarities are clear. The most striking difference, perhaps, is that [William]Wordsworth turns a shared experience into a personal one” (Dove Cottage).

In honor of National Poetry Month, women’s choices and poetic synchronicities, here’s Grasmere:

Rain storms that blacken like a headache
where mosses thicken, and the mornings
smell of jonquils, the stillness
of hung fells thronged with the primaveral
noise of waterfalls–contentment
pours in spate from every slope; the lake fills,
the kingcups drown, and still it rains,
the sheep graze, their black lambs bounce
and skitter in the wet: such weather
one cannot say, here, why
one is still so happy.

Cannot say, except it’s both so wild
and so tea-cozy cozy, so snugly
lush, so English.

A run-into-the-ground complacency nonetheless
is given pause here. At Dove Cottage
dark rooms bloom with coal fires; the backstairs
escape hatch into a precipitous small orchard
still opens; bedded cowslips, primroses,
fritillaries’ checkered, upside-down
brown tulips still flourish where
the great man fled the neighbors:
a crank (“Ye torrents, with
your strong and constant voice, protest
the wrong,” he cried–i.e., against the Kendal-
to-Windermere railway). By middle age a Tory,
a somewhat tedious egotist even (his wild
oats sown abroad) when young: “He cannot,” his sister
had conceded, “be so pleasing as my
fondness makes him”–a coda
to the epistolary cry, “Oh Jane
the last time we were together he
won my affection . . . ” What gives one
pause here–otherwise one might not
care, as somehow one does,
for William Wordsworth–
is Dorothy.

“Wednesday . . . He read me his poem. After dinner
he made a pillow of my shoulder–I read to him
and my Beloved slept.”

The upstairs bedroom where the roof leaked
and the chimney smoked, the cool buttery
where water runs, still voluble, under the flagstones;
the room she settled into after his marriage
to Mary Hutchinson, and shared with, as
the family grew, first one, then
two of the children; the newsprint
she papered it with for warmth (the circle
of domestic tranquility cannot
guard her who sleeps single
from the Cumbrian cold) still legible:
such was the dreamed-of place, so long
too much to hope for. “It was in winter
(at Christmas) when he was last at Forncett,
and every day as soon as we rose from dinner
we used to pace the gravel in the Garden
till six o’clock.” And this,
transcribed for Jane alone from
one of William’s letters: “Oh my dear, dear Sister
with what transport shall I again
meet you, with what rapture . . .” The orphan
dream they’d entertained, that she had named
The Day of My Felicity: to live
together under the same roof,
in the same house. Here,
at Dove Cottage.

“A quiet night. The fire flutters, and
the watch ticks. I hear nothing else
save the breathing of my Beloved . . .”

Spring, when it arrived again, would bring
birch foliage filmy as the bridal veil
she’d never wear; birds singing; the sacred stain
of bluebells on the hillsides; fiddleheads
uncoiling in the brakes, inside each coil
a spine of bronze, pristinely hoary;
male clean-limbed ash trees whiskered
with a foam of pollen; bridelike
above White Moss Common, a lone wild cherry
candle-mirrored in the pewter of the lake.
On March 22nd–a rainy day, with William
very poorly–resolves were made
to settle matters with Annette, in France,
and that he should go to Mary. On the 27th,
after a day fraught with anxiety, a morning
of divine excitement: At breakfast
William wrote part of an ode. It was
the Intimations.

The day after, they took the excitement to Coleridge
at Keswick, arriving soaked to the skin. There, after dinner,
she had one of her headaches.

A bad one’s ghastly worst, the packed ganglion’s
black blood clot: The Day of My Felicity
curled up inside a single sac with its
perfidious twin, the neurasthenic
nineteenth-century housemate
and counterpart of William’s incorrigibly
nervous stomach: “I do not know from what
cause it is,” he wrote, “but during
the last three years I have never
had a pen in my hand five minutes
before my whole frame becomes a bundle
of uneasiness.” To ail, here in this place,
this hollow formed as though to be the vessel
of contentment–of sweet mornings
smelling of jonquils, of tranquillity
at nightfall, of habitual strolls
along the lakeshore, among the bracken
the old, coiled-up agitation
glistening: birds singing, the greening
birches in their wedding veils,
the purple stain of bluebells:

attachment’s uncut knot–so rich, so dark,
so dense a node the ache still bleeds,
still binds, but cannot speak.

(Clampitt, Amy.  The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s