She ‘Came On a Little Pony’: Influence, Omission and Desire in Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journals

There is no doubt, in the early twentieth century, of Gertrude Stein’s influence on Hemingway. Hemingway’s style does not directly mimic that of Stein’s; but Stein taught him how language means through her own work (Tender Buttons, Three Lives, etc.). Stein’s own work, nonetheless, is influenced by the “stream-of-consciousness” techniques she learned under her professor, William James, and the various styles of artists such as Cezanne and Picasso. Jeffrey Meyers, in his Hemingway: A Biography, writes of Hemingway’s “embarrassing indebtedness to Stein,” and that Hemingway was not influenced by Cezanne as most critics say; not like Cezanne’s influence on Stein, of course (136), and that “Stein’s work did not, like Hemingway’s, have significant content based on extensive experience” and “she remained stagnantly trapped by her own self-defeating technique” (78). Loosen your scepter a little, Mr. Meyers. Let us look at your logic for a moment; this will aid us in discussing the influence William Wordsworth had on Dorothy Wordsworth; but much more so the reversal. In fact, Dorothy wrote, stylistically, in her journals, the way William perpetually demanded that language be presented: that of common life; that is, omitting abstractions in language that is concise yet nonetheless enlightening.

First, let us determine what Meyers means by influence. He demonstrates the word as something to be ashamed of, but only when the influence is from a woman to a man: the disreputable thievery of Hemingway, a man, a man’s man, from Stein. Now, when influence is mentioned in regards to Stein--her influence from Cezanne (Meyers 136)--it is implied as logical, a gift from man’s intellect to woman’s application. The delineation of influence, according to Meyers, is based upon gender. Within logocentrism, gender is separated. It refers to intended action of speech and reason by the masculinity of the past--in Christianity a patriarchal God is the “word” or “logos”--, opposed to a “passive” or “feminine” inaction. This imposed binary of action and inaction, or of reason and irrationality implied by the term “logos,” necessitates the binary of masculine and feminine and associates the feminine with irrationality and disorder. Stein confronts and challenges logos in her work Tender Buttons by obscuring the signified of each signifier with the use of metonymy. We will review Dorothy’s use of metonymy later. However, instead of forcing us to decipher what these words mean, Stein forces us to acknowledge how words mean: they usually mean within a “logos” dominated by patriarchy; and this presentation, this discovery in works like Tender Buttons of how words mean (there is a distorting of logic--it is very confusing if one tries to read the text in a logical way) gives sympathizers of Hemingway the tools to categorize Stein’s discoveries into “gibberish,” or “stagnant,” as Meyers puts it, leading to nowhere.

But enough of the Lost Generation’s problems. My introduction coincides with the gender problem we find in Dorothy and William’s relationship. Mr. Meyers’ multiplicities of the term influence, as well, aids my argument of how still, within logocentrism, we are able to manipulate language to uphold preconceptions of gender. Although his manipulations allow us to follow a seemingly logical explanation of thievery specifically in the case of women writers, the critics of William Wordsworth, when he uses the ideas or even specific lines from Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals, concede of her “inspiration” (Wu 546) to William. In “The Discharged Soldier” by William, his line “And seemed before my eyes another stream” comes straight from Dorothy’s pen a few days before which reads “The road to the village of Holford glittered like another stream” (418). In this footnote, there is no credit given to Dorothy besides the simple statement “she had written this other thing...” However, right after this line in William’s poem, it reads: “Stealing with silent lapse to join the brook / That murmured in the valley.” Here, William is at least pointing to the problem of the injustice of gender and how influence works, however subtle: he stole with silence to join the “murmuring” brook. Dorothy’s work and life, compared to the bulking resonation William’s, does in fact only “murmur.”

One conclusion here is that all writers are thieves. Or, they are all influenced by their peers and predecessors. If Mr. Meyers feels the need to credit Stein solely from her influence by previous artists, he need not shame Hemingway for his “embarrassing” influence from Stein. Whether theft or borrowing, language is taken from an instructor, reworked by writers, restructured by writers, but never a thing discovered by writers. Within logocentrism we see a categorization of things in order to “understand,” as much as we can, them better. Unlike Stein’s Tender Button’s which thwarts categorization altogether, we see Hemingway and his straightforward writing: a writing categorized by other writers as the Omission theory, or Iceberg theory. But that’s only what it is: categorized, coined by Hemingway and other writers--once this theory became located, named, and possessed, it is attributed only to him. But it is not a style of writing that Hemingway discovered, only an amusing analogy to put in a box and give as a gift (an influence, as Meyers would say) to writers succeeding Hemingway.

I’ve never seen in such a spread of literature two styles so structurally similar. Dorothy Wordsworth uses the Omission theory in her Grasmere Journals and it has gone unnoticed--it has been taken up by patriarchal language in the twentieth century that only categorizes what it feels necessary in literature (namely, literature put in the canon in the Western world). Let me already explode the argument that discounts this theory of omission from being applied to Dorothy’s work. One could argue that in journals, one writes straight to the point, always concisely--I’ll say two things about this. First, one may write concisely in journals, but one point of writing in a journal is to express personal emotion. Perhaps Dorothy knew her journals would be found and published--her brother was popular during his lifetime--nonetheless, many critics agree that her work was “never intended to be published” (Wu 584). Second, out of all the personal letters and personal writings out of the “Romantic era,” no language, no style can be compared to Dorothy’s. No wonder these journals were the “inspiration for much of [William’s] poetry” (584)--the powerful emotion is hidden, or omitted, under the simplistic style in which she writes, here about a beggar: “his leg broke, his body driven over, his skull fractured. He felt no pain” (586)--language of the “common”--simplistic in style.

One cannot argue, either, that Dorothy’s simplistic style of writing is due to her writing in a diary and is deemed only as prose. On the contrary, within her journal there are lines and lines of iambic pentameter. I have no doubt, with Dorothy being so close to William and his friends, that she was reciting iambs in her sleep. William used some of these lines, word by word, to fit a single metered line. These are William’s lines about Daffodils:

                        Ten thousand saw I at a glance

                        Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

                        The waves beside them danced, but they

                        Outdid the sparkling waves in glee. (W. Wordsworth 546)

If I break up the lines in Dorothy’s “Daffodil” experience from her journal entry, the experience that inspired her brother to write “Daffodils” this is how it would read, written in blank verse:

                        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. (D. Wordsworth 85)

Now that is some damn good poetry. The way she uses the word “about” instead of “over” or “around” implies an intimacy: “about” signifies multiple meanings, such as physically around the stones, but also “about” signifies something like “apropos”--the flowers were “about” the stones in preposition as well as adjective: convincing, inspiring, telling. The repetition of it suggests an importance in the word “about”: but she does not say outright, as her brother does, “a poet could not but be gay” or of a “pensive mood” (W. Wordsworth 546)--all that she says of herself is that she “rested again and again” (D. Wordsworth 85). This repetition Dorothy uses is popular in poetry for emphasis on feeling [we see it a lot in Keats’ poems also] and, here, serves to maintain her lack of sentimentality, at least on the surface, by avoiding the use of flowery words for emotion: blatant sentimentality is needless in her style. We as readers, in Dorothy’s journal entries, see nothing of what she feels. On the contrary, we feel what she feels because of her omission of garrulousness and in the thread of meaning in her simplest words: “about,” “again.”

Now that the genre of Dorothy’s work is revealed to be able to rework itself into the genre of poetry as well as prose, we cannot simply confine her writing to journalistic writing. This is literature, whether intended for an audience or not, with an avant-garde sensibility about it. To say that Dorothy created the Omission theory would be ridiculous: but to say it was never done before Hemingway is also ridiculous. Western civilization is always hesitant of a surface that may be hiding something massive beneath it. More so, Western civilization is terrified of that same surface with the lurking of ambiguities underneath that is not yet categorized. In The Grasmere Journals, we are confronted and challenged as critics as what to make of it in certain Romantic contexts. That is, if we look at Abrams’ theory of the mirror and the lamp, we see the mirror as mimetic--poetry reflecting or mimicking what is “real,” or we see the lamp--a “perceiving mind projecting light” as expression of the poet (Abrams 60), or combining “the figure of the lamp of the mind with the figure of external nature as mirror.” Dorothy depicts her daily life within her journals--but self-reflection, as well as powerful expression, is absent in her work, at least on the surface. When her brother marries Mary, Dorothy says “when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything” (126). Her “neither hearing or seeing,” her “stillness” (because we know not the “it” she couldn’t stand--not directly) works for critics neither toward a self-reflective explanation of art or an external expression of art. Dorothy turns the mirror around and puts a veil over the lamp. In doing so she sets up an absence, an omission that we apply to works a century later.

We have seen the theory of fragmentation applied mostly to the Romantics’ ideas: as in poems such as Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where a cyclical notion of life and nature are broken by the fragmented body of the “statue” or the ambiguities of the fate of Keats’ urn--“when old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain” (1399), opposed to all or every generation--if “this” is emphasized, then even art’s eternal wholeness is instead a changing, alterable thing. But as far as style goes--or better, the structure of sentences, the organization of thoughts instead of thoughts themselves--Dorothy’s work is fragmented in exactly that, the structure, which in turn thwarts a union among her ideas and thoughts. In her entry Thursday 29 April 1802, Dorothy writes

 A beautiful morning. The sun shone and all was pleasant. We sent off our parcel to   Coleridge by the wagon. Mr. Simpson heard the cuckoo today. Before we went out, after I had written down ‘The Tinker’, which William finished this morning, Luff called. He was very lame, limped into the kitchen (he came on a little pony). (92)

First, the sentence fragments aid in the proof of the omission I mentioned earlier. In “A beautiful morning” there is no verb--verbs express what the subject is doing or what state it is in, constituting the subject into a whole thought. This fragmented structure is the first sentence in the entry, setting the tone for the fragmented succession of thoughts in the rest of the paragraph. In the middle of the sentence, we are jolted by the sentence “Mr. Simpson heard the cuckoo today” (92). This sentence transitions from nowhere and transitions to nowhere. It is left alone in its idea, wholly fragmented, in the midst of her thoughts. The shock of this sentence isn’t that Mr. Simpson heard a cuckoo that day: the shock of the sentence is the way she uses language--she circumvents the logic of explanation, she breaks with logos. Joyce, Stein, Faulkner, and other modernists who use this structural technique are categorized by this technique as if they owned it, after Dorothy was dead, overlooked and overshadowed. She arrived before them, and “came on a little pony.”

This confrontation of logic in the transition of sentences is found in many other places in her writing. One remarkable spot is when Dorothy sees sheep with a glittering silver line on the ridges of the backs...owing to their situation respecting the sun, which made them look beautiful but with something of strangeness, like animals of another kind--as if belonging to a more splendid world. Met old Mr. Simpson at the door; Mrs Simpson poorly. I got mullens and pansies. (93)

They looked “beautiful but with something of strangeness”--these lines about the sheep are remarkable in their depiction. The sheep that “belong to a more splendid world”--which penetrates the surface of her thoughts somewhat; that here, we are not of a splendid world, but perhaps we can see something of one and write it down--could be seen as the “overflow of imagination” her brother wrote of, and her expression of it in recollecting the memory. However, notice what comes after. “Met old Mr. Simpson at the door”--another break in transitioning, another shock to what our logocentric processes of mind expect to hear. Her writing oscillates in style--she doesn’t overstay her welcome in the peculiar world as many other poets force themselves to do. These structural fragments lack forcing--the type of “force” that is a facade, as if one were to say “this writing seems forced.” It is not that her writing makes no sense; here, what she means isn’t the point--it is how she is meaning. She is breaking with the process of logos in her organization. William takes the lines he wants out of Dorothy’s writing and puts them back into logos--we are never thwarted, never shocked in William’s poetry or prose, however eloquent and pleasing it may sound.     

The words “sentimentality” or “nostalgia” are overtly applied to texts by female authors. In her Journals, Dorothy says the “still seclusion of the valley affected me even to producing the deepest melancholy--I forced myself from it. The wind rose before I went to bed” (4). What we see of sentimentality is quickly pushed aside by her--“I forced myself from it.” And in other instances, as in the funeral Dorothy attended Wednesday 3 September 1800, she states that “I thought she was going to a quiet spot and I could not help weeping very much” (20). This is stated matter-of-factly, and although she wept, there is a lack of saturated affectation in it. Again, the way she structures her words obscures what she means by them: in the previous quote, the “she” probably refers to the dead woman, Susan Shacklock. However, this is what she says before:

            The green fields, neighbours of the churchyard, were green as possible and, with the brightness of the sunshine, looked quite gay. I thought she was going to a quiet spot and I could not help weeping very much. (20)

Dorothy’s dislodging of structure allows the reader to read this last sentence as a pathetic fallacy: that the “she” referred to is the sunshine. Although “sunshine” is not the subject of the previous sentence it is a noun that accompanies the “fields.” Dorothy might quite possibly be using metaphor here--the sunshine was going to a quiet spot, and she could not help weeping. Whatever the “she” is, either one is or will be absent to her; and that she “could not help” weeping implies a rejection of sentimentality like before when she says she “forces herself” from melancholy. Where we do see sentiment and nostalgia, however, is within a taboo subject: the relationship with her brother, William, and its implications of, if not explicitly physical, subtly emotional, incest.

As before said, Dorothy uses omission in her use of language--she leaves her readers to decipher what she herself feels. Dorothy, throughout most of her Journal, uses this omission, which necessitates the absence of patent sentimentality. These areas, such as the funeral depiction and the depiction of the daffodils, even if they are moving, do not drip with emotion--here is where her writing excels--William very obviously saw this potential. The only overtness in nostalgia is some instances regarding her brother, William. They are in lines such as “Oh! that I had a letter from William!” (2) or “I gave him the wedding ring--with how deep a blessing!” (126)--and the majority of these lines do not jolt the reader with her usual style of breaking from “logos”--they are not disrupted by other thoughts or fragmented in structure. So, does this mean that her sentimental parts regarding her brother are the only sincere parts of her journal? On the contrary, the very intimate relationship with her brother is important here; if incestual emotions, etc., ensued, it is something Dorothy would have kept as a deep secret. I’m not saying that the emotions for her brother are insincere--I am saying that in their intimacy, her writing of her brother would have been more cautious, more self-conscious, more forced--and if this nostalgia is only applied to William, we can affirm that she is a woman who used a sentimental style only as a facade--“Nostalgia, inspiration, primal states, and supersaturated identity” (Wilson 167), in counter to what Frances Wilson declares, is not something Dorothy applies within her consistent style as a writer.

But let’s delve further into the question of incest that Frances Wilson attempts to answer in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Of course, there is no “evidence of a sexual relationship of some kind existed between Dorothy and William” (161). The subject of incest is taboo now. Then, it wasn’t as shocking a notion. Wilson states that “Incest, along with a belief in the sacred nature of childhood, was a fundamental ingredient of Romantic consciousness” and comes out in texts Dorothy and William would have read such as “Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk” (163). But whether any sexual intimacy happened or not is irrelevant--when Dorothy writes of her brother, in several cases, there is a  more blatant appearance of her feelings, opposed to her more omitted style. Where before, even in her subtle yet powerful accounts of dismal situations, there is a lack of sentimentality, in these instances where her brother is concerned, there is an abundance of it: “I will look well and be well when he comes back to me. O the darling! Here is one of his bitten apples! I can hardly find it in my heart to throw into the fire!” (D. Wordsworth 74). In Lacanian psychoanalysis desire is a relation to a lack, opposed to a relation to an object. In Dorothy’s journals, there is an interesting contrast in the structure of the text when we look at her regular style to when we look at these other moments with her brother. That her writing changes into a presence of emotion instead of an absence of emotion may allude to the attempt of trying to fill that desire for her brother. Desire within people is for the thing which we will never have. Within the area of incest, the hope of desire being satisfied, in our society, is even more of a gap--that lack even more unobtainable, especially when William marries, that, structurally speaking, Dorothy’s verbosity in her journals in relation to William attempts to fill that lack.

If we continue to look at desire structurally, we can also draw upon what I mentioned earlier about Stein and her use of metonymy: Dorothy uses this same trope to disrupt direct meaning in her text, and as Susan Levin puts it, she “writes in a lateral sequence of associations rather than a narrative unit that can synecdochically represent the whole” and she “refuses metaphor” (31). Lacan says that “the connection” in metonymical words “is nowhere but in the signifier, and that it is in the word-to-word connection that metonymy is based” (1298)--namely, that metonymy is related to desire because it is only a displacement of words, a substitutive other that never satisfies the signified. The slippery ways of metonymy and desire breaks the absolution that metaphor seems to give. But metaphor never satisfies either--it is only a different equation. So in getting back to Dorothy’s work, she is already, before her time, confronting the way language works under logocentrism by not using metaphor in her “best parts”:

William rubbed his Table after candles were lighted, & we sate a long time with the windows unclosed. I almost finished writing The Pedlar, but poor William wore himself & me out with Labour. We had an affecting conversation. Went to bed at 12 o’ clock. (D. Wordsworth 67)

As Levin mentions, writing metonymically can “frustrate a reader’s desire to know why the author chooses the details that she does” (31). Structurally, Dorothy’s use of metonymy, while thwarting her reader’s path to meaning, also points to the lack that Lacan says is directly related to desire. Dorothy never tells us--she continuously indirects us, misdirects us, thwarts us, as her own desire is thwarted and indirected in her relationship to William.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journals does, at Woof puts it, “call out to us directly across some two hundred years” (ix). She uses omission to withhold from us the inner workings of her thoughts, providing a unique turn from the garrulousness of the Romantic era style of writing of her contemporaries. Her structural techniques, such as fragmented sentences, and disjointed transitioning that calls us away from metaphor challenges the logocentric thought process readers use to decipher meaning: she challenges us with her indirectness in meaning. Although the incestual relationship with her brother William is not proven, it looms within the discourse of this journal by the way she structures her writing: the verbosity in a few cases relating to William may be an attempt through language to fill a lack--a lack that desire is constantly trying to satisfy and get ahold of--and the slippery way her sentences transition into and out of themselves as whole thoughts also calls attention to metonymy--another proof that desire that, through language, continuously cannot get there. Most importantly, Dorothy was ahead of her time in her writing, as her brother William recognized. She applied to her own writing what William in his Preface wanted to obtain. Although many texts see Dorothy as either object or inspiration to William, her own texts reinforces the certainty that her own fragmented style of writing is a wholeness that cannot be competed with--it is taken up and applied even to the texts we see a hundred years later in its style and omission. Dorothy Wordsworth may have arrived in the shade of a lamp, but our theories are finally evolving to her writing, and she has taken her place within literature that will, in the future, be impossible to ignore.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp. New York: Oxford, 1953. Print.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Romanticism: An Anthology. 3rd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu Malden: Blackwell, 2006. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” The Norton Anthology of Theory   and Criticism. 1st ed. Ed. Leitch, Cain, Finke. New York: Norton, 2001.

Levin, Susan. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism: Revised Edition. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1985. Print.

Wilson, Frances. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life. New York: Farrar, 2009. Print.

Wordsworth, Dorothy and Pamela Woof. The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals. New York: Oxford, 2002. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “The Discharged Soldier” and “Daffodils.” Romanticism: An Anthology. 3rd ed. Ed. Duncan Wu. Malden: Blackwell, 2006. Print.


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