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First Impressions: Dorothy Wordsworth Meets Her Brother

Racedown Cottage, the first residence of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in the Lake District

April 7, 2017

On this date William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, UK.

Few brother-sister relationships in literary history have affected the course of western literature like that of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. The story of that relationship is the story of natural and shared genius, yet the genius of one relegated, obscured, and subordinated in her lifetime to the genius celebrated in his lifetime. Yet, William’s genius was dependent greatly upon that of his sister’s. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals were not published in her lifetime, but they reveal her genius and they reveal that she was for many of the early Wordsworth poems her brother’s collaborator. It’s not that William took advantage of his sister or that he would have denied her role as his partner if asked. Nineteenth-century English society took advantage of her.

Regardless, William Wordsworth received the acclaim of history and the western world as he dominated his age and mightily helped the worldwide paradigm change that was Romanticism.

Dorothy and William spent their childhoods apart with relatives after the deaths of their parents. So when they came together in early adulthood they really did not know each other well.

Here in a letter to her close friend Jane Pollard from February 1792, Dorothy offers her early impressions of her brother, at first comparing him to their brother Christopher:

Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I may not know how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.

In another letter to Pollard from June of that year, Dorothy writes an introduction to her brother whom she hopes Pollard will soon meet:

But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest, I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not, then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain, though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance; but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.



First Impressions Series: William Wordsworth at 17 and the French Revolution


First Impressions Series: William Wordsworth at 17 and the French Revolution

September 22, 2016

William Wordsworth at the age of 17 entered Paris during the Revolution in 1792 and with the intense idealism of a young man at the beginning of what would quickly become known as the Romantic era, he was immediately smitten by all he saw. He writes in one of the most famous passages from The Prelude:

O pleasant exercise of hope and joy

For mighty were the [allies] which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong in Love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!

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Paul Varner

First Impressions Series: John Ruskin’s Young Adulthood First Experience in Venice and of St. Mark’s Cathedral

September 29, 2016

Venice: The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Venice: The Upper End of the Grand Canal, with San Simeone Piccolo; Dusk 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Here is the mature John Ruskin’s memory of his first visit as a young man to Venice and St. Mark’s cathedral square. He recorded his sensations of “this Holy Land of Italy” in an entry for May 6, 1841:

“Thank God I am here! It is the Paradise of cities and there is moon enough to make herself the sanities of earth lunatic, striking its pure flashes of light against the grey water before the window; and I am happier than I have been these five years . . . . I feel fresh and young when my foot is on these pavements.”

Young Ruskin would go on to write one of the greatest critical studies of historic architecture with the multi-volume Stones of Venice.

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Paul Varner


Great First Impressions Series: Theodore Roosevelt’s First Glimpse of Egypt as a Young Boy


Great First Impressions Series: Theodore Roosevelt’s First Glimpse of Egypt as a Young Boy

September 15, 2016

Although Theodore Roosevelt is best known for his time as President of the United States, he developed a reputation as a significant American writer and was best known for as a writer for his The Strenuous Life (1899), The Rough Riders (1899), and The Winning of the West, 4 volumes (1897).

In his diary, Roosevelt describes his first impressions of Egypt, during a family trip to the Middle East while he was a young boy.

How I gazed on it! It was Egypt, the land of my dreams; Egypt, the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Babylon was in its glory, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did.

From Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and The Triumph of American Natural History. 2016.

Great First Impressions: John Ruskin’s First View of the Swiss Alps at Sunset


Great First Impressions Series

This is a series I hope to run occasionally as I come across passages from Great Writers about their first impressions as adolescents and young writers just beginning their exploration of their world and their times

Great First Impressions: John Ruskin’s First View of the Swiss Alps at Sunset

September 8, 2016

The great reader, writer, and Victorian critic of art and literature, John Ruskin, whose views were to encapsulate the spirit of his age, described in this beautiful passage from his autobiography, the first time he ever viewed the Swiss Alps: “the walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful.”

It was sunset and he was fourteen-years old: “It is not possible to imagine, in any time of the world, a more blessed entrance into life, for a child of such temperament as mine. True, the temperament belonged to the age; a very few years—within the hundred, –before that, no child could have been born to care for mountains, or for the men that lived among them, in that way. Till Rousseau’s time, there had been no ‘sentimental’ love of nature; and till Scott’s, no such apprehensive love ‘of all sorts and conditions of men,’ not in the soul merely, but in the flesh . . . I went down that evening from the garden-terrace of Schaffhausen with my destiny fixed in all of it that was sacred and useful.”

With a retrospective of this crucial moment in his creative development, Ruskin realizes that his experience could never have been the same before the Romantic Revolution in the two generations preceding his. Before Jean-Paul Rousseau, the Swiss Alps never really inspired such breathtaking awe in view of the sublime nature of the mountains. It just wasn’t how people responded to Nature.

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Paul Varner

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