Monday, July 21, 2008

D & W Wordsworth and the leech gatherer - compare and contrast

"We met an old man almost double. He had on a coat thrown over his shoulders. . . . Under this he carried a bundle and had an apron on and a night cap. His face was interesting. He had dark eyes and a long nose . . . He was of Scotch parents but had been born in the army. He had had a wife, 'a good woman, and it pleased God to bless us with ten children.' All these were dead but one, [a sailor] of whom he had not heard for many years. . . . His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches are scarce and he had not the strength for it. He lived by begging and was making his way to Carlisle, where he would buy a few godly books to sell. He said leeches were very scarce partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce . . . Leeches were formerly 2/6 [per] 100; they are now 30/. He had been hurt in driving a cart, his leg broke his body driven over, his skull fractured.”

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal, October 3, 1800

Himself he propped, his body, limbs and face,
Upon a long grey shaft of shaven wood,
And still as I drew near with gentle pace
Beside the little pond or moorish flood,
Motionless as a cloud the old man stood
That heareth not the loud winds when they call,
And moveth altogether, if it move at all.

At length, himself unsettling, he the pond
Stirred with his staff, and fixedly did look
Upon the muddy water, which he conned
As if he had been reading in a book;
And now such freedom as I could I took,
And drawing to his side, to him did say,
“This morning gives us promise of a glorious day.”

A gentle answer did the old man make,
In courteous speech which forth he slowly drew,
And him with further words I thus bespake,
“What kind of work is that which you pursue?
This is a lonely place for one like you.”
He answered me with pleasure and surprise,
And there was while he spake a fire about his eyes.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He told me that he to this pond had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor—
Employment hazardous and wearisome!
And he had many hardships to endure;
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor,
Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance,
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.

The old man still stood talking at my side,
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard, nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream,
Or like a man from some far region sent
To give me human strength by apt admonishment.

William Wordsworth, from "Resolution and Independence", aka "The Leech Gatherer" (1807)

The ellipses are those of Seamus Heaney, from whom I have borrowed the comparison (link is a PDF). He's really going after that last stanza. More on that later.

This is one of W. Wordsworth's best poems, one of the greatest in the language, perhaps, yet I prefer his sister's version. A failure of taste? Or intelligence?


  1. It is neither a failure of taste nor intelligence. I think it has to do with people like us being raised on the New Journalism. I could completely see Tom Wolfe writing Dorothy's observation. I don't feel qualified to talk much about her brother's poem. I conceived and nurtured a real hatred for WW under a certain English professor's tutelage, mostly because he loved WW and loathed my Modernists. So I can't even remotely think clearly about WW. I like his sister, though.

  2. I was going to vote for a failure of taste AND intelligence, but your explanation is kinder, so I'll take it.

  3. In my view, Dorothy Wordsworth was just as talented a writer as her brother, and I share your judgment that her prose portrait of the leech gatherer is in some ways more vivid and arresting than William's. Of course he was using the encounter as a springboard into his own mind, while Dorothy is writing a simple transcript of the experience - but she was an extremely sensitive observer. Years ago someone published a book with sections of Dorothy's journals extracted and printed as free verse, and they flowed beautifully. This leech gatherer entry is more journalistic - a bit like something from Henry Mayhew - but her more lyrical passages can be easily turned into something we immediately recognize as poetry.

  4. She's really a fine writer. As we have seen here, even people indifferent or hostile to her brother's writing will enjoy her.