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  • Wordsworth and Reading's Promise
  • Stacey McDowell (bio)

In the grasmere journal entry for march 23, 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth describes a cozy night spent with her brother at Dove Cottage:

he is now reading Ben Jonson I am going to read German it is about 10 o clock, a quiet night. The fire flutters & the watch ticks I hear nothing else save the Breathings of my Beloved & he now & then pushes his book forward & turns over a leaf.1

Dorothy traces a continuity between William's current action and her anticipated one: "he is now reading … I am going to read." Her future reading is enfolded within the rhythms that punctuate the present. "The fire flutters & the watch ticks" in time with his breathing and the steady pace of his reading, "& he now & then" turns a page. Another "&" where we might expect "as" suggests continuance more than just simultaneity. Dorothy's slipping from "he is now reading" to "I am going to read" then back to the present o'clock, without conjunction or punctuation, lends a sense of convergence to their actions. Or it might be just a slip of the pen, the off-handedness of journal writing. What marks the difference between togetherness and coincidence, between doing something together and simply happening to do it at the same time?

While Dorothy's "going to read" intention aims to coincide with the "is now reading" of her brother, each sibling will yet remain separately absorbed in his or her own book—Jonson or German respectively. Something peculiar about the shared solitude of reading in company helps to tease out the possibilities and limits of togetherness, which Dorothy's example locates in a sense of presence felt in the rhythms of time. Her journal is full of instances of reading alongside William, sometimes with her sister-in-law, Mary, and sometimes with Coleridge. The collaborative practices of the Wordsworth circle have long-since qualified the image of the solitary poet, and more recent work on reading studies, biography, and friendship has drawn out the frequent companionability of the Wordsworths' reading [End Page 57] habits, too.2 Yet William himself rarely describes instances of reading in company. Descriptions of reading in his poems more often invoke an absent reader—someone who for the time being is physically remote or else someone who has died. Imagining what or how that person would read if he or she were still around to do so keeps up a distant sense of relationship. While Dorothy's scene of reading cherishes the immediacy of presence, it nonetheless offers a suggestive way into thinking about William's absent readers because of the way togetherness in her example is secured by but also contingent on time.

The journal entry was written during the lead-up to William's marriage to Mary Hutchinson and so, as Lucy Newlyn notes, it "memorialized the last months of Dorothy's life alone with William."3 Commemorating the domestic rhythms of the siblings' past years together—and in a finite time to come—was a way of facing the uncertainty of that coming change. Deidre Lynch has described how reading can lend shape and continuity to routine, as is vividly evoked when she imagines traveling back in time equipped with "an especially sensitive stethoscope" to listen in on Romantic-era readers and hear,

as if it were a heartbeat, or a kind of bass line, pounding beneath the louder noise of public history, the rhythm that the inhabitants steadily beat out as, turning pages they had turned before, often at the same time of the week or year as before, reciting according to schedule the familiar words they had recited before, they conformed to their bookish routines.4

This clocking of time through the rhythms of reading is extended in Christina Lupton's account to include all those as-yet-unread books we tell ourselves we are going to read in the time to come. Poised within the present tense of William's turning pages, Dorothy's, "I am going to read," performs at a more immediate and local level something of the reparative shaping of time that Lupton describes: "there's a...


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