Relative Genius

Casey N. Cep surveys a history of “literary siblings [who] challenge our assumptions of lonely genius, isolated writers alone at their desks.” On the relationship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth:

Although they lived apart during much of their childhood, the siblings were reunited as adults and eventually cohabited for many years in the Lake District. dish_dwordsworth In an essay on Dorothy, Virginia Woolf wrote: “It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry.”

Dorothy would copy verses for her brother and assist him with correspondence, but she was also a talented writer. While she wrote little for publication, her journals, travelogues, and poetry are all now in print. It is clear that her writing influenced her brother’s or, as Woolf noted, that “one could not act without the other.”

It was Dorothy who made notes in her journal about a fateful walk the siblings took on April 15, 1802, when they “saw a few daffodils close to the water side … a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.” Dorothy recorded that she “never saw daffodils so beautiful [—] they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced.” Only a few years later, William would return to that entry and craft from it one of the most iconic poems in the English language. Written in iambic tetrameter, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” captures “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.”

Speaking of William, Amit Majmudar recently invoked the poet when discussing his theory that literary genius is limited to a 20-year window:

The longest-lived English Romantic, William Wordsworth, spent the last few decades of his life writing now-unread political sonnets. Lyrical Ballads was first published in 1798, which was roughly the time he started The Prelude (which he worked on intermittently, and which was posthumously published, and which, incidentally, bores me to death). Poems, in Two Volumes came out in 1807—this is the volume that contained the Immortality ode and the one about the daffodils. The Excursion came out in 1814. After that, something in him shriveled. …

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written a handful of good novels, but his two, universally acknowledged best came out in 1967 (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and 1985 (Love in the Time of Cholera): Again, inside the twenty-year span. He didn’t write poorly before, and he hasn’t written poorly in the decades since—but within those charmed 20 years, he did the work for which he will be remembered. Likewise Flaubert: Between Madame Bovary and Trois Contes lie exactly 20 years. (He wrote a tremendous number of works before Madame Bovary, few or none published then, few or none readable today.) Rimbaud is another 19th-century Frenchman who follows the rule.

(Image of Dorothy Wordsworth via Wikimedia Commons)