Something so wild and new in this feeling – a review of Sarah Doyle’s new collection

The title poem of Sarah Doyle’s audacious and brilliantly conceived new collection says it all. Reading these collage poems, drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, there’s something absolutely remarkable about seeing her luminous words for the first time presented as poetry.

Using cut-up techniques, elements of found poetry, and applying her own sensibilities as an unusually accomplished poet herself, Sarah has given us these words afresh. She has freed them from history, and the straitjacket of prose, stitching together disparate lines and observations from different days, months and even years into finely honed and coherent poems. Working thematically – for example bringing together Dorothy’s reflections on the moon, birds, the sky – Sarah has crafted individual pieces that catch the light in new and unexpected ways.   

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her brother, William (collage by Christopher James)

Sarah’s source materials are the journals Dorothy kept between 1798 and 1803, of her life with William Wordsworth. Dorothy records their intimate, symbiotic relationship, where she casts herself almost as a midwife for his poems, copying down his stanzas and sharing her own nature writings for him to use and rework – including one of her finest pieces of writing on encountering a blazing belt of daffodils that ‘tossed and reeled and danced/and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind’. She records her and her brother’s comings and goings in often amusing and revealing detail, documenting their visitors, walks and moods, spanning their crucial time in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. 

Anyone familiar with these journals, will know that the weather (particularly the incessant rain) and William’s predisposition to ‘compose’ (or fail to compose) on any given day, form the chief preoccupations. She has a powerful sense of empathy, both with her companions and surroundings, and indeed her moods closely reflect the weather and those around her, soaring to moments of epiphany and bliss, but spiralling just as easily into melancholia.

‘A heart unequally divided’ is a sonnet built around Dorothy’s struggle with a depression, and captures these oppositions particularly well. It begins with the assertion: ‘My heart was so full that I could hardly speak.’ She takes herself on a solitary walk to the lake: ‘I sate a long time upon/a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood/ of tears my heart was easier.’ The catharsis she experiences in nature goes some way to mend her heart, even if she cannot banish her demons for good. As a sonnet, it works perfectly – a focused, compressed and continuous narrative that allows us a glimpse of her soul through a rich sensory experience (she hears ‘the weltering on the shores’ almost like the sound of her own sobbing). Part of the pain it seems, is a sense of her own unfulfilled potential, alongside unspecified, unrequited feelings, perhaps unknown even to herself.   

Almost all of Dorothy’s writing is rooted in nature, and this manifests itself in her phrasemaking in the most astonishing ways; she is constantly open to the colour and variety of the wild that meets them almost at their door. With a magpie’s eye, Sarah collects some of her most vivid and surprising phrases, and with careful use of line break, form and rhyme delivers them memorably.

‘Among the mossy stones’ is almost a parallel piece or version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils: ‘…and at last, under the boughs/of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore.’ And later: ‘Some rested/their heads upon these stones, as on/ a pillow for weariness.’  There is a tenderness to it, and sense of Dorothy’s own weariness too in the face of all this beauty; as if she would never be capable of capturing or mirroring nature’s bounty. Yet paradoxically, this is almost the closest she got to a sort of poetic perfection – only for it to eclipsed by the dazzle of her brother’s showboating reflections on the same scene. Her wonderful phrase: ‘ever glancing, ever changing’ could describe the light, the rain and these poems too.   

Sarah’s use of concrete (or visual) poetry is especially strong. ‘Snow in the night and still snowing’ is full of gaping white space between the words, which drift down like flakes, the lines collecting more densely at the foot of the page; form perfectly reflecting the meaning. Scouring the journals for different observations on snow, Sarah piles phrase on phrase, each compounding the next – from ‘the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs’ to ‘the brooms waved gently with the weight of snow.’ The cumulative effect is incredibly powerful: repetition with variation, almost like Monet’s water lilies or van Gogh’s sunflowers. The individual phrases continue to work in their own way as vivid, dynamic images – all the more redolent for their filmic sense of movement – like a photograph taken on an iPhone where you see a second’s movement before the still image itself.  

‘When the rain’ is another tour de force in the same manner – the phrases flooding down the page in a twisting spiral; the word rain itself running like a spine through the poem (as I heard one reader astutely describe it). Indeed, the almost comical quantity of rain that falls on William and Dorothy seems to make the very pages of the journal damp; yet it’s this very liquidity, slipperiness and the luminous reflections of the rain that most accurately describe Dorothy (and Sarah’s) style – with images and colours running and flowing together to create something fresh and new.    

Sarah’s trick in this collection is to make herself invisible; yet her poetic intelligence is constantly at work, feeling the weight of each line – like snow on a branch. She is alert to rhymes and half rhymes, repetition and rhythm. The space she gives these poems to breath is almost her greatest gift to Dorothy, clearing space for us to see the lines more clearly and quiet for them to sing out.  

There is a sense here too of a wrong being righted. Dorothy has been cast as a spinster, a hanger-on, an also-ran of the Lakeland poets, and latterly, even a gooseberry in William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary. While many have praised her as a diarist, few have truly made a claim for her as a poet in her own right. These pieces make a compelling case to the contrary.

Whether Dorothy herself limited her poetic ambitions to serve her brother, his muse and reputation, or whether she felt the constrained by society and convention, we will never know. However we do at least get a sense here of what she might have achieved. To compare William and Dorothy’s work is perhaps unfair – but there is arguably a lightness and freshness about her writing that’s missing from her brother’s; an instinctive, intuitive grasp of nature’s hold on us. She is unshackled from the stuffy strictures of form William adhered to, and untroubled by his public expectations.       

Indeed, this book is a double achievement: first for Sarah for seeing the poems within the prose and working them into such fluent and complete pieces; and second to Dorothy herself for what is in effect, her long-delayed debut collection. What a wonderful thing it would be to see both their names together on the Forward Prize shortlist for best debut? You can imagine Dorothy bashfully ascending the steps to the stage in her black gown, cheeks flushed as she collects her cheque. And, yet, you feel, she would still spend most of her acceptance speech praising her brother. Bravo to Sarah on such an original and daring venture.