Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Catherine Wordsworth: A Romantic Poet’s Down’s Baby

Catherine Wordsworth

With the recent news that M&S have chosen Seb White, a little boy with Down’s Syndrome, as a model for their children’s clothes, it seemed a good time to draw attention to the likelihood that William Wordsworth probably wrote one of his finest poems about a Down’s Syndrome child.

His beautiful sonnet ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written after he had lost two children, but its most likely subject is Catherine Wordsworth, who was especially dear to her father and used to delight him by playing in his study as he wrote. Here’s the poem:

SURPRISED by joy–impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 10
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Sadly, Catherine (1808-12) had died at less than four years old and the poem records a painful moment when Wordsworth instinctively turns to the child and then realises, a split second later, that she is no longer there – something anyone who has suffered a bereavement will be able to identify with.

But how do we know that Catherine had Down’s Syndrome? It’s not certain but it is extremely likely. I noticed the evidence when I was researching the life of the essayist Thomas De Quincey, and a couple of years ago pointed it out to Muriel Strachan, who is writing a book on the Wordsworth children, and suggested she examine the evidence systematically. She did so and the case seems very clear.

Catherine was born when the poet and his wife were both 38. A loveable and delightful child, she was said by Dorothy Wordsworth to have ‘not…the least atom of beauty’, but a wonderful sense of humour and ‘something irresistibly comic in her face and movements’. Wordsworth used to call her ‘my little Chinese maiden’ – probably relating to the epicanthic fold of skin which gives some Down’s children an unusual shape to the eye. She seems to have had heart problems and suffered from convulsions and some problem with swallowing. All these symptoms point very strongly to Down’s Syndrome.

The whole Wordsworth Circle was fond of her, and Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, loved her especially: so much so that when she died he was heart-broken, and claims to have slept out on her grave in Grasmere churchyard for six summer weeks in passionate grief. It was probably depression following her death that tipped him into full-blown opium additicion, for his addiction took hold soon after she died.
Wordsworth wrote two poems about Catherine: the other, lesser-known poem is ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old:

LOVING she is, and tractable, though wild;
And Innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes;
And feats of cunning; and the pretty round
Of trespasses, affected to provoke
Mock-chastisement and partnership in play.
And, as a faggot sparkles on the hearth,
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity; 10
Even so this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society, who fills the air
With gladness and involuntary songs.
Light are her sallies as the tripping fawn’s
Forth-startled from the fern where she lay couched;
Unthought-of, unexpected, as the stir
Of the soft breeze ruffling the meadow-flowers,
Or from before it chasing wantonly
The many-coloured images imprest 20
Upon the bosom of a placid lake.

Muriel Strachan presented an outline of her findings at the Wordsworth Museum last autumn. For full details we shall have to wait for her book on the Wordsworth children. Meanwhile, in the new edition of my book The Opium-Eater: A Life of THomas De Quincey (Crux Publishing, forthcoming) I’ve been able to point to the likelihood that Catherine was a Down’s baby, and to explore the part she played in De Quincey’s life.

To pre-order this e-book (likely price £6.99, tbc), or for more information, please email Crux Publishing at hello@cruxpublishing.co.uk

Down’s Syndrome was not identified as a medical condition until John Langdon Down described it in 1866, so the Wordsworths and their friends simply saw Catherine as a lovely and somewhat unusual child.