Grevel Lindop

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

Did Wordsworth’s Daughter Have Down’s Syndrome?

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 [email protected]shing.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.

Haiti Earthquake: Let’s Give Money AND Respect

HaitiArt 001One of the best-informed, most efficient and most cost-effective relief organisations currently working in Haiti is Medecins Sans Frontieres. If you’re in doubt about how to help, I’d suggest giving to them. The web address is: www.msf.org.uk They speak French, they’ve been there a long time already, and even the BBC News last night attributed some of its information about conditions in Haiti to MSF – which indicates that they know what’s going on.

But while doing what can be done to help, let’s resist the tendency to talk about Haiti as some permanently pathetic crippled nation. Haiti has had a bad press for centuries partly because it was the first country where slaves achieved a successful and lasting rebellion and established an independent nation.

It happened because in 1793 the French Revolutionary government abolished slavery in all French possessions, including Haiti. The black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture established a successful and moderate government which looked like giving the new island state prosperity. Then Napoleon Buonaparte, in a treacherous reversal of policy, decided the island must not become independent of France. He sent an army to conquer Haiti and reimpose slavery. L’Ouverture was captured through an act of treachery (he was invited to talks with the French, who abducted him) and taken to France, where he died in prison.

William Wordsworth wrote an unforgettable poem about him in 1802, not knowing whether L’Ouverture – a hero of liberty – was alive or dead:

TO TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE
TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
– William Wordsworth

The French were later defeated and regained their independence. Foreign intervention and foreign debt have been problems ever since, as has internal corruption. But Haiti’s people have been resilient, resourceful and brave.

They have been badly treated, and dismissed by foreign observers, often through racism. Entertaining but sensational and racist books like William Seabrook’s famous The Magic Island led to the identification of Haitian religion, Vodun, with ‘Black Magic’, whereas it is simply West African religion transmuted into Catholic Christian imagery – distinct from, but parallel to, Cuba’s Santeria. (Seabrook is said to have written his book by sitting in a Port-au-Prince bar and taking down everything the local drinkers told him. You can imagine the results.)

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Behind the Buddha on my mantelpiece is a Haitian ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture cut from a thin disc of steel. It’s exquisite, as you can see: a beautiful thing and full of life. These metal-cuttings originated with artists who took the tops of old oildrums and shaped the design to make perfect use of the circular steel disc.

In the Dominican Republic I slept for a week beside an exquisite Haitian steel screen showing Vodun deities in a forest: a work of art the medieval scultpors of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals would have appreciated.

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Our bedroom is graced by a lovely Haitian Madonna and Child in radiant colours. Let us pray to her and other gods and spirits that Haiti may benefit from the world’s goodwill now and into the future. reafforestation, lighter but stronger buildings, some good roads and better education will be a few of the long term goals but Haiti has a proud history and a rich culture.

They also have some of the Caribbean’s most magnificent traditions of folk art and music.

Right now we’re necessarily hearing a lot about the agonies. But let’s not forget that Haiti also represents, and will represent again, ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’.

De Quincey and Rob Morrison at Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

I went up to Grasmere yesterday: a special occasion. Thomas De Quincey (the ‘English Opium-Eater’) died 150 years ago that day, on December 8 1859. To mark the occasion, and to celebrate the fine new biography of De Quincey by my old friend Robert Morrison, the Wordsworth Trust decided to recreate ‘a winter’s evening at Dove Cottage’ just as De Quincey loved it, and recorded it in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: a roaring fire, candlelight, an ‘eternal teapot’ and ‘a decanter of ruby-coloured laudanum’ – though yesterday mulled wine served as a very acceptable substitute. And of course the weather was terrible, just as De Quincey liked it. After all, as he said, why pay for coals and candles if you’re not getting a proper winter for your money?

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob’s biography – the first since my own life of De Quincey came out in 1981 – is a great read, as well-written as you’d expect from a scholar of De Quincey, one of the best-ever prose stylists. And it’s packed with new information about the extraordinary life of England’s most famous literary drug addict. I’ll slot in a link to the book right here: it’s highly recommended. Ideal Christmas present, in fact.

A new life of De Quincey was much-needed because when Rob and I and nine other editors researched our 21-volume edition of De Quincey’s complete Works in 2000-3, we dug up so much new information that I knew my biography was now out of date. Rob took on the job and has produced an amazingly fresh story full of insights that even I never dreamed of.

Dove Cottage Wordsworth Trust Morrison De QuinceyRob and I discussed De Quincey – his addiction, his dreams, his wonderful writing, his phenomenal memory, his part in the making of modern literary biography, and many other aspects – with a moving crowd of around a hundred people in those candlelit cottage rooms where De Quincey lived and wrote, where he met Wordsworth for the first time, and where he dreamed of (or did he really meet?) the terrifying Malay addict who so unexpectedly knocked at his door one day.

If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it all. If you missed it, you can still catch Rob, when he gives the Bindman Lecture, ‘Thomas De Quincey and the Lake District’, at the Wordsworth Trust on Saturday 12 December at 3 pm. See www.wordsworth.org.uk for details.

Afterwards I dropped in for tea and mince pies with some old friends, Tim Melling and Liz Cooper at Nab Cottage, Rydal, where De Quincey courted Margaret Simpson, the beautiful daughter of a local farmer. Nab Cottage, a fine traditional Lakeland farmhouse on the shore of Rydal Water, is now a B&B and language school ( www.rydalwater.com and www.nabcottage.com ). They told me that during the recent floods they had water coming under the door (the house is right between the lake and the slopes of the fell with consequent water runoff) but it didn’t get serious and everything is now fine. Though it was pelting with rain outside as we talked!

Nab Cottage still has a small built-in writing cupboard with fold-down

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

desk, and since De Quincey owned the place briefly in the 1820s he may well have written there. Tim and Liz keep the room decorated as an ‘Opium Den’ in his memory.

They also got out their copy of the fascinating game Transformation which they tell me originated at Findhorn. Although it’s a board game it seems to provide real-life challenges and counselling for players, and they tell me it can actually change the lives of people who play it. I wasn’t able to stay long enough to play it (Liz tells me she has trained as a ‘facilitator’ to play the game in enhanced mode with people who seriously want to transform!) but I heard enough to want to give it a try. I’m putting a link in, but this is not an arbitrary plug because I am buying this myself. I delight in any spiritual/psychological/divination-type thing, and this one looks really good . If anyone out there has played Transformation and can write a comment about it, please get in touch; I’d love to hear from you!