I’m reading a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. I imagine that any biography of Dorothy Wordsworth would focus primarily on the handful of years before her brother William married when she kept the diary that was to become known as the Grasmere Journals. I have only read excerpts of these journals, but what I have read I have found arresting. It is satisfying to read about a specific day in a specific place and imagine the light on the water of a lake sparkling as she describes it, the wind in the trees and the clouds building above the hills. It somehow recreates a life more evocatively than a conventional biography usually does. Although there are certainly important moments in a life that we recognise and tell stories about, 99% of life is minutea, and this minutea is ephemeral.
Take my ordinary day, for example. I must have driven over the same piece of road on the way to work close to one thousand times now. Each one of those journeys has taken about thirty minutes, and every one of those journeys has been different from the last. My drive to work is along the motorway from Wellington to Petone. I enjoy it. Mainly because the harbour is so beautiful, and the mixture of wind, cloud, and light makes a new panorama each morning as that mixture of elements plays again and again on the sea of the harbour and the ranges of hills around the harbour. This journey is a part of every single working day, a journey that has now accumulated to represent hundreds of hours, and yet in the unwritten autobiographies of our lives it would not even be mentioned.
I went to the Constable exhibition when it was at Te Papa. Generally I don’t like Constable paintings very much. Rural scenes of wagons in babbling brooks don’t do much for me, but he does have a more impressionistic style of landscape painting that I like, and there is one strand of his paintings that I particularly enjoy. Constable did hundreds of cloudscapes. These are rapid paint sketches of the clouds on any given day. He noted the date, and the weather conditions on the back of each piece. I love these. Although they are meaningless they seem to me to be full of meaning. While they were probably simply technical exercises done to hone a skill, much as a musician might practise scales, they read to me like the precise recording of nature we find in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal. Any attempt to record the ephemeral has a tendency to resonate against man’s awareness of time, and the fleet footed span of years that make up a single life. Constable’s clouds and Dorothy Wordsworth’s descriptions of nature have this resonance.
Of course both of these people had their work refined into another form. Constable used his own observations of clouds in his more substantial pieces, and William famously drew on some of his sister’s passages for some of his poetry. However, for me there is something closer to real life in the originals of these more refined artworks. Clouds fleetingly form and reform across a sky and are gone. They loom above our lives and vanish with the moments we live through. A chance encounter while walking with her brother led Dorothy to record this in her journal in 1802:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up— But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road . . . some rested their heads on mossy stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway.
Which led William into a poem that famously begins with this:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Unfashionably direct and warm-hearted it is one of Wordsworth’s sweetest poems, but how much more of the moment of life is in this:
And reeled, and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.
I drive to work everyday and almost everyday I am struck by the great beauty of the harbour. Some mornings the sky is a clear blue dome with a warm orange glow on the cusp of the far hills; some mornings the clouds make tremendous piles over a choppy, restless sea, and fingers of light shaft down behind Soames Island.
What of it? I am neither dismissing art or trying to put ordinary life on a pedastal. Reading the Grasmere Journals and looking again at Constable’s paintings of clouds reminded me of two things. Firstly, that much of my life is spent in cars or at work and yet that vast chunk of my life goes unrecorded and, secondly, that I should remember to open my eyes once and awhile and appreciate the transient beauty of ordinary things.