Little Kate Wordsworth

by Thomas De Quincey

When I first settled in Grasmere, Catherine Wordsworth was in her infancy, but even at that age she noticed me more than any other person, excepting, of course, her mother. She was not above three years old when she died, so that there could not have been much room for the expansion of her understanding, or the unfolding of her real character. But there was room in her short life, and too much, for love the most intense to settle upon her.

The whole of Grasmere is not large enough to allow of any great distance between house and house; and as it happened that little Kate Wordsworth returned my love, she in a manner lived with me at my solitary cottage. As often as I could entice her from home, she walked with me, slept with me, and was my sole companion.

That I was not singular in ascribing some witchery to the nature and manners of this innocent child may be gathered from the following beautiful lines by her father. They are from the poem entitled "Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old," dated, at the foot, 1811, which must be an oversight, as she was not so old until the following year.

"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 fagot 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,—
 Even so this happy creature of herself
Was all-sufficient. Solitude to her
Was blithe society, who filled the air
With gladness and involuntary songs."

It was this radiant spirit of joyousness, making solitude, for her, blithe society, and filling from morning to night the air with gladness and involuntary songs,—this it was which so fascinated my heart that I became blindly devoted to this one affection.

In the spring of 1812 I went up to London; and early in June I learned by a letter from Miss Wordsworth, her aunt, that she had died suddenly. She had gone to bed in good health about sunset on June 4, was found speechless a little before midnight, and died in the early dawn, just as the first gleams of morning began to appear above Seat Sandel and Fairfield, the mightiest of the Grasmere barriers,—about an hour, perhaps, before sunrise.

Over and above my love for her, I had always viewed her as an impersonation of the dawn, and of the spirit of infancy; and this, with the connection which, even in her parting hours, she assumed with the summer sun, timing her death with the rising of that fountain of life,—these impressions recoiled into such a contrast to the image of death, that each exalted and brightened the other.

I returned hastily to Grasmere, stretched myself every night on her grave, in fact often passed the whole night there, in mere intensity of sick yearning after neighborhood with the darling of my heart.

In Sir Walter Scott's "Demonology," and in Dr. Abercrombie's "Inquiries concerning the Intellectual Powers," there are some remarkable illustrations of the creative faculties awakened in the eye or other organs by peculiar states of passion; and it is worthy of a place among cases of that nature, that in many solitary fields, at a considerable elevation above the level of the valleys,—fields which, in the local dialect, are called "intacks,"—my eye was haunted, at times, in broad noonday (oftener, however, in the afternoon), with a facility, but at times also with a necessity, for weaving, out of a few simple elements, a perfect picture of little Kate in her attitude and onward motion of walking.

I resorted constantly to these "intacks," as places where I was little liable to disturbance; and usually I saw her at the opposite side of the field, which sometimes might be at the distance of a quarter of a mile, generally not so much. Almost always she carried a basket on her head; and usually the first hint upon which the figure arose commenced in wild plants, such as tall ferns, or the purple flowers of the foxglove. But whatever these might be, uniformly the same little full-formed figure arose, uniformly dressed in the little blue bed-gown and black skirt of Westmoreland, and uniformly with the air of advancing motion.