Wordsworth and ‘The Companionable Leech’

Lesley Thulin // John Stuart Mill famously suggested literature’s therapeutic potential when he declared William Wordsworth’s poetry “a medicine for my state of mind” (Mill 85). According to his Autobiography (1874), Mill read Wordsworth during a bout of “habitual depression” and was immediately cured (86). For Mill, Wordsworth’s poetry expressed “states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (85). Underscoring Wordsworth’s ability to elevate the reader’s spirits by animating his sympathy and imagination, Mill suggests medicine’s particular dependence on those capacities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wordsworth stages the relationship between sympathy, imagination, and medicine in his poetry. His lyric poem “Resolution and Independence” (1807), for instance, depicts an encounter between the poet and a leech gatherer—a conduit for sympathy and imagination on the one hand, and medicine, on the other.

Composed in 1802 and originally titled “The Leech Gatherer,” the poem reflects the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century “leech craze” that swept Europe (Kirk and Pemberton 356). Although medical practitioners had used leeches to treat conditions such as fevers, headaches, and inflammation since antiquity, the use of the medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis surged after the French military surgeon François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (“le vampire de la médecine”) theorized the salubrious effects of bloodletting. In 1824, England imported five million leeches, suggesting “their supposed value as a ‘cure-all’” (Turk and Allen 130). The rural leech gatherer upheld this economy, wading in marshes and exposing his bare legs to attract wild leeches (Kirk and Pemberton 356).

Although horses would later replace humans, Wordsworth’s poem extols an old man’s commitment to this “Employment hazardous and wearisome,” in the face of a dwindling leech population (108). Enfeebled by “extreme old age,” the leech gatherer maintains a quiet dignity and sacrifices his body to his trade: “Himself he propped, his body, limbs, and face, / Upon a long grey Staff of shaven wood” (72, 78-9). Despite the dejected speaker’s initial lamentation of the poet’s lot in life—he muses, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness”—he vows to remember the leech gatherer’s perseverance. Wordsworth thus renders the leech gatherer as an object of the speaker’s “fellow feeling,” to borrow a phrase from Adam Smith (48-9).  

However, while most scholarship on “Resolution and Independence” has tended to focus on the figure of the leech-gatherer, the leeches themselves serve as equally pertinent symbols and objects of inquiry for an analysis of the relationship between sympathy and medicine, as they enact this sense of fellow feeling. As sentient beings, leeches begin to fit the criteria for proper objects of gratitude or resentment that Smith outlines in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Although he holds that animals are “still far from being complete and perfect” objects of this kind, Smith acknowledges that they can cause and feel both pleasure and pain (Smith 114). George Horn’s An entire new treatise on leeches (1798) attests to this capability when it describes the leech’s method of attachment to the patient, which involves the sucking and penetration of human skin. According to Horn, “Adult persons can easily tell when the leech has thoroughly perforated the skin, by the acute bites they perseveringly repeat;” infants, on the other hand, indicate effective attachment by crying (Horn 27).

However, leeches’ palliative effects outweighed the initial pain they caused. As Robert G.W. Kirk and Neil Pemberton argue in “Re-imagining Bleeders: The Medical Leech in the Nineteenth Century Bloodletting Encounter” (2011), late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical practitioners imagined leeches as sociable creatures, rather than bloodthirsty parasites. The “companionable leech” had “conventionally human values and aptitudes such as sociality and sympathy” (Kirk and Pemberton 356, 358). Unlike the horse leech, the medicinal leech was particularly cooperative and passive in the bloodletting process. Echoing medical practitioners’ affinity for leeches, Horn locates within them an extension of the divine: they represent “the most striking proofs of the care of a kind indulgent Providence, providing relief for his afflicted creatures” (Horn 18). (In the late 1780s, the poet William Cowper presaged Horn’s account of their supposed divinity by comparing the leech to a prophet—he claimed that it could predict the vicissitudes of the weather and serve as a kind of barometer.)

In “Resolution and Independence,” the leech not only acts as a locus of sympathy, but also as a figure for Wordsworth’s own poetic process. That is to say, it replicates, in a non-pejorative sense, William’s working relationship with his sister, Dorothy. According to Peter J. Manning, many critics interpret “Resolution and Independence” as Wordsworth’s “decisive response” to his anxieties about his writing and his imminent marriage to Mary Hutchinson—a union from which Dorothy would never mentally recover (Manning 398). However, scholars note that the source material for the poem likely dates to William and Dorothy’s personal encounter with an old, indigent leech gatherer in September of 1800, which Dorothy recorded in her journal on October 3, 1800: “N.B. When Wm & I returned from accompanying Jones we met a man almost double, he had on a coat thrown over his shoulders above his waistcoat and coat” (DW 23).

As Kyung-Sook Shin argues in “Dorothy and William Wordsworth’s Joint-Labor in Grasmere, 1799-1802” (2015), William’s words in “Resolution and Independence” seem to recall Dorothy’s journal—a text she never intended for publication. Shin observes several similarities in their language, such as Dorothy’s “we met an old man almost double” and William’s “His body was bent double” (Shin 476). Although William does not mention Dorothy in “Resolution and Independence,” Dorothy suggests their shared labor in her journal, referring to her involvement in “The Leech Gatherer” on four separate occasions. On the first, she states, “I wrote the Leech Gatherer for him which he had begun the night before & of which he wrote several stanzas in bed this Monday morning” (DW 94). But it is unclear as to whether Dorothy helped compose the poem, transcribed William’s words, or some combination of the two. Other entries describe William working on the poem, Dorothy copying it for Coleridge, and Dorothy revising it.

William and Dorothy’s collaboration extended beyond this instance. Scholars have also observed the likeness between a description of daffodils in Dorothy’s journal and William’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1807). In April of 1802, Dorothy recounts the following scene from a walk with her brother:

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these 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 (85).

Evoking Dorothy’s personification of the daffodils in his poem, William describes “A host of dancing Daffodils; / Along the Lake, beneath the trees, / Ten thousand dancing in the breeze” (WW 4-6).

Although William does not confirm that Dorothy’s journal served as his source material for “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” he publicly indicates her role as a repository for feeling in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798). Invoking “My dear, dear Sister!” toward the end of the poem, he declares that her mind “Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, / Thy memory be as a dwelling-place / For all sweet sounds and harmonies…” (WW 122, 141-3). While William would eclipse Dorothy until the twentieth century, when feminist critics started to revisit her journal and her own poetry, he demonstrates their symbiotic poetic relationship.

But this symbiosis did not exist in only one direction. While Dorothy assisted William with his poetry, he served as a sort of therapeutic “leech” for her, too, by recuperating her spirits. Throughout the Grasmere Journal (c. 1800-03, p. 1897), Dorothy complains of a melancholic state characterized by headaches, irritable bowels, near-catatonia, sleeplessness, anxiety, bouts of crying, and “low spirits” (DW 113). When William departs for Yorkshire, she experiences a “flood of tears” and ceases to function during his absence (15). Her symptoms peak toward the end of the journal, when she anticipates William’s marriage. When they are together, however, William encourages her to cultivate the “many many exquisite feelings” that, for Dorothy, “made me more than half a poet” (81). Hirudo medicinalis, then, serves as a tool for imagining William and Dorothy’s affective and artistic relationships, suggesting that they acted as each other’s companionable leech.

Works Cited

Horn, George. An entire new treatise on leeches, wherein the nature, properties, and use of that most singular and valuable reptile, is most clearly set forth. London: Printed for and Sold by the Author, corner of Leonard Street, facing the Tabernacle, Moorfields; by H. D. Symonds, No. 20, Paternoster-row; and by J. Collins, No. 53, Bishopsgate Street, Within, 1798. Wellcome Library. Web. 8 Feb. 2019.

Kirk, Robert G.W., and Neil Pemberton. “Re-imagining Bleeders: The Medical Leech in the Nineteenth Century Bloodletting Encounter.” Medical History 55 (2011): 355-60.

Manning, Peter J. “‘My former thoughts returned’: Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence.” The Wordsworth Circle 9.4 (Autumn 1978): 398-405.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. Ed. Mark Philp. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2018.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Shin, Kyung-Sook. “Dorothy and William Wordsworth’s Joint-Labor in Grasmere, 1799-1802.” English Language and Literature 61.3 (2015): 459-80.

Turk, J L, and Elizabeth Allen. “Bleeding and cupping.” Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England 65 (1983): 128-31.

Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Wordsworth, William. “I wandered lonely as a Cloud.” The Major Works including The Prelude. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 303-4.

—. “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.” The Major Works including The Prelude. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 131-5.

—. “Resolution and Independence.” The Major Works including The Prelude. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 260-4.

Image courtesy of The Wellcome Library.

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