Dorothy Wordsworth’s references to glow worms
Robin Scagell, UK Glow Worm Survey:
Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of poet William and ardent observer of nature, kept detailed diaries of the years 1798 to 1803 which are available online. She refers to seeing glow worms several times, and her more famous brother William wrote a poem about a glow worm in 1802:
AMONG all lovely things my Love had been;
Had noted well the stars, all flowers that grew
About her home; but she had never seen
A glow-worm, never one, and this I knew.
While riding near her home one stormy night
A single glow-worm did I chance to espy;
I gave a fervent welcome to the sight,
And from my horse I leapt; great joy had I.
Upon a leaf the glow-worm did I lay,
To bear it with me through the stormy night:
And, as before, it shone without dismay;
Albeit putting forth a fainter light.
When to the dwelling of my Love I came,
I went into the orchard quietly;
And left the glow-worm, blessing it by name,
Laid safely by itself, beneath a tree.
The whole next day, I hoped, and hoped with fear;
At night the glow-worm shone beneath the tree;
I led my Lucy to the spot, "Look here,"
Oh! joy it was for her, and joy for me!
Two things stand out here: one, that his Love had never seen a glow worm despite presumably having a country upbringing so as to be able to know the names of stars and flowers; and two, that glow worms were sufficiently rare in general for the author to see only one on his travels, rather than larger numbers. Of course this is a poem, and may not represent real life, but if glow worms were commonly seen in the countryside there would be less significance to the work.
Some parts of the country are comparatively lacking in glow worms, and it may be that in other areas they were so common that people didn’t bother to mention them. But there are no literary references that I’m aware of to seeing large numbers of glow worms, other than those mentioned below by Dorothy. From this I surmise that glow worms were always a rarity rather than commonplace. And this is at a time when people were probably far more likely to have noticed glow worms than in today's world.
Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries give us the rare chance to assess the numbers and timing of the appearance of glow worms long before the current era, when modern agricultural practices and artificial lighting have transformed the UK landscape to a major extent. Furthermore, she was an extreme walker, and would walk by day or night as readily as we would hop in our cars.
I did a simple search of the online version for the word ‘glow’, and obtained the following references. My comments are in italics after each entry. Sunrise and sunset times quoted, obtained from Chris Marriott's SkyMap software, are for London or for Preston, Lancs, so will be in error by only a few minutes.
1798, Alfoxden, Somerset
(now Alfoxton Park Hotel, though apparently no longer a hotel).
May 6th, Sunday. —Expected the painter, and Coleridge. A rainy morning—very pleasant in the evening. Met Coleridge as we were walking out. Went with him to Stowey; heard the nightingale; saw a glow-worm.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived at Nether Stowey, about three miles from Alfoxden. The sun set on this day at 7.35 pm and civil twilight ended at about 8.15 pm. The moon was at last quarter so would not have been around in the evening. This seems very early for a female glow worm, but as later references show, Dorothy did not distinguish between females and larvae. No references to glow worms have been received from this area, though there have been occasional reports from the Quantock area.
(Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria, then known as Westmorland. Now owned by the Wordsworth Trust.)
Wednesday [October 8th] .—Frequent threatening of showers. Received a £5 note from Montagu. Wm. walked to Rydale. I copied a part of The Beggars in the morning.... A very mild moonlight night. Glow-worms everywhere.
The waning gibbous moon rose at about 7.30 pm on this date, and as civil twilight ended just after 6 pm it would have been pitch dark between those two times. As there is no suggestion that she had been visiting, presumably the glow worms were in the garden or near to the cottage. It is rare for adult females to be seen as late as October, so I interpret these as being larvae. On some nights, larvae do glow in large numbers, whereas most of the time one can see only the very occasional glow. I strongly doubt that adult glow worms would for some reason have been seen as late as October back in 1800. As far as I know, nowhere in Europe are they ever seen in any numbers later than July or August. In any natural population there will be the occasional oddity, but not so much as to be seen ‘everywhere’.
Friday, 17th [October} —A very fine grey morning. The swan hunt.... I walked round the lake between ½ past 12, and ½ past one.... In my walk in the morning, I observed Benson's honey-suckles in flower, and great beauty. I found Wm. at home, where he had been almost ever since my departure. Coleridge had done nothing for the L. B. Working hard for Stuart. Glow-worms in abundance.
Sunset at 5.10 pm and no moon on this date. So again these would probably have been larvae in the garden.
Monday, 20th [October] —William worked in the morning at the sheepfold. After dinner we walked to Rydale, crossed the stepping-stones, and while we were walking under the tall oak trees the Lloyds called out to us. They went with us on the western side of Rydale. The lights were very grand upon the woody Rydale hills. Those behind dark and tipped with clouds. The two lakes were divinely beautiful. Grasmere excessively solemn, the whole lake calm, and dappled with soft grey ripples. The Lloyds staid with us till 8 o'clock. We then walked to the top of the hill at Rydale. Very mild and warm. Beheld 6 glow-worms shining faintly. We went up as far as the Swan. When we came home the fire was out. We ate our supper in the dark, and went to bed immediately. William was disturbed in the night by the rain coming into his room, for it was a very rainy night. The ash leaves lay across the road.
Sunset at 5.03 pm and no moon. What Dorothy refers to as Rydale is now known as Rydal Water, a couple of miles east of Dove Cottage, or the village of Rydal at the eastern end of the lake. So the walk referred to after 8 o’clock would have been in the dark, and the glow worms may have been larvae on the hillside at the western end of Rydal Water, or even above Rydal village itself. The Swan referred to is presumably the Swan at Grasmere, mentioned in another of William’s poems, which is about a mile north of Dove Cottage. A long walk in pitch darkness before supper!
Anna Szylagyi of the Wordsworth Trust tells me that ‘William and Dorothy sometimes deliberately went for a walk at night. Dorothy often walked great distances (multiple times to Ambleside, a 9-mile round trip, to collect the post), so it is entirely possible that she walked an “easy” 4 miles that night without any moonlight to aid her.’
Wednesday, 7th [July]
.— ... Walked on the White Moss. Glow-worms. Well for them children are in bed when they shine.
Thursday, 8th [July] .— ... When I was coming home, a post-chaise passed with a little girl behind in a patched, ragged cloak. In the afternoon, after we had talked a little, William fell asleep. I read the Winter's Tale ; then I went to bed, but did not sleep. The swallows stole in and out of their nest, and sate there, whiles quite still, whiles they sung low for two minutes or more, at a time just like a muffled robin. William was looking at The Pedlar when I got up. He arranged it, and after tea I wrote it out—280 lines.... The moon was behind. William hurried me out in hopes that I should see her. We walked first to the top of the hill to see Rydale. It was dark and dull, but our own vale was very solemn—the shape of Helm Crag was quite distinct, though black. We walked backwards and forwards on the White Moss path; there was a sky-like white brightness on the lake. The Wyke cottage right at the foot of Silver How. Glow-worms out, but not so numerous as last night. O, beautiful place! Dear Mary, William. The hour is come ... I must prepare to go. The swallows, I must leave them, the wall, the garden, the roses, all. Dear creatures! they sang last night after I was in bed; seemed to be singing to one another, just before they settled to rest for the night. Well, I must go. Farewell.
Sunset at 8.41 pm and waxing gibbous moon set at 11.20 pm, so it would have been a bright evening, together with the summer twilight, despite the implied cloud. White Moss Common is a few hundred yards up the hill from Dove Cottage. Dorothy’s reference to children being in bed when glow-worms appear applies still. There would have been a great temptation for children to collect every one they saw, and today summer glow-worm walks mean very late nights for children. This is her only summer reference to glow worms, so they would have been adults, but it is interesting that Dorothy does not distinguish between the bright adults and the generally much fainter and twinkling larvae, which are notoriously hard to pin down as they often glow for only a few seconds at a time.
Until 2022 I had received no recent reports of glow worms near Grasmere, though I did get a report of up to four glow worms seen in a garden (not specified) in Rydal. There is another record on the Biological Records Centre list of glow worm/s seen sometime before 2003 at Rydal Hall Gardens.
In addition to the above references to actual glow worms, Dorothy also occasionally mentions Glow-worm Rock. This, according to Anna Szylagyi, is “ an overhanging outcrop of rock on the north side of the road, 100 yards before it joins the now main road A591, close to White Moss Car Park. Several poems mention this area, particularly ‘The Tuft of Primroses’ (1808) and ‘The Primrose of the Rock’ (1831). Wordsworth explained: ‘We have been in the habit of calling it the glow-worm rock from the number of glowworms we have often seen hanging on it as described. The tuft of primrose has, I fear, been washed away by the heavy rains’.”
On 20 June 2022 I received a report of two glow worms seen about 100 metres from Glow-worm Rock along White Moss Lane, the road from Dove Cottage to Rydal – the first known record since Dorothy's time!
Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal can be accessed at https://archive.org/details/journalsofdoroth027709mbp and http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42856