7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
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;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
My publication schedule ran out of control (again) at the beginning of the year and I’m catching up with posts that were planned but not delivered. However, it’s timely that the poem planned for March is published today, the 250th anniversary of the birth of its author.
It’s a bit of a cliche to reprint “Daffodils” (as many people call it) as shorthand for spring, but it’s because so many of us will will have encountered the poem at school and is so familiar, it’s easy to forget what a fine poem it is. I’d like to think that if he was on tour today, he’d get it out of the way at the beginning of his set to ensure we listened to his other stuff; he wouldn’t be saving it for the encore as there’s much more interesting material in his back catalogue.
Wordsworth was successful in establishing a new form of poetry in the early 1800s in which he sought to create a new type of verse based in ordinary language rather than the formality of traditional poetic structures. He claimed that his poetry sought to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” and described his own work as “experimental.” Above all, the purpose of reading poetry was to be enjoyable.
I think what strikes you today on encountering almost any collection of Wordsworth’s poetry is their length. We have become used to poems being relatively short but Wordsworth’s poetry is so ambitious that I find myself treating much of it as a collection of short stories rather than verses. You don’t pick up Wordsworth for a quick read before bedtime. It has to a serious read in the middle of the day when you’re alert and paying attention. I’ve not finished his verse autobiography, The Prelude, yet but in my defence I could argue that neither did Wordsworth – although he started it in 1798 he was still revising and expanding it when he died in 1850. The final version was published in 14 volumes and runs to about 8,000 lines but it was conceived as a joint venture with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and expected to run to as many as 33,000 lines, or three times longer than Milton’s Paradise Lost. So, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is a relatively modest accomplishment.
What you can see in this poem is how Wordsworth fully embraces the natural world and is completely captivated with the joy and exhilaration of this sight. Dorothy Wordsworth, his sister, records in her journal how they were both astounded by the sight they encountered on a walk near Ullswater on 15 April, 1802.
We saw a few daffodils close to the water side, (and) fancied that the lake had floated the seed 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. 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 and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.
The photo at the top of the page is a shot of Ullswater with daffodils in the foreground so you might get an impression of the sight they encountered. Some of William’s own phraseology can be recognised in Dorothy’s journal entry, and William also credited his wife Mary as the writer of the 3rd and 4th lines of the final stanza.
In 2020 though, there’s another Wordsworth poem which is eerily prescient and I’ll include this too as it is a favourite of mine.
Composed upon Westminster Bridge, 3rd September, 1802
Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
At a time when the Covid-19 virus has caused most of the country, and London in particular, to grind to a standstill, if we could get to Westminster Bridge we too would see “The Beauty of the morning: silent, bare,” would “never (feel) a calm so deep” and witness “the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
Another poem from the same period is called just
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
How relevant is that? London as a stagnant pool of selfish people who have squandered their talent, their wealth and their happiness? Surely not? In need of a saviour to lead us to salvation? Maybe it’s time for
Wordsworth! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee:
I think I’ve gone on too long. I haven’t even mentioned the enigma of his Lucy poems which are a feast in themselves, or his enthusiastic embrace of the spirit and principles of the French Revolution (which I first mentioned in passing here nearly three years ago), or his influence on later generations of British poets, or his current relevance in our belated recognition of the essential need to radically re-balance our relationship with the natural world to minimise the impact species extinction and climatic catastrophe. Thanks William. You’re still a good read.