By Clover Carroll
Daffodils are one of the earliest and most welcome signs of spring. Perhaps nowhere is their cheerful beauty captured more memorably than in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Commonly known as “Daffodils,” this is one of the most beloved, and most often anthologized, poems in the English language. Wordsworth’s daffodils seem to embody the joy we all feel as the days lengthen, the weather warms, and the earth returns to life. What makes this poem such a perfect gem?
First and foremost is its simplicity. This is one of Wordsworth’s most straightforward and accessible poems. The poet describes a remarkable sight he encountered on a walk around Glencoyne Bay, in Ullswater in the English Lake District, in April of 1802—an experience that left an indelible impression on his memory. Yet beneath the surface, the poem’s meaning is far more complex than first appears. The opening line, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, evokes a feeling we can all appreciate, of solitude, free time, and a certain dreaminess associated with clouds. The simile is unusual, casting our thoughts skyward, where individual puffy clouds often form in isolation of one another and “float… o’er vales (valleys) and hills.” We are floating along with him, lost in quiet thought, when the suddenness and surprise of the sight is deftly conveyed with “all at once….” The ababcc rhyme scheme, followed through each of the four stanzas, is anything but simple, and the word choice is so perfect as to seem effortless, while in fact exhibiting much careful thought and revision.
The second outstanding feature of this poem is its layered meanings. What the poet sees is first described as a “crowd”—a word usually used to refer to people, beginning his repeated personification of the flowers. Tossed by the wind, they are “fluttering and dancing,” like butterflies or young couples at a ball. But immediately the poet redefines “crowd” to the more powerful “host,” a word with multiple meanings and connotations. A host can refer to the person who welcomes us to a party; to the heavenly host of angels referred to in Scripture, especially at Christ’s birth; or even obliquely to the communion wafer, representing Christ’s body and our connection with God. With the brilliant choice of this one word, the poet elevates his personal experience on the hills of Ulswater to the level of spiritual revelation.
The poet emphasizes the vast number of the flowers (ten thousand at least), and again lifts our thoughts to the heavens when he compares their ephemeral beauty to the more permanent, ethereal stars in the Milky Way. In line 15, he turns his attention inward, to the psychological effect this sight has had on him. “A poet could not be but gay”—a word denoting, in 1804 when this was written, joyful or delighted—“in such a jocund company,” again comparing the flowers to a group of laughing, dancing youths. In this moment of epiphany, the poet’s loneliness and isolation are erased, and he is able to reconnect with the unity of creation. The healing power of nature restored his soul and, as Andrew McCulloch explains in his brilliant essay in the English Review (19.3, 2009), made him (and us) “see and feel the pulse of the infinite beating just beneath the skin of the world.” Although scholars have since learned from her diary that his sister Dorothy accompanied him on this walk, we can now see why Wordsworth made the conscious choice to portray the walk as a lonely one, to create a contrast to the welcome companionship of the daffodil host.
He does not realize at the time, however, the “wealth” these golden blooms truly provided. Through a sort of alchemy, they have been permanently stored, like true gold, his mind and emotions, causing a profound change in his relationship to the natural world. McCulloch highlights this “moment of discovery, where we pass from the objective world to its inner meaning,” noting that “where the actual breeze can only make the flowers flutter, the animating breeze of the poet’s imagination can make them dance.” It is only upon looking back, in the final stanza, that the poet realizes the profound effect this event had on him. The joy he felt in beholding the daffodils that long ago April day, he confirms, often returns to him. The golden flowers “flash upon that inward eye/ that is the bliss of solitude”—i.e., the poet’s transformed and transforming imagination. When this happens, his heart once again “dances with the daffodils” (alliteration making the words dance along with them). We now recognize that this is the cosmic dance, through which the poet becomes one with the spirit of nature as he did on that day. This stanza introduces a new psychological dimension to the poem, reminding us of the importance of memory to the human psyche.
Last but not least among the features that elevate this poem above the rest is its lyricism. The poem’s lilting rhythm and musical sound effects allow us to experience the beauty and elation of the moment with the poet. In the stanza just discussed, for example, the repetition of “l” sounds (called consonance) in lonely, cloud, float, hills, and all has a gently soothing effect. The echo of the “o” sound (assonance) in “a hOst of gOlden daffOdils” is pleasing to both ear and eye, and as memorable as the sight was to the poet. Carefully orchestrated sound effects such as these characterize the entire poem. The second and third stanzas convey the enlivening effect this rare sight had on the poet with the more explosive g, k, and t sounds, as in glee and glance; twinkle, milky, sparkling, and jocund; and ten, tossing, and sprightly. The poem’s unobtrusive, yet consistent iambic pentameter carries us along on a smooth ride toward beauty and understanding.
William Wordsworth is considered one of the founders of English Romanticism. His publication, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, to which he added a seminal Preface in the 1800 edition, marks the beginning of the Romantic Movement, which flowered in literature, art, and music throughout Europe and America over the next 50 years. Other major Romantic poets include Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge. The Preface set forth Wordsworth’s poetic principles, describing poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” In what may be seen as a reaction to the more formal, rational, neoclassical poetry of the 18th century enlightenment, Romanticism emphasized emotion, spirituality, the healing power of nature, the use of everyday language, and the importance of the individual imagination.
Wordsworth’s most famous poems, including “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” and the autobiographical, book-length “Prelude,” are masterpieces of poetic imagination and psychological introspection. He became Britain’s poet laureate in 1843.
Speaking of memories… I still remember with delight our dear, deceased friend Dexter Whitehead, U.Va. Physics Department Chair, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and artist extraordinaire, reciting this poem in its entirety, from memory, to a group of friends in a living room nigh on 25 years ago. We were so impressed! He loved the poem and its daffodils so much that his wife, Lois, planted a host of them in their own front yard, which bloom to this day on St. George Ave. Vida brevis, ars longa, Hippocrates reminds us. Life—both ours and the daffodils’— is short, but art (and memory) lasts longer. Here we are, uplifted by Wordsworth’s immortal lines more than 200 years after he wrote them!