Today we will look at the well-known poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” sometimes simply known as “Daffodils.”
Now we might think Wordsworth went out for a springtime walk near the water in the Lake District of England, came across masses of blooming daffodils, and went home, sat down, and wrote this poem.
The truth, however, is that British poet William Wordsworth wrote the original version of this well-known poem — based on an experience he had in 1802 — in 1804. And he wrote it after reading his sister Dorothy’s journal account of their joint experience of walking by the lake known as Ullswater two years earlier. She had written on April 15, 1802:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and 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 and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the Sea.
Having been moved by Dorothy’s journal entry to write the poem in 1804, Wordsworth had it first published in 1807. The version commonly known, however — and that given here — is his slight revision, published in 1815.
We shall go through it part by part.
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.
Wordsworth writes that he “wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills. Do not misunderstand his use of “lonely” here. He is using it in the old sense, meaning simply “alone,” not in the sense that he was missing human company. So the meaning of this is just, “I wandered alone, like a cloud that floats high over valleys and hills.” Now as we know, Wordsworth is using “poetic license” (meaning the freedom of a poet to change things) here, because when he originally saw the daffodils, he was walking with his sister by the lake.
He says, he saw “a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils.” “Host” in old writings can mean “army” (it is so used in the King James translation of the Bible), but here it simply means “a large number, many.” So Wordsworth saw a large number of daffodils beneath the trees by the lake, all fluttering and “dancing” in the breeze. By using “dancing,” Wordsworth likens the daffodils to human dancing, which is projecting human qualities onto plants, but his purpose is to emphasize that they looked cheerful.
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.
He says the areas of blooming daffodils were continuous — that is, clustered together in a long stretch — “as the stars that shine / and twinkle on the milky way….” So he compares them to a long stretch of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which in his day and location was far more clearly visible at night than it is now, due to our modern pervasive light pollution by cities. It may seem odd to compare a night scene of stars to a daylight scene of daffodils, but Wordsworth wants to emphasize their continuous numbers, and stars and daffodils both are “bright” in a sense. And by the way, it was not until 1923 that it was proven galaxies other than the Milky Way exist.
He saw the daffodils blooming in a “never-ending line / along the margin of the bay,” which is a bit of exaggeration/hyperbole, just to emphasize how many flowers were blooming there. And he uses a large number “ten thousand” that he supposedly saw at one glance, for the same purpose — to emphasize how many flowers were there. Of course he did not actually count them. Again, he projects human characteristics onto the flowers: they were “tossing their heads in a sprightly [“lively”] dance.”
Now we get into more human imagery projected onto non-human things for effect:
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:
Wordsworth says “the waves beside them [the daffodils] danced.” Here again he uses dancing to make the scene seem cheerful. We, being more rationally inclined, would just recognize that the waves of the lake were undulating quickly in the breeze, but that does not give the effect he wanted to achieve with “danced.” He goes on to say “they [the daffodils] outdid the sparkling waves in glee.” By all this he means that though the waves raised by the breeze looked cheerful in their “dancing,” the daffodils looked even more cheerful in theirs — they exceeded the waves in glee/joy. Seeing this, he tells us, a poet — someone with a “poetic soul” — could not help being gay (yes, I know what you are thinking, but he just means “happy,” “cheerful”) in such jocund (“cheerful,” “lighthearted”) company — the company of the “dancing” daffodils.
The poet “gazed — and gazed” at the fluttering daffodils, but did not realize “what wealth the show to me had brought,” meaning what a valuable thing the large scene of blooming daffodils had put into his mind.
And now he tells us why:
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.
The sight of the daffodils brought him unexpected “wealth” because now, when he lies on his couch, whether not thinking of anything (vacant) or in a pensive (thinking) mood, he often again sees the daffodils fluttering by the lake in his memory:
“They flash upon that inward eye (memory, imagination) that is a pleasure in being alone.” And then Wordsworth’s heart (emotions) fills with pleasure, as though it is dancing (there’s that word again) together with the daffodils in his memory of that day by the lake.
Now of course Wordsworth could simply have said,
“I was walking alone by the lake, and saw a large tract of blooming, golden daffodils fluttering and bouncing in the breeze. It all looked so cheerful. I paused for a long time to enjoy the sight, but did not attach great importance to it. Later, however, I often find the memory of the daffodils coming to mind, and it greatly cheers me when I recall them.”
But that would not be poetry, would it?
Yes, Wordsworth’s old-fashioned phrasing seems a bit contrived to us today, but nonetheless his poem give us an enduring, pleasant picture of a spring by an English lake over two centuries ago.