A reading of Wordsworth’s classic daffodils poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Often known simply as ‘Daffodils’ or ‘The Daffodils’, William Wordsworth’s poem that begins ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ is, in many ways, the quintessential English Romantic poem. Its theme is the relationship between the individual and the natural world, though those daffodils are obviously the most memorable image from the poem. Here is the poem we should probably correctly call ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, followed by a short analysis of its themes, meaning, and language.
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.
A brief summary of the circumstances of the poem’s composition might be useful, by way of introduction. On 15 April 1802, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were walking around Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater when they came upon a ‘long belt’ of daffodils, as Dorothy put it memorably in her journal. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote of the encounter with the daffodils, ‘we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we 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 influence of this passage from Dorothy’s journal can be seen in Wordsworth’s poem.
Indeed, the lines from Wordsworth’s poem that read, ‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’ were actually written by Wordsworth’s wife Mary Hutchinson (William Wordsworth himself acknowledged this). There is no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that Wordsworth originally had ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’ until Dorothy advised him to alter it to ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, though it’s a nice story: the myth may have originated in Conrad Aiken’s 1952 novel Ushant.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ first appeared in print in 1807 in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes, which received largely negative reviews. A young Byron described it as ‘puerile’. But the daffodils poem has in many ways become Wordsworth’s defining work. In some ways, it’s not difficult to analyse why. ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ neatly reflects Romanticism and its core ideas: the relationship between man and the natural world, the solitariness of the individual, the almost religious awe that nature inspires. This is glimpsed through analysis of carefully chosen words that achieve subtle double meanings, such as ‘host’ in the first stanza, which resonates with religious connotations (the wafer used in Holy Communion) as well as its more everyday meaning of ‘crowd’ (a ‘whole host’ of something).
The word that is associated with the daffodils in each of the poem’s four stanzas is ‘dance’. But the association changes through the course of the poem: ‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ refers solely to the daffodils which the speaker of the poem notices. The same goes for the second stanza, where the daffodils are described as ‘Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’, which reinforces the personification of the daffodils which the word ‘dancing’ had already suggested (again, this is subtle and unforced: flowers have heads, just as human beings do). In the third stanza, the ‘waves’ of the sea also ‘danced’ beside the daffodils, putting different aspects of nature in communion (to use that word again) with each other. But in the fourth stanza, the word ‘dances’ is used about both the human speaker of the poem and the daffodils, which now are simply remembered as having danced (they are in the speaker’s mind’s eye or ‘inward eye’, rather than literally in front of him): and his heart ‘dances with the daffodils’.
Some readers may feel that a poem like ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ requires no marginal glosses or close analysis, because of the plain language that William Wordsworth chose to use in his poetry, the language of the ordinary man. But its effects can be subtle, as in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, meaning that things can slip even a careful reader by. Those daffodils contain much significance. These are simply a few of our own thoughts on this much-loved and era-defining poem.
Continue to explore Wordsworth’s poem with our discussion of his poem about Westminster Bridge and Wordsworth’s classic sonnet about the sonnet. You might also enjoy our pick of the best flower poems. For a good edition of Wordsworth’s best poetry, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Manuscript of William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ © The British Library Board, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.