Literature

A Short Analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’

A reading of Wordsworth’s classic daffodils poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

Often known simply as ‘Daffodils’ or ‘The Daffodils’, William Wordsworth’s lyric 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.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: summary

Let us begin by taking each stanza of the poem and exploring (and summarising) its meaning.

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 begins by recalling his solitary wandering across the landscape (this is poetic licence: below we will discuss how, when the encounter with the daffodils took place, his sister Dorothy was in fact with him). Like the cloud, he is detached somewhat from the landscape: it as if he, too, were floating above the valleys and hills, aimless and ineffectual, rather than within the landscape and fully part of it.

The word ‘floats’ also suggests a loss of purpose, too, that chimes with the word ‘lonely’ in that famous opening line. This is not some languid and leisurely listlessness but rather purposeless drifting. Wordsworth spies the daffodils, with the adjective ‘golden’ suggesting not only their bright yellow colour but also their rarity (daffodils are only around briefly in early spring before withering away) and, for Wordsworth, their value.

Note how ‘crowd’ rhymes with ‘cloud’. This is not just rhyme, for there is a deeper kinship between the two words, as the harsh ‘c’ sound that begins them both helps to reinforce. That cloud was solitary in the opening line, but now it is complemented by not solitariness but togetherness: that ‘crowd’ of golden daffodils. ‘Host’, meanwhile, arguably also carries a glimmer of religious meaning, suggesting not just a group of people or things but also the ‘Host’ used in Holy Communion (the bread that represents the body of Jesus Christ).

Note also how Wordsworth emphasises the grounded and down-to-earth nature of the daffodils, though: whereas he likened himself to a cloud floating over valleys and hills, now the daffodils are beside the lake and beneath the trees, in amongst the nature at ground level. The shift in prepositions highlights this.

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.

And yet, once he has been brought down to earth by the sight of the daffodils, Wordsworth is keen to invoke their ethereal quality: they are like the constellations in the sky, forming a long ‘continuous’ line or pattern. They seem, like the stars, to go on forever: a ‘never-ending line’. And yet, once again, this is in tension with the idea of a grounded limit, as the reference to ‘the margin of a bay’ in the following line implies.

Wordsworth emphasises the joyous quality of the daffodils as they are almost personified: they have ‘heads’ that seem to ‘dance’ in the breeze.

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:

Again, the daffodils are both seamlessly part of the surrounding landscape (the waves of the water dance like the daffodils) and yet somehow transcending their surroundings (the dancing of the daffodils is more joyous – both full of joy and inspiring it in the observer – than the dance of the waves).

Remember that Wordsworth is recalling this encounter after the fact, much later on. He has the benefit of hindsight when he writes the poem and reflects how the daffodils looked to him. This reflects his famous talk of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, and is worth considering in light of this poem. Wordsworth highlights how joyous the sight of the daffodils was, but then tells us that he didn’t realise quite how important and valuable it would be to him at the time: he ‘little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’ (‘wealth’ echoes ‘golden’, the adjective used about the daffodils in that first stanza).

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 final stanza returns to the idea of emotion recollected in tranquillity: whenever he is lying on his couch at home, Wordsworth tells us, either feeling listlessly empty of thoughts or even in a highly thoughtful and ‘pensive’ mood, he sees, in his mind’s eye, the daffodils again. (We discuss his reference to the inward eye below.) This is ‘the bliss of solitude’: being on one’s own and remembering happy memories and reliving joyous experiences.

We have come a long way from ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: now Wordsworth is talking not of loneliness but of blissfully happy solitude. His heart fills with pleasure and as his heart race increases at the happy thought of the flowers, it seems to dance with the daffodils that danced along the side of the water.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: context

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:

[W]e 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 Wordsworth Daffodilsof 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, which he did not write until at least two years after this, in 1804 (the poem was published in 1807, but whether Wordsworth wrote the poem in 1804 or 1807 or at some point in between we cannot say for sure).

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).

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’: analysis

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.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ is written in iambic tetrameter, which means there are four iambs per line. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In the first four lines, for instance, we can observe the stressed syllables marked in capitals:

I WAND-ered LONE-ly AS a CLOUD
That FLOATS on HIGH o’er VALES and HILLS,
When ALL at ONCE I SAW a CROWD,
A HOST, of GOLD-en DAFF-o-DILS

This is more song-like than the longer pentameter line (which Wordsworth uses for his more meditative poems, such as ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’). And this shorter, sprightlier metre is in keeping with a poem about the joyful dancing of the daffodils.

About William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the leading poets of English Romanticism, and, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, is regarded as one of the ‘Lake Poets’: poets so named because of their associations with the Lake District in Cumbria in northern England.

Curiously, although Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth in Cumbria and would live for many years at Dove Cottage in the Lake District, some of Wordsworth’s most important and influential poems were written in the late 1790s while he was living in southern England and collaborating with Coleridge on their Lyrical Ballads (1798), which would herald a return to older, traditional oral forms of poetry and a privileging of personal sensory experience and individual emotion over the cool rationalism and orderliness of earlier eighteenth-century verse.

Wordsworth’s themes are nature and the English countryside, the place of the individual within the world, and memory: especially childhood memory. One of his most famous statements is ‘the child is father of the man’, which asserts that our childhood years are so formative that they determine the adult we become. Wordsworth is often looking back to his childhood, and nowhere more so than in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude (1805; revised 1850).

Lyrical Ballads heralded the arrival of English Romanticism in poetry, and Wordsworth added a famous preface to the collection when it was reprinted in 1800. However, he later fell out with Coleridge, and his poetic creativity dried up in his thirties; much of his best work was written before 1807. He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 when his fellow Lake Poet, Robert Southey, died, but he never composed a single line of official verse during his seven years in the post. He died in 1850.

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.

7 Comments

  1. I love this poem.

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  3. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ | Interesting Literature

  4. Rocky and Bullwinkle provide a winsome version of the poem. Culture for the masses.

  5. A lovely seasonal offering, just as the carpets of daffodils are starting to appear around here…

  6. Reblogged this on Routine Matters.

  7. I have always loved this poem. It would great if Dorothy had suggested the cow/cloud alteration. It’s good that she suggested the other little known change from hyacinths to daffodils though.

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