By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
William Wordsworth’s classic poem beginning ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, which was first published in 1807, is a classic work of English Romanticism. Part of its power lies in the symbolism Wordsworth uses. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important symbols from Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils poem’, as it is often known.
The memorable opening line to Wordsworth’s poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, immediately helps us to situate the poem within the Romantic movement. Solitude and walking among nature were common features of Romanticism, and feature heavily in the work of the Romantic poets.
Indeed, it was estimated that Wordsworth walked some 180,000 miles during his lifetime. That’s perhaps 3,000 miles a year throughout his adult life, or nearly ten miles a day! So Wordsworth did a lot of wandering.
Why a cloud, though? A cloud floating high above the land symbolises two things, and imparts two details of Wordsworth’s solitude. First, he is not just on his own, but far from any other human being. A cloud floating far above the ground is similarly removed from all human life.
Second, the cloud is floating. This denotes a lack of agency, an aimlessness or a lack of purpose. When we combine this with the fact that Wordsworth describes himself as ‘lonely’, we have a picture of someone who is feeling low as well as lonely: he has lost direction and purpose.
Of course, describing himself as ‘lonely as a cloud’ brings in a simile, which is also an example of pathetic fallacy, because clouds cannot feel loneliness. Wordsworth attributes his own loneliness to the cloud.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
This is when he encounters the ‘crowd’ of daffodils – and the daffodils introduce the next major symbol into the poem.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way
Here we have another simile: the long line or ‘crowd’ (or ‘host’) of daffodils Wordsworth sees puts him in mind of a continuous or unbroken array of stars shining in the night sky. The ‘milky way’ is, of course, our own galaxy.
This simile is perhaps the most surprising in the poem. Daffodils are yellow rather than white or silver in colour, so they don’t readily suggest ‘stars’ to us. But the star-comparison makes the daffodils appear almost (literally) otherworldly, as though they are part of the heavens rather than of the earthly realm.
There is a sense of the order of things, which isn’t always the case in Romantic poetry (which often liked to stress the natural disorder or disarray of the natural world, in contrast to the earlier eighteenth-century Augustan poetry, which preferred to see nature as an orderly thing).
The Daffodils Themselves.
Of course, the most important symbol in Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem is the symbol of the daffodils themselves. The daffodils are, of course, literal, and Wordsworth really did see them (in 1802; although he was actually not alone, never mind ‘lonely’, but with his sister, Dorothy).
We’ve already seen that Wordsworth compared the ‘crowd’ of daffodils to the ‘stars that shine’ in the night sky. But the daffodils’ own symbolism, what they represent to the poet, becomes clearest of all in the poem’s final 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 daffodils symbolise not just all of nature, but man’s connection with nature. Romanticism is often lazily viewed as being synonymous with nature poetry, but what characterises much Romantic poetry is an emphasis on the transformative power of nature for the observer.
So Wordsworth’s mood is entirely transformed when he sees the daffodils. They lift him out of his melancholy and loneliness (and self-pity?), and remind him that we are never truly alone, even if we are far from other humans, when we have nature nearby.
But it’s more than this. Wordsworth is still aware that he is literally alone (that is, he is without human company). But he no longer views solitude as synonyms with loneliness. Note his use of the phrase ‘the bliss of solitude’ in that final stanza quoted above. Being on one’s own can be a good thing when one has the memory of nature and its beauty and purity to recollect and think about.
And once he has witnessed those daffodils just once, they are, as it were, ‘on tap’, there for him to gain pleasure from whenever he chooses to remember them in his mind’s eye.
With this in mind, we might conclude that the greatest quality which the daffodils symbolise in ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ is happiness itself. The daffodils themselves seem happy as they dance in that breeze. This joyousness (which is another example of personification) is infectious, since the poet himself realises he cannot choose but to be happy in such ‘jocund [i.e., jolly] company’.
Dancing often symbolises happiness, so note that the word recurs in the poem, appearing in the opening stanza (‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’) where it refers to the daffodils only before returning in the final stanza (‘My heart at once with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils’), where the daffodils have recruited the poet as their dance partner, we might say, and the two of them dance together in his mind’s eye.