By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
William Wordsworth’s classic poem beginning ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ is famous for its opening line, but it is a poem full of resonant and memorable lines. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most illustrative and important quotations from Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils poem’, as it is known in the popular imagination.
Wordsworth’s poem was published in 1807, and is in many ways his most famous poem. Many people know the oft-quoted opening line (which has become the de facto title of the poem, which originally carried none), but the rest of the poem reveals the Romantic spirit in microcosm, and is worth examining closely for this reason. And, of course, it’s worth knowing Wordsworth’s beautiful lines.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills’.
Wordsworth’s poem is a quintessential example of Romanticism, a literary and artistic movement which emphasised a personal relationship with nature, among other things. Romantics were often wandering alone among nature, searching for solace or inspiration.
This is how we find Wordsworth in the famous opening lines of his poem, although in reality, he was not alone when he took the walk around the Lake District which provided him with the inspiration for his poem: he was with his sister. But poetic licence allowed Wordsworth to reimagine this moment as a solitary one, so that it is just him and the daffodils: his mind and soul among the natural world.
By the way, there is no evidence to support the rumour that Wordsworth originally wrote the line ‘I wandered lonely as a cow’ until Dorothy advised him to alter it, though it’s a nice story: the myth may have originated in Conrad Aiken’s 1952 novel Ushant.
‘When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;’
Note the suddenness with which the daffodils appear. Their appearance takes Wordsworth by surprise. His sister Dorothy recounted in her 1802 journal entry which would inspire her brother’s poem that they saw ‘a long belt of [daffodils] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road’.
Wordsworth has the golden flowers coming into view all of a sudden. Note that he is alone but the daffodils are a ‘crowd’, in contrast to the solitary poet. The word ‘host’ shimmers with a secondary, religious meaning, the ‘host’ being the wafer used in holy communion.
‘Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way’.
In this quotation, Wordsworth links the earthly daffodils with the heavenly stars, imagining the flowers as a kind of constellation as their golden petals are reflected in the nearby waters. In doing so, he elevates the natural world to the heights of the numinous or divine.
Again, note how the daffodils are joined in communion with each other: ‘Continuous’ suggests that they constitute almost one vast entity or organism.
‘I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought’.
Wordsworth is almost dumbstruck by the sight of the flowers, and he can but gaze at them. The repetition of ‘I gazed’ suggests someone who has been rendered virtually speechless with amazement. He is clearly in awe of the flowers.
And yet he now realises, looking back on that moment in hindsight, that he actually underestimated the benefits that seeing the daffodils would bestow on him. Note how the word ‘wealth’, especially following the adjective ‘golden’ used to describe the daffodils, has connotations of material riches; but the value the flowers bring to the poet goes beyond the monetary.
Wordsworth’s poem was published in 1807, but seven years earlier, in his 1800 ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads – the volume he co-wrote with his fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Wordsworth had argued, in a famous passage: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’.
And such is the case with the daffodils, and the poem they inspired. Wordsworth could only fully realise the emotional benefits of seeing the daffodils when he later sat at home and recalled seeing them. The memory of them was as powerful as seeing them in the first place – indeed, arguably more so, although of course the memory would be impossible without the initial encounter with them out amongst nature.
‘They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;’
In the final stanza of ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, we find this well-known quotation by Wordsworth.
Except Wordsworth didn’t write it. His wife, Mary Hutchinson, came up with these two lines, but Wordsworth liked them so much he included them in the poem. Indeed, he credited them with being the best two lines in the whole poem.
Note how the verb ‘flash’ recalls the suddenness of the flowers’ original appearance to Wordsworth: then, ‘all at once’ he saw them, while now, as he reclines at home, in ‘vacant or in pensive mood’ (i.e., mentally unoccupied, or in a thoughtful mood), the memory of the flowers comes to him in a similarly quick manner.
This time, though, it is his ‘inward eye’ – in other words, his mind’s eye – which ‘sees’ the daffodils. And whereas his solitude was a cause for unhappiness in the opening line of the poem (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’), now he enjoys the ‘bliss’ of his solitude because he isn’t really alone: he has the flowers, or at least the pleasant mental image of them, for company.