That ‘Daffodils’ poem

Posted: July 19, 2019 in Chat
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What is it about this poem?
For some academics, tutors ie people who should know better, it is a poem they have come to hate. Why? It was taught by teachers who had no or little understanding of the poem, other than as an assumed easy introduction to The Romantic Movement, and to William Wordsworth’s writing, in particular.
So, is the reaction a case of over-familiarity, breeding contempt?
The poem is oddly enervated, devitalised. It hardly recommends itself to the spiky hormonal youths we were when we were taught these lines.

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Wandered_Lonely_as_a_Cloud

Let’s look at its period setting.
This is April in the Lakelands, pre-sightseers, pre-holiday crowds. Just think of that leech gatherer (Resolution and Independence) rheumatically? wandering the bogs and rivers to scratch a living, way past retirement age. Not wanting to be a burden on his family; not wanting the Workhouse. The manly virtues of independence of spirit, and belief in hard work: the protestant work ethic. Taken to an extreme, we would say. But that is how it was in late-Georgian England; we only need to recall the old men still toiling away in Dickens’ novels. And the Lakes, Cumberland, a depopulated county.
The early Nineteenth century English weather pattern contained particularly long and cold winters. Even now in April in Windermere, the temperature can fall as low as 1°C, with high humidity all through; and most likely rain. Leaden rain-heavy skies capping the mountains, keeping everything wet.
That solitary cloud – was it chosen for its rarity in that month?

 

Does the month call to the literate, clasically-trained, mind, that other famous Aprille?
Chaucer’s April is depicted with a very pleasing mixture of joy of immanent Spring, and melancholy: Easter and its pivotal religious moment is almost upon us. Here comes Tenebrae setting up for that peculiarly depths-of-despair conjoined with heights-of-joy partnership, of the Good Friday crucifixion, and its resolution, Easter Monday. In between these two, is the Harrowing of Hell.

I suspect the Daffodils poems of Ted Hughes, are closer to this template. There are two versions of the same poem, one in Flowers and Insects (1986), and the other in Birthday Letters (1998).

*

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.[9]

— Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802

Those were still the early years of William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson. William, Mary, and Dorothy lived together in the cottage, known as Town End, in Grasmere.
We are told that in the period of composition of the poem: 1804 to 1815, there were general discussions of theme and line, Mary contributing two famous lines:

They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

When the poem was eventually published, it was in a collection called Poems in Two Volumes, under the section, Moods of My Mind, along with, for instance, To a Butterfly, and The Sparrow’s Nest

First Version

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 dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: —
A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing 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.

Composed, 1804

That new second stanza introduces the theme of timelessness, a stellar conceit, where stars represent not only the eternal, that is,  unchangingness, but also spiritual and religious values. How substantial is this? Does the poem so far deserve such weighting? Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as we see below, apparently thought not.

*

What has been niggling me, though, is the question of a connection, even if only imagistically, between passages relating to the meadows of asphodel , in Homer’s Odyssey, and this bank of daffodils.

Is there here the germ of conception in the recognition and paralleling, probably only semi-consciously, of this scene-in-reflection, that ‘pensive mood,’ and the setting from The Odyssey, Books 10 and 11, on reaching the shore of the Cimmerians,  where Odysseus is to summon the spirits of the Underworld?

It must be remembered that the death of William Wordsworth’s brother John, by drowning within sight of land, was not until after the final version of the poem was published.

A fuller excerpt from Dorothy’s Journal, for April 15th, 1802, gives us:
It was a “threatening, misty morning – but mild,” and  “The wind seized our breath the Lake was rough.”
The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Marion Moorman (Oxford).
The day ended again in rain.

Is there a sense here of William Wordsworth encountering the Cimmerian’s northern, misty and shrouded shore, as one source puts it, that foggy place (where) the sun never shines?

If so, then in what sense could William Wordsworth be self-identifying with Odysseus? Indeed, with The Odyssey?
His was (and S T Coleridge for similar reasons) a personal tale of inner and outer struggle. The inner struggle was to free himself from previous, Augustan, concepts of literature, poetry. Each age attempts its pro and pre scriptions of what a poem should be, and do. William Wordsworth took it on himself to forge new passages through to new concepts and sensibilities. The outer struggle was to find once again the omphalus, to use a term from Seamus Heaney, of his well-being, his return to Cumberland and the Lakes home of his youth, away from London, its centrifugal demands and towards the well-spring of his writing.
In this sense the Lakelands  could be seen to mark his Ithaca, and Mary Hutchinson, old schoolfriend, and still unmarried, his Penelope.
We don’t need to worry about those details, you know Nestor, and the rest. Though I do hope that Nestor was not Dorothy.
And what of Annette Vallon – Circe, or Nausicaa? (Daughter Caroline married in 1816, and William gave a regular yearly settlement. This was replaced in 1835 by a capital settlement.
I’d love to know what happened to her.)

 

The mood of the several versions of the poem, however, is stridently joyous, striving for uplift. There is nothing of the whispering shades of the dead in the poem, no blood gifts, or sacrificial libations, no tenebraic gathering of gloom; no sense of guilt, either.

Wordsworth as a kind of Ulysses? The later Ulysses of Alfred Lord Tennyson is a very different sort.
The Wordsworthian kind is highly individualistic, a lone figure, living far out of the sight of his fellow men.
The Tennysonian figure is a representative of his Victorian age.
In “Ulysses,” Tennyson creates a character that is arrogant, restless, driven, heroic, and adventurous. Tennyson’s Ulysses is the embodiment of Victorian England because the same characteristics given to Ulysses can be attributed to Victorian England.
https://englishfawad.blogspot.com/2014/11/ulysses-of-tennyson.html

Did William Wordsworth view this part of his life, after the return to Cumberland, as a kind of ‘afterlife’? That his life fell into two halves? Does The Prelude bear this out? Not that I am aware. And yet The Prelude is very much a public work, dealing how he wanted to represent himself to the world. It was not an expression of his psychological turmoil.

In A History of Private Life, edited by Roger Chartier,
http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674400023
he comments how Phillipe Aries recognised three phases of the development of the sense of a private life. These are,
a period of heightened individualism;
a period when the individualised joins with a small group of his/her own choosing;
a period where the private sphere contracts to the family unit, of whatever size: ‘the primary if not the unique centre of intimacy and emotional investment.’

We can read William Wordsworth ‘odyssey’ here well, from his personal quest for a new language and subject matter, to his company with S T Coleridge, and the ‘Lakes’ writers, to the family circle of himself, Mary, and Dorothy. The children add and expand the circle.
Formulated in this way we can view William Wordsworth’s ‘journey’ of selfhood as very much of its time. The last phase in the development of private life from State dominated, court controlled, that is, public life, Phillipe Arries, above, identifies as apparent from 1800.

 

To go back to that first image: the lonely cloud. In this context can we read here the cloud as a guide from God? Or a sign to the lost sailor: a cloud betokening land, specifically an island?
Was the cloud an image of his state of mind at the time? Or of composition? See Wordsworth as Scatterbrain:
https://www.academia.edu/19766420
/Wordsworth_as_Scatterbrain_Deconstructing_the_Nature_of_Wordsworths_Guide_to_the_Lakes

*

The ‘Daffodils’ poem – it still irritates.
It irritated one particular close associate at the time of publication also. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria used the terms mental bombast when referring to it.

Is there a sense that the collaborative construction (is it then, a ‘workshopped’ poem?), and the relentless good cheer and striving for lightness (all that dancing, fluttering) belie the much vaunted mode of creation:
“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”?

Do we part-sense a note of falsity? Is there a sense here, even for contemporaries, that the poem exists in some smug, contented, self-congratulatory otherworld, untouched by the woes of the Napoleonic aftermath and economic collapse of much of Europe, and thereby the English market?
Is there a sense here, not of the soporific ease of the asphodel meadows with warriors at  rest, but more of the isolated and isolationist happiness of the Elysian fields? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elysium
That is, still a part of the period’s collapse/the Underworld, but a place apart.
For the deserving.

We do gather the impression that at this point in his life William Wordsworth tended to think of himself as, indeed, ‘deserving’.
We do not talk when Mr Wordsworth is speaking.’ Dorothy Wordsworth admonished John Keats, at the famous dinner.
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26530388-the-immortal-evening

 

 

Comments
  1. Candia says:

    I’ve always been amused by the student who apparently misquoted the opening line: I wandered lonely as a clod…

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