William Wordsworth

Wordsworth’s Poetry Air Date: July 25, 2009

In honor of Spring, which has surely come, I want to read you this poem written in 1804 by the great English poet William Wordsworth.


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.

This is the kind of poem that people who don’t like poetry tend to like. It rhymes, it makes sense, and it’s sappy. It’s a feel-good poem, inspired probably by a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy around Lake Ullswater. Dorothy later wrote this about the walk in her journal:

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 dancing ever changing. (Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal)

Rather than make fun of this poem, I want to defend those who love it. First of all, the images we might think of as cliché (twinkling stars, sparkling waves, and such) were probably not so much cliché in 1804. The habit of eliding, leaving out or off part of a word to make the meter work out right, as in o’er, and oft seems artificial to us, but was common in poetry at the time. Wordsworth meant to write, as he put it in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in the ordinary language that “men do speak.” And he does.

Why is it so memorable? First of all, it’s written in iambic tetrameter—this is the name for the ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM pattern of the lines. Four of them in each line is like walking along a road. You can feel the regular footsteps.

Then, it floats, like daffodils. Look how many o’s there are just in the first stanza—lonely, cloud, floats, on, o’er, once, crowd, host, golden, daffodils. Then, after the o’s come the e’s— trees, fluttering, dancing, breeze. E is a higher sound than o. We’ve kind of taken off, like a balloon.

Then the second stanza—let me read it again, in case you’ve forgotten-…[read stanza]. We’ve taken off and ended up in the stars. The milky way is like the edge of the bay. So at the same time, we have our eyes in the heavens and on the daffodils along the edge of the lake. They’ve merged into the same thing. As many daffodils as there are stars!

Then—and I’ll read the third stanza again—we have waves and daffodils competing, with the daffodils winning. And truly, we can feel the waving of the lines. I am particular grateful to our boy Bill for the word jocund (jock-und) here. It means cheerful, happy, but it’s so much better a word. The word itself laughs. And we get that extra little bounce, the way it sounds against “company.” “Jocund company”—as if the two words are dancing.

And then when he’s reached this peak of having a good time, he quiets the poem down—We back off from the scene with him: “I gazed and gazed..” he goes on.

And then we’re backed off still further. Wordsworth doesn’t just leave us with that simple scene. He opens the poem up farther than that: he has a thought about all such scenes—that they grow richer in remembrance (He talks about this also in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads). I’ll read the last stanza again.

So many good sounds here: I’m fond of “the bliss of solitude” and “they flash upon the inward eye.” They don’t just come to me later. I don’t just see them in my mind. They flash on my inward eye. Inward eye is a lot more expressive than the mind. What do I mean by “more expressive”? I mean that it has dimension in it. When I hear the phrase, I see an actual eye for a second, then I translate that to inwardness. The eye that sees inwardly instead of outwardly.

Okay, on the whole, it’s not a complex poem. Not every poem needs to be. We need all sorts of poems—strange and discordant ones, ones that jolt our socks off, ones that we have to read ten times to reach the subtle depths, epic poems that tell the history of a whole culture, and simple poems that praise daffodils. This is one that can be easily memorized and can provide endless pleasure saying to ourselves as we walk through a field of daffodils. It can enrich a moment by adding to it. We end up walking with ourselves and with William and his sister Dorothy, and with these daffodils and the ones that were tossing their heads in 1807.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry