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by 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,
Besides the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretch'd 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 be but 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.
One of the most famous of all poetry's opening lines started life as 'I wandered like a lonely cloud'. Fortunately, Wordsworth - a notorious tinkerer with his own work - ammended the simile to the form we know today. The more widely recognised (revised 1815) version printed above was the poet's second manifestation of his floral broodings: a three stanza poem with similar sentiments had been penned in 1804 and published (1807) in Poems in two volumes during the height of the Napoleonic wars.
An outstanding exemplar of the Wordsworthian credo of 'emotion recollected in tranquility', 'The Daffodils' is thought to have been inspired by a stroll around Lake Ullswater on the 15th April, 1802 (Wordsworth was an enthusiastic walker) - although this would have been by no means the first time he'd have witnessed the locally renowned profusion of daffodils near Gowbarrow. On this occasion he was visiting his friend Charles Luff, a captain in the local militia, who was conducting exercises nearby. Providentially for literary historians, he was accompanied by his devoted sister, Dorothy, who recorded in her 'Grasmere Journal' how they had happened upon a 'long belt' of the eponymous flowers...'I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones [...] 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'. These uncultivated blooms would have been rather paler, smaller and more delicate than modern variants.
Wordsworth was 34 when he wrote what is possibly the most famous of his poems. Married less than
two years to Mary (nee Hutchinson) he formed the dominant and indulged quarter of a menage a quatre (which also comprised his sister and infant son, John). They inhabited the tiny, un-named cottage overlooking Grasmere lake, which until fairly recently had been an inn, The Dove and Olive Branch. William, typically, took the best room for his study and library - though (according to his self-appointed 'Boswell', Thomas de Quincey) he often composed his poetry on the hoof. If his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge was becoming occasionally fraught - they had published their collaboration, the ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads some six years earlier - it was still very much alive, but Wordsworth was growing closer to another member of 'the set', Robert Southey. A productive time in a number of ways (Mary had become pregnant with the couple's second child) the Wordsworths had finally been paid the money owed to William's father by the Lowther family (earls of Lonsdale). Concurrently, he was engaged upon an ode, 'Intimations of Immortality', (his personal favourite) and what was to become 'The Prelude'.
'The Daffodils' (also known solely by its first line) is written in iambic tetrametre (te-TUM, te-TUM, te-TUM, te-TUM) and quite deliberately moves away from poeticised diction into the language of 'the common man'. The lines 'They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude' were contributed by Mary Wordsworth (not usually credited with a poetic sensibility). They were, William considered, the finest lines in the poem. It is not even certain that daffs were the author's best-loved flower: he wrote three poems about the lowly celandine.
Wordsworth would go on to become poet laureate in 1843 before dying at the age of eighty - staunch conservative where once he'd been convinced radical, pillar of an establishment he'd once affected to despise.
Barker, J., Wordsworth, A Life, Viking (2000).
Davies, H., A Walk Around The Lakes, Orion (2000).
Sisman, A., The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, HarperPress (2006).
Wordsworth, W., William Wordsworth, Selected Poems, Penguin (2004).
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