The poem most people could name if you stopped them in the street…

Poem of the Day – The Daffodils by William Wordsworth

I woke this morning wanting to read Wordsworth – to be specific, The Prelude. One day, I will read some lines from The Prelude in Poem of the Day – I’ve decided I don’t mind extracts: it’s better to have an hour in the company of four lines of The Prelude  or Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy than no time at all. So I started out this morning looking in the OBEV  for an extract from The Prelude and found myself staring at The Daffodils with such an odd mixture of thoughts and feelings that I asked myself, why not stop here?

It’s one of the most, and perhaps proportionately one of the  least, read poems in the English-speaking world: it has become its own cliché. I’ve read it many times. Probably know it off by heart. Can I read it fresh, this morning, while daffodils are literally  dancing in my garden?

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.

Everyone knows this first line, don’t they, from comedy writers to nonagenarians to schoolchildren to A+E nurses? ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, but why has Wordsworth chosen that image to start with?

I imagine a cloud, ‘lonely’. I’m thinking of one well-defined cloud, over a landscape of ‘vales and hills’  like a  boat or spaceship, floating there. Very much a thing, alone.  Does ‘lonely really mean ‘alone’ or ‘solitary’ ?
When I imagine that kind of cloud, alone of all its kind, there is a strong sense of  fixed individuality about it, defined against the blue of sky. It’s very present, very well-defined, floating there is if not connected to anything else. A person might think, that cloud looks lonely.

Yet  this is not about a cloud but about ‘I’ – Wordsworth, wandering ‘high o’er vales and hills’ – and I wonder if he is also well-defined, disconnected, a body in space, like a cloud floating somewhere between earth and heaven?

First two lines are, now I’ve been reading them, very packed, very slow – lots to think about! But the next four move very fast:

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.

The speed is determined by  the opener, ‘when all at once’ it’s like a  musical time indicator (‘presto!’). Suddenly everything changes. I was very slow, floating disconnected lonely when -bam – a crowd.  Crowds are human, but Wordsworth immediately changes ‘crowd’ to ‘host’ – which is the word we use to describe a crowd of angels. I look up the word ‘host’ to see if that’s true. It’s true-ish:  a large number of people or things – an army, all the angels ‘the heavenly host’, a host of memories. But I am definitely thinking ‘angels’. Is it because they are ‘golden’?

As I read on, they suddenly seem like people again – they are located on earth in a specific place, ‘beside the lake, beneath the trees’ and they are ‘dancing’! And Wordsworth, previously solitary, perhaps even ‘lonely’, is glad to see them.

My mind is busy trying to picture each line or clause, trying to make it not old an dead cliché poem but real, living  experience. I seem to have to do something to make that happen. I read a line – ‘fluttering and dancing in the breeze’, and it is inert until I do something. What is it that I do? I make the image in my mind, so I am seeing, generating,  a sort of film. Once the film is playing, the inertness goes away. The film is made from  the word-images Wordsworth gives me and what I can match them with from my  memory store or mental creation-box. I am – ha! – ‘creator and receiver both’ (that’s The Prelude, where Wordsworth is describing how the mind works…). Unless I am doing this, I am not experiencing the poem, only remembering it. The poem is an experience I have to bring about by reading it. You can remember climbing up a mountain, or you can actually climb up a mountain. They are not the same  and you feel the difference in your muscles , in the effort required. That’s the difference between thinking you know The Daffodils and actually reading The Daffodils.

Running out of time now I have to jump to the end of the poem because suddenly I remember that this poem also has some of that ‘how the mind works’ stuff in it.

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

The experience is not one of consciousness, it seems a drinking-in, and the repetition of ‘gaze’ makes it almost passive, ‘I gazed—and gazed—but little thought’ and yet I do not think ‘gazed’ is passive, it means ‘to look steadily and intently’.  It is a sort of  deep taking-in, a communion. Something outside enters in. Now the daffodils are part of him.

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.

Wonder if the bringing of that image back to mind – the flash – must be done in the absence of thought? It seems almost a meditation he is doing here – I wonder if the experience Wordsworth is having is like knowing a poem by heart? The image of the daffodils flashes on him – but could it be like what happens when some lines of poetry flash on me? For example when I remembered ‘creator and receiver both?’

Bah, time’s up. Going to have to limit my poem of the day to just a few lines. Can’t get through them in time.
 
 

8 thoughts on “The poem most people could name if you stopped them in the street…

  1. Heather March 7, 2017 / 8:04 am

    This is a poem that I have read many times with groups, so of course I think I ‘know’ it. Thank you for reminding me what a difference close reading makes. Yes, those muscles should be stretched on every reading!

  2. Jamie March 7, 2017 / 9:12 am

    Poem of the day fits in so well with my routine of morning reflections. Wordsworth is the master of everyday poetry, a life lived in poetry; I’m making a conscious effort to seek the poetry in everyday at the moment – a sort of antidote to ‘vacant or …pensive mood’. I’m thinking, we’re back to ‘Shadows’ – Wordsworth is experiencing the phenomenon described in that poem – ‘When your eyes have done their part,/Thought must length it in the heart.’

    In fact Coleridge starts ‘To William Wordsworth’ with:

    Friend of the Wise ! and Teacher of the Good !
    Into my heart have I received that Lay
    More than historic, that prophetic Lay
    Wherein (high theme by thee first sung aright)
    Of the foundations and the building up
    Of a Human Spirit thou hast dared to tell
    What may be told, to the understanding mind
    Revealable ;

    There we have it described again:

    and what within the mind
    By vital breathings secret as the soul
    Of vernal growth, oft quickens in the heart
    Thoughts all too deep for words !

    Hm… the pleasure shadows lengthen something that is needed for the quickening of thought and feeling – I’m thinking this has something to do with effort and habit – precisely what I am trying to do with my morning reflections; daily seeking of poetry – whether that be in the bright green of the moss I walk by, or in the heartfelt thanks of a friend I have been able to help, or in the attention to detail paid to a drawing; and daily practice of gratitude for these things.

    Coleridge also loved George Herbert and this morning I read ‘Jordan 1’ which also seems to fit with this sense of everyday poetry – of art and beauty belonging to everyday people.

  3. Victoria Field March 7, 2017 / 9:23 am

    Thank you for your lovely poems of the day. Re the opening line, I read that initially William Wordsworth had ‘cow’ instead of ‘cloud’ and ‘cloud’ was Dorothy’s suggestion.

  4. Jamie March 7, 2017 / 2:20 pm

    Haha I have heard the cow thing too – it’s amusing but I like the idea of it – wonder what the poem would’ve been like with that image instead.

  5. loubyjo March 7, 2017 / 6:20 pm

    MY advice which u can take ot leave dont limit yourself to shorter poems because of that devil called time really nice to do a poem a day but no – one going to be upset if a poem a day takes even a week !!!!!!!!!!!!

    • drjanedavis March 7, 2017 / 6:49 pm

      Agreed – finding myself thinking of most of them afterwards and wishing I had had time to add various thoughts… so think I’ll change it to ‘some poetry a day’ !

      • loubyjo March 7, 2017 / 7:25 pm

        sounds good to me otherwise u will be tying yourself in knots !!! not even aday cos some days u just wont be able and will get upset cant think of title but leave day out of it ha )(sorry)

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