Daffodils

It’s daffodil season out there, in case you hadn’t noticed. Parks, gardens and banks on the sides of motorways sport these yellow flowers rocking and nodding in the breeze (or ‘fluttering and dancing’, if you like). And those of us of a poetical bent can’t help but think of Wordsworth and his most famous poem.

I have to admit though that I’ve never much liked daffodils. I’m not talking about the poem, but the flowers themselves. They are a little gaudy, for one thing, or even a bit plasticky, and somehow look like they don’t belong to the English countryside, as if they’ve been brought in from warmer climes. This is an impression I’ve had as long as I can remember, and one I’ve carried into adulthood. Perhaps it has something to do with that scene in the Disney cartoon of Alice in Wonderland where they turn nasty. But I’ve read elsewhere that daffodils areunique in their anatomy, so maybe my feeling that they are somehow alien is perfectly natural. Anyway, I don’t like them. Give me forget-me-nots or anemones any day.

A lot of people don’t much care for this poem, and it’s worth pondering why. In some ways, it’s a bit of a victim of its own fame: a certain generation of British school children had to learn it by heart, and perhaps didn’t much enjoy doing so. Certainly the experience that Wordsworth describes in the poem isn’t one that your average twelve year old can relate too. If children do like the countryside, it’s to frolic and gambol in, not to walk around appreciating nature’s aesthetic beauty and spiritually regenerative powers. It’s associated in a lot of people’s minds with the idea of poetry as something essentially pastoral, comforting and safe, and poets as people with their heads in the clouds. The first time I read a line of the poem, it was coming from the lips of Walter the Softy, the simpering, swotty enemy of Dennis the Menace in the Beano. I don’t think it’s Wordsworth’s best poem, by a long way, and it does have its shortcomings; nevertheless, it comes unbidden to my mind at this time of year, and it does, I think, have its merits…

 

Daffodils

 

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.

 

William Wordsworth

 

Shall we get the shortcomings out of the way first? The simile sounds a little hackneyed these days. Maybe it sounded fresher two hundred years ago, but it hasn’t aged well. The blogger John Stevens   commented here recently that the ending seems inauthentic, and I agree with him there to an extent. For me, Wordsworth is a little too eager to portray nature as something elevating, and himself as a sensitive receptor to nature’s bounty. The syntax sounds rather forced to modern ears, and the tone is rather grand for what we might think of as a modest subject.

But I like the idea at the centre of this poem – the idea that a place, especially somewhere natural can stay with you, and that the memory of it nourishes you in some way. Put that way, it sounds cheesy, and yet Wordworth captures something essential of his experience, and from my own experience I believe this is a genuine phenomenon. There are a dozen places or so, perhaps more, the memory of which endure in my mind; when I think of these places I draw something more than solace or comfort, but a kind of strength: the moon making a path of light on the calm Yellow Sea at night; the tall reeds at Caerlaverock nature reserve, and the view of the Solway and the Lake District beyond – and a skylark lifting into the air as I stood up on a mound of grass to see this; or Holy Island on a changeable spring day and the sight of a colony of seals on the island opposite, their backs catching the light of the sun, their cries crossing the water…

So, though I’m not keen on daffodils, I have some regard for Daffodils.

Wordsworth's School

Wordsworth’s School, where he almost certainly didn’t have the idea for ‘Daffodils’

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2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

2 responses to “Daffodils

  1. I’m fascinated by your reflections on this poem. Some of Wordsworth’s poems are magnificent (I think of Westminster Bridge for example, and parts of the Prelude) but for me this is not one of them.
    Your commentary is very fair: you mention a number of the problems modern readers have with it, and see the strength of many of them; but then you give a vigorous defence promoting the central idea that the memory of a single place can bring nourishment for years. The way you put that challenges my own long-held reservation that the ending lacks conviction – in essence because I doubted that a scene of daffodils could be of such intense resonance to a young male. I am half-persuaded by you!
    But there remain other problems for me. The first line, for example: clouds are not lonely; they are as gregarious as flocks of sheep. The poet is not accurate in his first line. He exaggerates in the last line. In turn, these weaknesses lead me to feel throughout that I’m reading something excessively sentimental and inauthentic (Walter the Softy plus the class cheat).
    Please excuse my grumpiness. As a teenager many years ago this very poem caused me to fear that an enjoyment of poems was unmanly. My pleasure in poetry was restored when I found contraband in the school library in the form of John Donne, Wilfred Owen and DH Lawrence.
    All in all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your case for the defence, and I’m very glad I came across it.

  2. Thanks for your extended thoughts on the poem, John. You’re right, I think, about the poem’s shortcomings, although I wonder if Wordsworth was thinking of a particular type of solitary cloud, rather than trying to say that all clouds are lonely. The image of poetry and of the poet that this poem seems to project is the wider problem, as your story suggests. I wonder if educators thought that it would foster a love for poetry and a reverence for nature in their wards…
    I was interested to hear the poets that kindled your passion for poetry. It’s funny to think of poets like Owen and Lawrence as contraband!

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