‘‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’’ may well be the most anthologized poem in the English language, and generations of school students have been presented with it as an accessible work by one of England’s greatest poets. ‘‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’’ may indeed be a simple poem but it is not quite as simple as it might first appear, and it leads the interested reader into a glimpse of the philosophical aspects of Wordsworth’s poetry and of his theories about how poetry comes to be written.
The origins of the poem lie in a walk near Ullswater taken by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in April 1802. The details of this walk are known because Dorothy kept a journal and recorded the day-to-day activities of herself and her brother. This particular spring day was mild but very windy, so windy in fact that at one point they thought they would have to turn back. But they continued and when they were in the woods they saw a few daffodils close by the lake. Then more and more daffodils appeared, a ‘‘long belt’’ of them stretching along the shore of the lake. Dorothy, whose journals were first published in 1897, long after her death (later published as The Grasmere Journals in The Norton Anthology of English Literature ), described the sight:
“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.”
With this description in mind it is easy to see how the poem came about. Dorothy wrote her journals not for publication but for the enjoyment of her brother, and obviously Wordsworth read this passage and was inspired to write the poem, perhaps within a few hours of reading it. Two years had elapsed between the walk and the writing of the first version of the poem, and the similarity in choice of words makes Dorothy’s influence clear. She writes that the daffodils ‘‘tossed’’ and ‘‘danced’’; it seemed as if they ‘‘laughed’’ and were ‘‘gay,’’ and all these elements make their way into the poem.
The inspiration for the poem, then, came not only from nature but also from a literary source. It is also noticeable that in the interests of his poetic art, Wordsworth altered some of the details of the walk. In fact, he was not alone but with his sister; however, the creation in the poem of a solitary walker who feels lonely and is then cheered by the sight of the daffodils creates a more dramatic contrast than would have been possible with two walkers. Also, Dorothy reports a very strong wind, but this becomes a more gentle breeze in the poem, creating a softer scene than the one actually witnessed. Wordsworth’s creative reworking of the material, both the original experience and Dorothy’s account of it, illustrates the point that poetry is never the mere recording of facts but the poet’s imaginative recreation of the scene and its significance.
What is truly fascinating about this poem, which on the surface appears to be a nature poem in praise of daffodils, is that Wordsworth’s appreciation of the sight occurs at two removes from the original experience. First, he is dependent on the literary source in Dorothy’s journal. Second, what most inspires Wordsworth is not the initial sight of the daffodils. As he states at the end of the third stanza, he did not realize the full significance of what he saw at the time. He did not think much about it. But the experience of seeing the daffodils worked on him (so to speak) over the intervening two years, prompted by Dorothy’s description and reaching a new significance not on Wordsworth’s seeing the daffodils again but on remembering them, on recreating the sight of them in the quiet of his own mind when he was not out in nature at all but comfortable and alone within the four walls of his home. The poem, then, is not so much about a sense experience in nature but rather a mental experience, something that occurred within the consciousness of the poet, presumably with his eyes closed or half-closed to release the ‘‘inward eye.’’ This became a source of pleasure even greater than that provided by the original sense experience. It is the mental experience that is also the source of poetic creativity; the writing of the poem came out of one of these moments, as Wordsworth himself makes clear in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, even though that preface was written in 1800, four years earlier than the poem.
Wordsworth’s Preface explains his poetic practice and gives insight into how he wrote his poems. He writes that ‘‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’’ The emphasis here is on feeling, the subjective realm of the poet’s emotions rather than objects or events in the physical world. Wordsworth continues, ‘‘it [poetry] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’’ This is exactly what happened with those daffodils. In a tranquil state at home, lying on his couch, relaxed, his mind open, he recalled the emotions associated with seeing the daffodils, and this recreates that feeling in his mind, which is now, as he writes in the Preface, ‘‘in a state of enjoyment.’’ Although the sight of the daffodils was a pleasurable experience, Wordsworth writes that even painful experiences, when recalled in a state of tranquility, can become pleasurable. The poem that results from this process is intended to produce in the reader ‘‘an overbalance of pleasure.’’ Wordsworth’s poetic technique, then, is intended to produce pleasure; this is the purpose of poetry in his view.
Those who know Wordsworth’s poetry will recognize the description of this quiet, tranquil state because Wordsworth mentions it in many other poems, holding it up as an ideal condition of the mind in which the truth of things spontaneously reveals itself. It can be found, for example in ‘‘Lines, Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,’’ one of the most celebrated of all Wordsworth’s poems, in which he describes in detail a physiological condition in which the body is extremely quiet and calm but the mind is highly alert, able to see into the depth and heart of things. It is this state of mind that can intuitively feel the essential unity between man and nature that was so much a part of Wordsworth’s experience, especially in his youth and early manhood and on which he based his philosophical beliefs. Many such moments are described in the early books of The Prelude, about Wordsworth’s boyhood and youth in the Lake District when he felt such deep communion with nature. A description that closely resembles the one found in the last stanza of ‘‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’’ occurs in ‘‘Expostulation and Reply’’ (stanza 6); another example can be found in the final stanza of ‘‘The Tables Turned.’’ Both these poems are from Lyrical Ballads.
Another key concept in Wordsworth’s poetry that is relevant for ‘‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’’ is what he referred to in The Prelude as ‘‘spots of time.’’ These are particularly vivid moments in the poet’s experience, often from early in his life, which he recalls later and which have a power to inspire, to reveal a truth, to restore the mind to a sense of its own vastness and the heart to its deepest feelings. In this sense, Wordsworth is a poet not so much of the present moment but of the past. He is a poet of memory, of the recollected experience rather than the immediate one. It is this sense that those moments during which he gazed at the daffodils became one of the ‘‘spots of time,’’ subject to later recall and possessed of a kind of beauty and power that could nourish the poet’s inner life long after the daffodils themselves had faded away.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, William Wordsworth, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.