by Colin Waters
Is ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’ the most famous poem in the English language? It certainly qualifies as one of most recognisable, and not just because it was drummed into generations of school pupils. That pensive, sighing first line is the acme of the sensitive poet at work; witness the number of parodies there have been since its publication in 1807. One recalls fondly the beer advert that showed an actor playing William Wordsworth having difficulty writing ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ until he cracked open a can (‘Heineken Refreshes the Poets Other Beers Cannot Reach!’).
On April 15th, we can celebrate the anniversary of the incident that inspired Wordsworth. While visiting a friend at Gowbarrow Park on Ullswater, an area known for its wild daffodils, Wordsworth saw a ‘long belt’ of daffodils. The poet’s sister Dorothy recorded the incident in her journal:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, we saw a few daffodils close to the water side…. 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
Two years passed before Wordsworth set down his perceptions of that day. The composition of the poem is an illustration of how he described poetry in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads: ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity’. At the time he was engaged in writing a long ‘philosophical’ poem, The Recluse, and broke off to write ‘I wandered lonely…’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge disapproved of his friend dissipating his gift on shorter works. One can only be grateful Wordsworth didn’t heed Coleridge. He was at the height of his powers in this period, although the most arresting lines of the poem – ‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’ – were penned by Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. He himself thought they were better part of the poem.
Its conceit is simplicity itself: while out walking, the poet sees daffodils, and now, whenever melancholic, he need only remember them to feel joy again. Like so many of Wordsworth’s poems, this one concerns memory. While he admits ‘A Poet could not but be gay / In such a laughing company’, equally he confesses he ‘little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought’. Only later, when ‘In vacant or in pensive mood’ the memory returns to cheer him. Interesting, too, that although the poem celebrates man’s connection with nature, it does so in worldly terms: the ‘golden’ daffodils bring him a ‘wealth’ of joy. One can well imagine the reason for his ‘vacant’ mood might be money worries and indeed, at that time, Wordsworth’s finances were shaky. Poems, in Two Volumes, where ‘I wandered lonely’ first appeared, was partly conceived as a way of shoring up funds.
Alas, the twin books were not entirely successful, commercially or critically. Seven years after publication in 1807, a quarter of the print run still hadn’t sold. The reviews can’t have helped. Francis Jeffrey had harsh words for it in the Edinburgh Review, while Lord Byron, then still an undergraduate, dismissed the ‘Moods of my Mind’ section, where ‘I wandered lonely’ was placed. He asked that the ‘Moods’ poems be ‘not permitted to occupy a place near works which only make their deformity more obvious’.
Despite the critics, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ went on to live in the popular imagination of the public. In a 2009 BBC poll, it was voted Britain’s fifth most popular poem. It still turns up in odd places, perhaps none odder than a rap version by the arrestingly named MC Nuts (a man in a squirrel suit). The extraordinary thing about the poem is the way its words continue to retain the impression the daffodils made on Wordsworth himself over two centuries ago. “In vacant or in pensive mood”, read Wordsworth.
This post first appeared on the Scottish Poetry Library blog www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk
Colin Waters lives in Edinburgh. After 10 years in journalism, he became the Scottish Poetry Library’s Communication Manager. His tasks include manning the SPL’s social media, writing the blog and recording podcasts for its website, including interviews with John Burnside, Liz Lochhead, David Harsent, Blake Morrison and many more. In addition to his SPL job, he is the poetry editor at Vagabond Poets. Last year he edited an anthology of young Scottish poets, Be the First to Like This. In May, his next book as an editor comes out, Triptych #1: Our Real Red Selves – Poems by Harry Giles, Marion McCready & JL Williams