Wordsworth’'s ‘'Daffodils'’ and ‘'The Barberry-Tree'’: A curious relationship

by Fred Blick
The close relationship between Wordsworth’s 1804 ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (commonly called ‘Daffodils’) and his 1802 ‘The Barberry-Tree’ has been largely overlooked. The principal reason for this is that the 113 lines of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ were not discovered until 1964 and the poem was only accepted as part of the Wordsworth corpus after Jonathan Wordsworth, an Oxford academic and descendant of William, illustrated its parallels with ‘Daffodils’ in 1966. In 1986, he asserted again that the Barberry poem ‘screams out Wordsworth’. Indeed, the description of the blossoms of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ which the speaker recollects that he saw when, he says, ‘I wander’d forth’ (l. 3) and which ‘in hill or vale’ (l. 9) ‘laugh’d and danc’d upon the gale’ (l. 11) is clearly echoed in Wordsworth’s 1804 ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud … o’er vales and hills’, all at once meeting ‘dancing Daffodils’ in ‘laughing company’. Notably, the daffodils became ‘golden’ (like the Barberry’s ‘golden blossoms’, l. 26) as well as ‘dancing’ in the 1815 version.
‘The Barberry-Tree’ contains seemingly frivolous lines, as do ‘The Idiot Boy’ and ‘The Tinker’ (written on 27 April 1802). It reads like a self-parody – a bumbling recollection, addressed to someone called Jacob Jones, telling of how the speaker ‘wander’d forth’ one breezy, spring evening and came across the sweet sight of a flowering Barberry tree which seemed to be laughing and dancing in the breeze. The speaker wonders whether the blossoms, leaves and branches and even the moving, piping air around it might experience living pleasures, as we humans do. Filled with this joyful experience, the speaker falls into a trance, until stirred from his reverie by the church chimes when he realises he has missed an appointment to share nuts and cider with Peter Grimes. He moves on; but what he has experienced seems to go along with him as part of his very being, his inner self. He tells Jacob Jones how to share the same experience, and jokes with him that if he should go when it is dark and windless he will not enjoy the same sights and sounds; but if he goes when it is light and breezy, he will learn “a lore… never learned before; The manly strain of natural poesy”.
Barberry 1
The first known text of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ was found in a letter of 1807 from Charles Abraham Elton to his sister Julia Hallam containing his transcript of what he called ‘a curiosity’, an ‘M:S: of Mr. Wordsworth never publish’d’. It is now held among the Hallam papers at Christ Church, Oxford. A similar text can be read online, wrongly attributed to Coleridge.
What has escaped particular attention is that ‘The Barberry-Tree’ was possibly influenced in its wording by Dorothy Wordsworth’s well-known journal entry of 15 April 1802, as much as was ‘Daffodils’ two years later. The most relevant part of the Journal reads:

“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.” (my bolding)

Nine days after her journal entry about daffodils, Dorothy noted for 24 April, ‘A very wet day. William called me out to see a waterfall behind the Barberry tree’; and on 28 May she wrote ‘barberries are in beauty’. The fact that she called the barberry a ’tree’ rather than a shrub or bush, as it was generally known, helps to validate ‘The Barberry-Tree’ as a Wordsworth composition. The plant was berberis vulgaris, as she probably noted from An arrangement of British Plants: According to the latest Improvements of the Linnaean System, in Four Volumes, by William Withering, which William had acquired in early 1801.
Barberry 2
In my previous blog  I showed how ‘Daffodils’ inherited drew on Wordsworth’s knowledge of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, part II of 1789; and further, how the phrase ‘flash upon that inward eye’ was derived from Elizabeth Linnaeus’ article about flashing flowers of 1762. With this in mind, it is significant that the blossoms of ‘The Barberry-Tree’ ‘gleam’d’ (l. 15). Darwin had described the peculiar sensitivity and animation of the barberry in an Additional Note to The Botanic Garden in 1790 and he included it in a short list of sensitive plants in Zoonomia of 1794 (which Wordsworth borrowed in 1798). Darwin had already indicated that light, electricity, heat and air were involved in vegetable growth, and his poetic and scientific observations were endorsed by the work of Galvani and Volta on electricity, and by the experiments of Humphry Davy on electro-chemistry and laughing gas around 1800. In 1799 Coleridge and his brother-in-law, Robert Southey participated in the laughing gas experiments at Bristol with enthusiasm. Joseph Cottle, the Bristol publisher, recalled the scene in 1837:

Mr. Southey, Mr. Clayfield, Mr. Tobin, and others, inhaled the new air. One, it made dance, another laugh, while a third, in his state of excitement, being pugnaciously inclined, very uncourteously, struck Mr. Davy rather violently with his fist … (my bolding).

Likewise, the daffodils and the barberry leaves and blossoms laughed and danced in stimulating air. It would appear that the effects of laughing gas, like those of Coleridge’s opium, were already known at Dove Cottage in 1802.
Darwin died near Derby on 18 April 1802, only six days before Dorothy’s journal entry about the barberry, three days after her description of the daffodils and a week or two before the composition of ‘The Barberry-Tree’. It is tempting to conclude that when the Wordsworths heard of Darwin’s death, the topics of light, electricity, vegetable animation and ‘the new air’ of laughing gas were all in contemplation at Dove Cottage. This might also explain Wordsworth’s joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’ where the speaker gives Jacob Jones the silly advice that if he wishes to experience the laughing and dancing of the barberry

… Jacob, you don’t go by night.
For then ’tis possible the shrub so green
And yellow, may not well be seen.
Nor Jacob, would I have you go
When the blithe winds forbear to blow;
I think it may be safely then averr’d
The piping leaves will not be heard.

There is a still a barberry the garden of Dove Cottage. It would appear from Dorothy’s note of 24 April 1802 that she may have feared that their own plant was in danger of being washed away. Dorothy’s concern would have been all the greater because the common barberry was both an attractive and useful plant, bearing yellow blossoms in late May and red berry fruit in the autumn. The berries were used in jams, jellies, sauces, sweets, garnishing and flavouring. An infusion of the bark in white wine made a purgative. The roots or bark, boiled in an appropriate solution, produced an excellent yellow dye for wool, linen and leather. William Withering gave a detailed description of the plant and its characteristics, noting how the stamens of its flowers would give a ‘sudden spring’ when touched, either by an insect or an implement like a pin, calling this ‘a remarkable instance of one of the means used to perform the important office of impregnation’.
However, the barberry had its enemies. By 1800, farmers had already found that its proximity to a wheat field damaged the crop. The reason for this was not then understood, but it was generally thought to be due to the odour it emitted. Withering noted this phenomenon, and speculated (correctly) that the damage was caused by fungus. It still grows freely in parts of Europe where it still has uses in cooking and herbal medicine. Its use in Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years. In Italy the barberry is known as ‘Holy Thorn’, because it is thought to have formed part of the Crown of Thorns.
The relationship between ‘Daffodils’ and ‘The Barberry-Tree’ casts an interesting light on the interests and concerns of those at Dove Cottage in the spring of 1802. William, Dorothy and Coleridge were in a literary, intellectual and emotional ferment. Lyrical Ballads was entering a third edition, and the loves and lives of the ‘Gang’ (as Coleridge called them in late April 1802) were getting more complicated. William was planning to marry Mary Hutchinson later in the year, with inevitable consequences for his relationship with Dorothy. The married Coleridge was addicted to opium and had fallen in love with Mary’s sister, Sara. William and Dorothy were planning to visit France to settle maintenance for his love-child by Annette Vallon. All this mental ferment is reflected in the excited, sometimes silly but entertaining mood and questioning of Coleridge’s ‘The Full Moon … in A Mad Passion’ and of its close contemporary, ‘The Barberry-Tree’ – ‘I do not know, I cannot tell!’ (l. 44). The latter emerges as a curious, seriously jocular poem of lasting significance.
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in “Romanticism” journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser. 

'Flashes upon the inward eye’ : Wordsworth, Coleridge and ‘Flashing Flowers’

by Fred Blick
Few readers will be aware of the ‘Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon’ today; yet over a span of almost two hundred years botanists, gardeners and scientists speculated about it. Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the famous botanist, Carl Linné, known as Linnaeus.
Elizabeth Linneaus
One evening in the early 1760s, she was enjoying her father’s summer garden at Hammarby, near Uppsala, Sweden. She noticed how the “yellow … brilliant” flowers of the nasturtium appeared to gleam unexpectedly brightly in the half-light: so much so that they appeared to be emitting flashes or sparks.  So confident was she in her repeated observations that she shared them with her learned, botanist father and other philosophers and in particular with the celebrated electrical expert, Johan Wilcke. The latter concluded that the scintillations could be “related to ubiquitous Electric materials”. Although she was only nineteen, Elizabeth published her findings in an article entitled “Om Indianska Krassens Blickande” (“On the twinkling of Indian Cress”). This was recorded in the Acts of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for 1762.
In 1783, a Natural History lecturer, Lars Haggren, conducted further experiments and confirmed the phenomenon of ‘flashing’ flowers. He found that the marigold of “orange or flame colour” flashed light on dry, dusky evenings, as well as the “yellow … brilliant” nasturtium which had been seen by Elizabeth.  He also confirmed that  “…it might be conjectured, there is something of electricity in this phaenomenon”.  British journals also published the discovery and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) published his version of the findings in April 1789 in his The Botanic Garden. Many of these poems explore light, heat and electricity, their effects on plants and other living things:

On wings of flame, ETHEREAL VIRGINS! sweep
O’er Earth’s fair bosom, and complacent deep;
Where dwell my vegetative realms benumb’d,
In buds imprison’d, or in bulbs intomb’d,
Pervade, PELLUCID FORMS! their cold retreat,
Ray from bright urns your viewless floods of heat;
From earth’s deep wastes electric torrents pour,
Or shed from heaven the scintillating shower;
Pierce the dull root, relax its fibre-trains,
Thaw the thick blood, which lingers in its veins;
Melt with warm breath the fragrant gums, that bind
The expanding foliage in its scaly rind;
And as in air the laughing leaflets play,
And turn their shining bosoms to the ray,
NYMPHS! with sweet smile each opening flower invite,
And on its damask eyelids pour the light.

In the footnotes to this stanza, Darwin explains the scientific basis (as he saw it) of the influences of heat, “scintillating” light and electricity upon “vegetative realms”. This was directly influenced by Elizabeth Linnaeus and her ‘flashing flowers’.
In the autumn of 1793, Darwin’s poems and William Wordsworth’s newly published ‘An Evening Walk’ and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ were the subject of “a good deal of literary & critical conversation” between Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s brother Christopher Wordsworth, and their university friends at Cambridge. It was thus by means of Darwin’s poems that Elizabeth Linnaeus’ observations reached the pioneers of English Romanticism. Botany and Natural History had both a scientific and homely appeal to Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they could be enjoyed by all – men, women and children alike. Yellow and gold flowers would never seem quite the same again, having acquired mysterious qualities of vitality, light and electricity. Likewise light was now associated with electricity and took on a special significance for them, sometimes symbolic of Love, as in Wordsworth’s ‘Among all lovely things my love had been’ (also called ‘The Glow-worm’) of 1802 and Coleridge’s ‘A Day Dream’, stanza 3, of the same year.
Only two years after leaving Cambridge, Coleridge wrote ‘Lines Written At Shurton Bars, Near Bridgewater, September, 1795, In Answer To A Letter From Bristol’. It was a love poem for his future wife, Sarah Fricker, and was published in 1796 in his Poems on Various Subjects. In it, Coleridge combined passionate, sexual love with the influences of both light and electricity:

‘Tis said, in Summer’s evening hour
Flashes the golden-colour’d flower
A fair electric flame:
And so shall flash my love-charged eye
When all the heart’s big ecstasy
Shoots rapid thro’ the frame!

Coleridge appended an end note to the poem which he reproduced substantially from Darwin’s Supplement to The Loves about the flashing flower. Clearly, Coleridge was drawing on the electric effect described in Elizabeth Linnaeus’ article of 1762.
Poems on various subjects
By the late 1790s, light, electricity and electro-chemical processes were popular topics, thanks in part to the experiments of Galvani, Volta, and Humphry Davy. In September 1801, when he was staying with Coleridge in Keswick, Robert Southey wrote:

I miss the sun in heaven, having been on a short allowance of sunbeams these last ten days; and if the nervous fluid be the galvanic fluid, and the galvanic fluid the electric fluid, and the electric fluid condensed light, zounds! What an effect must these vile, dark, rainy clouds have on a poor nervous fellow, whose brain has been in a state of high illumination for the last fifteen months!

Over many years Wordsworth composed poems about golden or yellow flowers. One example which most readers will recall is the daffodils of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ of 1804, which was inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal record of daffodils at Ullswater on 15 April 1802. Though he described the daffodils twice as “dancing” in the printing of 1807, he changed the first “dancing” to “golden” in the 1815 version. Further, and crucially in this context, he accepted, his wife Mary’s suggestion of the lines,

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

Not only did the flowers “flash” but “Out-did the sparkling waves in glee”. These golden, flashing and dancing flowers, recorded also as “ever glancing” in Dorothy’s journal entry, appear to have been derived directly from Elizabeth Linnaeus’s description of her “yellow … brilliant” nasturtiums as “blickande” (glancing or twinkling) and possibly affected by electricity.
Flashing flowers
Elizabeth Linnaeus also “consider[ed] for a while that this [flash] might derive from a positioning of the eyes” rather than from electricity within the plant. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge came to the conclusion that the flashing effect was indeed in the eye, and not the flower. They became persuaded that the phenomenon was in the nature of an “Ocular Spectrum” or “After Image”. In 1810, the poet and scientist J.W. von Goethe had also questioned whether the flashing seen in flowers was actually in the flower or in the eye.
Wordsworth later added a note of explanation about the “flash” to his ‘Daffodils’ poem in the 1815 printing: “The subject of these Stanzas is rather an elementary feeling and simple expression (approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum) upon the imaginative faculty, rather than an exertion of it.” Coleridge later acknowledged grudgingly in his Literaria Biographia of 1817 that the concept of “visual spectrum” was indeed “a well known fact”, but at the same time he criticised Wordsworth’s lines about the “flash” as being “mental bombast”, inappropriate for describing the “joy of retrospection”.
So what does modern science make of the phenomenon? In 1914, Professor F.A.W. Thomas wrote in the scientific journal, Nature, as that the “Flashing Flowers” (or “Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon”) really did exist, and that it was caused by an image of red light moving across the retina of the eye. In 1937, Professor M. Minnaert classified the same phenomenon as an “After Image”. In other words, it has been established that Elizabeth’s “flashing” was an effect within the eye, exactly as Wordsworth and Coleridge eventually came to believe.
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.

Romantic readings: ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth

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
Colin Waters

  • Dove Cottage, Grasmere,
    Cumbria, LA22 9SH


Enter your e-mail below to receive updates from us: