This week for our cultural article we will be examining William Wordsworth’s (1770 – 1850) 1815 poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.
William Wordsworth was born on April 7th, 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland to John Wordsworth (1740 – 1783), a legal agent to the Earl of Lowther (1736 – 1802), and Ann Wordsworth (1747 – 1778). Wordsworth came as the second of John and Ann’s five children. Richard Wordsworth (1768 – 1816) came before him and was followed by Dorothy (1771 – 1855) (who would aid him throughout his career), Christopher (1774 – 1846), and John, Jr.
Wordsworth attended grammar school near Cockermouth Church as well as Ann Birkett’s school in Penrith. His love of the natural world began early stemming from his childhood living in a terraced garden house along the Derwent River.
Wordsworth experienced personal tragedy early in his life. In March of 1778, Ann Wordsworth died while visiting a friend in London. By June, Wordsworth’s beloved sister, Dorothy, had been sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Threlkheld (1745 – 1837), in Halifax. The pair would not be reunited until 1787. As if that wasn’t bad enough, John Wordsworth, Sr. would die in December of 1783 after being forced to spend a night out in the cold. Following the death of his father, Wordsworth and his brothers were sent to live at the house of Ann Tyson and attended school at Hawkshead. It was here that Wordsworth first began composing prose, an enterprise that was greatly encouraged by his headmaster, William Taylor.
In 1787, Wordsworth went to Cambridge University to attend St. John’s College as a sizar (an undergraduate student receiving financial assistance from the university). That same year, he published his first poem in The European Magazine. Although his academic career was unremarkable, Wordsworth managed to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in 1791.
During his last term, Wordsworth and his friend, Robert Jones (1769 – 1835), embarked on a walking tour of Europe. The tour would prove to be a great influence on Wordsworth poetry which started in earnest while he was travelling through France and Switzerland. During his travels, Wordsworth was also exposed to the ravages of the French Revolution, an experience which his inspired his lifelong sympathy for the common man.
Between 1795 and 1800, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, would move three times. In 1795, the pair used a legacy obtained from a close relative to move to Dorset. Two years later, they would move to Somerset where Wordsworth would become neighbours and close friends with the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834). Finally, in 1799, the pair would settle at Dove Cottage in Grasmere following a trip to Germany with Coleridge.
In 1802, Wordsworth returned to France with his sister to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline (1792 – 1862), whom he had conceived illegitimately while living in France. Upon his return, he married his childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson (1770 – 1859). Together, the couple sired five children: Reverend John Wordsworth (1803 – 1875), Dora Wordsworth (1804 – 1847), Thomas Wordsworth (1806 – 1812), Catherine Wordsworth (1809 – 1812), and William Wordsworth, Jr. (1810 – 1883).
In 1813, Wordsworth made the Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland. Years later, following the death of Robert Southey (1774 – 1843), Wordsworth was made Poet Laureate. He died on April 23rd, 1850, in Rydal.
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 shew 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 is credited with ushering the English romantic movement. Accordingly, Wordsworth is remembered as an intensely spiritual and epistemological writer whose poetry moved away from the grand, moralising themes of the past towards that which explored the purity and beauty of nature.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud was first published in Poems in Two Volumes in 1807. (The version analysed here is the 1815 revised version). The poem was inspired by a long walk Wordsworth took with his sister, Dorothy, around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater. During their walk, the pair came across a “long belt” of daffodils. Wordsworth became inspired to write the poem after reading his sister’s diary description of the walk:
“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. 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 – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the Sea.”
— Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud consists of four stanzas with six lines each and featured an “ababcc” rhyming sequence. The poem has a peaceful and tranquil feel to it which is expressed through simplistic language, figurative vocabulary, and subtle rhymes. The first three stanzas of the poem describe the narrator’s experiences. Its first line, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” serves to personalise the poem. Likewise, the reference to “a crowd, a host of golden daffodils” describes an ideal place, a form of euphoric paradise which the narrator experiences for the briefest period of time. The second stanza gives the impression that the daffodils were majestic, even other-worldly in their beauty. The narrator even compares them to the stars of the milky way. The poem’s last stanza details the poet’s recollection of his experiences. He describes how his recollection causes his heart to fill the pleasure and “dance with the daffodils.” In the end, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud reminds us that beauty can only be found when we are willing to slow down and take notice of the world around us.