Those daffodils, again

I’m a great admirer of Wordsworth; “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is wonderful, and the Prelude is awe-inspiring. However, I’m afraid, daffodils don’t cut it for me.

I was reclining in the garden reading the poem and thinking to myself that I could add an acid remark to almost every line when (whether or not due to some mental connection with acidity) it occurred to me there was a laptop behind me and I could fetch a gin and tonic while it was starting. After all, it’s high time the left-over lemons from Pancake Day were finished.

I’m afraid no one apart from me will enjoy this at all; everyone else will find it at best horribly smug. I will therefore try to make it up by enjoying myself as much as possible. I further hereby certify that I do not imply that I could under any circumstances real or imagined construct a better final poem. My mistakes would have been different and my concentration on detail would have wrecked the overall impression completely. Nonetheless, the following is a genuine reaction; and, luckily, since it doesn’t contain a gendered postcolonial deconstructionalist discourse, it isn’t classed as criticism any more.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

I’ve seen lots of clouds in Cumbria; they are indeed a significant feature of the skyscape. However, they very rarely come singly. More gregarious than Cumbrian clouds it is difficult to be. This observation is, of course, not original; it is crying out to be made.

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

If it’s on high it’s bound to be over, or even o’er (a Romantic poet can certainly be forgiven that) any feature of the landscape. Poetry is best when the sense is compressed. Here even one landscape feature is somewhat superflous; to use two looks like carelessness. An unexpected juxtaposition of some kind would rescue this; but there’s nothing unexpected about vales and hills in Cumbria, unlike lonely clouds.

When all at once I saw a crowd,

This isn’t really the first group of daffodils he’s seen, is it? What happened “all at once” is something more subtle than seeing. However, we don’t want a philosophical essay—though Wordsworth was quite capable of writing one in poetry—so I won’t insist on that point.

More importantly, daffodils don’t come in crowds. Only human beings do; but then a crowd is an ugly thing. If you wanted a prettified description of assembled human beings, you wouldn’t say “crowd”, you’d say something like “host”, as in angels. This is just a clumsy rhyme word, consequently overemphasised. You can claim they’re jostling, and the crowdedness is one of exuberance in the manner of a crowd in Trafalgar Square on New Years Eve in the days before Livingstone, but that’s not how it struck me, stuck there at the end of the line. It struck me as “I beheld a crowd of people worshipping the Beast”. (Don’t bother searching, I’ve made it up.)

A host, of golden daffodils;

“Host”, as discussed above, is fine. However, unfortunately we’ve just had that wretched “crowd”. Now we’re in “vales and hills” territory, except this time the words don’t even mean different things, except in so far as one is the wrong word and one is the right word.

Daffodils come in two colours: bright yellow, and a more subtle shade of pale yellow which can look creamy next to the yellow sort but I suspect (unfortunately it’s now June and my garden needs some work anyway) isn’t. Gold is a rich, glowing sort of yellow, not exactly bright (“lustrous” would be the poetic word), and apart from Welsh gold not exactly pale. The other associations of “golden” fit fine, but unfortunately it’s hampered by the strained literal sense. With a lesser poet it wouldn’t matter; the fact that the observation lags behind the romance isn’t usually that important. With the third greatest poet in English (according to the widely recognised FIFA rankings), and one of the greatest writers of verse about the natural world who ever lived, it becomes more so.

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

I suppose this isn’t any worse than Keats’ “past the near meadows, over the still stream”, and actually I don’t think that’s bad at all: it gives a wonderful impression of the nightingale’s flight into the distance, adding a dimension of mingled sound and space to the sense of loss. However, I’m already worried that the poem in the dock is a bit wordy. Keats is a model of compression; his ability to push images together in a few words is breathtaking. Wordsworth works a little differently, but I still think he could have managed a bit more apposition here; a sense of being between the lake and the trees, the one overhanging the other, that I don’t think he achieves.

You might try to tell me that the lack of detail in the context is trying to convey a sense of breathless excitement. From Wordsworth, however, an attempt at this looks like incoherence. He’s not Emily Dickinson. (“Lonely I / Beneath the sun— / I saw a host / Of golden ones— // Beside the lake / Beneath the trees— / I felt their joy / Upon the breeze”)

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

I’m not entirely convinced by “fluttering”: butterflies’ wings do that, but unless the wind is really strong (and then we get to Emily Bronte rather than pretty daffodils; Beaufort has a “strong breeze” but in poetry that surely becomes a “gale”) I don’t think they flutter as a flag or a wing does. However, the motion of plants in a breeze is manifold, so I’m not convinced this is a good point, either.

The heads are certainly “dancing”, but the daffodils are supposed to be a “crowd” or “host”. Things that come in crowds or hosts dance by tripping the light fantastic toe. Unless Wordsworth had had Coleridge to visit and been tripping the light fantastic with him, I don’t suppose he thought the daffodils were anything other than rooted to the spot. Are we to think of them as moving around? I’m afraid that simply reminds me of physics tutorials on quantum mechanical exchange of identical particles. Later lines (which will be treated with merciless sarcasm—the reader is warned) will make the question of what is dancing even less clear. If I were Empson, I might be more impressed with the ambiguity, but as it is I really want to know if the expletive daffodils themselves are dancing or not. I think they’re waving, not dancing.

Continuous as the stars that shine

No doubt it’s because I have a background in computational physics, but daffodils seem to me definitely discrete, as are stars. There is no gain in imagining them as one single entity in a line; how could they then be “dancing” and “ten thousand”? This is ambiguity as either muddle or (stereotyped, Orientalist) Eastern mysticism. Empson might say there is a sense of continuity and Wordsworth cleverly transmutes it from the daffodils into a general feeling. However, I think it fails because the immediate truth of the statement isn’t there.

The “stars” suggest maybe that the daffodils are continous in time; but surely the early part of the poem with its “all at once” and its “glance” is about a specific moment? And anyway…

And twinkle on the milky way,

…the stars are sounding rather fickle and uncontinuous; and why do they need to shine and twinkle, since the latter implies the former? I suppose he means that on the one hand they perpetually give light, while on the other hand the light actually varies from moment to moment. In that case, why is the whole a simile for continuity? It seems to say “continuous as the stars that have a continous but also a variable aspect”, which is just muddle-headed.

I don’t like “on” because it seems ponderous. I would prefer any of “in”, “within”, “over” (or even “o’er”, but two would be o’eregging the puddin’), “about” or even “through”. There are astronomical quibbles with this last word, but I’m certainly not demanding the poem be literal minded, only that it’s predominant sense be consistent.

On the continuity thing again: the Milky Way may be thought of as continuous, but Wordsworth is deliberately contrasting it with individual stars, which are the subject of the metaphor. The Milky Way as a whole doesn’t twinkle.

They stretched in never-ending line

(Another edition I have has “stretch’d”, but I’m not editing the poem.) It’s not never-ending, of course; this is again a fairly standard romanticism, and again I think Wordsworth, unlike 99.999% of his contemporaries, could have done better.

I don’t like “line” for roughly the same reason as “continuous”. The image has been reduced to a geometric abstraction which doesn’t fit it, and the poet seems to be saying that his mood arises from these properties, which the scene he is looking at doesn’t actually have: it’s no more linear than it is continuous. If he’d written something like “Abundant as the stars… they stretched in an unbroken field”, which he could no doubt have versified much better, I wouldn’t be objecting.

I originally thought I might be worried about the stretching, but I’ve convinced myself I’m not.

Along the margin of a bay:

I’m actually fairly happy with this line! Yes, we’ve already heard about the lake (apparently Dorothy’s journal tells us it’s Ullswater, under the slopes of Gowbarrow Fell), but this extends the description in (literally) a new direction. The curve of the bay adds another extra touch. “Margin” would now be archaic but it’s fine in Wordsworth. Indeed, I associate it with the “beached margent of the sea” in one of the richest dramatic speeches ever written.

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

If it was a glance, and if the line was never-ending, why the exact number? He’s really saying “oh, it could have been a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand!” but the phrase is too precise. A single glance took it all in; none of that feeble havering about the number, none of the hesitation you or I would have had thinking “goodness! there are a lot; how many I wonder?”.

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Yes, Mr Wordsworth, you’ve said they were dancing. Oh, only their heads, was it? I’m sorry. You’re not looking so sprightly yourself; would you mind breathing into this bag?

(All right, just because the heads are tossing doesn’t mean the rest of the daffodil isn’t dancing, roots and all, but I’m distinctly jaded on the dancing by now.)

Anyway, don’t bulls toss their heads in impatience, which isn’t appropriate? It’s possible the word “toss” was more neutral in Wordsworth’s day. Do feel free to email me. Please be polite.

The waves beside them danced; but they

The play of winds on water is mesmerising, but is it really a “dance”? All those criss-crossing ripples, line after line, all up and down the lake? Again, this would be fine from a lesser poet.

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

“Sparkling” is part of the basic scene setting. We’ve already heard it was breezy. I suppose if Wordsworth thinks, against all experience, that clouds are “lonely” we might infer that the sun is out, but he hasn’t said so. Also, he definitely implied loneliness was part of the standard behaviour of clouds, not today’s weather, otherwise a “the” would be necessary—I don’t accept that a poetic generalisation adds to the atmosphere, only to the confusion. He hasn’t actually said the sun was out, yet. “By the way, it was sunny, too” is a bit lame at this point, though maybe it helps explain the “golden” colour. The association of all those ideas is fine as a first draft, but needs a bit more joined-up thinking before publication.

A poet could not but be gay,

No complaints here. A statement of this kind is entirely warranted at this stage of the poem and a certain straightforwardness is the right way to pass it to the reader.

In such a jocund company:

“Jocund” must have sounded a good deal less clumsy then, so it would be churlish to object. “Company” is fine, it’s an entirely appropriate variation on “host”, with an additional suggestion that that the daffodils are now all around, as if the poet has advanced into the (um…) cluster. That’s rather good. Thus I can’t really find anything wrong with this line either.

I gazed--and gazed--but little thought

We’ve just had a glimpse and an “all at once”. I suppose he’s saying that the sudden glimpse transfixed him and held him long after. I’m not convinced “I gazed--and gazed” is the best way of expressing that; to me, it doesn’t cover the modal progression: first the sudden astonishment at the profusion, then the prolonged rapture.

I wondered, too, about “little thought”, but firstly he’s about to qualify the phrase, and secondly the brief impression given by the enjambement, that he’s thinking little (about anything), actually does fit well with the notion of the gaze.

What wealth the show to me had brought:

[Voice of Terry Jones as woman:] “Deirdre! William’s contrasting worldly wealth with the wealth provided by nature again!”

[Voice of Eric Idle as woman:] “Ooooh! Shocking!”

Also, isn’t “show” a bit, well, showy for the bounties of the natural world? I suppose he’s emphasing it, but it sticks out at this point, where he’s progressed from the display itself to its consequences. “What wealth the—wow! the show—to me had brought.”

For oft, when on my couch I lie

(“But oft” in some versions; again, that’s nothing to my theme.) It’s not Wordsworth’s fault that “couch” makes me want to say “Zo, meester Wordsworth, you zeenk of zee little daffodils, yes? Tell me about your mozzer…”. Even so, it seems a little bit too mellow: “all that daffodil-gazing exhausted me and I had to put my feet up, and just then…”. Merely mentioning the mood would have been enough instead of spending two lines saying “when I’m at ease”.

In vacant or in pensive mood,

Another case of “too many notes”, I think. The two mood words don’t combine well. I’ve convinced myself (after a struggle) that either individually would work, but the juxtaposition evokes something too complicated for the summary of the poem to which all thought should be racing in this final sentence. It’s saying “sometimes when I lie down there’s nothing much in my head, while other times I’m thinking about something”. Who cares, at this point? It’s a distraction.

They flash upon that inward eye

My editor at Apress would have queried “they”; to what does it refer? Of course, here it can only be the subject of the poem. Even so, “they” haven’t appeared since the first line of the previous verse. I shall be charitable and say it just creeps in under the wire. I suppose most readers wouldn’t even stop to wonder.

Which is the bliss of solitude;

The “inward eye” is bliss? I don’t think so. Its impressions may be, however. There’s plenty of scope for doing something about that feeble “is”. How about “forms”, for example? It may not be perfect, but it’s better than “is”.

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

A rather weak, standard romantic sentiment. A Romantic poet can be forgiven the occasional such; but a full line, and the penultimate line of the poem?

And dances with the daffodils.

So, Mr Wordsworth, they were dancing? The whole flower, not just the head? Oh, your heart was dancing, too, was it? It just sort of popped out, right? Are you sure you’re fit to walk back to Grasmere? Why don’t you just hop into the car? No, it’s hardly out of the way. Never had a great poet in the back before. It’s OK, we all have our off days, don’t we?

Then what should a poem about dancing on the shore look like? (I wasn’t very serious about Emily Dickinson.) Maybe you’re ahead of me:

To a Child, Dancing in the Wind

Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water's roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool's triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of the wind?

Now that makes my pulses race. Yeats’ theme is contrast between human and nature, not oneness with it; maybe that’s intrinsically slightly easier. The child is dancing, and the wind and water are roaring about; her hair is tumbling, wet by the raging sea, the romantic implications barely if at all suppressed. She is remote from her surroundings (“what need have you to care…”). This is just in the first five lines; by this point Wordsworth has only just got around to telling us he saw some flowers on the shore.

It builds further. There is an ultimate unity between the destiny of the insouciant girl, which seems to contain wordly vanity and lost love, and the empty rage around her. There is a mythical quality to that destiny (“the best labourer dead”, a reference to the playwright J.M. Synge). The forboding of the last two lines appears as a paradoxical reassurance, echoing the second and third lines as if this final statement was itself an empty cry flung off into the wind. The hint of tears (the “salt drops”, the “monstrous crying”) undermines the reassurance to the point where the act of dance becomes a single point of delight in a vast, noisy, empty universe. There is not a single word that isn’t necessary.

All this is before you even know that the girl is Iseult Gonne, illegitimate daughter of a right-wing Frenchman and the passion of Yeats’ life, Maud Gonne. The biographical details are interesting, or so Yeats tells us; I wouldn’t trust him very far. The scene is Brittany, not Ireland as you might guess, and Iseult, who is not quite as young as the poem seems to imply, is singing about vanished civilisations. Finally rejected by Maud (whose husband, John MacBride, was executed after the Easter Rising), Yeats eventually proposed to Iseult and was rejected by her in turn, which is the subject of the poem “Owen Aherne and His Dancers”. Yeats eventually gave up on the Gonnes, with or without the wind, and married Georgie Hyde-Lees. It’s not Wordsworth’s fault he didn’t have as interesting a life; but the best poetry is cruel: it forms itself out of its creator, then casts him or her aside. Meanwhile, the second best poetry, however deeply the poet may have felt, is left to sit and enjoy the view.

Peter Stephenson <>
Last modified: Wed Jun 21 20:59:35 BST 2006