Saturday, November 22, 2008


In 1804, William Wordsworth put pen to paper, and wrote an untitled poem about daffodils.  

Or I should say: the untitled poem about daffodils.  Its opening lines are some of the most well known in English literature: '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'.  

Over two hundred years later, these lines have had their fair share of parody.  Perhaps they're seen as hackneyed and cloying.  Perhaps the simple iambic tetrameter invites easy mockery.

But I've always found the 'daffodils' poem to be simply, immediately uplifting.  Wordsworth's words not only convey the animated, vibrant character of daffodils - their insistent, yellow cheeriness.  The poem also conveys Wordsworth's own earnest, appreciative psyche: the capacity of a man to be swiftly, profoundly moved by something seemingly trivial:

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.

This is more than a prose landscape; a copy of some cheery scene.  It evokes the powerful combination of natural beauty and human feeling.  As the sometimes-depressed John Stuart Mill wrote in his autobiography, 'what made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty.'

No doubt today's poets express this in a more modern mode; in language suited to our time and place.  But this wonderful ambition remains: to capture, in arresting images and rhythms, what enlivens our 'inward eye'.

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