Tuesday 7 April 2020

The Anniversary

The seventh of April, 2020 – I guess it's a date we can't pass over, as William Wordsworth was born (not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory) on this day 250 years ago. Radio 4 has been celebrating the anniversary year in various ways, including just recently a week of Ian McKellen reading from The Prelude. Listening to this was a reminder both of Wordsworth's greatness and of something very nearly comical about his most ambitious poetical projects: that massive self-importance, the relentlessly heroic tone that often makes such an awkward fit with the material, the complete humourlessness and occasional tin ear (an affliction that worsened as he grew older). More than once I found myself almost laughing – and this reading was of the best bits, not the dreary connective tissue between them.
  And yet, and yet... Of course there are also the great odes, and a substantial number of sonnets and shorter poems that are as good as it gets and fully deserve their place in the anthologies, and in the nation's affections. Even Daffodils. This hoariest of chestnuts, a feature of every anthology and many an examination syllabus, deserves its fame: it's a damned good, even perfect poem, and always a simple pleasure to read...

'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 be but gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show 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.'

What's not to like?
  It's well known that the poem had its origins in a walk that Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy beside Ullswater. As Dorothy wrote in her journal,

'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 – '

And  of course, Wordsworth being Wordsworth – his mind forever on two things, Himself and the Universe (as Hazlitt remarked, more or less) – the poem makes no mention of Dorothy, but presents the poet as a lonely wanderer. However, Wordsworth did acknowledge that it was his wife, Mary, who contributed what he thought the two best lines in the poem: 'They flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude'. Coleridge, as ever hard to please, did not agree, characterising those and other lines as 'mental bombast'. Unfair, surely, but elsewhere Wordsworth was, especially in his later years, no stranger to mental bombast. The best of him, however, will surely last another 250 years.


  1. I do love the poem Michael. Although a rather sad. My only son's anniversary is today too

  2. And didn't he change from his early liberal leanings? Browning might have mentioned this!