Our Daily Stanza: The First Six Lines of William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” (1807)

Today’s lines of poetry come from William Wordworth’s “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” (1807), and they make up the poem’s first stanza:

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 dancing Daffodils;

Along the Lake, beneath the trees,

Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

What I like about the opening two lines of this stanza are their ambiguity in tone:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud

That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills . . .

Is this meant to be ecstatic—as in “I was high as a cloud and surveying a verdant land!”—or does the poet mean for us to read these lines in a more subdued manner—and even with ambivalence? Perhaps the poet, far from ecstatic, is suggesting to us something like this: “I am out of sympathetic touch with my earthly surroundings, and detached from the land by my wandering airy thoughts. I’m actually moving slowly, even sluggishly, and my head is, as it were, in the clouds.” And so:

I wandered lonely as a Cloud

That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills.

The next two lines might well suggest this latter tone, for they announce the sudden arrest of the poet’s attention, and give him a decided jolt:

When all at once I saw a crowd

A host of dancing Daffodils . . . 

On hitting lines three and four, Wordsworth has abruptly transported us from the singularity and solitude of his one cloud Apollonian heaven to the reproductive multiplicity and communal messiness of our Dionysian vegetable Earth, where no man is an island, and the flowers have spread,

Along the Lake, beneath the trees,

Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

Are these lines meant to be unironically embraced as conventionally beautiful—for daffodils in profusion are certainly pleasing to the eye—or is there an undercurrent of maenad-like seduction here—a subliminal menace just beneath the poet’s surface denotations? What’s really going on here with all this dancing vegetable matter and its pestilential invasion of both the land and the poet’s consciousness? Are these daffodils, in short, not just beautiful—but sternly beautiful—demanding their own replication—not just over the land, but even in the dissemination of Wordsworth’s poem, which has now invaded us with his description of them in pretty words?

If so, how ironic. Even as Wordsworth seems to move (in the poem) from airy singularity to an engagement with multiplicity, so the dancing daffodils seem to have taken the return trip, metamorphosing from a host of selfish genes into a singular and long chiming human mental meme.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Our Daily Stanza: The First Six Lines of William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” (1807)

  1. Scarlet Letter says:

    Santi

    Speaking of Wordsworth, (and we are), have you read Annette Vallon: A Novel of the French Revolution by James Tipton? Vallon was Wordsworth’s lover. There was a child, Caroline. Maybe the narrator is as lonely as a cloud because he misses Annette and Caroline who are in France.

  2. Scarlet Letter says:

    Every time Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” is mentioned, I think of Lucy in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy. Lucy is resentful when her American employer (Lucy is employed in the US as an au pair) draws her attention to daffodils because Lucy remembers being forced to learn Wordsworth’s poem even though there where no daffodils in Antigua. The daffodils trigger Lucy’s (and Kincaid’s) resentment of British influence in Antigua.

    Lucy’s attitude toward daffodils is similar to my attitude toward the picture of the Queen of England on Canadian stamps and money

  3. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    I like your notion that the loneliness is connected to missing Annette and Caroline, but there might be a timing issue here. If written in the 1790s, that would strengthen your reading. But Wordsworth’s poem is written in the first decade of the 1800s, at a time when Wordsworth has married, and started having children with, another woman. Also, his sister Dorothy was probably on the walk with him (that inspired the poem). Wordsworth thus might be dropping personal history, and is using loneliness here as a conceit of the poem. If anything, the poet might be relieved to be out of the house, away from his growing brood of wailing babes and toddlers, alone for a moment of quiet mental contemplation (he had, with his wife, five kids between 1803-1810). Yet even in his solitude, he finds himself stumbling on, and being startled by, a multiplying host of flowery babes! Multiplying children (including his French daughter, Caroline) might have been somewhere in his mind, and lurking subliminally in this poem. You might well be right about that. And how often he thought of Annette after he married, who can say?

    —Santi

  4. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    I haven’t read the James Tipton novel.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    I like your Kincade reference. I like to read this poem with Gothic inversions—the daffodils’s surface beauty somehow concealing an inhuman Darwinian machine of reproductive evil! That Kincade’s Lucy character associates the poem with a sinister colonial vibe—a forced mental invasion of her childhood by the daffodils—is kind of cool.

    —Santi

    • Scarlet Letter says:

      To use your words “there might be a timing issue here.” Is it legitimate to mention Darwin when discussing a poem that was written before Darwin was born?

      PS I do like your phrase “inhuman Darwinian machine of reproductive evil.”

      VLA

  6. Scarlet Letter says:

    Santi

    Corresponding with you is distracting me (pleasantly) from completing a review of a grammar textbook. However, I can’t resist.

    It is raining, so I can’t bicycle up to the library, so I have to depend on Wikipedia:

    “With the Peace of Amiens again allowing travel to France, in 1802 Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, visited Annette and Caroline in France and arrived at a mutually agreeable settlement regarding Wordsworth’s obligations.”

    In 1802, “Wordsworth married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy continued to live with the couple and grew close to Mary.”

    I disagree with you on the timing issue. Wordsworth’s affair with Vallon started when he was young, free of Dorothy and England and English reticence. Moreover, Tipton’s novel suggests that Dorothy’s influence is the reason Wordsworth did not marry Annette and married Mary Hutchinson.

    VLA

  7. santitafarella says:

    Scarlet Letter:

    I didn’t mean to imply that Wordsworth would have understood his poem in Darwinian terms—only that I like the idea of reading it in Darwinian terms. You can read the Bible or Shakespeare in Freudian terms (for example) even though both the Bible and Shakespeare predate Freud.

    Wordsworth might well have understood his poem in Dionysian terms—and MIGHT have been conscious of an undercurrent of the Dionysian energy in it. From a post-Darwinian vantage, a poet’s devotion to Dionysian energies is a kind of devotion to what we contemporaries might think of as the Darwinian (nature red in tooth and claw etc.).

    As for Wordsworth, I didn’t know that he had visited Annette in the 1800s, so that lends strength to your interpretation. Wordsworth’s marriage may have been, as it were, generated “on the rebound.”

    As for the inhuman Darwinian machine of reproductive evil (!), I just realized that the acronym for my spontaneous bop generated phrase is the very Freudian ID-MORE! I definitely have to remember that! We live in the old Nobodaddy’s ID-MORE.

    Good luck on your book review.

    —Santi

  8. Anonymous says:

    your chatting crap

  9. Anonymous says:

    you don’t know what you are talking about because William Wordsworth write the daffodils and this scarlet letter is not in the poem so you have got the wrong end of the stick

  10. Anonymous says:

    oh please say sorry to santitafarella because I think she is right so just say that your sorry to her then

  11. Anonymous says:

    OK I am sorry i did not know what was wrong with me please can you forgive me for what i have said to you on this website of yours. yours sincerely Robert smith follow me on twitter X_29her

  12. concerned christian says:

    I am not that good with literature, but I guess that the last few postings indicates that a drunkard has stopped by your corner pub.

  13. concerned christian says:

    Well I guess you may see where I am going with my comment; two intelligent people you and Scarlet Letter are conducting an intelligent deep discussion, and suddenly some one interrupted your conversation with random muttering and a wise guy jump in with irrelevant comments. Sorry go back to your literary discussion I find it very informative.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, but I think Scarlet has disappeared.

      —Santi : )

      • concerned christian says:

        I hope she is still around and can come back to start another literary discussion. It’s great to read or listen to two experts discussing a difficult subject, even if it is not my area of expertise.
        Finally, I would like to thank anonymous who jumped into the discussion even if he was almost three years late because without his belated interruption I would not have found this gem.

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