Monday 5 December 2016

Lonely as a cloud

The most familiar lines in all of English poetry:

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.

But how many readers really understand the import of the first line? It doesn't mean, as most assume, that the speaker was 'as lonely as a cloud' (clouds aren't lonely because they tend to move around in large groups); rather it means that he wandered, alone and lonely, in the same way a cloud wanders.. It's the poet who is lonely, not the cloud, and this makes sense if you I mentally add punctuation thus:

I wandered lonely, as a cloud
That floats on high . . 

Pathetic fallacy my aunt fanny.

Wordsworth's best known poem - so familiar that it's almost invisible - is the absolute embodiment and articulation of the Romantic tradition. It was prompted by a particular event. on 15th April 1802 - a Thursday - when Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy came across a "long belt" of daffodils during a walk beside Ullswater in stormy weather. The inspiration for the poem (written two years later) was not the walk itself but Dorthy's journal entry, in which she described the daffodils as they 'tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake'.

(Pause to reflect that a modern day Dorothy would probably have written n 'literally' for 'verily'.)

The poem was published in 1807 and revised in 1815. What if Wordsworth had more accurately begun:

We wandered lonely, as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and ills
When all at once we saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils .  .

It's not much worse, is it? But that 'golden' makes me wonder. They're yellow aren't they, daffodils?

Some cultural artifacts are, as I say, familiar to the point of invisibility. I blogged about the case of Tennyson and Turner here.

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