I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is one of William Wordsworth’s most famous poems. Like many of Wordsworth’s shorter poems, it is far more complex than it seems at first. Wordsworth was particularly good at interweaving several different temporal perspectives into a single poem, and since time and the changes it produces formed Wordsworth’s central poetic preoccupation, his interweaving in this poem is of central importance.
The extent to which Wordsworth altered versions of events that were the origins of his poems should be noted here. We know from his sister Dorothy’s journals that they were together when they saw the daffodils the poem celebrates. In her journal for April 15, 1804, she wrote: “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 dancing ever changing.” Wordsworth waited two years to write the poem about that day, and in “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” he reimagines it according to his poetic needs. The most obvious change, of course, is the speaker’s loneliness, where in reality Wordsworth was with his sister. (Her hidden or unexpected presence should be compared with her surprising appearance at the end of “Tintern Abbey.”)
The poem begins in the past tense and seems to be the present report of an incident just experienced. The speaker has been astonished by the sudden appearance, or at least his sudden awareness, of a host of daffodils. They put him in mind of the heavens at night—the stars in the milky way—as well as the waves of the lake by which they dance, and so they become a kind of center to the whole world of human experience: stars, sky (where the clouds and the breeze are active), earth, woods, and waters.
It is important to notice the loneliness of the wanderer in the opening line. This is not neediness but, rather, a sense of poetic selfhood as isolated and unlikely to find anything in the world that will comfort it or cheer its solitude. We discover in line 15—“a poet could not but be gay”—that the pleasure the sight of the daffodils affords him is not only unexpected, it may be something that he resists. He is “Surprised by Joy,” and as in that poem, he may not quite wish to be.
But the daffodils do suddenly interrupt his reverie and fill him with joy. What he does not know is that the joy they afford him is related to his vocation as a poet. The poet is made gay by the company, either because or in spite of the fact that he is a poet, or both: the kind of melancholy attendant on being a poet may be just the sort of thing that will not sustain itself in the presence of the daffodils. As a poet, he is the type to gaze and gaze, but in his gazing he forgets that he is a poet: He is completely absorbed in the beauty and surprise of what he sees.
Notice that the poem could not end after the third stanza. The daffodils are not yet matter for poetry: He does not think (“I . . . little thought”) that they are of any importance to him. The dramatic moment in the poem is the discovery that they are of importance, the discovery that he announces at the end of the third stanza and explains in the last.
The wealth the daffodils bring him is the wealth of thought and of memory. This is the second temporal perspective in the poem. Once he wandered and saw the daffodils but did not realize their importance. Later he did, those frequent times when the memory flashed upon his inward eye while he was lying on his couch either thinking much (pensive) or thinking little (vacant). The daffodils have brought something like the ebullience of the present into the courts of memory, so that the “loneliness” of the first stanza can become the blissful solitude of the last. It is because the memory fills his heart with pleasure that it can dance with the daffodils, and one of the things of which this dance is a metaphor is the poem that celebrates them. But the third temporal perspective is that of the poem itself, which tells how he remembers the daffodils involuntarily when he is not composing but lying on his couch. The poem records this event rather than the actual wandering that made this second event possible.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud” is often and rightly taken as an exemplification of Wordsworth’s famous doctrine, expressed in his preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798), of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Here the emotion would be the poet’s unexpected gaiety at seeing the daffodils, and the tranquility would be vacant or pensive moods when he suddenly remembers them. The fact that memories can surprise us with pleasure like this is what Wordsworth is noticing and celebrating.
The word pleasure in the second-to-last line is not one that Wordsworth uses lightly. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, he says that the poet’s purpose and vocation are the same thing: to give pleasure. That pleasure might derive from the description of painful things, but the description itself gives pleasure, and the contemplation and composition of the description gives the poet pleasure as well. Such pleasure is for Wordsworth the most important feature of human life and human dignity. He calls it “an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe” and therefore praises and makes preeminent in man what he calls “the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves.” As the American literary critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, this is a daring echo of Acts 17:28, where Paul tells the Athenians of God: “. . . for in him we live, and move, and have our being.”
“I wandered lonely as a cloud” considers, then, the nature of the pleasure elicited by emotion recollected in tranquility. That pleasure seems to consist in burning the stages between the present and the past. It is a kind of recognition of the permanence of the past. Seeing the daffodils gives the poet a present-tense sense of gaiety, but he has no idea that this gaiety has a temporal dimension, that it will matter for the future. The future will have its moments of pensiveness and vacancy and be a time less of wandering than of worry or vacancy. The past may have been lonely but it was not a burden; the burden will come later, with experience, knowledge, and thought. The past is a time in which he thought little, but the later period is the time of pensive moods. And it is then that sometimes the daffodils will flash upon him and make him remember the past with the intensity of the present. But the intensity is, paradoxically, a function of the distance from the past—paradoxically, because in the past his heart had not danced with the daffodils; he gazed, without thinking. Now, however, in a time of thoughtfulness, he dances rather than gazes (now they flash upon that inward eye instead of being the object of long gazing), but that flash gives the poem the startling motion that leads to the alliterative dancing with the daffodils in the last line.
Like pleasure, the word thought is crucial in Wordsworth (see especially “Tintern Abbey” and the Intimations Ode. For Wordsworth, the greatest achievement of poetic thought occurs when it can combine with pleasure, and “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is one of Wordsworth’s signal experiential and poetic successes.
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