The most famous version of Wordworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” or “Daffodils”—that landmark of English Romanticism, a pedagogical perennial that’s inspired thousands of stock photos of daffodil fields—turns two hundred this year. Most of us remember it fondly; some do not. “I am sure it is a great poem,” one YouTube commenter wrote in response to a spoken rendition, “but every ten-year-old Indian is tortured and tormented by [it] … As a kid I remember I had to memorize pages dissecting this poem, but one question always remained—What the hell is a daffodil? No Indian kid ever laid eyes on that flower.”
The poem had its genesis in a walk Wordsworth took with his sister, Dorothy, on April 15, 1802, which she described in a journal entry with a moving lyricism that rivals her brother’s:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the sea had floated the seeds 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 above 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 higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea … All was cheerless and gloomy, so we faced the storm.
As Andrew Motion has written, Wordsworth’s poem “plays with the idea of past, present and future time coming together in a single but durable golden moment; Dorothy confirms the idea of ‘unity’ in a physical sense, and provides several of the animating verbs that stir the description into life.” And I’d argue that she found the better language: her belt of daffodils, “about the breadth of a country turnpike,” lives more vividly in the mind than her brother’s fluttering, dancing crowd. There’s something so grounding, even, so spatial, in just that one word, belt; it anchors an image that feels inchoate in the poem, what with Wordsworth being in the clouds and all.
Or maybe it’s just that Dorothy’s take is less shopworn. “Daffodils” is, after all, an easy poem to roll your eyes at, for its ubiquity and resilience and for what Coleridge called its “mental bombast.” Motion argues convincingly for its “intensity and lift”— the way it mimics, for the reader, Wordsworth’s increasing inwardness—but it takes immense concentration, or a very sunny disposition, to read the poem with new eyes. Learned by rote, it’s become the tiresome fodder for greeting cards—and in the past two centuries, those daffodils have inspired tote bags, a Heineken commercial, and, most terrifyingly, a mass recitation by 150,000 British schoolchildren. A sure sign that your poem is now more dead than alive.
At Rydal Mount, where Wordsworth lived for most of his life, a bicentennial celebration is in the works. Hideyuki Sobue, a Japanese artist who lives in the Lake District, has taken it upon himself to paint the first portrait of Wordsworth in two hundred years, based on a life mask of the poet made in 1815. “I wanted to capture the emotion of the poet, knowing that he was a keen outdoors man,” Sobue told the Independent.
His portrait is certainly emotional, but I prefer the humanizing vision of Wordsworth having his mask made, sitting still, indoors, his eyes closed, his face covered in plaster, breathing through a pair straws dangling from nostrils. “He bore it like a philosopher,” Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote of the experience. “He sat in my dressing-gown with his hands folded; sedate, solemn, and still … When he was relieved he came into breakfast with his usual cheerfulness and delighted & awed us by his illustrations & bursts of inspiration.”
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.