March 24, 2017

Wordsworth Daffodils with Dorothy and William

William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) is a well known poet who promoted “common speech” within poems and argued against the poetic biases of the period. He wrote some of the most influential poetry in Western literature, including his most famous work, The Prelude, which is often considered to be the crowning achievement of English romanticism.

Not as well known is his sister, poet and diarist Dorothy Wordsworth. She was for many years pretty much dismissed as simply her brother’s assistant. She did write out his poems for him, but she also wrote every day in her journals and wrote her own poetry.

Studies of those diaries show that William actually cribbed some of his most famous lines for some poems from his sister’s writings.

One of those poems is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (sometimes called "The Daffodils") which begins:
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...

The Wordsworth parents died when she and William were children and they were sent to live with various relatives. After being reunited, she and William never left each other again.

The inspiration for the poem came from a walk Wordsworth took with his sister around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District. Dorothy's journal entry describes the walk:

"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 & 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. 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 – 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."
                — Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal Thursday, 15 April 1802

William wrote his poem inspired by the walk and also by Dorothy's journal.

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 but be 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.

William Wordsworth wrote the poem while living with his wife, Mary Hutchinson, and Dorothy at Town End in Grasmere in England's Lake District. His wife contributed what Wordsworth later said were the two best lines in the poem, recalling the "tranquil restoration" of Tintern Abbey:

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude

All this is not to say that that William was a plagiarist. He noted his inspirations himself in his prose, and seems to have been fine with using lines and suggestions from these two women in his life.

But as the daffodils open on another spring season, perhaps we can put some breath back into Dorothy's poems too.



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