Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Romantic Solitude

Consider this well-known poem by William Wordsworth:

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.                     1813

The poet is alone but no more lonely than a cloud and no less aimless. He is not looking for anyone or anything nor is he trying get anywhere or do anything. He's got nothing on his mind, including poetry, and no expectations. The daffodils, when he first sees them, "all at once," are just that, daffodils, lots of them, crowds of them. But then, as memory quickens, he elaborates: there are thousands of these flowers, in a continuous band, like the stars "on" the milky way; he begins to think of them as a crowd of people, dancing. (Though, if he had actually come upon a bunch of people there, along the shore of the lake, he'd have been mightily displeased.)

Throughout the poem—or at least until the last line—the poet gives the appearance of being entirely passive, even in his gaiety—which he seems to catch from the daffodils as if it were an infection: avoiding the more active first-person pronoun, he concedes dourly that "a poet could not but be gay" in such company. And, though his mind is actively taking notes on this "show," he is unaware of what it is doing: "I gazed—and gazed—but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought: for . . ." That "for" tells us, though, that unlike the first two stanzas, each of which comes to a full stop, the third will continue on into the fourth with what will turn out to be a very deep thought indeed. 

This is a poem about solitude, which does not just mean 'alone' simply but absolutely alone, a possibility which no one had ever, or rarely, considered before; heretofore, one had always known that he or she was in the presence of God, if no one else. [Foot Note: When, in 1829, the Quakers of Pennsylvania began experimenting with enforced solitude—solitary confinement—as a method of spiritual reformation, it soon became clear, to some observers at least, that instead of forcing the inmates of those penitentiaries, so called, to become closer to God, they were driving them mad.] 

It is also a poem about imagination which, as the poem makes clear, also works in mysterious ways; this power or faculty is not subject to the control of the rational mind. One can lament the absence or loss of this creative power [so called: notice that one can also 'create' a nuisance or a disaster] as Coleridge does in his "Dejection" Ode, but that's all. And that is Wordsworth's point: he gives as little thought to the memories that "flash upon" his inward eye as he does to the act of remembering them in the first place: he does not consciously try to summon them, but when they come unbidden, they are fully engaging and he becomes fully engaged in the experience: "And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.").  Such, for a romantic poet, when everything falls into place, is the bliss of solitude.

I should note, in passing, that no one much before 1800 had had anything good to say about the imagination (or, indeed much to say about it in any case) as anything but a source of illusions, delusions or madness.

Two years before Wordsworth wrote his first draft of this poem, his sister, Dorothy, had written the following description of [these same?] daffodils in her journal of April 15, 1802:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony has 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; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that flew 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 a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway."

Should we conclude that when Wordsworth wrote this poem, he was not describing things in themselves—daffodils in the wild— but an already fully-formed work of art? Does it matter? Why? Or, if not, why not?


1 comment:

  1. Appreciating the glory of the creation is more than just passivity. It is responding to the world. Recognizing the vastness and beauty of the earth is a step on the road to art, as the poem shows us, and also on the road to science.