“Such a Jocund Company”: Scanning Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”

Image courtesy of James Barker / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of James Barker / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Such a Jocund Company”: Scanning Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”

By Andrew Lazo

 

This month, I shall try to thread a little needle in writing about William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” (or “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”).

One of my dear fellow Muses always appreciates it when I do a close reading of a poem, trying to open it up as I break it into its component parts. And as a teacher, this usually happens fairly naturally, both in and out of the classroom. I find that a fair bit of truth arises when I analyze in order to arrive at interpretation and, hopefully, even application.

Another fellow Muse gently nudges me in the opposite direction, saying that, while she loves to hear me teach, she prefers hearing me speak as a living soul, as a friend. This appeal also has its attractions. And so I’ll try to get both approaches through that needle’s eye.

I taught this poem in class last week as a way to unpack it a little in anticipation of writing this reflection. I found some compelling poetic features that lead right into the heart of much of what this poem means to me.

I’ll start with a close reading.

 

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.

First, some basics: the poem consists in four, six-line stanzas, generally in iambic tetrameter. These stanzas generally rhyme ABABCC. Exceptions to these features, as one would expect from this most artful of Romantic poets, add crucial shades of meaning to the poem.

The poem opens and closes with somber hints, and the contrast between this subtle sadness and the frolicking gaiety of the rest of the poem produces the real and fruitful tension in this delightful piece. The opening stanza deserves a very close look:

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.

Notice first the mood of the poem, established by Wordsworth’s negative or ambivalent word choices such as “wandered”, “lonely”, “cloud”, “vales”, “crowd”, and “host”. Wandering and loneliness point to the isolation of the narrator. While “a cloud” suggest rain, “vales” point to downward journeys, sometimes into darkness or, metaphorically, despair or even death. “Vale” may also cause the reader to think of the “valley of the shadow of death,” not the last time the poet alludes to the scriptures.

A “crowd” too can seem oppressive or even threatening, and “a host” does so even more, as it connotes a gathering army (think, perhaps, of “the Lord of Hosts”).

It seems Wordsworth is setting us up for loneliness and opposition. But then all at once he shows us a field of daffodils (or, as Tolkien was fond of calling them, daffadowndillys), and everything suddenly comes right and begins “[f]luttering and dancing in the breeze.”

This hopeful turn towards happiness helps us understand the music of the meter. Try bobbing your head along with the iambic rhythm and you’ll likely find yourself beginning to dance just a little bit, and maybe even flutter along like the flowers of the poem. And suddenly the clouds of loneliness may just seem a whole season away.

Observing how the poem scans will also help; even the trochee that begins the last line of each stanza conveys meaning. A trochee of course is a stress / stress in the foot. An iamb is unstressed / stressed, and much of the best poetry in English uses this meter. You know the sort of thing: “Shall I com pare thee to a sum mer’s day?” And these lines too: “I wan dered lone ly as a cloud.”

Wordsworth however alters the expected meter in the last lines of most of the stanzas. These trochees (two stressed syllables in a row) force us to toss our heads one extra beat and bounce all the more—not a bad imitation of daffodils in the breeze, those lovely harbingers of spring: “Toss ing their heads in spright ly dance.” Again, Wordsworth’s craftsmanship conveys meaning and lends beauty, even as it takes over all our senses, for this is a poem we might easily see and smell, hear and feel.

But Wordsworth disrupts even his own disruption of the meter in the very last line of the poem: “And dan ces with the daff o dils,” restoring both the expected iambic and the harmony of the poem, now made complete as the narrator comforts himself with the memory of idyllic and inspiring nature. This is an intricately crafty move.

The rhyme scheme too shows both mastery and meaning. As noted above, the first stanza rhymes ABABCC. The rest of the poem seems to follow suit until, significantly, the final stanza. The rhyme scheme of the poem looks like this:

  1. ABABCC
  2. DEDEFF
  3. EGEGHH
  4. IJIJBB

Significantly, Wordsworth unifies this sweet small poem in two ways. First, he weaves middle of the poem tightly together by repeating the long a sounds from stanza two in stanza three. He does so on different lines (lines two and four in stanza two, lines one and three in stanza three). This weaving does much to hold the two middles stanzas together.

He then ties the whole poem together by borrowing in the last stanza a rhyme from the first one and even includes the key word “daffodils” in doing so.  And so the rhyme “vales and hills. . .daffodils” in stanza one repeats (and does so more cheerfully) with “pleasure fills. . .daffodills” in stanza four. Notice that the poet has taken away the potentially dire sense of terrain (hills and vales), and has replaced it with words (and a heart) full of pleasure. Surely no accident, this has the effect of taking a song with a minor key in the first verse and resolving it into a major key (with all its comfort) in the last.

This repetition of rhyme not only resolves the mood of the poem, but also conveys what I take to be Wordsworth’s main point (and a sentiment shared by many Romantics): that Nature offers us much that can comfort us in our coldest hours. This is the point I tried to make by quoting Wordsworth in my last blog—that the memory of winter comforts me even in the seemingly perpetual summer I slog through.

Here, the repetition of the rhyme “daffodils” explicitly points out Wordsworth’s key concept, that recalling the fluttering golden flowers can cheer even his most vacant or pensive moods, can fill his solitude with bliss until his heart begins to dance. And frankly, this exchange that Wordsworth describes offers to me one of the most compelling attractions of poetry.

This contrast of pensive loneliness with these cheerful, butter-colored flowers, reminds me of nothing so much as Lent. I always find it so ironic that Christianity chooses this of all seasons to celebrate penitence, self-denial, and even mortification. The very word in its English roots suggests the paradox, for “Lent” comes from the same root as “lengthen.” It strikes me that many of us would use this season of blossoming and longer light as a sort of momento mori, a moment to remember death. But Lent ends in Easter, death is swallowed up in the victory of resurrection, and loneliness and vacant pensiveness give up to daffodils, even if only the remembered ones.

There’s so much more here, but I’ll leave off and look forward to the musing that will come. And I’ll call to mind the daffodils even as the spring begins to arise around me here.

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3 thoughts on ““Such a Jocund Company”: Scanning Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”

  1. Alexander J. Wei says:

    Speaking of Tolkien: he has an interesting take on Wordsworth’s idea, in The Return of the King, in Book VI, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”. Sam has to throw away his pots and he asks Frodo if he remembers the rabbits he cooked. Frodo says, “No, I am afraid not, Sam. At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”: So Frodo, who is a poet, elf-friend and lover of poetry and nature, is brought by Sauron, the Ring and his treatment by Orcs, to the place where he cannot, like Wordsworth, recall the “jocund company” of “daffadowndillys”. A truly frightening thought!

  2. Anne-Sohie says:

    Just came across this & I thought I’d let you know about a small error; a trochee is actually a stressed / unstressed foot. The stress: stress is called a spondee.
    Thus “Tossing their heads” scans / – – / (trochee, iamb) which is why it feels so much like dancing because of the rise & fall pattern.

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