As anniversary nears, do Daffodils fans wander lonely these days?
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth – and a host of events are planned to mark it, including talks, poetry readings, and even a family reunion when descendants of the poet will gather at Rydal Mount. Wordsworth was born on 7 April, 1770 in Cockermouth. His homes included Dove Cottage and Allan Bank before he moved to Rydal Mount, near Ambleside, with his wife Mary and sister Dorothy. He died there in April 1850.
At Dove Cottage in Grasmere the £6.2 million Reimagining Wordsworth project aims to create new ways of telling the story of Wordsworth’s life and poetry. The Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage is being expanded and modernised, and Dove Cottage is being developed to provide a more authentic and atmospheric experience for visitors. Both will be rebranded as Wordsworth Grasmere at their reopening in April.
Meanwhile Wordsworth Road in Hackney, east London has been planted with a host of golden daffodils to celebrate the poet’s most famous – and arguably, most derided poem.
‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’, described by the Wordsworth Trust as “the most famous poem in the English language”, was written in 1804, two years after Wordsworth witnessed the daffodils while walking along the lake shore of Ullswater on a stormy day with Dorothy. He was inspired to write the poem after reading Dorothy’s account in her journal. In her entry for 15 April 1802, she describes how the daffodils “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake”.
The poem was the subject of a 1985 Heineken beer TV advertisement, which depicts a poet having difficulties with his opening lines, only able to come up with "I walked about a bit on my own" or "I strolled around without anyone else" until downing a Heineken and achieving "I wandered lonely as a cloud". In 2007, Cumbria Tourism released a rap version of the poem, featuring MC Nuts, a Lake District red squirrel, in an attempt to attract tourists to the Lake District. ‘Daffodils’ even feature in lists of so-called ‘banned’ words in poetry, as Frances Spurrier discussed in an article for Write Out Loud. But she added: “Daffodils? What’s wrong with a few clumps of lovely, cheery daffodils waving in the blooming breeze, just because old Wordsworth came along and spoiled it for the rest of us? I can’t quite bring myself to press the delete button on those myriad … er … harbingers of spring!”
One contemporary argument against ‘Daffodils’ is that Wordsworth’s appreciation of them is too simplistic nowadays. In these days of subtly advancing seasons, daffodils are sometimes out and then over before we have even noticed them. Our poetic response to them must be more complicated in these days of climate emergency and eco-poetry. Is there honey still for tea? Are the wild daffodils even still there at Ullswater? Apparently, they are.
On the other hand, ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’ by the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, tells of a man in an institution who has not spoken for years, but on hearing poetry is prompted to recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils poem word-perfect, having presumably learned it by rote at school.
My own view of Wordsworth’s Daffodils is influenced by the fact that my father cited the line about “that inward eye” as helping him mentally escape the horrors of existence as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, working on the notorious Death Railway. He remembered the poem from his schooldays, and used his own “inward eye” to transport himself home and with his family. That’s good enough for me.