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Inspiration and Dorothy Wordsworth's Diary Entry on Maundy Thursday

Written by: Julian Scutts

Is the Word ‘breeze’  in the  Poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge the Closest Poets in a Secular Age can come to Paying  Tribute to the Holy Spirit?

  THE PRELUDE (1805)

          OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
          That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
          And from the sky> it beats against my cheek    
          And seems  half-conscious of the joy it brings/
          O welcome Messenger! O welcome Friend!               
          A captive greets thee from a house
          Of bondage, from yon City’s walls set free
          A prison where he hath been inured
          Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
          May fix my habitation where I will.
          What dwelling shll receive me? In what Vale 
          Shall be my harbor? Underneath what grove
          Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
          Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
          The earth is all before me with a heart 
           Joyous, nor scar’d of its own liberty
          I look about, and should the guide I chuse
          Be no better than a wandering cloud
          I cannot miss the way. ..

The lines quoted above are those which introduce the The Prelude by William Wordsworth in its original version, which was completed in 1805 but never published during Wordsworth’s  lifetime. The version of 1850 displays a considerable amount of revision bordering on censorship. This we can ascertain from a comparison of the opening lines of The Prelude as it appears in 1805 and 1850. In the latter version there is no mention of a ‘wandering cloud’ that will guide the poet on his journey. Without this clear reference to the biblical pillar of cloud in the Bible, one might pass over the prior reference to a ‘house of bondage’ as a one-off allusion to Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. The reference to a ‘wandering cloud’ clearly points the reader to  the metaphorical significance of the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Did Wordsworth in his later years seek to hide his tracks and obscure his dependence on an external influence much in line with a well-known theory promulgated by Harold Bloom? If so, Wordsworth may have consoled himself with the thought that his most celebrated poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ shows no obvious trace of having a biblical or mythical basis. Even so, one noted literary scholar casts doubt on this supposition.

     In his article "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,"  [1] Frederick Pottle posits that the very mention of the word ‘daffodil’ poses a cultural memory of the myth of Narcissus which tells the story of a youth who, while  entranced  by his reflection in a stream,  turned into the flower that bears his name as a punishment for his obsessive vanity. Pottle also relates the poem to a record in the diary of Dorothy, the poet’s sister, dated April 15th 1802, which fell on Maunday Thursday (the day before Good Friday). This coincidence could have jogged another cultural memory associated with ‘the Lent lily. He noted significant deviations of the poem’s narrative from that of the entry in Dorothy’s diary. One of these, of course, is evident from the fact that Wordsworth was not alone when he and his sister were surprised and delighted by the sight of a great number of daffodils that lined the shores of Lake Ullswater.  Dorothy, in keeping with the inclement weather on that day, referred to a blustery ‘wind’ that animated the daffodils, endowed in her account, as in the poem, by the ability to express joy. Pottle ponders over Wordsworth’s replacement of ‘wind’ by ‘breeze,’ conceding that the latter term better expressed the elevated and joyous tone of his poem. Was this the only reason ?

     We return to The Prelude of 1805. In the widely accepted view of M. H. Abrams, the introductory words of The Prelude was informed by the ancient tradition of dedicating a long epic work to the Muses or other divine source of inspiration.[1] To be more specific, the introduction of The Prelude recalled the opening lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost that include a reference to the Holy Muse, a conflation of Greek-classical and biblical attributions of inspired utterances to a higher power, which was,  in Milton’s mind, the Holy Spirit. The biblical account of the giving of the Ten Commandments marked the outset of the wandering journey of the Israelites towards the Promised Land, which supplied the metaphor underlying what Keats referred to as the ‘uncertain path’ that lay before him at the outset of writing a long epic poem. Some literary scholars have noted the recurrence of verbal patterns that are to be uncovered by a systematic study of an author’s entire body of works. The article « The Image of the ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry » [1]furnishes a prime example of this critical approach. We note the triad of ‘breeze,’ ‘cloud’ and verbal derivatives of the verb to ‘wander’ both in The Prelude and ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ If we put two and two together, relating the myth of Narcissus and the Christian associations of ‘wandering’ with the themes of the Exodus, Passover and the Holy Spirit,’ a certain internal logic working within the poem comes to light. The ‘breeze’ animates and vitalizes the daffodils, mythical symbols of stasis and narcissistic death, and makes them ‘dance’ in the process, ‘dancing’ having negative as well as positive associations.  The lurking danger of mental atrophy, ever-present in the minds of Romantic poets fearful that their spontaneity and originality might dry up for want of old assurances concerning inspiration,  is intimated in « I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ if only barely. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, this dread comes to the fore in the image of the becalmed ship, the scene of death and abandonment.

     At the moment when the Mariner sees beautiful sea-serpents by the light of the moon, a symbol of the benign influence of the Virgin Mary, a breeze suddenly brings salvation and releases the ship from its becalmed condition. Like the daffodils in Wordsworth’s celebrated poem, the serpents possess two redeeming qualities, beauty and motion ;  the interaction between the two  rescues  mind and soul either from self-dissipating frenzy or from captivity within the isolated self. Some readers might see evidence here of Willoughby’s assertion that ‘the wanderer’ represents the libido in the quest for the anima. Others might conclude that ‘the collective unconscious’  is the modern critic’s substitute for what  in earlier times poets freely called ‘the Muse’ or ‘the Holy Spirit.’

 Entries in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal 15 April and 16 April (Good Friday) 1802

Thursday, 15th.—It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs. Clarkson went a short way with us but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large boathouse,[Pg 106] then under a furze bush opposite Mr. Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath. The lake was rough. There was a boat by itself floating in the middle of the bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish, but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working. A few primroses by the roadside—woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry, yellow flower which Mrs. C. calls pile wort. 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. At Dobson's I was very kindly treated by a young woman. The landlady looked sour, but it is her way... William was sitting by a good fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the library, piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a[Pg 107] volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed.

Friday, 16th April (Good Friday).—When I undrew curtains in the morning, I was much affected by the beauty of the prospect, and the change. The sun shone, the wind had passed away, the hills looked cheerful, the river was very bright as it flowed into the lake. The church rises up behind a little knot of rocks, the steeple not so high as an ordinary three-story house. Trees in a row in the garden under the wall. The valley is at first broken by little woody knolls that make retiring places, fairy valleys in the vale, the river winds along under these hills, traveling, not in a bustle but not slowly, to the lake. We saw a fisherman in the flat meadow on the other side of the water. He came towards us and threw his line over the two-arched bridge. It is a bridge of a heavy construction, almost bending inwards in the middle, but it is grey, and there is a look of ancientry in the architecture of it that pleased me. As we go on the vale opens out more into one vale, with somewhat of a cradle bed. Cottages, with groups of trees, on the side of the hills. We passed a pair of twin children, two years old. Sate on the next bridge which we crossed—a single arch. We rested again upon the turf, and looked at the same bridge. We observed arches in the water, occasioned by the large stones sending it down in two streams. A sheep came plunging through the river, stumbled up the bank, and passed close to us. It had been frightened by an insignificant little dog on the other side. Its fleece dropped a glittering shower under its belly. Primroses by the road-side, pile wort that shone like stars of gold in the sun, violets, strawberries, retired and half-buried among the grass. When we came to the foot of Brothers Water, I left William sitting on the bridge,[Pg 108] and went along the path on the right side of the lake through the wood. I was delighted with what I saw. The water under theboughs of the bare old trees, the simplicity of the mountains, and the exquisite beauty of the path. There was one grey cottage. I repeated The Glow-worm, as I walked along. I hung over the gate and thought I could have stayed forever. When I returned, I found William writing a poem descriptive of the sights and sounds we saw and heard.56a There was the gentle flowing of the stream, the glittering, lively lake, green fields without a living creature to be seen on them; behind us, a flat pasture with forty-two cattle feeding; to our left, the road leading to the hamlet. No smoke there, the sun shone on the bare roofs. The people were at work ploughing, harrowing, and sowing; ... a dog barking now and then, cocks crowing, birds twittering, the snow in patches at the top of the highest hills, yellow palms, purple and green twigs on the birches, ashes with their glittering stems quite bare. The hawthorn a bright green, with black stems under the oak. The moss of the oak glossy. We went on. Passed two sisters at work (they first passed us), one with two pitchforks in her hand, the other had a spade. We had come to talk with them. They laughed long after we were gone, perhaps half in wantonness, half boldness. William finished his poem.56 Before we got to the foot of Kirkstone, there were hundreds of cattle in the vale. There we ate our dinner. The walk up Kirkstone was very interesting. The becks among the rocks were all alive. William showed me the little mossy streamlet which he had before loved when he saw its bright green track in the snow. The view above Ambleside very beautiful. There we sate and looked down on the green vale. We watched the crows at a little distance from us become white as silver as they flew in the sunshine, and when they went still further,[Pg 109] they looked like shapes of water passing over the green fields. The whitening of Ambleside church is a great deduction from the beauty of it, seen from this point. We called at the Luffs, the Roddingtons there. Did not go in, and went round by the fields. I pulled off my stockings, intending to wade the beck, but I was obliged to put them on, and we climbed over the wall at the bridge. The post passed us. No letters. Rydale Lake was in its own evening brightness: the Island, and Points distinct. Jane Ashburner came up to us when we were sitting upon the wall.... The garden looked pretty in the half-moonlight, half-daylight, as we went up the vale..



"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" – The Myth of Narcissus and Milton’s Muse


  1. "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" Viewed in the Light of J. Tynjanov's Discussion of "The Word in Verse"

One difference between a gardener’s comments on daffodils over the neighbour’s fence and Wordsworth's description of these flowers in "I wandered lonely as a cloud" resides in the fact that the poem is part of a literary tradition and therefore invites comparison with other poems addressed to the same theme. Frederick A. Pottle considers this poem in the light of tradition in an article entitled "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth." [1]  He notes with reference to "I wandered lonely as a cloud":

Ever since 1807, when Wordsworth published this poem, daffodils have danced and laughed, but there is nothing inevitable about it. The Greek myth of Narcissus is not exactly hilarious; and even Herrick, when he looked at daffodils saw something far from jocund.

Even after 1807 a reference to daffodils in poetry may still retain an element of solemnity admixed with religious mysticism, as the final strophe of A. E. Housman's "The Lent Lily" makes clear:





Bring baskets now, and sally

 Upon the spring's array,

And bear from hill and valley

The daffodil away

           That dies on Easter day.


     The daffodils described in "I wandered lonely as a cloud," whatever their mythical and traditional associations, recall a real event in Wordsworth's life and personal experience. Pottle ponders whether a recognition of this fact can contribute to an evaluation of Wordsworth's poem, thus broaching one of the most contentious issues in literary criticism: What is the relationship between poetry and "external" factors in the domains of a poet's biography and historical setting? Wishing to clarify the nature of this relationship, Pottle cites the entry in Dorothy's journal telling of the occasion when she and her brother suddenly came across the daffodils the abiding impression of which is captured in "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Pottle attaches great importance to divergences between the description of the daffodils recorded in the journal and Wordsworth's poetic vision of the flowers, for these, according to Pottle, enable a critic to ascertain the scope of the imagination’s particular sphere of operation in treating material drawn from sense data and experienced events.

     Pottle notes two highly significant divergences between Dorothy's and her brother's descriptions of daffodils in "I wandered lonely as a cloud." First, the poem conveys the point of view of a solitary speaker beside a lake. The discrepancy between the descriptions of daffodils in poem and journal entails a polarity between the "solitariness" of the speaker and the "sociability" imputed to the crowd of daffodils, endowed as they are, both in poem and journal, with the human attributes of joy and the ability to laugh and dance. A further discrepancy between poem and journal concerns implications of word choice. While in Dorothy's account there is a reference to a "wind" that animated the scene she described, the poem assigns vital power to a "breeze." Dorothy's journal leaves no doubt that the April day on which she and her brother were impressed by the sight of daffodils was overcast and far from springlike in any positive sense.

     Despite certain misgivings about Wordsworth's choice of the word "breeze," Pottle concedes that the mildness it implies is fully consistent with the positive, indeed triumphant, mood engendered by the poem. According to Pottle the "simple" joy evinced by the daffodils reveals the workings of the imagination as it transmutes raw experience and the emotions it arouses into one "simple emotion." Adducing evidence from "The Leech Gatherer" and other poems, Pottle argues that Wordsworth's imagery rarely incorporates an exact record of particular memories. Indeed, he calls into question whether the poem owes any intrinsic quality to the memory of an actual incident. For him the poem is essentially the product of the simplifying and unifying operation of the imagination, and as such poses "a very simple poem."

     Is “I wandered lonely as a cloud“ as simple as Pottle suggests? I find grounds for the view that the poem is far from simple in any unqualified sense. For reasons I shall now adduce, one may trace a certain ambiguity in the "simple" joy attributed to the daffodil encountered by the speaker during his walk beside a lake.

     Pottle himself establishes that the poem contains a juxtaposition of contrasting elements in noting the polarity of "solitariness" and "sociability." With reference to a similarity in the appearance of the daffodils and the nebulous aspect of the Milky Way, Pottle intimates a further contrast or polarity associating the earthbound and the celestial or, on the temporal plane, day and night. Our sense of the poem's complexity may be much enhanced if we reflect on the effects produced by the set of contrasts that inform the poem. Let us consider these interlocking contrasts in greater detail. An antithetic relationship between the earthbound wanderer and the cloud to which he compares his motion poses the first intimation of the opposition between the earthly and celestial.

     The cloud establishes a reference to things of nebulous appearance, and hence a classification that subsequently embraces the visual effects of the daffodils, specks of light reflected by the lake, and the Milky Way. The strophe containing the reference to the Milky Way poses a later addition to the poem's original three strophes. However, this addition reinforces a contrast implicit in the poem as it originally stood, a contrast rooted in the distinction between two modes of consciousness, that of the mind exposed to the intrusion of sensations from the external world and that of the mind creating its own images in dreams and dreamlike conditions. In other words, we are dealing here with modes of interaction between the conscious and unconscious. The wanderer experiences two visions of daffodils, those seen in a natural environment, and those perceived by his mind in "pensive mood."

     Only the daffodils independently created in the poet's mind should fully express "pure joy" according to the logic of Pottle's arguments, as only they have undergone the full process of ingestion effected by the simplifying and unifying power of the imagination. If this is not the case, why should the speaker distinguish between the vision of daffodils perceived by the inward eye and the daffodils which the speaker saw when out walking? A number of Wordsworth's works contain lines implying that immediate visual perceptions entail a sense of discomfort at a time before the mind is able to assimilate new sense impressions. Even in "I wandered lonely as a cloud" Wordsworth's choice of words suggests that the speaker suffers the intrusion of an invincible, albeit joyful, invasion appearing as a "host" in the (military) formation of ten thousand. While an element of threat is at most implied in "I wandered lonely as a cloud," the military connotation of "host" in biblical English is fully explicit in the opening of another of Wordsworth's poems, "To the Clouds":


Army of Clouds! Ye winged Host in troops.


     Frederick Pottle's discussion of "I wandered lonely as a cloud" reveals a high degree of sensitivity to the implication of particular words found in the poem, notably "breeze," "dance" and "daffodil" with the latter’s power of evoking the myth of Narcissus. It is in some ways odd that Pottle makes no reference to the verb "wandered" despite its strategic position in the first line of the poem. We noted earlier the near invisibility of verbs in comparison to substantives. A linguist might explain this phenomenon as the result of the verb's diffuse influence on the stream of discourse. Be that as it may, in the process of considering the occurrence of "wandered" in the light of its position, meaning and structural function, I now hope to complement and amplify Pottle's arguments and insights respecting "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Taking a leaf from Dante's four-level approach to interpreting a text and setting the word "wandered"  at the centre of the four contextual planes proposed  above, let us consider the word at four levels of significance, namely


  • First, what does "wandered" mean in the light of its immediately recognisable context?
  • Second, how does the word function as an element in the poem viewed as an aesthetic construct?
  • Third, what is the word's significance as an index of Wordsworth's development both as a private individual and a poet?
  • Fourth, how does the word relate to poetic tradition and the "allegorical" aspect of the poem?


     In the following four sections (i-iv), these questions will be addressed in the order given above.


(i)-Romantic poets occasionally chose the verb to wander in statements which made disparaging reference to the works of their contemporaries, though they themselves accorded the word high significance in their own works. In Don Juan there is a reference to Juan as a youth who "wandered by glassy brooks, / Thinking unutterable things." These words, found in the 19th stanza of the first Canto, are followed in the next stanza by a reference to Wordsworth:


He, Juan (and not Wordsworth), so pursued

His self-communion with his own high soul.


     I can imagine that Byron, when writing these lines, had "I wandered lonely as a cloud" in mind, as they point to two essential aspects of "wandering" in that poem: namely physical movement and the heightened state of consciousness that attends such movement. Some proponents of literary theory see poetry as the product of a purely mental process, which leads them to deny with the zeal of the ancient Gnostics any living and reciprocal ties between poetry and physical, historical or biographical reality, but if we ignore or belittle the physical nature of the motion referred to in the poem, we will make little sense of the essential contrast that lies at the heart of the poem, namely that which emerges when we compare the effects of physical perception with the power of the mind to produce its own images autonomously.

     For all his mockery of Wordsworth "wandering," Byron's use of the verb to wander betrays his concern with the same fundamental relationship between the inner world of thought and imagination and the outer world that intrudes into a traveller's consciousness through the channel of sensory perception. As the poetry of both Byron and Wordsworth shows, the experience of unexpected sights or other sensations could induce feelings of vulnerability, which in turn prompted the quest for a countervailing influence, some process of the mind capable of ingesting elements of extraneous origin. The experience of physical motion and travel, as we know, will always tend to enhance a person's awareness of the exterior environment. This normal enhancement was heightened further in the Romantic period. As M. M. Bakhtin has pointed out, the poetry of Byron was subject to the process of "novelization." [1] The novel is that genre which in its nature thwarts any attempt to impose a hierarchical structure upon it, even when influencing that most traditional of genres, poetry. The typical proclivity of Wordsworth and Byron to grasp some apparently unimportant object or incident and invest this with universal significance finds a precedent in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire and Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, in both cases the author’s final work. It would seem from this that we are dealing here with a general literary rather than a purely poetical phenomenon in Romantic verse and its immediate precursor, the literature of sensibility.


(ii)- We may understand "wandering" in terms of structure and principles of organization that govern the development of the poem. Set at the beginning of the poem, the words "I wandered" function as a leitmotif introducing both the poem's theme, i.e. subject matter, and the "wandering" process that emerges from a study of the poem's aesthetic achievements as revealed in its images in their immediate verbal environment. In the German poetry of the same period this leitmotif is announced officially in the titles of celebrated poems. One of these lends itself to comparison with "I wandered lonely as a cloud" with particular regard to the implications of the initial position of words referring to "wandering": Wilhelm Müller's poem "Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust" ("Wandering is the Miller’s Joy") - a poem that will be considered in due course. According to its immediately comprehensible meaning, “Wandern” refers to the act of roaming in a rural setting, just as "wandered" does in Wordsworth's poem. However, from the first line on, it gains ever wider references and associations with movements in objects and natural phenomena exemplified by the turning of millstones and the flowing stream that causes their turning, with the final effect that "wandering" emerges as the vital principle in all nature. This widening of associations is reinforced by a repetition of “Wandern” (formally justified by the use of a refrain).

     In "I wandered lonely as a cloud” the verb to wander also accumulates ever greater meaning, but not as a result of any verbal repetition. Its widening of meaning is produced by the poet's use of similes with all their effects and structural repercussions. In the first simile (located in the words "as a cloud"), the speaker likens himself to a cloud, as he and this object are both solitary and in motion. We may infer from this comparison that just as the cloud is moved by a "breeze," some correspondent breeze impels the speaker's wandering. This breeze then assumes the aspect of a universal dynamic principle of the mind and poetic imagination. Hence the parallel between the daffodils "fluttering in the breeze" and the daffodils created in the poet's heart, which "dances with the daffodils."

     The second simile in the poem compares the appearance of the daffodils encountered by the speaker to the stars of the Milky Way. How - in view of the fact that the stanza containing this simile was added to the original poem of three stanzas - can this poem pose an integral element of the entire poem? The objection I anticipate is surmountable if the simile can be shown to enhance and develop motifs and characteristics of the poem in its original form. The reference to the Milky Way adds strength to the motif established by words evoking the image of something nebulous: (cf. "cloud," "host" and dancing "waves"). The reference to the stars of night points to a duality, already implicit in the original poem, that inheres in the contrast of daylight vision and the images produced by the mind at times of repose. Though the speaker does not sleep when experiencing the vision of daffodils that flash before his inner mind, his state of consciousness resembles that of the dreamer. The motif of the "night-wanderer" can be found in both English and German poetic traditions. We recall the words of Puck in A Midsummer-Night's Dream. "I am that merry wanderer of the night."

     Let us now return to Frederick Pottle's assertion that "I wandered lonely" is "a very simple poem." It may appear to be very simple. The similes it contains apparently conform to the typical use of language in non-literary usage, yet, at a deeper level they imply contrasts and antitheses rooted in the unconscious and the imagination. Similarly, the reference to "a poet" in the third strophe might be taken as a commonly encountered expression like, "If only an artist could paint this landscape." At a deeper level, however, it points to Wordsworth's fundamental concern with the operation and nature of the poet's imagination.


(iii)- From the following lines in The Borderers (1795) it is apparent that the associations of the verb to wander were not always positive and evocative of joy:


 No prayers, no tears, but hear my doom in silence

I will go forth a wanderer on the earth,

A shadowy thing, and as I wander on

No human ear shall ever hear my voice


     As contradictory as the verb's associations with death and joy in the exercise of the imagination may seem, its range of significance embraces these antipodes in the works of William Shakespeare and those of other authors for reasons discussed earlier in reflections based on the common etymology of the verbs to wander and wandern. In Wordsworth's case the positive or negative valorization of the verb to wander corresponds to the general state of mind in which he found himself at different stages of his life and artistic development.

     At the time of his writing The Borderers, he was still experiencing a dark night of the soul precipitated by his disillusionment with the course of the French Revolution. At that time he was subject to the influence of Friederich Schiller's Die Räuber ("The Bandits"), a drama that portrays a world torn apart by the titanic fury of those exercising the wrong kind of freedom. The play reflects the spirit of Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress"), through which both Goethe and Schiller passed in the early phase of literary development. In Goethe's highly influential novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers ("The Sorrows of Young Werther") Werther's reference to himself as a "Wanderer" ominously points forward to his social isolation and ultimate death.

     "I wandered lonely as a cloud" marks the apogee of Wordsworth's poetic achievement. At the time of its composition Wordsworth had overcome the weaknesses of his early works and the lugubrious mentality that they evince. In the same period we find no anticipation of the diminution in poetic powers and final atrophy of the imagination that later overcame Wordsworth. "I wandered lonely as a cloud" marks the attainment of a balance and harmony of mind wrested from the tension between daytime awareness and the influences of subconscious proclivities. The attainment of this harmony involves the ingestion of images originating in the involuntary reception of what is perceived by the senses. The equilibrium we perceive in poem was preceded by - perhaps predicated on - a period when Wordsworth became familiar with contemporary German literature and philosophy as this was mediated to him by T. S. Coleridge. According to Jonathan Wordsworth, the poet was deeply impressed by a translation of Goethe's poetic dialogue entitled Der Wandrer, which he read no later than 1798 [2]. Professor L. A. Willoughby notes in his article "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry" that Der Wandrer (1771-1772), established Goethe’s ability to objectify the figure of the “Wanderer” within the frame of a dramatic dialogue  without suppressing every trace of the author’s  individual personality.[3]


(iv)- It has been noted earlier in this discussion that Frederick Pottle contrasts the elegiac undertones of Herrick's description of daffodils with the triumphant and joyful emotions evoked by Wordsworth's description of these flowers. Daffodils recall a tradition that includes the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology. We have also seen that Housman intertwines the Greek classical myth with Christian folklore in his image of the daffodil that dies on Easter Day (in common usage daffodils are called "Osterglocken" ("Easter Bells") in countries where German is spoken). I will argue in this section that the very use of the verb to wander likewise implies and reflects a confluence of biblical and classical traditions. I also hope to establish that the word is “coloured” - to use a term that is much favoured by the Russian Formalist linguist and critic J. Tynjanov [4] - by a contemporary influence stemming from Goethe and a diachronically mediated influence stemming from Milton, that poet who consciously merged classical and biblical or Hebraic elements in his epic poetry. A close analysis of certain passages in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained shows that the verb to wander is contextually associated to both the classical motif of the "wandering" Muse and to the biblical motif of the wanderings of Israel described in the book of Exodus and the cognate period of Christ's wandering in the Judean wilderness, events commemorated by the festivals of Passover and Lent. This nexus of associations is implicit in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, in which the collocation of the words "Muse" and "Horeb" (Sinai) knit together references to the Muse, the Holy Spirit and the immediate sequel of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt (commemorated by the Jewish Festival of Pentecost).[5]  In Paradise Regained Milton mirrors the traditional view, upheld by Dante and inscribed in the Church calendar at Lent, that the wanderings of Israel allegorically represent the earthly life and ministry of Christ,[6] the forty days of temptation recalling the forty years of Israel's wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. In keeping with this tradition the title of Housman's "The Lent Lily” conflates the associated symbolism of Lent, Easter and daffodils). Alluding to a passage in Paradise Regained, Keats taps the same traditional sources when uniting the theme of vernal renewal and that of a pilgrimage leading through a wilderness:


            And now at once, adventuresome, I send

 My herald thought into a wilderness -

 There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress

 My uncertain path with glee.           Endymion 1, 58-61


    Here is an echo of Milton's line "And Eden raised m the wilderness" in Paradise Regained 1, 7. The association of vernal renewal and pilgrimage occurs a little later in Endymion in an allusion to the evocation of spring in ‘The Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales.

     We now consider a further instance of Milton's influence on a work by a Romantic poet, and one that is directly relevant to a discussion of "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Again we consider a poetic evocation of spring combined with an allusion to the story of the flight of the Israelites from Egypt. The opening lines of the first book of Wordsworth's The Prelude refer to a flight from "a house of bondage" and a "wandering cloud" that should guide the poet on his future journey. Here we discover obvious allusions to the flight from Egypt in the Bible and the pillar of cloud guiding the Israelites by day.

      To understand the deep significance of "the gentle breeze," at the beginning of The Prelude we should consider these words in the light of Milton's dedication to the Holy Muse that inspired Moses at Mount Horeb (we note the intertwining of both biblical and classical strands) at an analogous position in Paradise Lost. The verbal triad that consists of "breeze," "wandering" and "cloud" finds a parallel in the words "wandered," "breeze" and "cloud" in "I wandered lonely as a cloud." We often note in criticism that verbal patterns recur and suggest underlying modes of thought influenced by the operations of the unconscious. Here we may recall that Wordsworth composed "I wandered lonely as a cloud" during a period of active preparation for The Prelude of 1805.

      While The Prelude contains a specific reference to passages in Milton's works, "I wandered lonely as a cloud" contains no literary allusions at all. Here, the very order of words in the poem implies antitheses that accord with a mythical-religious frame of comprehension. To make this assumption is to be no bolder than Frederick Pottle was when he discusses the myth of Narcissus in connection with Wordsworth's description of daffodils in "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Indeed, in their profound implications “the daffodil” in Housman's "Lent Lily" and the daffodil in folklore share an affinity with the implications of to wander in poetic tradition, for the flower and the verb pose the meeting-point of classical and Biblical traditions. The event which prompted the writing of "I wandered lonely as a cloud" occurred on the eve of Good Friday (Good Friday fell on 16th April, 1802), yet a further reason to suppose that the sight of daffodils described in the poem was bound up with the thought of Easter in Wordsworth's mind.

     If we were to follow Housman's lead and place an ostensibly religious construction on the daffodils in "I wandered lonely," I think we should emphasize their triumphant, perhaps "Pentecostal," aspect in view of the all-pervasive influence of the “breeze” and the almost flame-like appearance of the flowers. This is not to say that we should place the poem in the tradition of religious mystical poetry, for, as this discussion of "wandering" has indicated, words mark an intersection of traditional and contemporary influences. In the case of "I wandered lonely as a cloud" the traditional influence is predominantly Milton’s, the contemporary, Goethe’s. Subject to this dual influence Wordsworth combined traditional religious insight with the then modern insights of psychological and aesthetic philosophy. The recall of a pilgrimage is explicit in The Prelude and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, while it is but suggested by the ordering of simple sounding words in "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

     The poem might also be understood as a quest to overcome the rift between the worlds of inner and outward reality announced in the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, and its traumatic after-effect so palpably reflected in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is noteworthy that the word "breeze" signifies the vital powers of the imagination in both "I wandered lonely" and Coleridge’s ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, however different these poems are in theme. In Coleridge's narrative a "breeze" fills the sails of the mariner's doomed ship only when he perceives sea serpents moving by the light of the moon. Like Wordsworth's dancing daffodils the serpents combine beauty and motion, both of which attributes were seen as virtuous in their own right by the poets of the age. In fact, these virtues exercise a mutual benefit. Beauty alone might, as the legend of Narcissus suggests, bring entrapment and a deathlike stasis. Motion without some corrective might lead to frenzy and self-dissipation. It is "the breeze" which makes the daffodils in Wordsworth's celebrated poem "dance." In poetic tradition "dancing" is not always positive in connotation. We need only think of the Dance of Death. However, in Wordsworth’s poem "dancing” motion counteracts the stasis implied by the daffodil's mythical import. This image implies therefore a balance of beauty and motion.

     While it is evident that Romantic poems lie outside the category of formal religious poetry, I find no reason to accept view that they possess no religious message. Here it is relevant to consider the basic implication of poetic "wandering” as a quest to reconcile apparently irreconcilable opposites and antitheses, a quest based on the assumption that at a higher level than that at which such opposites appear irreconcilable, harmony and reconciliation can be achieved.

      "Wandering" defies the strict separation of internal truth and external reality. "The way" described in poems about wandering, is part of the life of individual experience. How  can one come to any different conclusion when one considers "wandering," which subsumes the effects created by the verbs to wander and wandern in their various textual settings, in works by Milton, Goethe and Wordsworth?  From the poetry of Keats we learn that "truth" and "life" are indivisible in "beauty."


[1] M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin Tx., 1981).

[2] Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity, (New York and Evanston, 1969).


[3] L. A. Willoughby, "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry," Etudes Germaniques, 1951, 3, Autumn 1951.

[4] Jurij Tynjanov, "The Meaning of the Word in Verse," translated into English by M. E. Suino, Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. Ladislav Matejka & Krystina Pomorska, (Ann Arbor, 1978).  


[5] The Festival of Weeks (Hebr.: Shavuot) or Pentecost marks the end of the counting of omer (cuttings of harvest crops in the spring harvest), and became linked by tradition with the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Philo of Alexandria closely associated this event with a manifestation of divine inspiration symbolized by the finger of fire that inscribed the tablets of the Law. The Christian sequel to Pentecost reflects the Christian belief that the Holy Spirit supersedes the literal stipulations of the Law.                                                                                                


[6] Both in Il Convivio (The Banquet) and the Letter to Can Grande della Scala, Dante referred to the "allegorical" level of the story of the biblical exodus at which Dante discerned a prophecy concerning Christ's life and work of redemption.