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Of Daffodils, Clouds and Breezes: "Wanderer" in Poems

by Julian Scutts

The German word ‘Wanderer’ appears in the titles of celebrated poems written by Goethe, Hoelderlin, Friedrich Schlegel, and other poets in the Romantic school. Goethe initiated the trend towards promoting this word to a place of high prominence in his Rede zum Shakespeares Tag (1771), a manifesto in which he named Shakespeare ‘the greatest of Wanderers’ and announced his own emancipation from outmoded literary conventions. In sympathy with this development in Germany, the verb to ‘wander’ came to the fore in English though less conspicuously, neither appearing in bold titles nor with noticeable frequency within the body of poetic works, at least as a noun. In fact, the figure of ‘the Wanderer’ in Wordsworth’s The Excursion owes its origin to Goethe whose poem Der Wanderer was translated into English by William Taylor of Norwich. In the title of the translation and in subsequent marginal references the English word “Wanderer” replaces “Der Wanderer,’ which poses an oddity from a translator’s point of view as in the normal way these words are not typically semantic equivalents. However, Longfellow followed suit when translating the title of ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’ by ‘Wanderer’s Night songs.’ At least in poetry, the words do not appear to be  'false friends' after all but true equivalents, being rooted in shared allegorical and religious traditions (Cf. Cain, pilgrimage, the Muse). The German word ‘wandern’ is more assertive and precise than its English counterpart when it denotes acts of rambling and hiking for pleasure or migrating. To ‘wander’ sometimes suggests the involvement of much that is wishy-washy or unfocused. Indeed, Byron’s (and not only Byron’s) hostile reception Wordsworth’s poetic description of daffodils played on a negative construction on the nature of Wordsworth’s kind of ‘wandering.” For all that,  the verb to ‘wander’ found its way into the opening lines of two very famous and now highly esteemed poems, one beginning ‘I wandered love as a cloud’ and the other William Blake’s poem entitled ‘London’ in Songs of Experience. The poets exploited a dichotomy that inheres in the verb to ‘wander’ itself, whether it finds its place in the market place or the poet’s retreat. It may denote physical movement, albeit under the direction of a bewildered or elated state of mind, as in the case of “I wandered lonely as a cloud’  or the internal motions of the mind itself in dreams, mystical visions, or enraptured flights of fancy within the timeless realm of thought as in the case of Blake’s ‘London.’ Sometimes again it refers to deviations from the straight and narrow or from coherent and logical thought. Byron archly conflated both categories in lines in his Dedication to Don Juan ‘The regularity of my design / forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning.’ 

Whether or not a poem begins with ‘I wander’ or ‘I wandered,’’ the pronoun ‘I’ poses the first word in the poem with the verb to ‘wander’  occupying the second position though conjugated in different tenses. In poetry, where we consider not only the lexical meaning of words but also their position and their settings within the verbal organization of the poem to which they belong, the initial position of ‘I’  establishes and emphasizes the perspective of a solitary individual particularly with regard to his relationship with the exterior world and the role that visual perception plays in enabling this relationship, a question which has posed a challenging intellectual problem since Descartes formulated his cogito ergo sum postulation. The general reader is not likely to be dismayed by having to contemplate such weighty matters for the poem creates an impression recognized by many who have been surprised, even shocked, by the intrusion of a magnificent sight especially if the unwary and unsuspecting recipient of this experience had been in a dozy and dreamy state of mind. Wandering sets the precondition for exposure to encounters with whatever may be lurking around the next corner, not necessarily daffodils. In Julius Caesar  Shakespeare has the poet Cinna ’wander forth of doors’ under the influence of some transient urge only to meet the mob who will mistake him for Cinna the conspirator and lynch him.  Such may be the fate of unwary poets and we should not forget that another  wanderer  was knocked sideways by the vision of a host (an army) of daffodils, and the wanderer in question  is also a poet, though the fact is barely hinted at in the lines ‘ A poet could not be but gay / in such a jocund company.’

The fact that the speaker ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ implies a reference to a completed event, opens the age-old question as to whether a poet is telling the truth. Since the time of Plato, poets have labored under the suspicion of being liars or at least unreliable purveyors of factual truth. Indeed Wordsworth was not alone when he saw those daffodils but in the company of his sister Dorothy, whose journal served him well as a source for his poem and even supplied him with the idea of endowing daffodils with human characteristics, for she wrote:

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

 Dorothy also remarked that the weather, including the wind conditions, was far from clement on that Eastertide day. One might well question why the ‘wind’ in Dorothy’s journal is replaced by ‘breeze’ in Wordsworth’s verses. Surely this substitution is compatible with the mood generated by a scene where all else evinces signs of joy and harmony. Then there is another, a more far-reaching, question. Why did Wordsworth expunge any reference to his dear sister from his account? Most probably because she would have got in the way and her presence would have militated against the motif of solitariness so integral to the structure of the poem. Wordsworth could not entirely expunge his sister’s presence as her description of dancing daffodils is an integral part of the poem’s fabric.[1]

Consider now the daffodils themselves. At this juncture, I focus on a scholarly article penned  by Frederick A. Pottle  with the title "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth." [2]  He argues with reference to "I wandered lonely as a cloud"  that collectively the daffodils pose a welcome contrast to the speaker’s loneliness on the basis of what he terms their ‘sociability’ once Wordsworth (thanks to Dorothy) has endowed the flowers with human characteristics.  On the other hand, he finds an incongruous element    in the daffodils' seemingly unrestrained and boundless hilarity that one might uncharitably take for hysteria, for in his view this hilarity is belied by symbolism that inheres in the  myth of Narcissus that gave rise to the alternative name by which daffodils are known, the yellow narcissus.’ According to the story told by ancient mythology, the handsome youth Narcissus became so entranced by the beauty of his reflection in a pool of water that his human body became transformed into the flower that bears his name. as a punishment for his vanity.  Wordsworth was not alone in being subject to the fear that his imaginative powers might atrophy like the body of Narcissus   We remember the image of the becalmed ship in the tale of the Ancient Mariner by Wordsworth’s friend and traveling companion Samuel T. Coleridge. The sight of beautiful serpents in motion by moonlight magically generates a ‘breeze’ that fills the sails of the becalmed vessel and allows it to sail on. The principle of motion then overcomes the stasis induced by the enthrallment of beauty, hence the vitality of the ‘dancing’ daffodils that flutter in the’ breeze.’

 According to the central argument in his work The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor [3] M. H. Abrams claims that this ‘breeze’ is a word loaded with the accumulated wealth of a poetic tradition mediated by Milton’s dedicatory words in the opening lines of Paradise Lost which name 'the Holy Muse of Horeb' that inspired Moses to pass down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Unsure, perhaps,  of his grounding in biblical theology, Wordsworth tentatively found in the word ‘breeze’  an appropriate if somewhat low-profile surrogate for the Holy Spirit.

We need not limit this investigation to a consideration of single words in isolation for words form patterns with other words in accord with something akin to valency in chemistry. In close parallel with the close association and juxtaposition of ‘wandered,’ cloud’ and ‘breeze’ in the first stanza of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ the verbal triad composed of ‘breeze,’ ‘cloud’ and ‘wandering’ emerges from an inspection of the introductory lines of the first version of The Prelude, a long semi-autobiographical poem, completed in1805 but not published during the poet’s lifetime. The passage of interest is cited below:

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 shall 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. .. 


In keeping with the opening lines of Paradise Lost references to the biblical Exodus and the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness, are explicit with any last doubt on this assertion being removed by the term ‘a house of bondage.' In the second, the doctored, version of The Prelude completed near the end of Wordsworth’s life the reference to ‘a house of bondage’ is absent, possibly an indication of Wordsworth’s wish to water down clear references to passages in the Bible, including one that associates the ‘wandering cloud’ mentioned in the passage cited above with the pillar of cloud in the Exodus narrative. Poets, like journalists, tend to protect or brush over their sources, being reluctant to disclose trade secrets. Woe betide if people should suspect that ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ has a biblical foundation. Not to forget that Dorothy and William encountered those golden daffodils on the day before Good Friday. At least folkloric expressions make daffodils a symbol of sorrow and joy at Easter if A. E. Housman’s evocation of ‘the lent lily that dies on Easter Day” and in Germany, the popular reference to daffodils as ‘Osterglocken.’ ‘Easter bells’ are anything to go by. But what about Narcissus? Like Milton, Wordsworth may, wittingly or unwittingly, have furthered the process of merging, blending, or reconciling the twin streams of ancient Greek and Biblical-Hebrew notions of truth and reality that should sustain Judeo-Christian civilization and hopefully contribute to universal harmony of the kind intimated by Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils.’.


[2] Frederick A. Pottle, "The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,"  Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1970) 273-287. Originally in Yale Review. Vol. (Autumn 1951.).                                                                                                                                                                                        

[3] The Kenyon Review Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1957), pp. 113-130