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Wandering in the Focus of an Intertextual Investigation

by Julian Scutts

Isn’t it about time we set up a chair in Wandering Studies at some institute of higher learning or other?

‘The regularity of my design  forbids all wandering as the worst of sinnng’   Lord Byron

As yet, to my knowledge at least, no Chair in Wandering Studies has been established in a university or seat of higher learning despite the obvious importance of the word ‘wanderer’ to great poets like Goethe, Wordsworth and William Blake.[1] Perhaps this is a matter that is worth looking into. Though the word ‘Wanderer’appears in the titles of celebrated poems by Goethe and German Romantic poets as well as in key passages in Goethe’s novels and dramas, its importance has not been acknowledged by literary critics and members of the academic world with one notable exception. I refer to Professor L. A. Willoughby’s article ‘The Image of the ‘Wanderer” and the “Hut” in Goethe’s Poetry’ that appeared in Etudes Gemaniques almost seventy years ago. [i][2]

Willoughby did not base his findings on any well defined theoretical proposition or apriori concept. His curiosity led him to consider what might lie behind the frequent appearances of the words ‘Wanderer’ and ‘Hutte’ throughout Goethe’s writings, both words being found in meaningful juxtapositions to each other. Willoughby was evidently no follower of the objective or internal criticism, a school of critical opinion which treats each poem as a closed entity, the unique constituency of which isolates it  from other works, even those by the same author. Furthermore, the recurrent verbal patterns noted by Willoughby reflected not only developments affecting Goethe’s literary creations but also turning points in the course of his private life. As the distribution of like patterns throughout writings were widespread and numerous, Willoughby concluded that they did not result solely from conscious co-ordination but from the operations of the collective unconscious as construed by Carl Jung from which symbols and archetypes were thought to well up into the ambit of the conscious mind. Also in accord with the theories of Jung he concluded that the ‘Wanderer’ was a symbolic representation of the libido and the ‘Hut’ (Hutte) posed a counterpoint as a representation of the anima, the goal of the libido’s quest for harmony. Harold Bloom entertained a similar view of the libido as a driving force of poetic creativity with the difference that such a process was purely internal. Willoughby held that the process underlay the course of Goethe’s personal life, not only his corpus of literary works.The ‘Hut’ was more than a figment of the mind for it symbolized the family hearth, the home to wife and children, the groundrock of society.

 To demonstrate the workings of the collective unconscious the ambit of research must surely extend beyond the works of only one author, however great he may be, and yet Willoughby made no clear reference to the Romantic poets of his own times and certainly not to any contemporary English poet. As a result Goethe’s life and works are discussed in vacuo, without regard to their historical context. Thus basic questions remain unanswered.

Heavenly visions and flashes of insight burst into time at a certain hour and day  within the term of a certain year. The Wanderer, an image encompassing “Shakespeare,” Prometheus and a giant in in seven-league boots arrived on the scene in 1771 when Goethe proclaimed in his ‘Speech on Shakespeare’s Day’ that Shakespeare, in essence the scope of the Bard’s vast imaginive powers, was ‘the greatest of all wanderers’ in defiance of the Aristotelian Unities and all other limitations laid down by Johann Christoph Gottsched, up to that time the watchful guardian of literary decorum. The pent-up force of this image  was soon to bear fruit in Goethe’s poetry, his novel Das Leiden des jungen Werthers (‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’) and Urfaust, an embryonic version of the Faust dramas, all of which reveal  the turbulent downside of the Wanderer’s oppressive self-consciousness and sense of isolation. Pent-up forces result from pressures that have built up over time and in our case the pressure in question was exerted by novels, plays and treaties of British, French and Swiss origin that challenged the rigid conventions that constricted the free expression of writers for a great part of the eighteenth century.

One consequence of Willoughby’s ahistorical approach to the study of Goethe’s  writings is the omission of any clearcut reference to the Romantic movement, which arose in the wake of the revolution sparked by the ‘Speech on Shakespeare’s Day.’ At one point in his article Willoughby mentioned the term  ‘romantic’ in some very loose and pejorative sense when disparaging the erratic traits discerned in two characters in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), though at the time of writing the work no Romantic school existed. In fact, the novel provoked a reaction that marked beginning of the Romantic movement. After briefly acclaiming the merits of the work and endorsing Goethe’s use of the word ‘Wanderer’ as an epithet for the  liberated modern poet, leading Romantic poets objected to what they saw as the unseemly haste in which the author terminated the lives of  two characters in this novel with whom they felt at one, Mignon, a girl singer and acrobat,  and the harper, patriarchal in appearance and sometimes mad in action, allegedly as a punishment for their erratic behaviour and generally irresponsible attitude. Furthermore, they rejected the status of role model awarded to responsible and purposeful Wilhelm Meister, the leader of the Wanderbuhne (travelling theatre) to which Mignon and the harper belonged, and therewith acceptance of Goethe’s utilitarian philosophy. To rebuff this philosophy Joseph von Eichendorff wrote the novel Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (From the life of a good-for-nothing) and  Novalis created the iconic symbol of the ‘blaue Blume,’ ’the blue flower,’ the epitome of all that is ineffable  und unreachable in the quest for the ultimate Romantic ideal as he saw it. From what began as the root of unity grew an apple of discord. On the English side of the channel poets  diverged in a similar fashion  when William Blake made the distinction between ‘the Mental Traveller’ and ‘cold Earth wanderers,’ meaning here Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Goethe was an avid reader of works by contemporary English, Irish and Scottish writers, who profoundly influenced the course of his progress as a poet and artist. We gather he learned much of his English knowledge by studying Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts  and his ‘Conjectures on original composition,’ a work with much the same message as that of Goethe’s ‘Speech on Shakespeare’s Day.’ James Macpherson’s Ossian with its descriptions of thundering storms, rugged wave-beaten crags and bloodcurdling battles became the much favoured reading matter of Werther, as later of Napoleon, ousting Homer’s epics.   at the juncture when Werther began his descent towards distraction and death.  Goethe translated a portion of Ossian into German and one line from his translation enters the text of the novel: ‘Tomorrow shall the traveller  come’ becomes ‘Morgen wird der Wandrer kommen.’  A slightly less clearcut example of the transition from ‘traveller’ to ‘Wanderer’ is furnished by Goethe’s poem in fragmentary dramatic form entitled Der Wanderer for this pays tribute to Goethe’s admiration of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith entitled The Traveller based  on the poet’s experience of making a grand tour of European centres of art and ancient architecture.. The Wanderer, likewise a cultural tourist,  explores a mountainous region in southern Italy in search ot the ruins of an ancient Greek temple, there to encounter a young mother who lives in a humble dwelling constructed from the temple’s masonry. The poem was translated into English by William Taylor of Norwich, who retained the word ‘Wanderer’ in its title and marginal references. Wordworth was so impressed by the poem in translation that  after a long story the Wanderer  assumed a leading role  in The Excursion, a long poem that was published in 1810. Might it even be argued that the genesis of the word ‘Wanderer’ in the ‘Speech on Shakespeare’s Day’ grew out of a cultural dialogue between  German-speaking and English-speaking poets?

German literature aroused great interest among English  poets towards end of the eighteenth century.  Wordsworth and Coleridge paid a visit to Friedrich Gottlob  Klopstock, then enjoying a reputation comparable to Goethe’s. Schiller’s Die Räuber  left its trace  in The Borderers, a drama that recalled Worthsworth’s troubled memories of his experience in France during the French Revolution.

It has been noted that the Wanderer in The Excursion owed its origin to the impact created in Wordsworth’s mind by William Taylor of Norwich’s transation of Goethe’s Der Wanderer. An early outcome of this impact can be traced in The Recluse, a poem that tells the sad story of Margaret, an abandoned wife who lives a secluded life in her humble cottage. The first published version of  Goethe’s Faust  appeared in 1790 and received widespread acclaim.  Whether by way of a coincidence or possibly due to Goethe’s influence, parallels are to be drawn between Gretchen, whose name is a diminutive form of  Margaret, and Margaret, the character who occupies a humble cottage according to the narrative of The Recluse. Gretchen is also typified as one who lives in a humble cottage,  a symbol of her idyllic seclusion and innocent way of living. Faust bitterly reproaches himself for having  destroyed this idyll by his callous treatment of Gretchen. In line with his purpose of seducing her, he places items of jewellery in a casement of the cottage and, funnily enough, Margaret’s husband does much the same on the point of leaving his wife. Otherwise, of course, the similaries between Margaret and Gretchen end. Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendent of the great poet, pleads that the Margaret-cottage association finds a precedent in William of Norwich’s translation for the  Wanderer encounters a young woman who lives in a humble dwelling, but even here she and Margaret share little in common, certainly not in terms of their ages and the mood generated by the poems, in one case by humour and awe, in the other by expressions of destitution and sadness.

 There is certainly nothing glum about the joyful daffodils  described in ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ Can we deduce from this that Wordsworth  by 1804 had finally thrown off the dejection of earlier years? I will investigate this question in the process of examining Wordsworth’s part in the English tradition of poetry for it seems from evidence yet to be adduced that the English Romantic poets were very much attuned to words found in the works of Milton and Shakespeare, possibly as a side effect of the enhanced self-awareness induced by Goethe and the epochal change he brought to poetry.


Though commonly referred to as ‘Daffodils,’ Wordsworth’s famous description of those flowers was given no title originally. In fact the first line of the poem, ’I wandered lonely as a cloud”, still serves as a substitute of the missing title. For good or ill, titles separate themselves from the body of the poem  that follows. No such isolation is found in the case under discussion, hence the striking effect of the opening words. ‘I wander…’ launches  straight into the flow of the poetic text itself. The same might be said about Blake’s ‘London,’ beginning as it does with the words ‘I wander..” It is surprising what a difference a choice of a tense can make. Blake specifies no particular time frame in which to set his visionary encounters with three young participators in occupations that involve variant forms of society’s  dirty work.

 ‘I wandered’ denotes a specific occasion in the past and it is  immediately clear that the verb to ‘wander’ denotes physical motion  on terra firma. The event in question was recorded in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal in considerable detail with little regard for poetic licence and yet with  a certain poetic flair. The date of this entry is  Thursday, April  15, 1802, the day before Good Friday. Might this coincidence have affected Wordsworth’s attitude to the occasion of witnessing, as though in a vision,  an encounter with a mighty ‘host’ of daffodils? On the other hand, there are no further hints of any overt allusions to things Biblical.

At this juncture a question arises. Are words enclosed in a poem to be set in a category that radically differs from  the one to which all other words belong in the language of common speech? After all, Wordsworth himself asserted that poets should avail themselves of the language of common people and daily usage. Did he take account of the fact that the very setting of words in a poem adds to them a new depth, for now they form a part of poetic tradition.  In poetry also,  verbs denoting physical movement acquire a greatly enhanced force. At least this is a proposition advanced by the author and literary scholor Frederick Nims in a chapter of Western Wind, a guide for students of poetry, for he writes. "A mountain may be a symbol of salvation, a traveller may be a symbol of a human being in his life. But if the traveller takes as much as one step toward the mountain, it seems that the traveller and the mountain become allegorical figures, because a story has begun." [3]

Once we bring allegories into the picture we admit that a work possesses different levels of meaning, four by Dante’s count. Under the narrative or literal level of meaning the other levels can only make their presence felt in the wording of the text by virtue of words that connote several meanings or associations. If, for example, one argues (as I do) that Robert Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ is deeply rooted in Browning’s religious mysticism, a knowledge of the author’s habits in word selection opens the opportunity   for making such a case despite the widely held opinion, even in academic circles, that ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is only a jaunty ‘child’s story.’  The text does cite the occasional biblical text and certain phrases have a religious ring, one being ‘the trump of doom’s tone’ but such indications do not necessarily lead to acceptance of the claim that the Pied Piper symbolizes the Christ Figure. Evidence for this claim might be better offered by pointing to the secondary and seemingly accidental meanings of words such as ‘passion’ or ‘cross’ in their function of verbal clues though in the surface narrative they mean ‘traverse’ or fit of rage.’

As far as ‘I wandered’ is concerned, the word ‘wander’ belongs to a family of words charged with allegorical potential, referring as it may to muses, divine inspiration, higher thought but also to Cain, error and even madness and death. What about ‘’breeze’ and ‘cloud? Those who search for the deeper meanings of words in poetry sometimes take the path of acquainting themselves with a particular author’s verbal habits as shown by recurrent verbal patterns and turns of phrase, which leads me to.  refer back to Professor L. A. Willoughby article ‘The Image of “theWanderer” and the “Hut” in Goethe’s Poetry.’ It was Goethe after all who set the ball rolling by establishing the “Wanderer” as the signal term of the modern poet once freed from the trammels of outdated conventions but also entrapped in a state of profound existential loneliness. Willoughby’s initial motivation to make an investigation sprang from the recognition that the words ‘Wanderer’ and ‘Hutte’ recurred throughout Goethe’s writings with great frequency and in close juxtaposition to each other. Let us consider such a recurrent verbal pattern in Wordsworth’s poetry.

 The verbal triad formed by the words ‘wandered,’ ‘breeze’ and ‘cloud’in the first strophe of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ finds a close parallel in the opening verses of The Prelude. I cite the following lines from the passage that opens the  version of the work that was completed by 1805.but not published:

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. ..


. The reference to a ‘house of bondage’ leaves no doubt that the passage to which it belongs likens the poet’s quest for liberty to the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and their wandering journey to the Promised Land. The omission of any reference to a ‘house of bondage’ in the 1850 version of The Prelude deemphasizes the opening allusion to a biblical precedent and I can only guess that Wordsworth in later years suffered from an anxiety of influence or felt some need to squelch any thought of a connection between the unerring guidance of  a ‘wandering cloud’ and the pillar of cloud as described in the Book of Exodus. This passage serves in an initiatng role  that is analous to the opening lines of Paradise Lost where the poet beseeches ‘the Holy Muse’ to bestow the inspiration and fortitude needed to sustain his verses thoughout the writing of a long epic. A humble ‘breeze’ assumes the inspirational role of Milton’s Holy Muse, as M.H. Abrams cogently argues in his article entitled The Correspondent Breeze.[4]

Wordsworth was not the only one to attribute to a ‘breeze’ the power of a great driving force able to effect a dramatic change for in Coleridge The Rime of  the Ancient Mariner a breeze releases the Mariner’s ship from the curse of immobility. Indeed, Milton’s pervasive influence may be detected throughout Romantic poetry, especially in passages in which references to wandering are found. In Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained two wanderers, Satan and Jesus, contend with each other for the soul of humanity, the one as a voyager through cosmic space or in the guise of a mariner in the Homeric  style, the other committed to wander in an inhospitable wilderness according to the biblical allegorical tradition. Adam and Eve, representing humanity, also wander, in their case into sin and disgrace. However, they leave Paradise with ‘wandering feet’ into the world of hard experience where redemption and restoration are still to be gained.

William Blake, who saw himself as Milton’s spiritual heir, upheld a belief that even the negative aspect of wandering had a part to play in the ultimate victory of its positive aspect in harmony and reconciliation. His poem ‘London’ is introduced by the words ‘I wander’ and describes scenes of degradation and enslaved youth from the point of view of a recording angel who ‘marks’ signs of dejection and pain with a hint that the oppressed will overcome the society that is the cause of their oppression. The poem belongs to the cycle Songs of Experience and finds its counterpart in “Holy Thursday,” which forms part of Songs of Innocence. There children happily celebrate a festive event held for their benefit in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It strikes me as odd therefore that Northrop Frye, the author of Anatomy of Criticism, accords only negative implications to Milton’s contextualization of to ‘wander’ in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained but such evaluations are the inevitable consequence of the axiom that literature is totally divorced from the workings of history and personal affairs.

Milton anticated the incident depicted in ‘Wandrers Sturmlied’ by Goethe according to which the wanderer wafts toward the summit of Mount Parnassus thanks to the support of muses and charities only to fall into a flow of sludge in a German forest close to Frankfurt, his home city. Milton himself seems to have felt a lack of assurance about reliance on a muse or other guarantor of infallible guidance.  Milton’s ‘Holy Muse’ is a somewhat irregular formulation from a strict Puritan’s point of view.  The opening lines of Book VII in Paradise Lost   present the image of a ‘wingèd steed’ whose rider  voices his apprehension that he will fall from his exalted position and tumble to earth there to find himself ‘wandering and forlorn’ and the speaker recalls the original meaning of to ‘err’ in the light of its Latin root. Byron, alert as ever to the presence of the word ‘wander’ in the works of Milton, makes a jibe at  Robert Southey. In the eighth stanza of the Dedication, the speaker refers to himself as one "wandering with pedestrian Muses" in contrast to Southey depicted as one seated on a wingèd steed.  In a similar vein the Byronic speaker pokes fun at what he sees as the bombastic nature of Wordsworthian ‘wandering’  by depicting Don Juan in his youth as one who ‘wandered by glassy brooks thinking unutterable things “ after the manner of Wordsworth (Canto the First, XC, 90, 91). Rivalry among Romantic poets seems to have led to a ‘more wanderer than thou’ mentality on their part, based on the recognition that under Goethe’s strong influence wandering designated the art of poetry and ‘the wanderer’ was now a synonym for the modern autonomous but also insecure and isolated poet. Be that as it may, for all the joyfulness of Wordsworth’s daffodils, a certain disquieting tension runs through “I wandered…” until it is shown to be resolved at the end of the poem. First the wanderer starts his excursion in a dreamy state of mind with his head in the clouds. His dreamy mood is shattered when totally unexpectedly – all at once - he sees a host, a veritable army, composed of ten thousand daffodils. He regains psychological equilibrium once his mind has ingested and internalized the influx of unsolicited sensations. Do we find here a case of sublimation in psychological terms? If so, we may suspect that under the surface something threatening has caused the mind to seek refuge. I return to this question later.

  Byron was evidently particularly sensitive to any association of wandering with sexuality to be found in Paradise Lost. It probably did not escape his notice that  Adam and Eve become involved in an altercation that focuses on Adam’s accusation that Eve has ‘wandered’ away on her own and Eve retorts by reminding Adam of his use of ‘will of wandering as thou call’st it’ in Book IX. For Milton wandering is bound up with the issue of liberty and the right of an individual man or woman, Eve included, to find emotional fullfilment. After all the issue of liberty lies at the heart of Milton’s  ambition to justify the ways of God to men.

In the Dedication to Don Juan Byron’s makes the following play of words ‘The regularity of my design forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning.’ Sinning and sex were closely linked in Byron’s mind, as we know. Wandering is a term that can designate philandering and sexual inclination even in ordinary speech but here, to judge from Milton’s and also Byron’s  emphasis on the sensuous but also sublime nature of the sexual aspect of the relationship between Adam and Eve, and, in recognition of this, between Don Juan nd Haidee on their island paradise,  sexuality takes on a deeper significance that we today might understand in the light of theories  concerning the quest of libido to achieve union with the anima. Jung even referred to the ‘Eve phase’ that begins the libido’s quest to be united with the anima.  In the passage describing the walk taken by Haidee and Juan that leads to seclusion and the opportunity to consummate their love, the word ‘wander’ occurred several times as if to make sure readers associate wandering with love and sexuality, just as Milton had in his exploration of the  relationship between Adam and Eve.

Had  world enough and time I would gladly launch into debates as to whether Eve is Milton’s Muse or whether she is in league with the Virgin Mary in some role of co-redeemer  or whether she was a proto-feminist, but I now turn to another question. The present discussion has led inevitably to confronting the phenomenon known as intertextuality in literary and academic circles.the study of literature. Did Byron indulge in a meticulous textual study of Milton’s works as might one who is seeking to complete a doctoral dissertation   or did the collective   unconscious   lend  him a helping hand from time to time?  Let us turn our attention to occurrences of to ‘wander’ throughout Shakespeare’s works  and note any resemblances between their implications within their respective contexts and occurrences of ‘wander’ in Romantic poetry. It is improbable that such resemblances have resulted from the kind of close reading on which Byron’s allusions to Milton’s works is predicated, leading us to consider other possible causes for such resemblances.

 In Julius Caesar the poet Cinna feels a strange whimsical urge to ‘wander forth of doors’ and consequently meets a mob in search of Cinna the conspirator. A confusion of the two Cinnas leads to the poet’s death by lynching. When the matter is clarified a mobster justifies this death on account of Cinna’s bad verses. He had but one consolation. In a dream came the promise that he would soon  feast with Caesar. Am I going to far when I claim to see a certain similarity between the experience described in ‘I wandered’ and the fate suffered by  the poet? In both cases we note three phases that unfold. Initially wandering is attended by a state of oblivious ignorance of what lies round the next corner. In the second case there is a surprise,  pleasant or unpleasant. Third, some form of harmony or unity is established if we assume that feasting with Caesar would be a peasant experience. Such a communion seems to point to the ideal of the harmonious union of those that bear the laurel crown of imperial rule or of Petrarch the Poet.

Wandering takes on a much happier complexion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the word ‘wanderer’ likewise expresses mirth and merriment. The play fuses themes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with those derived from English folklore. Confusion is not shown to be the cause of a tragic event as with Cinna the poet but the source of amusement. Titania under the influence of an enchantment falls in love with Nick Bottom whose head has been transformed into that of an ass. The tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe told in Metamorphoses is given a comic twist when a team of ham actors unintentionally turn it into a farce. Puck, the mischievous prangster responsible for Titania’s infatuation with a donkey’s head calls himself the ‘merry wanderer of the night’ while a fellow sprite rejoices in the freedom to ‘wander’ everywhere in concert with the ‘elements’ of water, wind and fire. We find associations between wandering and the elements in Goethe’s poem ‘Wandrers Sturmlied’ in which mud is mockingly   eulogized as the union of earth and water. The motif of wandering through water and fire also appears in the libretto of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and even in the Book of Isaiah. These parallels, too easily dismissed as mere coincidences, can hardly be attributed to conscious allusions and imitations. The mood of levity that pervades this drama  bears a reference to ‘midsummer’ in its title and this date marks the summer solstice when the sun, symbol of the libido, advances  farthest into the domain of night and the moon, symbol of the anima.  When associated with winter, wandering assumes its most gloomy aspect in Sonnet 18 in the line ‘Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,’ close as it is to the image of frozen  buds destoyed by the return of frost in the month of May. Caught between winter and summer, Cinna the poet suffers death but at least enjoys the prospect of feasting with Caesar after death. It is unlikely that Shakespeare consciously corollated happy and sad events with their seasonal setting. If animals and plants are in tune with the seasons we can assume that the human mind at its deepest level also instinctively  responds to stages in the annual cycle under the rule of the sun. How then do we explain the absence of any element of sadness in Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, a question raised by Frederick Pottle in his article “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth”?  [5]

Pottle 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 Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Wordsworth’s friend and travelling 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.’ Just as a physical breeze enlivens the no less physical daffodils beside a lake, so a breeze working within the mind animates the daffodils seen by the inner eye.

It is a remarkable but true fact that the most celebrated poems that refer to the Wanderer or the process of wandering are very short. In longer poems there is the danger that the clutter of longwinded descriptions and arguments diverts attention from the immense wealth of meaning and association that inheres in a single word. This is shown by ‘I wandered as lonely as a cloud’ and also by that icon of short verse, ‘Wanderers  Nachtlied’ by Goethe. which Henry Wadsworth  Longfellow translated into English under the title of ‘Wanderer’s Night-Songs.’ Again we note that major poets equated the German ‘Wanderer’ and the English ‘wanderer’ on the basis of their common fund of associations. Far from departing from the  first person singlar ‘I,” ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’ begins and ends with the pronoun ‘du’ (thou or you), endowing the two poems that unite under the same title with the character of a dialogue between the Wanderer who seeks inward peace and the voice of one  who promises to him; ‘Warte nur balde / ruhest du auch’ ( ‘Wait and you also will find rest.’)

Have we not noted the diagogical force of wandering already in the recognition that the Wanderer symbol that sprang to life in Goethe’s ‘Speech on Shakespeare’s Day’ was the upshot of a long interchange between such poets as Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Young and James Macpherson on the English-speaking side and Goethe, Herder and August Schlegel on the side of German speakers? In ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ the worlds of Milton and Goethe meet. As to the former, we can point to Pottle’s references to Narcissus and go on to argue that Wordsworth   united   Greek mythology  and Judeo-Christian evocations of Passover and Easter in a manner reminiscent of  Milton’s deliberate conflation of the Holy Spirit and the Muse of Greek-Classical fame.

The energy that impels the poet’s vision  draws  no small measure of vigour from the mind’s sensitivity to the seasons. Easter celebrates the Resurrection and the conquest of death. A certain ambivalence resides in the image of ‘dancing’ daffodils for not all dancing is an expression of life, nor is the threat of death  always of the physical kind for we also speak of ‘the death of the soul’ and even ‘the death of poetry.’ Here I am reminded of Harold Bloom’s belief that this dire event resulted from the success of Blake and Wordsworth in effecting the union, indeed the marriage, of the libido and anima by demonstrating the process of total internalization in their greatest poetry and so rendered all future efforts to write  poetry  superfluous. Fortunately such a dire outcome has been avoided and Willoughby pointed to the reason for this when claiming that the Wanderer-Hut motif revealed by a study of Goethe’s poetry transcended the divide between literature and life.  As long as there is life there is poetry and vice versa.

Just as archeologists and geologists travel back in time the more they delve, so those who interpret texts and probe the stratifications of the mind excavate at ever deeper layers  making new discoveries as they go. Easter recalls the Passover festival, otherwise called the ‘Festival  of our  Liberty.’ In the 1805 version of The Prelude the opening lines share  with ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’  triad formed by the words ‘breeze’, ‘cloud’ and a word derived from the root of the verb to wander. The appearance of the phrase ‘a house of bondage’ points unmistakably to the Exodus from Egypt as depicted in the Bible and enhances our sensibility to allusions to other facets of the Exodus theme such as the Pillar of Cloud that guided the Children of Israel in the wilderness by day. Wordworth left out the reference to ‘a house of bondage’ in the 1850 version of The Prelude, perhaps to allay the painful memory of the time he greeted the beginning of French Revolution with great enthusiasm. In old age Wordsworth was branded  by Robert Browning as  ‘the lost leader’ who had  sold his soul to the aristocratic establishment  for thirty pieces of silver when accepting the post of Poet Laureate. Even William Cowper, who never in his life faced the suspicion of having revolutionary sympathies, expressed the prophetic hope recorded in The Task that the Bastille, which he equated with the biblical ‘house of bondage,’ would soon fall. After rejecting the prison of literary convention in his youth Wordsworth fled to another prison, the isolation imposed by self-consciousness. In that regard he was no different from other Romantic poets. Geoffrey H. Hartman proposed that the Romantic poets sought relief from the curse of self-consciousness in their attempt to nurture what he termed ‘Anti-Self-Consciousness’ but saw little possibility of shaking off a spectre that follows an individual constantly through life. The only consolation Hartman   could offer  lay in the flow of England’s rich literary   tradition that might carry the Romantic poets to the shore of semi-oblivion at least.  It seems to me more likely that these poets adopted another solution, which is to say, one attainable by engaging such powers of mind that are not subject to conscious control. Frederick Nims, we noted earlier, argued that once a poet has placed a verb denoting  motion in a poem, an allegory arises spontaneously irrespective of a poet’s intention and expectations. Similarly, a poet may choose what sustained metaphor will  enclose  a prospective poem but once that choice is made, the metaphor thus chosen  shapes and informs the entire poem that follows. One such metaphor is that of a pilgrimage. Don Juan, by no means a pilgrim. gyrates in ever widening convolutions with no goal in prospect. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, however, the hero progresses in a manner denied to Don Juan towards the ocean of eternity, giving ‘wandering a  profound seriousness that we do not discover in Don Juan. In much the same way, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has gained  a  world audience while the story of Mans-Soul, based on the static metaphor of a besieged city, interests a far smaller readership.

 In wandering resides the power to distinguish, oppose and finally to reconcile. The Wanderer as the Prodigal Son or repentant mariner subsumes the Wanderer as Cain or Ahasuerus in the long run. The renegade Faust serves THE LORD unknowingly in all his deviant and errant ways according to the Voice of God we hear in the ‘Prologue in Heaven’ that prefaces Goethe’s Faust. Goethe and the Romantics fell out over the issue of the alleged punishment meted to Mignon and the Harper but Professor Gundolf, in his time a leading exponent of Goethean literature, found that the errant wanderers, Mignon and the harper, and Willhelm Meister on the side of responsibily and practical service all had their rightful place in Goethe’s universe, being drawn from the deepest wellsprings of his imagination.[6] Goethe developed the concept of ‘Steigerung’ based on the principle that two apparent irreconcilables at a certain level find mutual harmony at a yet higher plane. Perhaps the most basic sense of wandering, that of turning or changing, explains why wandering lies at the heart of the most basic recipocal relationships including the one that integrates and balances the nocturnal and daytime-oriented halves of the mind and regulates the interaction of  mind and body. Finally, let us leave Faust in his study where he ponders how to translate the term ‘logos’ in the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel into German. He chooses ‘Tat’ (deed, act) in preference to ‘Wort’ (Word). Leon Trotsky accused the Russian Formalists of being followers of Saint John for promoting a mystical belief in the putative universality that underlies all occurrences of words in poetry. Even the gulf between the word and the deed can be closed by ‘the verb.’  Verbs are words which denote actions and movements, a consideration that could lie behind the title of a book written by Rabbi A. David Cooper, which runs: “God is a Verb.”


[1] The German word ‘wandern’ is more assertive and precise than its English counterpart as 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 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)..


[2] L. A. Willoughby,  ''The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry,'' Etudes Germaniques,  July-December, 1951.



[3] John Frederick Nims, Western Wind / an Introduction to Poetry (New York, 1983).


[4] M. H. Abrams, ‘The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor,’ The Kenyon Review, Vol. 19. No. 1 (Winter, 1957) pp. 113-130.

[5] 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).

[6] Friedrich Gundolf, Goethe, 1916, 345.