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Historical Context

Introduction

In the previous lesson we provided a close reading of the text. Now it’s time to zoom out and provide some historical perspective. These are of course not entirely separate stages of reading and interpretation. Our close reading will inevitably be informed by what we learn about the context. It’s always a back and forth process, and the more we discover, the more we have to adjust our earlier perceptions.

So, as we continue our discussion of Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” we situate the poem in its historical moment.

Romanticism

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a Romantic poet. Romanticism was an artistic movement that spread across Europe in the late 18th century and lasted well into the 19th century. In fact, we still feel the effects of Romanticism today.

In English literature, the Romantic period is usually dated as lasting from 1789, the year of the French Revolution, to 1830 or 1832. The Romantic period is preceded by the Enlightenment and followed by the Victorian Period.

Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It was of course also a development of ideas, but the revolutionary character of Romanticism cannot be ignored. For instance, we easily forget how radical the French Revolution truly was. The motto of the revolution was “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (liberty, equality, brotherhood). This rallying cry called for the complete equality of all human beings, their shared humanity, and the right to be free from political and social oppression. It was a rebellion against the king and the aristocracy, but it also represented an attack on the church, for one might equally want to be free from having to believe in a supreme God.

The intense focus on the rights of the individual led to a greater emphasis on the value of personal subjectivity and feeling. Romantic writers put a premium on emotions that were natural, genuine, and sincere. They treasured spontaneity of expression and detested affectation and artificiality. At the same time, such a preference for passionate expression and pathos could itself become artificial and excessive, and, as we’ll see, Wordsworth was often accused of making too much of his emotions over a few daffodils.

The Romantic period was also the era of the Industrial Revolution, and the revolutionary ideas about the rights of the individual often clashed with the demands of capitalism. Workers had few rights and worked long hours in difficult conditions. Cities grew rapidly, but the smoke and soot from the factories often made urban life grim and grimy.

Romantic writers responded to these challenges in two ways. On the one hand, they drew attention to the plight of the less fortunate. William Blake, for example, wrote poems describing the hardships experienced by young orphans. Literature was meant to be a tool for criticism and political change. On the other hand, Romantic literature also provided an escape from the world of industrialization and capitalism. The individual might turn to nature to find his or her true self. Nature was seen as restorative, authentic, and even divine. Nature thus offered a transcendental experience that involved an aspect of pantheism, the idea that the divine is part of everything.

Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth shared many of the Romantic qualities described. In 1798 he and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a small anthology of poems called Lyrical Ballads, in which they sought to share a new kind of poetry. Wordsworth’s poems in particular are frequently focused on common people, on natural scenes, and on seemingly trivial actions. In the prefaces to subsequent editions, Wordsworth also explained his theory of poetry.

Here is an excerpt from the 1800 preface:

The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language. (244-45)

You can see how Romantic these aims are: the individual’s essential nature is most clearly expressed in moments of great passion and emotion, and, since people are less inhibited and artificial in the countryside, we might do well to study rustic scenes and common language.

In the 1802 version, Wordsworth added that although the language is meant to seem realistic, he did add “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (245). In other words, there should also be room for the poet to express his own passionate response to the scenes he describes. This is where Romantics praised the imagination as the greatest mental faculty.

Later in the preface, Wordsworth described the poetic process as follows:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. (266)

You’ll notice that this describes what happens in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” In a quiet and tranquil moment, the poet remembers the beauty of the daffodils and recalls how overcome he was by the sight. As he dwells on the memory, the emotions all come flooding back. He is then able to write about the whole experience–not only what happened originally, but also the subsequent remembering.

Composition

While “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” matches Wordsworth’s description of poetic process in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, he actually composed the poem some years after the success of that anthology.

In 1802 he spent some time in the English Lake District. On April 15 he  and his sister Dorothy went for a walk near Ullswater lake. In her journal, Dorothy recounts the experience of seeing the daffodils:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up—But as we went along there were more & yet more & 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 & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & 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 & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway—We rested again & again. (85)

Dorothy’s long run-on sentences certainly suggest a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions.” She also mentions that it was a rather wet and windy day.

Wordsworth leaves that out of his poem, but then he also doesn’t mention Dorothy’s presence, despite the fact that he seems to have relied on her description when he composed “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” two years after the event (1804). The poem was first published in 1807, in a collection titled Poems, in Two Volumes. At that point, the poem only had three stanzas. The second stanza was added in 1815.

Reception

Initial responses to the poem were often negative. James Butler explains why those first readers were less than impressed:

The main problem, as Francis Jeffrey wrote in the Edinburgh Review, was Wordsworth’s use of subjects that the ‘greater part of his readers will probably persist in thinking low, silly, or uninteresting’. The reviewer in The Satirist wondered how anyone could think it worthwhile to write about his memories of some daffodils blowing in the wind. (53)

We generally accept that poems can be about any topic, but Wordsworth’s contemporaries felt that a poem that claimed to describe some powerful experience should also have a worthy subject. Daffodils simply don’t cut it.

Even Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge was critical. In a chapter in his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge complains that “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” describes “thoughts and images too great for the subject” (II, 136). The description is beautiful, but it would be better bestowed on something more impressive.

Over time, however, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” won over its readers, and it is now Wordsworth’s most famous poem.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article on the poem’s background helps you understand why Wordsworth wrote the poem and how it reflects changing attitudes towards nature and the individual. We can now also see that the poem was more radical than it might appear.

In the next lesson we will discuss how the poem engages with contemporary theories about what might be considered beautiful and sublime.

Works Cited

  • Butler, James A. “Poetry 1798-1807: Lyrical Ballads and Poems, in Two Volumes.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 38-54.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and OpinionsThe Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.
  • Wordsworth, Dorothy. The Grasmere Journals. Ed. Pamela Woof, Clarendon, 1991.
  • William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1991.