This lesson shows how to take some of what we’ve learned about our sample text (William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) and turn it into an essay.
The essay provided here is the kind of research essay you might be expected to write in your first or second year of university. A senior paper may be more detailed and complex.
Professor Conrad van Dyk
May 27, 2017
“A Certain Colouring of Imagination”: Wordsworth’s Sublime Daffodils
William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is often described as a good example of the short Romantic lyric, despite the fact that its first readers were divided about the poem’s merit. Many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries found daffodils too trivial a subject for Wordsworth’s imaginative description (Butler 53). Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge even complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast” (II, 136), although he did add that only a genius could provide such a lofty treatment of an unworthy subject. While we might wish to defend Wordsworth based on our personal taste, the poem actually provides its own best defense. Not only are the flowers sublime, but so are the human faculties with which we process their beauty. According to Wordsworth, the passionate observer sees with the imagination and feels from the heart.
The poem’s publication history reveals that Wordsworth increasingly strove to express a sublime feeling. The first version, published in 1807, described the beauty of the daffodils, as well as the poet’s resultant happiness. However, in 1815, Wordsworth added the second stanza, in which the speaker compares the daffodils to the stars in the Milky Way:
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay. (7-10)
These lines are more epic in scope, and relate the daffodils to the vastness of the universe. They make us think about the concept of infinity (“never-ending”), and turn the landscape into something that is too vast for the human mind to comprehend.
In adding the second stanza, Wordsworth did something controversial: he turned the beautiful into the sublime. Starting with Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), eighteenth-century treatises on aesthetics distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. Burke, for instance, argued that beautiful objects provide pleasure, but that the sublime was caused by a feeling of terror:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible [i.e., terrifying], or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. (36)
For Burke, then, the sublime creates a sense of awe and terror. It is associated with darkness and mystery. It should certainly not be evoked by daffodils.
We can understand, then, why many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries were confused. Wordsworth’s extensive use of personification—the daffodils are a “crowd” (3) or “company” (16), they have “heads” (12), they dance—all of this turns the daffodils into thousands of animate beings. Wordsworth’s use of the word “host” (4) further reminds of the angelic host, and perhaps also of the Catholic rite of communion (Joplin 69). In addition, the third stanza introduces an element of competition (a common feature of epic texts), as the daffodils and the waves strive for the crown of happiness. All of this leads to a moment of sublime ekstasis (literally a standing outside of oneself), as Wordsworth joins the “jocund company” (16) and shares in their “glee” (14). He is left in a trance (“I gazed—and gazed”; 17), and only later regains enough self-consciousness to realize how sublime the experience truly was.
Given that daffodils are usually seen as beautiful, and not sublime, Wordsworth risked creating a sense of bathos. In fact, it might be argued that Wordsworth is not even true to his own theory of literature. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had insisted that the poet has a responsibility to describe nature truthfully: “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” (244-45; emphasis added). Could Wordsworth be considered guilty of ostentation? His elevated diction includes three different words for happy (gay, jocund, glee), and some of his similes and metaphors may seem hyperbolic. It is perhaps no wonder that Coleridge complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast.”
Yet Wordsworth’s understanding of nature also encompasses the human imagination. In the 1802 version of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth added that although his language was 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, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is truthful in the way it describes the emotional, imaginative response to nature. For a passionate observer, daffodils can indeed be sublime.
The poem itself draws our attention to the role of the imagination, the “inner eye” (21) upon which the memory of the daffodils “flash” (21). It is the meditative mind, open to the influence of nature, that is most receptive to the influence of nature. In turn, an active imagination affects the heart, the seat of the emotions: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils” (23-24). When the heart and the imagination work together, even daffodils can be sublime.
By drawing our attention to the importance of the imagination, the poem defends itself against all criticism. Those who find the poem trivial simply lack a strong imagination. Indeed, in the end it is not simply the daffodils that are sublime: it is the way the human mind can transform a picturesque scene into something so captivating that it leaves us spellbound centuries later. As the poet Andrew Motion has recently pointed out, by focusing on the workings of memory and imagination, the poem makes us think about how we ourselves remember the poem: “In the same way, we recall the intensity and lift of the poem as we close the page and begin returning to it in our mind’s eye. This, more than anything, helps to explain its extraordinary currency: it offers a form of sharing, as well as a report on experience. It invites us in, while giving out” (“Host”). While early critics accused Wordsworth of creating an egotistic sublime, of indulging in imaginative flights of fancy, we can now recognize that Wordsworth taught us that nature is more than what we see. The observer adds something to the scene. The observer adds language, and language is itself sublime.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful. On Taste : On the sublime and beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. 1757. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard Classics, vol. 24, Collier, 1909.
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 Opinions. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.
Joplin, David. “Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’” Explicator vol. 56, no. 2, 1998, pp. 67-70.
Motion, Andrew. “The Host with the Most.” The Guardian, 6 Mar. 2004, www.theguardian.com/books/2004/mar/06/andrewmotion.featuresreviews
Wordsworth, William. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45521
William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1991.