Wordsworth and I

Today is the birthday of William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 – April 23, 1850), a poet who grows on you. He strikes a deeper chord in me now than when I was young. Many of his poems, of course, can be appreciated at any age. For example, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

There is romance and freedom in the first two lines – wandering lonely as a cloud – and then follows the exultation of catching a glorious view of daffodils dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: –
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.

The poet is in raptures at the profusion of daffodils, the abandon with which they toss their heads and dance in the breeze. He cannot forget the sight. The last stanza makes it clear that he is describing the scene from memory.

You may say, “Isn’t that what writers do?” Write about what happened in the past.

Yes, but there is a tendency to use the dramatic, or historic, present – use the present tense to narrate what happened in the past. That can make the narrative more dramatic, immediate.

Imagine reading history and seeing it on television. The television version is likely to be more dramatic. The historic or dramatic present is the writer’s attempt to make the narrative more dramatic, like television.

Wordsworth does not use the dramatic present. He uses the past tense to describe the experience: “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, “The waves beside them danced”.

But he describes the scene so vividly it’s almost like seeing it in real time.

He uses the present tense only in the last stanza: “For oft, when on my couch I lie…”

That’s where he writes about the pleasure he takes in the memory of the daffodils.

Emotion recollected in tranquillity

The poem is in keeping with his views about poetry. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, he wrote that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”.

TS Eliot disputed that. Poetry is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor tranquillity, he wrote in Tradition and Individual Talent.

However, that is what it was, or seems to be, in Wordsworth’s poems. Some of his greatest poems, like Tintern Abbey and Ode on Intimations of Immortality, are autobiographical. They are tranquil recollections of the past.

Wordsworth soothes. That’s his enduring appeal. I cannot forget these lines from Immortality Ode:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

There is exhilaration in the last line followed by wistfulness:

Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Do Not Go Gentle into the Good Night, Dylan Thomas wrote – a poem addressed to his dying father:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wordsworth doesn’t rage. He recalls the exhilaration of childhood and youth:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
(The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement).

He soothes the soul. The words sound quaint – till you reach a certain age. When you yearn for peace and serenity. That is when you appreciate Wordsworth.

I love this poem.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

William Blake did not like the phrase, “natural piety”, I just read. But I like it nearly as much as the first two lines about the heart and the rainbow. Is it because days bound by natural piety are as elusive as the rainbow?


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