William Wordsworth’s Poem, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’

The English poet William Wordsworth. Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo.

You know, offhand, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a William Wordsworth poem. A fortunate soul to have lived 80 years when born in the late 1700s, Wordsworth (and I must say, I love the pensive, contemplative look he has in the photo; etch a look of me like that onto my tombstone, please) was one of the founders of English Romanticism and his project was that of spiritual and epistemological speculation, a “poet concerned with the human relationship to nature and a fierce advocate of using the vocabulary and speech patterns of common people in poetry,” according to the Poetry Foundation.

In 2020, using the vocabulary and speech patterns of the common person sounds obvious, but in that time period, doing so-called “high-brow” art aimed at the commoner, as it were, or at least, accessible to the commoner, was rather radical. A basic rationale of that: Do you want more people to read your work or not? But also, as a general rule of thumb, and something I’ve written about before, simple is better.

I came upon his poem in a collection on the Foundation’s website for poems about solitude and in this case, celebrating solitude. There’s something measurably different in both feeling and aesthetic from that of solitude and of loneliness. I see solitude as more about a choice so as to avoid distraction and/or to look inward with purpose, whereas loneliness isn’t really a choice nor is it something that is dependent upon the people and things around you. One can be lonely of mind, body and spirit surrounded by people and things or in solitude. Conversely, one can be content and full when in solitude, despite not being around anyone or anything.

The poem today, which the Foundation doesn’t give a date for, is, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” which is interesting, given the collection this is with, and the discussion about solitude versus loneliness. As in, this poem seems optimistic and yes, a celebration of solitude, but it is through loneliness I believe he discovers something more.

Here is the poem in full, and here is an excerpt:

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:

This is the third stanza in the poem after Wordsworth has wandered lonely as a cloud, floating over hills, whereupon he upon a host of golden daffodils. By the third stanza then, he’s taken aback by the beauty of the daffodils. In other words, he was lonely, but how can one be lonely around such beautiful nature, if you just open your eyes and see it?

And that one brush with nature brought him wealth, as he said, since in his moments of deep solitude and thought, blossoms the bliss of solitude: “And then my heart with pleasure fills / and dances with the daffodils.” What a beautiful line, and one of my new favorite closings to a poem ever. It’s perfectly constructed to end the poem on that same gay, jocund feeling that the poet had upon seeing the daffodils the first time.

Through loneliness, Wordsworth understood his connection and place in relation to nature, and how nature is itself teeming with life that can settle the inner eye of loneliness.

What do you make of this poem?

He’s a contemplative guy, huh? Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (National Portrait Gallery).

2 thoughts

  1. I always take away from Wordsworth the value of new experiences. New memories make up the soul sustaining substance, as humans, we need to survive. Like Frederick the field mice, it is the words we use to capture those images that warm us and sustain us.

    Liked by 1 person

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