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On Wordsworth and Romantic Assumptions about Poetry
by Julian X  /  poetry  /  2 Oct 2007

William Wordsworth made his reputation
arguing for poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of
powerful feelings” – but it was not so.

Consider Wordsworth’s “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.
 
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.
Is this – I ask, is this
a “spontaneous overflow?”  The poem rhymes –
consider this:  the poem rhymes
and not only that, but in consistent pattern;
its lines have each eight syllables,
its stanzas each six lines, with the second and fourth
     indented.  It may express “powerful feelings,”
even Wordsworth’s feelings about nature.
But such feelings do not spontaneously
overflow in metered verse, much less in rhyme.

Moreover (as if ‘twere needed), William took lines 21 and 22
from his wife Mary when he was at a loss for words –
at a loss for “powerful feelings” to express.

To make the point more severe, the poem was first printed
in 1807 – then printed again in 1815
with alterations.  The original appeared as follows:

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 dancing daffodils,
Along the lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
 
The waves beside them danced; but they
     Out-did the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
     In such a laughing 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.
Line 4’s “dancing” became “golden” – losing the repeated “da” sound
     (probably because he got them “dancing” in line 6 anyway,
     and he wanted to animate them in the last line, not in 4)
Line 5 begins “Along,” here in 1807, and “Beside” in 1815
     (a change which compensates for 4’s lost “da”
     by giving 5 a repeated “be”
     and which accentuates the parallel structure
     of “beside the lake, beneath the trees”).
Line 6’s “Ten thousand” becomes “Fluttering and”
     (losing the sense of awesome size that helps us lose ourselves
     within the scene, within Wordsworth’s beloved “nature”).
William inserted a stanza between 1807’s first and second
     (one that includes “Ten thousand” and expands
     its point into a stanza all its own).
And line 10’s “laughing” becomes line 16’s “jocund”
     (even in 1815, no one’s soul “naturally” expressed itself with “jocund”).
All hardly “spontaneous outpouring” – more, rather,
careful composition.  Which is not, of course, to say
the poem bad – merely not what it purports to be.

Ah, but at least the poem reflects the truth of his experience!
“Not so, not so!” I say.  Consider William’s sister Dorothy
and what she recounted in her journal
in an entry (to which I have added line endings
and skipped lines, this being a poem after all)
dated 15 April 1802 – some two years before William wrote his poem
in its first incarnation:

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,
and that the little colony had so sprung up.  But
 
as we went along
there were
more
and more;
and 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 and about them;
some rested their heads upon these stones
as on a pillow for weariness;
and the rest tossed and reeled and danced,
and seemed as if they verily laughed
with the wind, that flew 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 and there a little knot, and a few stragglers
a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb
the simplicity, unity, and life
of that one busy highway.
In Wordsworth’s poem, he is alone – an isolated individual
submerged in nature.  But – if we believe he drew upon
his shared experience with his sister (as she recounts) –
he has made himself alone, crafted his poetic persona to be alone,
and he has done so to advance his agenda
about the isolated individual and about nature.
As he borrowed from his wife Mary, so he seems to have borrowed
from observations shared with Dorothy:
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
was (insert laughter here) a collaboration.
Bill elides Dorothy, whites her out in cloud-mist,
and for this we ought not condemn him:
he is a poet after all, and poetry is lying
– or at least consciously crafting,
even when claiming the opposite.

And that is exactly my point, dear readers –
not that Wordsworth lies or stole or plagiarized
but that poets borrow, appropriate,
and always craft a poetic persona – inevitably, automatically –
even when feigning at autobiography.
We compose our stories to our friends:
of course we compose our poems.
Wordsworth was a fraud,
but in this he was hardly unique
and through this we may learn:
the poet may draw from experience,
but only as raw material, and writing –
a strange activity for organisms, something not practiced
by Wordsworth’s beloved “nature” – writing
is always formulated, always mediated,
always.
Observing and traveling may aid a poet,
but they are not the thing:  a shut-in can
write poetry and write it well.
No, no, no:  Wordsworth’s poetry is not nearly as unique
as are his claims about it.

What rich Wordsworth, his worth in words
and words alone, wrote in his Preface
was a corrective to the tradition,
an adoption into elite poetry of the simplicity
that the century-old English fetish for laboring-class poets
had been expressing without ever touching elite poetry,
not something to be taken too seriously,
something to be taken for its direction
and not at its literal word,
and certainly not something he did.

Of course, it is easy perhaps for us today
to poke holes:  most poetry today is blank verse (like this),
more spontaneous in form than metered verse,
and we have gone through the Beats
and automatic writing with its writing without conscious thinking
(or as close as we can approximate).  In Wordsworth’s time,
this was unthinkable – or so we think.

But young poets, know this, do not fall into his trap:
your depression, your suffering, your victimization –
all means less than your ability to craft it into words.
Better for the poet to steal from Dorothy’s journal
and feign being at the lake in powerful verse
than to have been there and not find the words.
Tell your lovers otherwise, if it helps,
but don’t fall into the steel-toothed trap of Romanticism:
you won’t likely get a poem
out of how you chewed your own leg off.

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