Themes and Meanings

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The poem’s themes are clearly indebted to William Wordsworth. He first established the pattern of describing a natural scene or object (rock, stream, tree, flower), often interwoven with reminiscences of his own childhood, to lead up to and authorize a moral insight. Wordsworth believed that poems should express genuine feeling in actual—not artificially elevated—language.

Lowell follows Wordsworth’s general themes closely. The reader might wonder why the poet values the dandelion so highly. The first answer is its power to liberate his imagination, exhibited in the imagined but still natural, pastoral landscape of stanza 4. If the poem ended here, then the theme would be that of the poet’s imagination as both the source of his sensitivity to nature and its reward; ordinary people lose the child’s imaginative power, but the poet keeps it alive.

The fifth stanza, however, introduces a fresh theme. The dandelion stimulates poetic imagination, but it also brings memories of earliest childhood. The description of children in the first stanza anticipated this theme, but here it becomes personal. The poet recalls a time of organic unity with nature.

Does this turn lead to the moral reflections that follow, or do they simply intrude? When Lowell published this poem in a book, he printed only the first five and the ninth stanzas. He apparently felt that the moralizing was excessive. In stanza 6, the dandelion suggests the value of commonplace acts of kindness. It also hints that life can be sad and lonely, and this pessimism grows more far-reaching in the following stanzas. The seventh stanza raises a different issue: the indifference of the present age to words of wisdom or beauty, which only a later era will appreciate. The eighth stanza states that all natural objects can convey moral, even divine, wisdom. The ninth stanza turns to all human beings, “the common brethren,” whose divine value would be visible if they looked on one another “with a child’s undoubting wisdom.”

It may be that Lowell thought these sentiments too miscellaneous. Of these four stanzas, he retained only stanza 9, which continued the motif of children and stayed closest to the basic theme—the high, even divine value of what is commonplace. The stanza gives the theme its general form: imaginative interaction with nature (expressed in the form of address to the flower, “thou”) teaches the poet (“me”) what all people (“we”) need to know to value one another properly. The poet is not contrasted with insensitive fellow human beings (as in the first two stanzas) but becomes the agent through whom the wisdom of creation is brought to all.

This gives the shorter printed version a suitable coherence, but the original version ended on a different note: the return of the personal in the form of the poet’s childhood, fused together with the theme of consolation in the face of life’s troubles. Not just imaginative stimulation, but also moral strength and solace are conferred on the poet by the early influence of nature. The poet offers not so much moral insight—which his fellow human beings need—as what he himself needs to sustain his joy in living. That is a different but not less valid conclusion, and readers may decide for themselves which they prefer.

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