The Poem

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James Russell Lowell’s “To the Dandelion” consists of ten nine-line stanzas. The third line of each stanza has six syllables, the seventh has eight, and the rest have ten. Addressing the dandelion, the poet meditates on the riches of ordinary nature, which stimulates his imagination and recalls his childhood. He draws moral lessons and also realizes the joy and consolation such humble gifts bring, even in life’s “dreariest days.”

The poet opens by addressing the “Dear common flower.” Children rejoice in it as though it were a treasure, “An Eldorado in the grass.” The flower blooms in early May, but the poet values it more than “all the prouder summer-blooms.” The metaphor of gold continues in the second stanza. Unlike the gold that Spanish galleons sought in the New World or that misers hoard, spring scatters this gold lavishly, though most people overlook it. For the poet, the flower transports him in imagination to warmer climes and to a pleasure greater than that of the bee delighting in a summer lily. In the fourth stanza, the dandelion stimulates the poet to imagine a pastoral summer landscape. He recalls his childhood in stanza 5, “When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.”

The poet is now led to moral insights. The lowly dandelion is the “type” of the “meek charities,” the small kindnesses that often nourish “A starving heart” and give it “Some glimpse of God.” The flower’s seeds are like the words of poet and sage, borne on the wind to the future, raised into the sky as guiding stars. All the lowly plants would teach this wisdom, could one but read it. Yet earnest faith may cull a few syllables that can soothe life’s ache and open heaven’s portals, which are near humans in everyday life. By lavishing this flower, at once “gold” and “common,” nature teaches the poet to deem every human heart sacred. People could read the heavenly secrets if they read “with a child’s undoubting wisdom . . ./these living pages of God’s book.”

Yet, whether the poet can learn this wisdom or not, the flower brings back to him the purity of childhood. Even in dreary days, “Nature’s first lowly influences” continue to bring “peace and hope.”

Forms and Devices

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The poet uses a variety of devices to express the extraordinary value that he sees in the dandelion, a common natural object. The first three stanzas present a series of contrasts and metaphors that interlock in complicated ways. The poet calls the flower “harmless gold” by the dusty road and then elaborates the flower’s color into a comparison with the precious metal. Into a sentence that states his preference for the dandelion over the “prouder” flowers of summer, he inserts a long subordinate clause, picturing children rejoicing in the golden flowers as a treasure, “An Eldorado in the grass.” In the third stanza, the dandelion contrasts with the gold that the Spanish sought and that misers hoard. It is scattered before rich and poor but commonly overlooked. Thus, children, God, and the poet share a perspective that values the dandelion, in contrast to proud or greedy people who neglect or overlook it entirely.

The poet now carries through on the contrast between the dandelion and later summer flowers. The dandelion makes the poet think of warmer climates. This imaginative pleasure is greater than that of a bee enjoying a lily in summer’s prime. In the fourth stanza, the poet fills out this imaginative stimulus by describing a complete pastoral summer landscape. In the next stanza the dandelion carries the poet’s mind back...

(This entire section contains 652 words.)

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to childhood and the robin’s song. The imaginative engagement with nature leads to recollection of an actual engagement in childhood. Thus the poem proceeds by elaborating real or metaphoric associations to flesh out the basic theme: the value of the dandelion.

These imaginative and remembered pictures lead to moral reflections. Placing the right value on the common dandelion supports placing the right value on common kindnesses. They are “Love’s smallest coin,” a phrase that carries forward the metaphor of a dandelion blossom as a gold coin. They give the suffering and lonely a “glimpse of God.” Both the connection to divinity and the sense that daily life is marked by strife, indifference to wisdom, and dreariness continue through the remaining stanzas.

The flower’s seeds are seen as “words of poet and of sage.” They are borne on the wind of time to the future and up to the heavens, where they become guiding stars. The use of metaphor continues through the rest of the poem. From all of nature’s lowly plants, if people approach them in the right spirit, they can “cull/ Some syllables” of wisdom, “A spell to soothe life’s bitterest ache.” From nature’s prodigality with gifts like the dandelion, people also learn to value “every human heart.” People are like “pages of God’s book,” but to read them one must see “with a child’s undoubting wisdom.” Thus the motif of the child’s perspective returns and leads into the final stanza. The poet may or may not be able to attain these moral insights, but at least he can read the “legends of childhood.” To nature’s early influence, people owe the “peace and hope” that sustain them in dreary days. The recurrence and elaboration of motifs and metaphors help unify the poem.

The style of the poem is a remarkable fusion of formal complexity with conversational flow. Each stanza is a single long sentence, sometimes punctuated with semicolons, colons, or dashes but giving the effect of a slow-moving rumination. Enjambment often carries the thought over a change in rhyme, again sustaining the winding course of thought. The rhyme scheme begins with five lines of crossed rhyme (ababa), assuring forward motion, but each stanza ends with two couplets (ccdd), bringing it to a gentle stop. The meter is iambic but with considerable flexibility, so that the stresses reflect the rise and fall of spoken language and avoid stiffness and monotony. The diction and phrasing are rarely “poetic” but for the most part that of ordinary educated speech.