I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” resulted from an experience of William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy while on a walking tour of the Ullswater region in April, 1802. Dorothy wrote of it at length in her journal; when the poet began to compose the present poem two years later, his wife Mary Hutchinson Wordsworth contributed what are now lines 21-22, which William correctly identified as the best two in the poem. While rearranging his works for an 1815 publication, Wordsworth added the second stanza. As it presently stands, this poem is reputed to be the most anthologized poem in the world.

The “I” of the poem is explicitly a poet (line 15); the implied “you” is therefore explicitly a reader of a poem. Such clear roles doubtless add to the poem’s illusion of simplicity.

The final stanza confers poetic meaning upon the experience of the previous three descriptive and narrative stanzas. In his famous preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth said that poetry results from “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” and in the fourth stanza the poet, in tranquillity, recollects an earlier experience and sees more deeply into it. Suddenly the poem’s simplicity is complicated by the addition of an explicit program: Wordsworth is exemplifying his contention that the events and emotions of the first three stanzas must recur in an altered mode of existence, neither in nature nor in history but in memory, if they are to occasion a poem.

Returning to the beginning of the poem, one finds the poet hiking on a windy day. He has no set destination. Happening upon innumerable wild daffodils, he compares them to a crowd of people and to an army (“host” implies that the flowers are the heavenly army of the divinity). He compares the densely packed flowers to the stars in the Milky Way and to a multitude of dancers engaged in a spirited dance. This stanza, added in 1815, balances the original event more evenly between isolated subject (“I”) and communal object (daffodils) by concentrating on the external scene. The other three stanzas rely heavily on the first-person singular.

The poet had enjoyed the event even while he experienced it, but in later years, when he is more mature, he comments that at the earlier time he had not recognized its full value. In the final six lines, the poet moves into the present tense, using the key Wordsworthian word “oft” to generalize about the reiterated and enduring effects of recollection. The word “vacant” usually connotes for Wordsworth positive things such as vacations. “Pensive,” by contrast, implies melancholy, the serious, gloomy, earthbound humor among the four humors; but it mainly serves as a dark foil to set off the bright and joyful conclusion.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem contains four six-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, rhyming ababcc. The usual metrical substitutions (trochee or anapest for iamb) are very sparingly used. Wind characterized the original experience. Dorothy Wordsworth made it a strong unifying motif of her journal entry. It endured while her brother deleted and altered other particulars, and it continues to unify the reader’s experience of the poem.

The wind enhances almost every visual aspect of this highly visual poem. The visual words that imply movement—“fluttering,” “dancing,” “shine,” and “sparkling”—all imply the motion imparted by the wind. The Milky Way stars even “twinkle” because of the instability of the upper air. The one visual image that suggests no motion, “golden,” perhaps devalues literal material wealth in...

(The entire section is 889 words.)