I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

by William Wordsworth

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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud Analysis

  • "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" exemplifies the work of the Lake Poets and the English Romantic poets more generally. It takes as its subject the sublime landscapes of the Lake District, and its sensibility—attentive to external beauty and inward imagination—is quintessentially Romantic.
  • Wordsworth helped to shape the modern lyric poem. In "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" one can find Wordsworth's interest in how the subjective mind processes and personalizes experience, an interest that is central to the lyric mode.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

In the two centuries since its 1807 publication, William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” remains one of the most celebrated works in English literature. Wordsworth, a central figure of the Early Romantic movement, believed that poetry should be an introspective practice. In this poem, he endeavors to distill his emotional response to a personally transformative experience: discovering thousands of daffodils dancing along a lakeshore. Wordsworth is perhaps the central figure of the Lake Poets, a group of Lake District writers that also includes Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. The natural landscape of the region was a bountiful source of inspiration for them. Wordsworth wrote “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” after a walk with his sister in the woods near his home.

In contrast to eighteenth-century English poetry—which was characterized by strict adherence to classical forms and metrical verse—Wordsworth’s poems instead seek to portray, in his words, “the real language of men.” Because of his distaste for overly formal poetic diction, his poems favor a more spontaneous and naturalistic idiom. Like many of Wordsworth’s poems, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” is a lyric poem. He uses the first-person perspective to cultivate philosophical insights into mental and emotional states, and the poem’s melodious sounds echo the speaker’s contemplative tone as he ponders the significance of this memory.

Wordsworth employs an ABABCC rhyme scheme, and the poem is in iambic tetrameter. With this sonic pattern, each line consists of roughly eight syllables, and each unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable; this gives the poem a natural lyrical progression and a song-like cadence. He plays with syntax while maintaining the poem’s lively rhythm, such as in the lines “Ten thousand saw I at a glance,” “And then my heart with pleasure fills,” and “For oft when on my couch I lie.” By restructuring these lines to end with verbs, Wordsworth exemplifies his approach to poetic language: each line flows into the next with exuberant momentum while the speaker navigates his thoughts and feelings.

At the heart of this poem is the jubilant image of the dancing daffodils, and Wordsworth employs poignant imagery to communicate the significance that this memory has had on his psychological well-being. His personification of the flowers as dancers, “tossing their heads” and cheerfully “fluttering” in the breeze, contrasts with the speaker’s self-portrayal in the titular opening line, in which he likens himself to a cloud. This straightforward simile, while painting a picture of his natural surroundings, also introduces his exploration of the connection between external environment and interior state. The speaker compares himself to a cloud drifting unmoored from Earth. When he then observes the “crowd” of golden daffodils animating the landscape, he becomes reinvigorated. The dancing daffodils—in their effervescent natural beauty and delightful energy—seem to represent freedom of the spirit, reminding the speaker of nature’s eternal majesty.

Wordsworth exemplifies the concept of the sublime—as in, the extraordinary phenomenon that occurs when one’s spirit becomes consumed by nature’s extraordinary power—with his metaphor of the daffodils as stars. Wordsworth was influenced by Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay on the idea of the sublime. In that essay, Burke investigates the raw emotional responses to the supernatural, mysterious, and unknown elements of the universe. Wordsworth’s poetic process is thus driven by emotion rather than rational thought, and as with other writers who engage with the sublime in literature, he uses evocative language to accentuate these emotions.

Considering that “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” evolved from his memory of encountering the daffodils while out on a walk, Wordsworth advocated for experiential awareness in poetry. In...

(This entire section contains 697 words.)

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the final stanza, the speaker illustrates how the visual phenomenon of the daffodils, once glimpsed, are forever inscribed in his memory. Later on, indoors and in solitude, the speaker can imaginatively summon forth the daffodils, which fill him with pleasure. The importance of the imagination—which Wordsworth aptly refers to as “that inward eye”—is a central concern of Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets. To such poets, one’s mental image of a thing is as important as the thing in itself.

The Poem

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“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

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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 favor of the aesthetic wealth of the last eight lines.

The wind also occasions the poem’s powerful kinesthetic images—images of the tactile sensation of one’s own motion or empathy with another’s. The first three forms of a key word—“dancing,” “dance,” and “danced”—literally name the wind’s past effects, and the fourth, “dances,” names the continuing effect of remembering the past wind; “flash” does the same. Even more important, the wind unites the many individual flowers, waves, or stars by making them perform together some single action; they are not a multitude of separate and isolated beings, for although they are originally perceived merely as “a crowd,/ A host,” they soon form a community.

As such they can be company for the lonely poet: Since he was a cloud at the beginning of the poem, he was also subject to the wind’s motion. The wind has brought him to the destined meeting. His condition at the end of the poem involves no literal wind but, instead, the psychological results of the original experience: Emotion-charged memory is the psychic wind that often blows the poet and the daffodils together again. Moreover, the poet relives the experience so much more deeply in later years that this psychic wind sets his heart dancing with his old friends the daffodils, even though he had not danced with them during the original encounter.

The three main groups—daffodils, waves, and stars—both as they were and as they are remembered, create some correlatives that make the poem applicable to vast ranges of space and time: as below (daffodils), so above (stars); as on sea (waves), so on land (daffodils); as in day (waves and daffodils), so at night (stars); as in the past (daffodils, waves, and stars), so in the present (they and their associated emotions when recollected in tranquillity).