Wordsworth, Plant Ecology & Five Men Named Ian

Since early February, I have read a poem each morning as part of an assignment (really, a practice) my creative writing teacher gave to our class at the start of the semester. His stated purpose in assigning this was for us to find lessons for our writing in the work of fellow authors. I’ve certainly felt its benefit in this regard, and have enjoyed the moment of reflection and transportation to another context it provides, but the practice has also been an unforeseen catalyst for inquiry and research, which seem suitable for sharing in this blog.

I also continue to find serendipitous connections between the poems I read on a given morning and conversations, other writings, and occurrences in the days or weeks following my reading. Sometimes this happens in reverse, when a poem I’m reading connects with something that’s happened or that I’ve read a day or so prior. More frequently, the poems raise questions that I then explore through casual research. I plan to feature some of these daily poem experiences here.

Here’s a friendly one to begin with:

Poem: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth

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.

Source: Poetry Foundation. Visit this page to listen to an audio reading

I ended with this poem on Saturday after reading a few others from my Faber & Faber edition of Wordsworth poems selected by Seamus Heaney. I had picked up this volume in an unattractive, discount bookshop in Notting Hill (a neighborhood far from mine where I rarely ventured) while living in London during my second round of graduate school four years ago. I had been intending to pick up some Wordsworth before spending a very early spring break in the Lake District, and happened upon it after having wandered through Portobello Road Market alone on a Sunday.

 

In the Lake District, my friend Lauren and I stayed in the village of Grasemere, where Wordsworth had lived, and spent our days climbing hills, racing rain clouds, and deciphering rural bus timetables (we didn’t have a car). We also encountered a total of five men named Ian, a curiosity I later partially resolved by looking up the name to find that “Ian” is of Scottish Gaelic origin and corresponds to the English “John.” I brought my Wordsworth volume with me, and whenever we reached one of the landscape features described in his poems, I read from it aloud (Lauren was very tolerant in this regard). Though it was cold and rainy or snowy most days, it was still a one-time English major’s dream.

bouldering

sheep

easdale tarn

mountain climb

ah-ha moment

grasmere

When researching for a visit to the Lake District, one is invariably advised both on websites and in guidebooks about the approximate dates of daffodil season.  This isn’t surprising, given that many tourists to the area have come expressly because of their interest in Wordsworth—”I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is his most famous poem—or other Lake Poets. Even those who don’t come for literary reasons can thank (or curse) them and more modern authors like Beatrix Potter for helping to make it such a highly sought-out tourist destination.

Given my familiarity with Wordsworth and my previous travel to the Lake District, I was tempted to skip over the poem. Like many of Wordsworth’s poems, it’s on the florid side (no pun intended), not to mention that it’s over- (or mis-) quoted in online travel forums and has inspired use of the name “The Daffodil” for about every other hotel or B&B in the Lakes. I persisted and read the familiar poem through (probably because it is short), but as soon as I put it down, I was struck by a doubt that had never crossed my mind before. Wordsworth describes happening suddenly upon a “host, of golden daffodils” beneath trees along a lakeshore. “Host” certainly signifies a large number, but he goes on to reiterate their innumerability no less than three times in the next stanza:

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.

For the life of me, I could not recall ever having seen an endless succession of daffodils anywhere, let alone in the wild. In fact, I could not recall ever having seen a single daffodil in the wild, though perhaps my memory was failing me, or I hadn’t noticed them if I’d passed by them. Regardless, I was intrigued and decided to look into whether daffodils existed in a wild form in the UK. We had actually been in the Lake District at the early end of daffodil season and had only seen two, both in the garden at Dove Cottage, one of Wordsworth’s homes in Grasmere, where they were most likely planted.

From conservation charity Plantlife’s website, I learned that the wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp pseudonarcissus) does in fact exist. However, though it was once one of the most common wildflowers to be found in the English and Welsh countryside, it declined mysteriously in the mid-nineteenth century (Wordsworth’s poem was inspired by a walk he took with his sister on April 15, 1802).  Plantlife identifies the simultaneous fall in cash-crops grown by locals hoping to capitalizing on its popularity as a possible culprit for the flower’s decline, and suggests that this, combined with agricultural intensification and mismanagement of its habitat, may explain why wild populations are increasingly rare. Currently, the wild flower survives in patchy populations on the western side of Britain.

wild daffodils

Wild daffodils © Trevor Dines

According to the entry, the wild daffodil is smaller than horticultural varieties, with paler petals, and grows in groups, typically in woods, fields, and orchards (Wildlifetrusts.org  adds that the wild variety can also be distinguished from its garden relatives by its two-tone look—pale yellow petals surrounding a darker yellow trumpet—and its relatively short height).

Not surprisingly,  the page is topped with the following quote:

“When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils”

After writing this post, I happened upon this Paris Review article on the 200th anniversary of Wordsworth’s poem. I highly recommend reading it for some amusing insight into the poem’s modern-day reception (includes a link to a parody of the poem for a Heinekin commercial).

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