It may be U. S. National Poetry Month, but one can’t deny the impact that English poets have had on poetry, particularly before the Modernists launched with significant American participation.
Modernism, as practiced by those early 20th Century Imagists sought to cleanse poetry of the rust and rot of “poetic language” and rote abstract metaphors. Strong, exact words, no more complex or numerous than necessary were to describe things that were actual things, not merely decorative analogies to describe something else. By the 1920s, that American import, T. S. Eliot, became the standard of one large stream of Modernism. Although inspired by this fresh use of language, the Eliot wing of Modernism sought to rid poetry of “romanticism,” defined as a relentlessly subjective expression of personal experience unshaped by a greater historical and cultural understanding. Poetic language might be refreshed, but the cult of the great poem returned, and said that poetry is best to be in service of great themes and elaborate—rather than elegant—structures of thought.
Early Imagist/Modernist poems were about moments. The High Modernism of Eliot allowed it to be about eras. Imagists prized images of things formerly ignored or costumed only in the rhetorical finery in 19th Century poetry. High Modernism still allowed the mundane to stand for sublime thoughts, but it often sought to display a level of knowledge and literary scholarship along with the everyday in its choice of images.
This is why it’s important to look at the early part of artistic movements. Often their best ideas become mutated as the movements develop. Their revolutions become the new orthodoxy.
Today’s piece, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)” is by English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders of Romanticism. It’s a poem that can be attached to an exact (April, Poetry Month) date: April 15th, 1802, and to a walk that Wordsworth and his sister took in rural England. But that’s not how the poem was written. Wordsworth wrote it a couple of years later. He referred to his sister’s detailed journal entry about the April walk to refresh his particulars. His wife supplied two critical lines for the final stanza. This was not a spontaneous outburst of subjective personal feeling at all.
I couldn’t make it to the Lake District, but even a month ago, daffodils were blooming during an English Spring in Kew Gardens
In a few weeks my lawn will look like this in Minnesota—only dandelions, not daffodils.
When I performed the version you’ll hear below, I made one significant change and one minor one. The minor change? I dropped the adjective golden from his line “A host, of golden daffodils.” I suspect I did this by accident as I performed it. Not to dis Wordsworth (and by the way, Billy, what’s with that obvious pen name “Words-worth” for your poetry gig?) but I think I improved the line when I sung it as “A host, a host of daffodils.” First off, daffodils are a common flower, and they are in the wild always yellow. Strict Imagists would say the golden adjective is therefore unnecessary—and it is, well, a gilding of the lily. I can’t recall my reason for the major change, dropping the next to last stanza—I may have desired to shorten the piece for performance—but it is the weakest stanza in the poem.
The resulting “Daffodils” I perform wouldn’t have been far from what F. S. Flint or Richard Aldington would have written a century or more later as pioneering Modernists. After all, Wordsworth said that he was trying to cleanse English poetry from special, high-flown, poetic diction too, to return it to “as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men.”
I do retain something else Wordsworth does here, something I don’t recall the Imagists doing much. “Daffodils” is presented in a framing device, while the Imagists were all about the presentation of immediacy. Wordsworth doesn’t say merely that looking at all these wildflowers, the temporary exultation of spring, was transfixing—and he says that less with that next-to-last stanza removed. This is not a poem only about letting us see them in their wild, external multitude through his eye on an April walk in nature.
No, the poem starts, deliberately, in past tense. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” And the poem closes even more removed. The speaker of the poem is not the energetic nature-walker strolling in Spring. In the actual, unknown, later time of the poem, he’s lying on a daybed, vacant or pensive. These daffodils are now only obtainable by the “inward eye” of recollection.
Setting something in the past can be seen as a tactic of sentimentality, something the Modernists distained, but what we have here is worth that risk. How so?
I thought it a delightful little nature poem when I read it as a teenager. Then I read it decades later, as my Eagle Scout father, the angler long accustomed to waiting perpendicular on the flat surface of lakes, the man who had bicycled across his rural state many times—while then, as I re-read, he was further and further confined to lying flat in rooms with the erasing of days. In that later time, noting the wild daffodils bliss is told to us in memory, I reversed Wordsworth’s famous dictum on the origin of poetry. In my reading, in that time, it became a poem, a song, of tranquility recollected in emotion.
Here’s my performance of “Daffodils” as I sang and accompanied it on acoustic guitar.