Outline

I. William Wordsworth (1770-1850), "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

A. Background of the poem: Wordsworth wrote the poem in 1804, two years after a walk around Ullswater in his native Lake district. His sister Dorothy recorded her experience of the same walk, and it is interesting (although not necessary) to see the differences between her prose account and his later version of the same experience.

1. Interestingly, in the poem, Dorothy is not mentioned.

2. Her account of coming upon the scene is more gradual; his poetic rendering is an epiphany.

B. The force of simile: the poem serves as an introduction to some simple (and other, not-so-simple) modes of poetic figuration (or "troping"). It begins with a simile (I was like a cloud) and moves into other kinds of comparisons.

1. He (Wordsworth) is solitary, but he is also part of a group.

2. In another simile, he makes the daffodils themselves solitary, or removed.

C. The role of personification: Wordsworth chooses to humanize (or personify) his daffodils, and we may wonder why. There is a continual exchange between him and his flowers, as he surveys his position by comparison with theirs.

D. Grammar and word choice: once again, as I have already suggested, it is important to examine a poet's diction and to ask why he chooses certain words instead of other, almost equivalent ones. What do we make of "host," "golden," "wealth," "show," and the lines "A poet could not but be gay/In such a jocund company"?

E. Importance of repetition and variation: One thing we notice is that many of the poem's opening details are repeated, though with variation, in subsequent stanzas, and we must determine the force of such repetition. Above all, we notice two special twists in stanza 4: a repetition of all of the previous details and a shift in tense from the past to the generalized present.

1. Wordsworth also includes—and in some cases repeats—references to the four classical elements: air, earth, fire, water.

2. The words "dance" or "dancing" appear in all four stanzas.

F. Overall unity: the poem not only recounts, but also dramatizes, the workings of the human mind (one of Wordsworth's great themes) and makes an important statement about the independent, unwilled, and uncontrollable faculty of memory. It does so, at its climax, with a telling and delightful use of alliteration and a particular emphasis on a preposition (a part of speech that Wordsworth used to great advantage), in this case "with," that links him to the flowers.

II. "The Solitary Reaper" (1805).

A. As "mirror image" of "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud": this poem is also an encounter of sorts, with a distant human being instead of a field of flowers.

1. It is in a real way a mirror image of the daffodils poem.

2. Look at its tenses: where is the poet, and where are we, at the poem's start, and at its finish?

3. There is a reversal of the tenses as we encountered them in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

B. As an encounter poem: "The Solitary Reaper" fits, as well, into a genre of poems (Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West" are other examples) that record a poet's experience of music, whether from a human or a non-human source. It is natural, of course, for a poet to be interested in music, and we can infer some specific reasons for Wordsworth's experience here.

C. Poetry between music and language: one of the main themes of the poem is, of course, the poet's attraction to sheer music, a song being sung in a language he cannot understand (Erse or Gaelic). So the solitary reaper is herself de-personified and made into something like a bird.

D. Themes of life and death: at the same time, we sense a kind of suggestiveness in her role as a reaper (not grim, certainly, but connected to the harvest).

1. Solitude is definitely a theme.

2. Perhaps the poem has other possibilities? In fact, once we realize that the direct address ("Behold," "stop," and so forth) to either the reader or the poet himself echoes the traditional language of epitaph poetry, then we get the sense that Wordsworth is recounting something like an experience from another dimension.

3. Wordsworth is addressing himself from within himself.

E. Reaching toward eternity.

1. Such a dimension is implicit in the poem's commands, its address, its titular figure, its speaker's trouble with understanding her song, the various possibilities he infers for its themes, and above all, by its own use of present and past tenses.

2. She is always singing to him in a continual present, alive, although far away and long ago herself.

3. He hears her song in his heart, like a burden.

F. But did it happen this way? Unlike "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," "The Solitary Reaper" has no autobiographical origin. Wordsworth read a travel account describing the scene.

1. We shall see whether this fact makes any difference in our appreciation and understanding of this poem—or perhaps of any poem.

2. The nature of the "first-person speaker" in a lyric is as much a piece of fiction as any fable the poet can choose to employ.

3. Never assume that it is the poet him- or herself who is actually having the experience, even when the poet is William Wordsworth, whose work is almost always about himself. One can be fooled.

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