William Wordsworth is often held as the ultimate example of the English Romantic period, particularly with his publication of the Lyrical Ballads. Together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he is credited with having started the entire movement, which was radically different from what the reading public knew (Davies, 1980). Other analysts indicate numerous other writers of the time who might have given Wordsworth some impetus. “Thomson, Burns, Cowper, Gray, Collins, and Chatterton are honored as precursors, Percy, and the Warton’s as initiators. The trio, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, are recognized as the founders and, as time progressed, Byron, Shelley, and Keats were added in spite of the fact that this new group of poets denounced the older for political reasons” (Welleck, 2003). These writers, Wordsworth included, were heavily influenced by the events that were taking place in their worlds. An understanding of Wordsworth’s life and times may help to provide some insight into his works of poetry while an examination of his poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, reveals the important characteristics of the Romantics.
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Although the Romantic Period would seem to be so named because of an unusual fascination with stories of love and what we consider ‘romance’ today, the actual literary movement was characterized by a complete ideology that focused on the natural, picturesque, and the fantastic as they might have been understood in an idealized Golden Age of society. As a literary movement, it is recognized to have begun sometime during the 1770s and extended into the mid-1800s, a bit longer in America (“Introduction”, 2001). Occurring as it did from the middle of the 1700s to the middle of the 1800s, the Romantic Period was an age of tremendous change and upheaval. The American Revolution shook the world in 1776, inspiring the French Revolution in 1789 (“Introduction”, 2001). The Industrial Revolution also marked this period, introducing a new world view that challenged traditional social structures and provided an opportunity for the enterprising common man.
Life began its transition from being primarily dictated by the land one owned to an economic structure based on commerce and manufacturing (Greenblatt, 2005). In this switch, there was a great deal of social upheaval as people living in these changing times began to question the status quo. Social class structures were beginning to break down as common men were able to make fortunes in industry and landowners found it more and more difficult to keep the idyllic life they’d constructed alive. “A revolutionary energy was also at the core of Romanticism, which quite consciously set out to transform not only the theory and practice of poetry (and all art), but the very way we perceive the world” (“Introduction”, 2001). Characteristics of the genre identified by Welleck (2003) include a “revolt against the principles of neo-classicism criticism, the rediscovery of older English literature, the turn toward subjectivity and the worship of external nature slowly prepared during the eighteenth century and stated boldly in Wordsworth and Shelley” (196).
Within this movement, nature was esteemed not only because of the creative element inherent in it but also because of the manifestation of the imagination that could be found within it. This included the sense that we create what we see, beginning to recognize how the representation of social issues might help to bring about change in these same social issues. The world was full of symbols and signs that would portend future events and actions which were knowable through their relationship to the myths and legends of antiquity. These same signs and symbols retained within themselves the ability to heal the inner man, reconnecting him to his natural state and refreshing the mind into a more peaceful condition. In addition to the return to nature, many of the concepts that emerged as a part of Romanticism were reactions to the social upheaval that was taking place at this time coupled with a shifting economic structure.
During the ‘Romantic Period’, the poets took part in a movement against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, where they protested (with their poetry) the ideals of those Europeans who sought to bring reason and ‘Enlightenment’ to the world. Grob, for instance, argues that Wordsworth’s purpose was to challenge the present social order that was focused on the “disorganized and directionless” (1973: 19) mode of existence found in “the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world” (Wordsworth, 52-53) and present a more favorable development. The Romantics expressed their defiance of the so-called ‘reason’ that both the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment brought to society.
These elements can easily be traced through Wordsworth’s poetry and life experiences. Wordsworth was born in 1770 the second child of five and generally known for having a wild nature. He was particularly close to his younger sister Dorothy, who was only a year younger than he and went along with his wild games (Davies, 1980). His childhood was filled with the experiences of nature and its importance in his later life can be easily tracked through such poems as Tintern Abbey and throughout the Lyrical Ballads. His parents both died while he was still young, forcing his uncles to take care of the children and bringing about the separation of Wordsworth from his sister as he was sent to Cambridge. Although he did finish school, he did so based upon his own study program and spent the years following school wandering through revolutionary France. It was here that he picked up many of his ideas regarding the needed social and political change (Davies, 1980). Like the natural world, many of these ideas would find expression in his poems.
Wordsworth’s life and experiences went a long way toward informing the poetry that would make him famous for centuries to come. Through his early life and later escapes, Wordsworth continued to take refuge and seek reinvigoration within the confines of nature rather than in the greater density populations of the cities and towns. When too many people came together, he felt the natural order and grace of human nature was disguised and corrupted. By standing back and taking an objective viewpoint, not becoming a part of the crowd at all, Wordsworth indicates that one can gain the sense of self that seems to be completely lacking in the humanity of the city because of the ability to see not only the individual parts as they mill around below but also of the whole design, which becomes liberating in much the same way that he has found in nature. While this sense of harmony was not available to the population in general, Wordsworth himself was able to find a sense of peace, beauty, and design by separating himself from the general press and allowing himself to simply observe. This tendency to observe often appeared within his writing, thus creating a new genre of poetry that would have a lasting impact on numerous writers to come.
Through this detached view of humanity, Wordsworth epitomized several of the characteristics that would identify Romantic writers. The first of these concepts was the idea that nature and natural settings were the sources of everything good and wholesome. This was strongly contrasted with the concept of the city and the urban. The urban setting is illustrated as necessary for the progression of humanity, but a blight upon the spirit. The only solution to this blight is an appreciation for the beauties of nature. While it was necessary to experience this beauty first-hand at least once, it was not necessary to be in the physical presence of nature at all times in order to benefit from it. Simply the memory of a serene setting was considered sufficient to re-establish equilibrium and peace within the mind that has once been connected to it. Compared to some of his other works, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is a short poem, yet all of these concepts, including the centrality of nature, the healing power of nature, and the unhealthy environment of the ‘civilized’ world can be discerned within it.
The poem begins with the necessary identification with nature that was the basis upon which the Romantics founded their ideas. Within the first two lines, Wordsworth personifies himself as an ephemeral cloud “that floats on high o’er vales and hills” (2). As a cloud, Wordsworth is floating above the earth, having no impact upon it himself but merely permitted the observer role he frequently assigned himself. It is significant that the type of cloud he might be is not specified, merely floating over various landscapes. This demonstrates his ineffectiveness in bringing about changes in the natural earthly setting and allows the reader to envision a wispy, transcendent thing that is only just viewed in a clear sky. Through this personification, he establishes his connection to nature as something spiritual and otherworldly. This emphasizes the strength of the role nature has taken in his life and the depth with which he felt it could affect the human soul.
This serene image thus created is suddenly interrupted within the same stanza with the insertion of language reminiscent of the city, civilization, and its issues: “When all at once I saw a crowd / A host” (3-4). These are not terms we usually associate with nature as Wordsworth has done, but are instead words we think of when thinking of an unpleasant mob of people. These words bring forward in our minds the sense of pressure, stress, a loss of individuality, and a diminution of the self. However, this crowd is not of people but is instead identified as a great number of golden daffodils. The golden color adds to the sense of richness and plenty that has already been suggested in the wanderings of the cloud within the first two lines while the flower itself was often associated with the ideas associated with Easter and rebirth.
Another name for the daffodil is narcissus, which refers back to an ancient myth in which a handsome youth became so enthralled with his own reflection in the water that he became rooted to the spot. Both of these connotations of the flower are sure to have been known by Wordsworth as he lived in a time when the language of flowers was commonly used as a means of communicating secret messages between lovers and friends. The rest of the scene thus suggests itself, “besides the lake, beneath the trees / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze” (5-6). This final image, the idea of flowers fluttering and dancing, suggests not the type of crowds and pressure that one associate with the city, but rather the loose and free skirts of pretty young women as they dance about in the open glade next to a sparkling lake. This stanza exudes the impression of spiritual serenity, peace, and open space.
The second stanza only builds on this image, illustrating the difference between the crowds of daffodils as compared to the crowds of people. Wordsworth does this again not as much by direct comparison but through the use of specific words employed in unusual ways to allude to human behaviors while still permitting the beauty of nature to shine through. The flowers are ‘continuous’ as is the press of the people in the cities and they stretch in a ‘never-ending line’ as would a line of infantrymen or soldiers in the field. He describes the edge of the lake not as the natural shoreline or the meeting of earth and water, but instead within scientific mathematical terms as the ‘margin’ while the sheer numbers of individuals present, “Ten thousand saw I at a glance” (11), reinforce the ideas of armies and mobs of humanity.
Despite this use of language, these human, military, and scientific terms are constantly interrupted with further images and comparisons with nature. The flowers are compared directly to the constancy of the stars above instead of the numbers of people filling the cities, bringing the mind immediately back into line with nature and natural elements. To be sure the serenity of the moment is not lost, Wordsworth dwells on the natural elements of this image, again pulling in the spiritual nature of the experience as he directs attention to the heavens: “Continuous as the stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way” (7-8). While the daffodils might represent a mob such as would overwhelm the individual unpleasantly had they been people of any sort, lining the bay as in some form of a fortress, they are instead seen to be “tossing their heads in sprightly dance” (12), again reinforcing the previous image of nature as something wild, free and never constrained or pressed.
It is within the third stanza that Wordsworth begins to hint at the power of nature to heal the human spirit beginning with the initial physical experience. As the stanza opens, he ensures that the image is firmly entrenched in its natural setting complete with its spiritual connotations by personifying the flowers with the most enjoyable of human emotions: “The waves beside them danced, but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee” (13-14). Within these two lines, nature has lost all of its connection with the troubles of the city. There is no language here that even remotely alludes to the types of unpleasant human activities seen earlier in the poem and nature is seen instead to be completely reveling in its mere existence. Not only the flowers, but the waves and everything in view seems to be dancing in celebration of life itself.
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It is here, in the physical presence of such exuberance, that the healing process begins within the soul of the man: “A poet could not but be gay” (15). Whether he is a cloud or a human man standing on a hillside overlooking this scene, Wordsworth emphasizes the inability of the human spirit to completely take in all of nature’s wonders, and, in the process, hints at the inability of language to completely capture the splendor and the effects of nature. This concept is often referred to as the sublime and is expressed here in line 17: “I gazed – and gazed – but little thought”. Traditional definitions of the sublime identify it as something that transcends words and definition while striking the mind motionless in its inability to conceptualize regarding the object before it (Burke, 2001). The idea that this experience of the sublime might have long-lasting effects is hinted at in the final lines of the stanza, “what wealth the show to me had brought” (18). This lays the groundwork for his final argument, that nature alone is the cure for the ills of the city and the press of mankind.
In the final stanza of his poem, Wordsworth brings the other elements of the Romantic genre into play, first indicating the negative influences of the city upon the human psyche and then emphasizing the ability of nature to return one to equilibrium. The necessity of man to live with other men is suggested, though not explicitly stated, in Wordsworth’s comment regarding his tendency to lie on his couch rather than partaking of natural scenes outdoors. This suggests that the couch is his only recourse in daily life to rest for a moment or two away from the stresses and strains of city life. That this is stressful is brought forward as he illustrates the mood with which he takes to his couch, “in vacant or in pensive mood” (20). Knowing what we do of his life helps to inform these lines somewhat and grasp the context with which he wrote.
Despite his absence from nature, though, the natural scenes he had experienced previously, including the images of the dancing daffodils beheld that one day, retain their power to uplift his spirit and thus cure him of the ills of society. “They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils” (21-24). Thus, it is only through nature that one is able to establish a connection with the ‘inward eye’ that provides the necessary glimpse of memory and it is only this memory that enables the author to re-establish his connection with his own inner peace and joy. Then, as spiritually as he had experienced the scene upon his physical presence within it, Wordsworth is able to experience it again as his heart returns to dance again with the daffodils.
Even within so short a poem as “Wandering Lonely as a Cloud”, Wordsworth is able to encapsulate many of the foundational ideas contained within the Romantic literary movement that he himself helped to found. As the poem progresses, Wordsworth introduces a slight sense of tension between the serenity he finds in nature with the language and tension of the city. The images he creates are an attempt to convey the sense of the sublime in nature that has the power to take the human soul out of the body to a much deeper or higher spiritual experience. Yet, being human, the individual cannot remain in this state for all time and must return, at least at times, to the real life of the city and society. Having once experienced it, though, Wordsworth illustrates how the sublimity of nature retains its power to heal the human spirit within the confines of memory.
This attitude and emphasis upon nature as compared to the city were undoubtedly influenced profoundly by his childhood as he compared the bliss of his early years in the country with the confusion and contention he found in his later years in the city. However, it was also a reaction joined by many voices, to the rapid and profound changes that were taking place in his society during his lifetime. Many writers, led by Wordsworth, spoke out against the dehumanizing influence of the factories and the overcrowding of the cities even as they attempted to preserve some sense of the rolling green beauty of the English countryside, quickly being destroyed through privatization, construction, and/or mining. In presenting their rich imagery and natural ruminations, these authors were also attempting to preserve some sense of the England they had known in their childhood, realizing that something powerful and irreplaceable was being lost in the rush for power and progress.
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