‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

'Daffodils'. One of the most desperately famous poems of English Romanticism, this; which (having students discuss it in relation to the passage from Dorothy Wordworth's journal that acted as specific prompt to William's versifying) turns it into one of Romanticism's most teachable moments. The female provenance occluded; the male poet taking all the credit and so on. Maybe not outright plagiary, but something close to that. As far as William's poem is concerned, you may or may not know that the breed of daffodil native to Westmoreland at that time was the narcissus pseudonarcissus, sometimes called the Lent Lily: it has (see image above) a much whiter crown of flowers than the all-yellow daffodil familiar nowadays. Not sure knowing that adds much to our appreciation of the poem, except perhaps for making the comparison of flowers and stars a little less of a stretch:
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.
Here, by way of comparison, is the journal entry by Dorothy that, two years after the walk it records, William read and adapted into his poem:
Thursday 15th [April, 1802]. It was a threatening misty morning—but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us but turned back. The wind was furious and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large Boat-house, then under a furze Bush opposite Mr Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath the Lake was rough. There was a Boat by itself floating in the middle of the Bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the Twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working, a few primroses by the roadside, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea. Rain came on—we were wet when we reached Luffs but we called in. Luckily all was chearless and gloomy so we faced the storm—we must have been wet if we had waited—put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the Landlady looked sour but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper. Excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/- when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the Library piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow park like skeletons. [Mary Moorman, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803 (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), 109-110]
William's poem is a very vertical, abrupt piece: he's up like a cloud, he's down beneath the trees and in the dirt with the flowers; he's back up with the stars, he's down on his couch. Where Dorothy describes the process of gradually coming across more and more of the daffodils ('When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side ... as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.'), William sees his blooms altogether and 'all at once'. Much abrupt. Mucho abrupto. Conversely, where William cuts sharply from encountering the daffodils to being, suddenly, far removed from them, on his couch in pensive mood, Dorothy spools the walk out with lots of vivid detail, and then reels it back in again. For Dorothy not only are the daffodils part of a rich variety of other blooms ('primroses, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, pile wort'), but the daffodils themselves do more than just dance: some lay their heads down as if sleeping, some laugh, some reel and dance, some glance. For William there are only daffodils, a nether-sky of daffodils in oppressive monotonous profusion, and all they do is dance: 'dancing [6] ... never-ending [9] ... dance [12] ... danced [13] ... dances [24]'. I think by numbering the daffodils, as he does in line 6, Wordsworth in a small way adds to this sense of slightly manic monotony.

But the main difference between the two accounts is that Dorothy's is so naturally embedded in a human context where William's is so alienated from precisely that. In Dorothy's version she and William go walking, with (for a time) Mrs Clarkson, and along the way they recall Mrs Coleridge, and are kindly treated by a women in the inn and sourly by the landlady. And it's not just a personal context. This is a landscape being worked: the ploughman is turning over the April soil; when the Wordsworths hop over a wall to escape some cows they meet 'people working'. This landscape, described with such vivid particularity, and with such an fine sense of pace and flow, is a lived-in landscape, various and well-textured. Nor is it idealised: the rougher weather makes the Wordsworths frère et soeur wet and unhappy; and we realise it won't make the lives of the workmen and ploughmen any more pleasant. The deer at the end are skeleton thin because they're the ones who have survived—just—the starvation of winter and made it into the start of Spring. By contrast William has excised not only Dorothy but everybody else as well from his account: it's all I, I, I; it's 'A' poet; it's the bliss of solitude. It's the psychosubjective claustrophobia of the Egotistical Sublime. It's Mr Narcissus admiring his own reflection in the narcissus pseudonarcissi.

We could say that Dorothy's account is 'more novelistic' and Wordsworth's pared down poem more 'lyrical'. But that hardly seems right. True there are many novel-like details in Dorothy's account ('Excellent ham and potatoes') but, as Coleridge, and Wordsworth himself, several times say, prose is no true antithesis of poetry. And the fact is, there is immense lyrical subtlety and effectiveness in Dorothy's account, and not only in the way she starts, more or less, with iambic pentameters:
It was a threat'ning misty morn—but mild.
We set off after dinner from Eusemere.
Ms Clarkson went a short way with us but
Turned back. The wind was furious and we thought
and then again, a little later
The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves
At diff'rent distances and in the midst
Of the water like the sea the rain came on
and so on. There's also the way, throughout, her precisely observed prose keeps trembling on the edge of reverting to verse:
The hawthorns here are black and green,
The birches there are greenish
But there is more of purple seen
On the Twigs ...
and so on. It is a poetry of variety, as Wordsworth's is a poetry of monotony. More, as verse this little lyric is not WW's best: in what universe is 'Ten thousand saw I at a glance' a better line of poetry than 'I saw ten thousand at a glance'? And 'What wealth the show to me had brought' is a frankly contorted line. So I suppose the question becomes: why has this poem become so very, very famous (and Dorothy's lovely prose not)?


  1. Dorothy does seem to write in William's quiet, steady iambics.

    What a rotter, eh?

  2. Phil: I'm in an oddly conflicted place with respect to Wordsworth at the moment, actually. When younger I felt a more straightforward disdain (all for a handful of silver he left us and so on); but latterly I've been working my way back towards a chilly admiration for him. He was certainly Some Poet.

  3. (Sorry, there was no particular reason to make a big, rambling comment but I was enjoying myself.)

    I know it's both fashionable and easy to perform long-range psychiatry at a distance of 200+ years, but I've never minded being called lazy or swanky, so... reading the two together gives a strong impression that William is writing from a place of depression, completely opposite to his sister, and as a result both pieces together make each other stronger.

    If you've only ever read William's poem then it's a beautiful spring day and that cloud is a lovely little white fluffy lamb, scudding about gleefully, saying 'hullo sky, hullo Basil Fotherington-Tomas' and the whole thing is about being happy, and then being even happier when you see some daffodillys, so happy that later on, if you feel a bit down, you can just remember them for that warm golden glow. Thanks Nature!

    But read it alongside Dorothy's description of threatening mists, furious winds, breath-seizing winds, rough lakes, cow avoidance and working people, and suddenly that cloud becomes a monstrous barely-not-winter black beast obscuring the sun every time it threatens to poke out even a little. It's not surprising that someone who is a bit further gone than not being in a good mood might, under the circumstances, feel lonely even when with someone.

    Meanwhile, Dorothy is quite upbeat. She is aware of her surroundings, she is recording what everyone is doing, she is so friendly and inclusive that she won't tell us if one particular person was responsible for seeing the plough going in the field and notes what Mrs. C would have called the starry yellow flowers were she still there – what Dorothy would correctly call them apart from 'starry yellow flower' we don't know, and it's not like she doesn't know her anemone from her woodsorrel. But what happens to Dorothy? We, us, we, we, we, our, we, we, we, we, we, we, we... I.

    That's a shock. We are in her head. She is in her head. Unless we are going to be so ungallant as to assume that she's sometimes been saying ‘we’ because she is including herself in things that are not hers, or so patronising as to suggest that she is including William in herself so as not to upset him, then we have to accept her sudden rush of inner reflection as beautiful and powerful and against the run of the mill. Later on, barring an unavoidable singular interlude with a young lady, she returns to the first person plural. And then she notes her brother as a separate entity for the first time – sitting, presumably alone, by the first bright thing of the day, looking for something to read. And it ends happily, with skellingtons.

    Two years later, William reads this. He was clinically depressed then (NB: I am not a doctor who knew William Wordsworth in 1802, but this is fun and harmless). What he is currently in the manic–depressive cycle isn't known. But he recognises, or remembers, what he was then – incredibly sad and alone, wandering over a post-apocalyptic landscape, until, miraculously, flower after flower after flower and then more flowers and then more flowers again appear before him. And later he's in a good enough mood for books and rum and water. And he only knows this now because of what his sister wrote. And where the daffodils drew her down from the real world into herself, so they drew him up from the depths. And learning what they did to her helps him realise what they did to him, and he writes a poem, which for no good reason becomes famous and well-regarded. The poem only exists because two people both similar and different experienced the same thing differently, and for one of them reading what the other experienced brought him into his own thoughts.

    And then reading the poem alongside the journal makes the reader understand this is not just a description of things that happened and that Dorothy was a real human being and not just a chronicler and biographer-by-proxy.

    1. That's interesting, Chris; and there's no harm in a little speculation. As per the 'clinical depression' angle: the usual line is that he was happy 1802-4, since he'd just inherited £4000 p.a. that enabled him to buy a handsome house and get married. The depressed Wordsworth comes later, in the 18teens, after two of his four children died in infancy in 1812. That's not to say you're wrong, of course.