Friday

Apr. 15, 2011

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.

"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist Henry James (books by this author), the master of the long sentence, born in New York City (1843). One of his great novels was The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He had been planning this novel for years — in February of 1877, he wrote to his friend and editor William Dean Howells about plans for a new serial: "I should not make use of the subject I had in mind when I last alluded to this matter — that is essentially not compressible into so small a compass. It is the portrait of the character and recital of the adventures of a woman — a great swell, psychologically; a grand nature — accompanied with many 'developments.' I would rather wait and do it when I can have full elbow room."

James found that elbow room two years later, when he spent three months in Florence in the spring of 1879. When he began Portrait of a Lady, he had no idea what would happen by the end. Instead, he created a character named Isabel Archer, a lively, intelligent, but naïve American heiress. He was convinced that he would be able to figure out her story as he wrote. And indeed he did — he woke up one morning with all of the supporting characters fully formed in his mind, and wrote a novel from there.

In The Portrait of a Lady (1880), he wrote this sentence: "The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night's hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honor of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell's wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodeled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances — which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork — were of the right measure."

It was on this day in 1924 that Rand McNally released its first road atlas. It wasn't called a road atlas then — it was called "Rand McNally Auto Chum." The Rand McNally company had its roots in 1856, when William H. Rand opened a printing shop in Chicago. His first employee was Andrew McNally, a newly arrived Irish immigrant. They managed the printing shop for the Chicago Tribune, and in less than 10 years, they started printing their own publications under the name Rand, McNally, and Co. They printed railroad tickets and guides, a newspaper, business directories, and, finally, maps.

McNally and Rand figured out an inexpensive way to mass-produce maps using wax engraving. They started with maps for businesses, and soon moved to world maps, atlases, and on this day in 1924, the first road atlas.

Miguel de Cervantes said, "Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst."

Oscar Wilde said, "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing."

J.M. Barrie said: "Prominent among the curses of civilization is the map that folds up 'convenient for the pocket.' There are men who can do almost everything except shut a map. It is calculated that the energy wasted yearly in denouncing these maps to their face would build the Eiffel Tower in thirteen weeks."

Lewis Carroll wrote:
"He had brought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
'What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?'
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
'They are merely conventional signs!
Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank'
(So the crew would protest) 'that he's bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!'"

It was on this day in 1912 that the RMS Titanic sank on its first voyage across the Atlantic. The ship was the largest passenger ship ever built — 882 feet long and more than 45,000 tons. There were barbershops, a Parisian sidewalk café, a swimming pool, a squash court, bars and smoking rooms, and libraries. There were 2,228 people on board the Titanic, 885 crew members and the rest passengers — more than half of them in third class.

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14th, the ship hit an iceberg south of Newfoundland, and at 2:20 a.m. on the morning of the 15th, it sank into the ocean. There were only enough lifeboats for about half of the 2,228 people, and in a general rush to safety, many of the lifeboats went unfilled. Only 705 people survived the sinking of the Titanic.

The British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy wrote a poem called "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic," which ends:
"And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres."

From the archives (BA):

It was on this day in 1802 that William Wordsworth (books by this author) was walking home with his sister, Dorothy, and saw a patch of daffodils that became the inspiration for one of his most famous poems.

They were returning from a visit to their friends Thomas and Catherine Clarkson, who lived on the shore of Ullswater, the second largest lake in England's lake district, a beautiful deep lake, nine miles long, surrounded by mountains. The Clarksons were good friends. Thomas was a fierce abolitionist who had made it his life's work to end slavery. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also a neighbor in the Lake District, wrote: "I once asked Tom Clarkson whether he ever thought of his probable fate in the next world, to which he replied, 'How can I? I think only of the slaves in Barbados!'" Apparently Tom wasn't a fan of poetry, either. But Dorothy Wordsworth and Catherine exchanged letters. Later that year, Wordsworth got married, and he and his wife, Mary, named one of their daughters after Catherine. They all enjoyed the Clarksons' witty and intelligent conversation.

Dorothy and William had left Dove Cottage at the end of March for a round of visiting friends, including Coleridge. William left Dorothy with the Clarksons for eight days while he went to Yorkshire to visit Mary, the woman he would marry six months later. On Monday, April 12th, Wordsworth left Mary to head back to his friends' house. He got caught in a snowstorm and his horse needed new shoes, but he plodded on to stay at an inn for the night, and during the ride he wrote a poem, "The Glow-worm," which begins:
Among all lovely things my Love had been;
Had noted well the stars, all flowers that grew
About her home; but she had never seen
A glow-worm, never one, and this I knew.

He made it back to the Clarksons' the next evening, spent a day with friends, and after dinner on the 15th he and Dorothy set out to walk home. It was many miles back to Dove Cottage, but they were used to long walks, and took it slowly, stopping often either to seek shelter from the weather or to admire things they passed.

Dorothy wrote in her journal: "It was a threatening misty morning — but mild. [...] 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."

For his part, William didn't write anything about the daffodils for at least two years, maybe more. No one is sure when he wrote the poem "I wander'd lonely as a cloud," but it was published in 1807. It didn't get a very good reception. One critic wrote, "He thinks it worth while to give a tame, matter-of-fact account of some daffodils blown about with the wind, because he thought of them afterwards." Another poet said, "Surely, if his worst foe had chosen to caricature this egotistic manufacturer of metaphysical importance upon trivial themes, he could not have done it more effectively." But these days it is one of Wordsworth's most famous poems, and when the BBC conducted a nationwide poll in 1995 for the country's favorite poems, it was ranked number five.

Wordsworth's 1807 version of the poem was only three stanzas long, 18 lines. When he revised it in 1815, he tinkered with some lines — changed "Ten thousand dancing in the breeze" to "Fluttering and dancing in the breeze" — and he added another stanza, the stanza that is now second and begins, "Continuous as the stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way ..."

Not only did Wordsworth probably reference Dorothy's journal for inspiration, but his wife, Mary, came up with two lines: "They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude." William said they were the best lines in the poem.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »