Uncovered: I wandered lonely as a cloud

Diary of Dorothy Wordsworth, dating back to 1802, Wordsworth Museum Daffodils in Caldbeck, the Lake District, photo credit Brian Sherwen Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria

The real story behind the most famous poem in the English language has been revealed at The Wordsworth Museum, next door to Dove Cottage in the beautiful village of Grasmere in the Lake District.

A new display of ‘Star Objects’ gives documentary evidence of the origins, best known versions and the publication of the iconic poem.

On 15th February 1802, William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy recorded in her diary, the details of a walk they took together. Having visited some friends at Pooley Bridge at the north end of Ullswater, they strolled along the western shore, coming across a mass of Daffodils as they reached Gowbarrow Park.

She wrote:

The wind was furious… the Lake was rough… 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 & that the little colony had so sprung up — But as we went along there were more & yet more & 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 & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & 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 & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway… — Rain came on, we were wet.

Wordsworth wrote his poem in 1804, presumably after re-visiting the diary entry, and this original version, which is now seen as closest to his original sentiment, was published in 1807 in Poems in Two Volumes, a collection of some of the poetry he had written in the preceding years while living at Dove Cottage. It was untitled, because to tell the reader it was about Daffodils would be to spoil the surprise of the fourth line.

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 dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: —
A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing 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.

Wordsworth was a compulsive reviser of his work and later in his life, re-wrote some of the lines and added a verse to suit a more educated audience, thus forsaking his intention to write in “the language of ordinary men”, to be understood by everyone. He introduced high-brow vocabulary (“jocund” replaces “laughing”) and he refers to “the Milky Way” in the additional verse, which would have meant nothing to the the vast majority of people at the time.

This revised version was published in Collected Poems in 1815 – the 19th Century equivalent of Wordsworth’s Greatest Hits, but it included just about everything he had written so far. So maybe more of a digitally re-mastered compilation of the albums so far, rearranged in a new order, by a man 8 – 15 years older than when they first appeared, now a member of the establishment with conservative views and a different person from the democratic young radical of 1804.

The display in The Wordsworth Museum consists of the original entry in Dorothy’s notebook, the first edition of Poems in Two Volumes and the 1815 edition of Collected Poems and an explanation of the creative process. These artefacts will be on display until late August 2015, so visitors can see the evidence and make up their own minds about the facts and which version they prefer.

Dove Cottage & the Wordsworth Museum is the only place in the world where Wordsworth’s original manuscripts and letters can be seen in the very place they were created. Dove Cottage is restored to the way it was when the Wordsworths left in 1808 and contains their own furnishings and possessions and the Museum tells the story of Wordsworth’s remarkable life.

To enjoy this cultural event and much more, book your break in the Lake District here