The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"

In his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads," William Wordsworth describes the process by which a poem comes into being:

"it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind." (Norton, 151)

Wordsworth's poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," describes a similar pattern of experience. It begins with an event and the emotion stimulated by that event; it describes the recollection of that event in tranquillity; and it ends with a second emotion that is "kindred" to the first emotion. While the poem does not deal with the actual writing of poetry, it nevertheless traces the recreative powers of imagination and memory--powers of the mind that are, to Wordsworth, essential to the poetic act.

The primary experience and emotion (stanzas 1-3):

The first three stanzas show the speaker moving from a state of feeling alienated and isolated in the universe to a state of feeling connected; another way of expressing the change is to say he moves from perceptions of fragmentation and directionlessness to a vision of harmony and correspondence.

You can trace the change by thinking about motion ("wandered" and "floats" becomes "dancing" and "danced"); about number ("lonely" is countered by "crowd," "host," "ten thousand" and "company"); and about relation (the isolated image of a single cloud is replaced by the doubling, echoing images of fluttering daffodils, twinkling stars in the milky way, and sparkling, dancing waves). The sense of correspondence here develops not just because the poet connects with nature (after all, to say "lonely as a cloud" is already to connect with nature);a new state emerges because the speaker perceives a world of interconnecting relationships and sees the universe as a harmonious whole, in which parts mirror and echo other parts.

"recollection in tranquillity" (stanza 4, lines 19-20):

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood

If he is "vacant," he is not exactly trying to remember; the memory is involuntary. But the mood is thoughtful, contemplative, "pensive."

"a second emotion that is "kindred" to the first emotion"(stanza 4, lines 21-24):

Memory recreates the scene in the imagination; the "inner eye" sees an inner landscape. The first emotion ("gay") seems to be recaptured ("pleasure"). But this is a kindred not an identical emotion. The first emotion took the poet out of his loneliness; this second emotion arises out of something like, but not identical to, loneliness. Think about the difference between loneliness and "solitude."

Then, what does the poem tell us about the experience of time? The first experience, the experience of the first three stanzas, is recorded all in the past tense ("wandered," "gazed"). This experience is past; it is over; it functions in the mode of time that is subject to loss. The second experience is conveyed to us in the present tense ("lie," "flash," fills," dances"). Then, most important, note that little word "oft": often. This second kind of experience is not subject to loss because it can be repeated, because it recurs. The imagination, the inner landscape, is a permanent possession; it takes us beyond our mortality to connect us with immortal things.

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.


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