Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dancing with the Daffodils

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
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Along the margin of a bay:
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.

It takes a brave English teacher to put this poem in front of a classroom full of American kids today. It's a nature poem in an age when nature poems are not fashionable; it employs the word "gay" in a sense which has been all but driven out of the language by its more vernacular denotation; and then it follows up with the word "jocund," which it is safe to say is a word not one American student in 100 has ever heard. The idea that one's heart might be set to dancing by a vision of flowers is one that virtually none of the students I have worked with in the last 30 years would be able to take seriously. Perhaps one might look at it as a sort of study in poetic structure, but in terms of what it says? Fuggedabowdit.

Furthermore, it's a poem which has become a lightning rod for post-colonialist readers and writers. To say that some people have felt conflicted about the poem would be an understatement. Jamaica Kincaid, who grew up in Antigua, for example, has a short story entitled "Mariah" in which the narrator, a young woman living in America for the first time, unpacks her sentiments fairly bluntly:

I remembered an old poem I had been made to memorize when I was ten years old and a pupil at Queen Victoria's Girls' School. I had been made to memorize it, verse after verse, and then had recited the whole poem to an auditorium full of parents, teachers, and my fellow pupils. After I was done, everybody stood up and applauded with an enthusiasm that surprised me, and later they told me how nicely I had pronounced every word, how I had placed just the right amount of emphasis in places where it was needed, and how proud the poet, now long dead, would have been to hear his words ringing out of my mouth. And so I made pleasant little noises that showed both modesty and appreciation, but inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem. That night after I had recited the poem, I dreamt, continuously it seemed, that I was being chased down a narrow cobbled street by bunches and bunches of those same daffodils that I had vowed to forget, and when I finally fell down from exhaustion they all piled up on me, until I was buried beneath them and was never seen again.

Now, in conjunction with celebrations of the poem's bicentennial, we have this little confection which features a large stuffed animal of some kind doing a rap version of the Wordsworth classic. It's a funny piece, and maybe the funniest thing is that as an attempt to reframe the narrative to make it plausible to the contemporary ear, it works. In case the link doesn't work, here's the YouTube Version:

Although I'm sure it would never have occurred to Willy W. to rhyme "retina" with "et cetera," I think he might still have liked the spirit of this version.

1 comment:

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

This is such a beautiful poem. Thank you.
My father grew fields of them, and gladiolas, dahlias, roses. About 5 acres. It was quite remarkable.

Maybe the simple beauty of these and the beautiful small house gardens is just lost today. When my great-grandmother died in East Tennessee Dad dug the bulbs up on the hill and took them home to WV. Spring brought the renewal of their life. He knew to put bone meal to encourage good bloom.
There they were in my yard...and those he got from the family passed many generations like our heritage and trust-no legacy of riches was to me more meaningful than this connection-they had double centers.Some orange my favorite. My father has them still. Short of violets nothing is more beautiful to me than these and their narcissus cousins. I had to memorize this poem in 4th grade. I'm glad I did.

I'm happy that my first trip back east in 12 years a week ago took me to Chicago where outside the Chicago Art Museum I was greeted by a very jocund group on a snowy day. No one was stopping to notice their gay dance...and it was my delight to be filled with the flood of memory they illicit for me seeing them again after so long living where they do not grow...but just the same these made a brilliant impression.

To a closed mind, or perhaps a damaged heart, a verse or a flower or really anything can be annoying, a joke, a trigger finger pressed on an "issue", a burial tomb. But me the daffodil looks like a call to live again. And as I fight each year through cancer and pain each one I saw this spring sounded a beautiful call to come recall rebirth.