I was looking at the daffs from yesterday as I ate my daffodil-coloured egg-yolk, and all of a sudden I wanted them all to be facing me. It seemed almost rude that some of the bunch were looking out of the window as I was talking to them, while others were staring at the cooker. So I turned a couple of heads in my direction and then I felt better – and then it occurred to me to wonder, why on earth had I done that? It set me thinking…
Daffodils are surprisingly human. They have these trumpet-like heads which look, as Wordsworth observed, like a crowd of people. We know his lines too well for them to surprise us, but if you observe a plot of daffs in a high wind they really do seem like a host:
‘When all at once I saw a crowd
a host of golden daffodils.’
Somebody once asked me how those lines were different from doggerel, and at first I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. I think it’s true, actually, that at first glance a lot of Wordsworth does seem like doggerel. He uses deliberately simple – even simplistic – language and fairly basic rhythms. So how is it different?
Let’s take a few lines of something I consider to be doggerel. It’s a poem by Pam Ayres. Apologies to all those who like her, but I can’t stand Pam Ayres at any price, and here’s one which perfectly illustrates why:
The rhythm and rhymes are facile and there’s not an original thought in it – except, wait! I actually like the line ‘the Abbey seemed a place between the heavens and the earth.’ And the next verse is quite touching as it refers to ‘the saddest thing I ever saw’ which was ‘Prince Charles. The boy who had to shake hands with his mother.’ But does she mean it to be sad?
It will be objected that these are comic poems and should not be judged in the same breath as Wordsworth. OK then, let’s consider, say, Kipling. He had his moments but a lot of his stuff was tub-thumping doggerel in my view. Take this one, for example:
So what, then, is doggerel? I would say that a starting definition is the sacrifice of meaning and feeling to an overall rhyme or rhythmic scheme. William McGonagall strained every sinew to make a line rhyme with its predecessor, as in this verse from the famous ‘Tay Bridge Disaster’:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
So how can we acquit the divine Wordsworth of the infamous charge of writing doggerel? Let’s consider the lines we know so well:
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.
The simile ‘lonely as a cloud’ is too familiar for us to appreciate it, but if you stop and think it’s a good one. A small cloud in a clear sky can be seen as lonely; it also gives the perspective of the poet looking down on the daffodils. Then, while he is floating, he is suddenly aware of the flowers: ‘all at once I saw’ – and he takes them in as a ‘crowd’, seeing them together which puts them in opposition to his singleness, his alone-ness (you can tell I’ve got a degree in English). But the most telling image is that of the ‘host’. If you look at a large clump of daffodils they really do look like a crowd of heads; it’s a well-observed image, and the words ‘fluttering’ and ‘dancing’ describe exactly the kind of movement that daffodils make.
On the other hand, McGonagall’s poem tells us nothing that we couldn’t get from a newspaper report. We do not see the bridge or the river; the first is described as ‘beautiful’ and the second as ‘silvery’, a word he always uses to describe the Tay and which is presumably as inexact as it is repetitive.
Kipling’s poem, ‘Cleared,’ however, impresses us with nothing so much as its rhythm. Di-dum-di-dum-di–dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum etc etc. Everything is sacrificed to this rhythm, and everything suffers as a result. It’s effective as a piece of rhetoric, but as poetry? Hm.
Well, I’d be interested in your views. You know what to do…