Daffodils are Surprisingly Human

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:


or this:


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-didum-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…

Kirk out

I Wandered Lonely as Thorpe Cloud

So, on Saturday I was half-way up this hill in Dovedale, which is called Thorpe Cloud



when we took a break, and suddenly somebody started to talk about Wordsworth.  He’d been to a funeral where ‘Daffodils’ was recited as part of the ceremony: and then he burst out: ‘How is that different from doggerel?’  He started to recite the poem thus:

I wan-dered lone-ly as a cloud

di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dah’

I began to protest: I have always thought highly of Wordsworth and I started to say what I thought were the differences between the two.

‘But it sounds just the same!’ he protested.

‘It depends how you say it,’ I said.

After that the sandwiches took over, but it set me thinking: how DO you tell the difference between good poetry and doggerel?  Let’s consider the following two extracts:


by Wm Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er dale and hill

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.

… and this, by Hilaire Belloc:


Mathilda told such dreadful lies

it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes

her aunt, who from her earliest youth

had kept a strict regard for truth

attempted to believe Mathilda

– the effort very nearly killed her,

and would have done so, had not she

discovered this infirmity.

Well?  What are the differences?  Both poems are in iambic quadrameter ie four metrical feet, each of which has the stress on the second syllable, so superficially they sound the same.  I think the differences are partly in intention – Wordsworth’s intention was serious whereas Belloc’s was comic – and that has an effect on how you read the poems.  I totally disagree that you would read ‘Daffodils’ in a di-da-di-dah way – I think the rhythm is slower and more contemplative and the words are slow, not punchy: lonely, cloud, golden: it’s very hard to say these words quickly and sharply, unlike killed, lies, gasp, eyes which are the staples of Belloc’s poem.

What do you think?

Answers on a postcard please.  Preferably from the Lake District – or failing that, Dovedale…

Kirk out