15th April 1802, Ullswater, Cumbria
Dorothy and William Wordsworth set out for a lakeside walk after lunch. It was very windy, and they sheltered behind various props manmade and natural, spotting, among other things, a field being ploughed, some primroses and anemones, some cows. Oh and some daffodils. Dorothy writes it in her diary. Her brother uses this as a resource for a poem. The rest is history.
15th April 2012, Virginia Water, Surrey
I set out for a lakeside walk with my mum. It was very windy. Coming upon a division in the prescribed pathways we were undecided as to which to follow. We plumped for the middle way and found that the temporary sign To The Daffodils does not deceive: we soon espied them
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The path curved gently through a scaled-down valley, where a greater number of Narcissus pseudonarcissus than I had ever seen in one location have been planted in a wide swath carpeting the slopes between the tree trunks.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance
I wonder which of the Wordsworths it was came up with the idea of a host. And how? They’re so un-host-like, even in these numbers. Perhaps it was the colour: a host of angels could conceivably be golden, and would almost certainly have as many trumpets.
I like the word daffodil. I had this idea that, being the National Flower of Wales the name was connected to St David: an Anglicisation of Dafydd lili perhaps. Actually the leek is meant to be the Welsh emblem, but the romantic Victorians decided a daffodil was more attractive in a buttonhole, legitimising the claim with the similarity of the words for leek and daffodil in the Welsh language. In fact the Welsh for daffodil is cenhinen pedhr, or Peter’s Leek – so not David’s at all. Oh well. The English word is really a corruption of de affodell from aphodillus or asphodel: a single stemmed lily with long straight leaves and six-petalled flowers. That sounds more like.
In Ancient Greek mythology the beautiful youth Narkissos fell so in love with his own reflection in a pool that he could not tear himself away from the image. He died at the waterside and the flower that became his namesake is said to have sprouted from that spot. An alternative theory is that the plant is named for its narcotic attributes. Appropriate really, given the association between daffodils and the Romantic poets, whose own recreational drug use no doubt gave rise to some of the most-quoted stanzas in the English language. When I was studying the Grasmere Journals at college as an example of nineteenth century nature writing, our lecturer, a self-confessed Wordsworth junkie, cited laudanum as the cause of Dorothy’s increasingly debilitating headaches. Mind you, given the amount of ironing and pea-pricking she had to get through every other day I can’t say I blame her.
Of course the Wordsworths’ host, despite their Romantic sensibilities about wildness and natural beauty, was there by design rather than natural accident; just as our own version, 210 years later and the opposite end of the country is too, being part of a seasonal display in a landscaped park.
We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last under the bows 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… and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; and they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.
What with the brisk wind, and the nearby Viriginia Water sparkling through apertures in the orderly glades, the whole Wordsworthian comparison was already beginning to feel uncomfortably symmetrical, even before I got home and looked out the appropriate entry in Dorothy’s journal only to realise that it’s April 15th today: the exact same date that the Wordsworths went for that walk beside Ullswater.
Back at Dove Cottage Dorothy made a glass of warm rum and water.
I put the kettle on for a cuppa.
We enjoyed ourselves. It rained and blew, when we went to bed.
There are a huge number of editions of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals available: Penguin Classics do a version called Home at Grasmere which sets William’s poems alongside the appropriate bits of Dorothy’s prose which adds a bit of interest among the interminable accounts of ironing.
Here’s a link to a less frequently quoted Daffodil poem by Ted Hughes that’s well worth a look.