Narcissus : Dorothy’s Daffodils

One of the best-known of William Wordsworth’s poems is ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, sometimes known only as ‘Daffodils’. These flowers have become his emblem, long before they were used the same way by the Cancer Council. Now, by reading his sister Dorothy’s diaries, particularly The Grasmere Journals {1897}, published posthumously, we can see that she wrote prose about this large garden of self-planted daffodils, two years before her brother wrote his famous poem. So what is prose? What is poetry? How do the two compare here?

Even the Wikipedia {2016} entry for Narcissus, the botanical name for the daffodil family, has some interesting prose. They are named after the pretty boy of Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection, down by the water. He was supposed to have been turned into a flower. He also gives his name to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

So the name reflects that they like to grow near water; and are not only beautiful, but vain. The Narcissus family include daffodils, paperwhite and the plainer but fragrant jonquils.

Some gardening advice websites include a little of the poetic, like “Daffodils have been an inspiration to poets and gardeners for centuries.” {Thomson@ABC}  This is combined with instructions to plant daffodils bulbs in autumn, under deciduous trees and with some full sun, if you want them to bloom in late winter or spring.  Then you should allow the plants to die back into the bulb, even if this looks a little tatty, ready for them to come up next year.  “Daffodils bring an element of surprise and excitement each year as gardeners eagerly await their emergence from the soil, which is followed by their breathtaking floral performance.” {Thomson@ABC}

To read Dorothy’s journals and her description of people, places and especially nature – make it obvious that not all the literary talents in the Wordsworth family went to William: “As we were going along we were stopped at once, at the distance perhaps of 50 yards from our favourite birch tree. It was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs. The sun shone upon it, and it glanced in the wind like a flying sun-shiny shower. It was a tree in shape, with steam and branches, but it was like a spirit of water. The sun went in, and it resumed its purplish appearance, the twigs still yielding to the wind, but no so visibly to us. The other birch trees that were near it looked bright and cheerful, but it was a creature by itself among them. . .” {D Wordsworth @ Norton, p407}

Her prose written about the daffodils, is as follows: “When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side …But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs 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. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; 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; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.” {D Wordsworth@ Norton, pp409-10}
This can be compared to her brother’s famous poem, written two years later:

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
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
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
{W Wordsworth@Norton, p334}

Both Wordsworths use the personification that the daffodils were dancing, both mention just how many daffodils there were; William was more poetic, Dorothy wrote ‘about the breadth of a country turnpike road’ (D Wordsworth@Norton, p) They both describe the flowers as “gay”, meaning ‘bright or attractive, happily excited, carefree’ {Penguin, p364}; just as jocund means ‘cheerful and good-humoured’ {Penguin, p477}.

Another thing both Wordsworths mention was that the daffodils were ‘close to the water-side’, by the lake. This is just what you would expect of narcissi. Dorothy wrote quite poetically they ‘seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them across the lake’ {D Wordsworth@Norton, p410}. Her brother’s poem talks about both the daffodils and the waves dancing.

Another beautiful bloom in Dorothy’s diary was ‘I saw a solitary butter-flower in the wood’ {D Wordsworth, p408}. This may be another daffodil, or just a beautiful description.

So what is the difference between prose and poetry? The demarcation line is not as pronounced today, as it was in the Wordsworths’ day, over 200 years ago. So we may say that Dorothy’s journals are poetic prose; they inspired her brother, from the famous Daffodils poem to the meeting with the leech-gatherer, noting that the elderly man is of Scotch parentage {D Wordsworth, p406}. So we can see that his inspiration was not so much that ‘inward eye’; but his sister’s journal. William was not the only Wordsworth with literary talent, his genius follows behind her skirts.


‘Daffodils’ (2016). The Flower Expert. Retrieved from:
Daffodil Hill (2015) Sutter Creek Business Association. Retrieved from:
Thomson, Sophie (2008) Feast of Daffodils. Gardening Australia Magazine. Retrieved from:
Wikipedia (2016) Narcissus. The Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Retrieved from:

Allen, R. {2006} Penguin Student Dictionary. Penguin Books: London.
Wordsworth, D. {1800-02} The Grassmere Journals. Quoted in Greenblatt, S. Ed. {2012} The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D. WW Norton & Company: New York and London.
Wordsworth, W. {1804} I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud. Quoted in Greenblatt, S. Ed. {2012} The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume D. WW Norton & Company: New York and London.


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