The inspiration for the poem came from a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District. He would draw on this to compose "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" in 1804, inspired by Dorothy's journal entry describing the walk:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & 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 about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway – We rested again & again. The Bays were stormy & we heard the waves at different distances & in the middle of the water like the Sea.
At the time he wrote the poem, Wordsworth was living with his wife, Mary Hutchinson, and sister Dorothy at Town End, in Grasmere in England's Lake District. Mary contributed what Wordsworth later said were the two best lines in the poem, recalling the "tranquil restoration" of Tintern Abbey,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
The entire household thus contributed to the poem. Nevertheless, Wordsworth's biographer Mary Moorman, notes that Dorothy was excluded from the poem, even though she had seen the daffodils together with Wordsworth. The poem itself was placed in a section of Poems in Two Volumes entitled Moods of my Mind in which he grouped together his most deeply felt lyrics. Others included To a Butterfly, a childhood recollection of chasing butterflies with Dorothy, and The Sparrow's Nest, in which he says of Dorothy "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears".
The earlier Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by both himself and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had been first published in 1798 and had started the romantic movement in England. It had brought Wordsworth and the other Lake poets into the poetic limelight. Wordsworth had published nothing new since the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, and a new publication was eagerly awaited. Wordsworth had, however, gained some financial security by the 1805 publication of the fourth edition of Lyrical Ballads; it was the first from which he enjoyed the profits of copyright ownership. He decided to turn away from the long poem he was working on (The Recluse) and devote more attention to publishing Poems in Two Volumes, in which "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" first appeared.
Wordsworth revised the poem in 1815. He replaced "dancing" with "golden"; "along" with "beside"; and "ten thousand" with "fluttering and". He then added a stanza between the first and second, and changed "laughing" to "jocund". The last stanza was left untouched.
The plot of the poem is simple. In the 1815 revision, Wordsworth described it as "rather an elementary feeling and simple impression (approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum) upon the imaginative faculty, rather than an exertion of it..."
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.
Pamela Woof notes "The permanence of stars as compared with flowers emphasises the permanence of memory for the poet."
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:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:
Andrew Motion notes that the final verse replicates in the minds of its readers the very experience it describes.
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.
Poems in Two Volumes was poorly reviewed by Wordsworth's contemporaries, including Lord Byron, whom Wordsworth came to despise. Byron said of the volume, in one of its first reviews, "Mr. W[ordsworth] ceases to please, ... clothing [his ideas] in language not simple, but puerile". Wordsworth himself wrote ahead to soften the thoughts of The Critical Review, hoping his friend Francis Wrangham would push for a softer approach. He succeeded in preventing a known enemy from writing the review, but it didn't help; as Wordsworth himself said, it was a case of "Out of the frying pan, into the fire". Of any positives within Poems in Two Volumes, the perceived masculinity in The Happy Warrior, written on the death of Nelson and unlikely to be the subject of attack, was one such. Poems like "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" could not have been further from it. Wordsworth took the reviews stoically.
Even Wordsworth's close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge said (referring especially to the "child-philosopher" stanzas VII and VIII of Intimations of Immortality) that the poems contained "mental bombast". Two years later, however, many were more positive about the collection. Samuel Rogers said that he had "dwelt particularly on the beautiful idea of the 'Dancing Daffodils'", and this was echoed by Henry Crabb Robinson. Critics were rebutted by public opinion, and the work gained in popularity and recognition, as did Wordsworth.
Poems in Two Volumes was savagely reviewed by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review (without, however, singling out "I wandered lonely as a Cloud"), but the Review was well known for its dislike of the Lake poets. As Sir Walter Scott put it at the time of the poem's publication, "Wordsworth is harshly treated in the Edinburgh Review, but Jeffrey gives ... as much praise as he usually does", and indeed Jeffrey praised the sonnets.
Upon the author's death in 1850, the Westminster Review called "I wandered lonely as a Cloud" "very exquisite".
The poem is presented and taught in many schools in the English-speaking world: these include the 7th grade of most schools of the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), India; the English Literature GCSE course in some examination boards in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland; and in the current Higher School Certificate syllabus topic, Inner Journeys, New South Wales, Australia. It is also frequently used as a part of the Junior Certificate English Course in Ireland as part of the Poetry Section. In The Middle Passage, V.S.Naipaul refers to a campaign in Trinidad against the use of the poem as a set text because daffodils do not grow in the tropics.
Because it is one of the best known poems in the English language, it has frequently been the subject of parody and satire.
The English Prog Rock band Genesis parodies the poem in the opening lyrics to the song "The Colony of Slippermen," from their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
It was the subject of a 1985 Heineken beer TV advertisement, which depicts a poet having difficulties with his opening lines, only able to come up with I walked about a bit on my own or I strolled around without anyone else until downing a Heineken and reaching the immortal "I wandered lonely as a Cloud" (because "Heineken refreshes the poets other beers can't reach"). The assertion that Wordsworth originally hit on "I wandered lonely as a cow" until Dorothy told him "William, you can't put that" occasionally finds its way into print.
The daffodils Wordsworth saw would have been wild daffodils. However, the National Gardens Scheme runs a Daffodil Day every year, allowing visitors to view daffodils in Cumbrian gardens including Dora's Field, which was planted by Wordsworth. In 2013 the event was held in March, when unusually cold weather meant that relatively few of the plants were in flower. April, the month that Wordsworth saw the daffodils at Ullswater, is usually a good time to view them, although the Lake District climate has changed since the poem was written.
In 2004, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the poem, it was also read aloud by 150,000 British schoolchildren, aimed both at improving recognition of poetry, and in support of Marie Curie Cancer Care.
In 2007, Cumbria Tourism released a rap version of the poem, featuring MC Nuts, a Lake District Red squirrel, in an attempt to capture the "YouTube generation" and attract tourists to the Lake District. Published on the two-hundredth anniversary of the original, it attracted wide media attention. It was welcomed by the Wordsworth Trust, but attracted the disapproval of some commentators.
In 2015 events marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of the revised version were celebrated at Rydal Mount.
In Popular Culture
In the 2013 musical Big Fish (musical), composed by Andrew Lippa, some lines from the poem are used in the song "Daffodils," which concludes the first act. Lippa mentioned this in a video created by Broadway.com in the same year.