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Fluttering and Dancing: The Meaning of Daffodils

Fluttering and Dancing: The Meaning of Daffodils

by The Editor on August 1st


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.

So wrote one of our most celebrated poets, the great William Wordsworth. He was known for walking the Lake District at great length, across those vales and hills, and must have seen a great many breathtaking sights along his journeys. Glimmering tarns and lakes in the sharp morning sun, the shadows and crags of great green-clad mountains, and a thousand different types of wildflower, shivering in the whipcrack northern breeze. But something made him choose the daffodil. Something about its colour, its form, the almost living appearance of a cluster of daffodils all peeking out of their ducklike yellow faces, made him choose the daffodil for his poem, which would become not only his best-known work, but among the best-loved pieces of literature in the romantic tradition.

And yet it will come as no surprise to those who have read our articles on the lily and the iris to know that Wordsworth wasn’t the first to imbue great significance into these startling yellow blooms. Yet again, the Greeks got there first.

The scientific name for the daffodil is narcissus. A name which will be familiar to lovers of Greek mythology. The myth was later reinterpreted by Ovid, in his book Metamorphosis, into the tale of Echo and Narcissus, the version usually told today.

Echo, the story goes, was a nymph who dwelled in the woods. And Echo fell in love, with a beautiful man named Narcissus. Narcissus was loved by many for his astonishing beauty, but this attention made him callous and vain, and he himself loved nothing, save the accumulation of yet more callous praise. He was beautiful, but he was cold. In his eyes, no-one was so lovely as himself.

Echo was watching Narcissus in the woods one day when he heard her footfall. He called out: ‘who’s there?’, and Echo showed herself to him. After briefly playing with her advances, Narcissus rejected Echo completely. He threw her away from himself, and said he would rather die than love her. Stricken by her hopeless love, Echo pined, and faded, until she became nothing but a voice. She became the echo we hear today.

Narcissus, meanwhile, rested by a stream. In some versions of the myth he was punished by a goddess for his treatment of Echo; in others he simply grew thirsty. Either way, his eyes fell upon his own reflection in the water, and he was instantly stricken with the same love of his own beauty that Echo had felt when she looked upon him. He fell in love with his own reflection; but if he stooped to touch it, to kiss it, it broke into ripples. He was fated to stay there always, never able, like Echo, to have the one he loved.

In time the gods grew merciful, and seeing that Narcissus would never leave the stream-bank, they saved his life: they turned him into a flower.

That flower was the narcissus – the plant we know today as the daffodil.

So the daffodil’s history, its legend, its place in story and myth and song, is a long and glorious one. This gives it, like many flowers, a whole host – a golden host! – of meanings. From the Greek myth, it represents vanity and untouchable beauty. To Wordsworth, it meant an image of natural purity that would never mean his mind. Or the sunny yellow of a daffodil can simply be given as a gift to say to somebody that they are the sunshine in your day.

To close this meditation on the meaning of daffodils, take the words of Wordsworth in full. And just think; is it not glorious that something so simple as a flower, could leave an image of such unknowable beauty on a poet’s mind?

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.

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:

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.

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