England Still Dances With Daffodils

A host was William Wordsworth's word. And a crowd: "A crowd,/ A host, of golden daffodils."

I was going to say that every British schoolchild can quote at least this poem's first words, "I wandered lonely as a cloud." But I am sufficiently out of touch with schoolchildren now to be certain whether or not this classic is still on their curricula.

It was on mine.

To me it's one of those indelible things - as universal as "To be or not to be." Nature-writer Richard Mabey, in his fat and fascinating (and best-selling) volume "Flora Britannica, The Definitive New Guide to Wild Flowers, Plants and Trees" (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996, 30) mentions Wordsworth's poem. It is in the section devoted to Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the native British daffodil. Like all wildflowers, it is unpretentious compared with its horticultured cousins but so much more beautiful and sturdy.

I have on my shelves an earlier book by Mabey (slenderer, though also full of excellent photographs): "The Flowering of Britain" (1980). It is comforting to witness an author (like most of us) learning as he goes along. In this earlier book, he does not quite pinpoint the location of Wordsworth's famous daffodil host - which still grows, generations later, on the banks of an English lake called Ullswater.

But Mabey wrote in "The Flowering" that they were in grassland. He says that although wild daffodils "are, strictly speaking, a woodland plant in this country," we "think of them - and most often see them - as plants of open grassland. The great colonies of Farndale [in North Yorkshire] and Grasmere in the Lakes (Wordsworth's 'host') are national tourist attractions." Then he suggests that it "is not hard to see how the wild daffodil should have metamorphosed into a grassland plant in these places," by adapting to the grasslands that were developed after the forests were cleared.

But Wordsworth's daffodils have never lost their tree cover and mossy, leaf-strewn woodland floor. Maybe Mabey had not yet been to see them. Perhaps the name "Grasmere," where Wordsworth's house was, suggested "grasslands." The truth is that the "ten thousand" the poet says he saw "at a glance" were at least 10 miles from Grasmere.

AS it happens, Wordsworth's encounter with the narcissus in their lakeside habitat has a specific date: Thursday, April 15, 1802. It was "a threatening misty morning - but mild." These were not William's words, but his sister Dorothy's in her journal. Doubtless William referred to it (she wrote it for him) when he penned his poem two years later. Mabey quotes Dorothy in full in "Flora," rather than the famous poem, saying that her words give "the real flavour of these doughty spring messengers in the wet and windswept English Lakes."

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park," Dorothy records, "we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seeds 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...." Further on, she says that some of them "tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind...."

It is intriguing to see how Wordsworth lifted some of his sister's words for his poem, turning her prose into his memorable rhythm and rhyme. But it has to be said that the famous first line is famously untrue. He did not wander "lonely" - or not at least alone. Dorothy was with him. And while she observes on the move like a naturalist (first a few flowers, then eventually a crowd, and again as they walked on, "a few stragglers ... higher up"), he allows himself license indeed, and sees the whole caboodle "all at once." Was it Picasso who said that all art is a lie?

Whatever Mabey once wrote about our associating wild daffodils with grassland, in his new book he talks about numerous woods in which they grow. In one of these, in Sussex, I first became aware of the difference between cultivated and wild daffodils. It was a wood by the roadside so full you couldn't avoid treading on some of them. We dug up six (I can hear the ecologists shuddering at this act, and today I would never commit such a "crime"), took them home and planted them in the garden. Today they have increased to hundreds.

Instead of basing his latest book on other books, Mabey advertised for fresh information, folklore, recollections, and personal encounters between ordinary people and plants. One such correspondent, writing about daffodil woods in Sussex, remembered that her "mother used to dig up clumps of the bulbs and plant them in other surrounding woods, where they have now spread."

"Flora" is peppered with such tidbits, innocent human interventions into the natural world we like to think looks after itself. It has never suffered adversely from such affection, however, and I wonder if the origin of the Wordsworth colony, rather than being a few seeds washed ashore, might have been somebody's 18th-century mother transplanting a clump or two for the love of it.

She probably didn't even like poetry.

* 'Flora Britannica' has no US publisher yet. Its ISBN is: 1-85619-377-2

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