A nice bunch of daffs


They are a problem for poets, daffodils. Our group pondered this quandary while looking out the window at a “host” of them (that being the most appropriate collective noun) during the weekend workshop at Mendham Mill in Norfolk, an impossibly idyllic spot, and the birthplace of that painter of quintessentially mannered English landscapes, Sir Alfred Munnings (infamous for his attacks on modernism, particularly in his agreement with Winston Churchill that Picasso needed a good kick up the ass).

They are pretty, there is no doubt, especially this time of year when the sun is shining and they are growing in attractive clusters along the verges and by the river, but they are the flower equivalent of Hallmark cards, of sub-Renoir landscapes favoured by weekend painters and displayed in provincial galleries around the country, of Doris Day (although she’s probably more daisy than daff), of barefoot sing-alongs.

Apart from their appearance, they have a very silly-sounding name, perhaps to disassociate them from their botanical genus, Narcissus, which has those other obvious connotations of vanity and death. All flowers of the Narcissi variety are poisonous, and there was an incident a couple of years ago where a number of children fell ill after mistaking a daffodil bulb for an onion during a cookery class at a school in Martlesham (not far from where we were sitting looking at the daffs benignly swaying in the breeze along the Waveney). And florists are known to be afflicted with a condition known as “daffodil itch”. So really, they are nasty little buggers.

But obviously Wordsworth was unaffected by this knowledge, as he viewed them “Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / fluttering and dancing in the breeze. “ Ugh. No wonder we have not found a way to redeem them, to make them edgy and sexy like the rose, or gothically pensive, like the lily. We may never know if there is any truth to the story that Dorothy convinced William to change the first line, which is said to have originally read “I wandered lonely as a cow”, no doubt based on the irrefutable fact that cows are most often seen in herds, but chiefly because it is a shockingly bad line. As Dorothy often made shrewd editorial suggestions regarding her brother’s poems, it is not impossible. But even if she was partly responsible for what has become one of the most famous opening lines in English poetry, she could not improve the rest.

Why is it that the poem, like the flower itself, seems so “naff” to our modern ear? It was written in a time of grief, after the death of Wordsworth’s brother, John, and that knowledge certainly makes more poignant the revelation of the poet’s “vacant” and “pensive” moods.  Yes, there is no doubt they cheer us up, these bright and inoffensive blooms.  Perhaps his bliss seems too easily earned. Perhaps the rhymes, the words, feel too Victorian, too polite, in our post-confessional age.

At the same time, I rather envy Wordsworth this simple revelation, this moment which is able to lift his heart. The Romans used narcissus bulbs as a medicinal erodent; a poison, which, if treated correctly, could disperse poisons.  Maybe we’ve lost the ability to look on the daffodil as a balm to treat what ills us, and certainly we’ve lost the ability to write about it. So is there a way to redeem the daffodil – at the very least, to be able to write without cliché about the beauty of place, to celebrate spring ?

We still have the capability to feel these things, don’t we?