William Wordsworth

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?





Rain, steam and speed

For those of you who have been following Invective since the beginning, you may be surprised by my choice of image today. Yes, I’ve given you Peter Lanyon and Prunella Clough, who, although they are very different painters, both represent a particularly British way of looking at landscape – which is at once modern and complex, and driven by internal as well as external forces. Both of them wanted to celebrate the landscapes they loved: for Lanyon, the West Penwith coast; for Clough, the brown field sights of South London and Essex. But neither one of them could have painted the way they did without Turner. Not to say that Turner was a direct influence, but it was Turner whose ground-breaking style (if that’s not too much of a pun when talking about landscape painting) gave them permission. Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most extraordinary images, and for me it represents the moment when the industrial meets the pastoral (like in Hardy’s novels, or Wordworth’s poems). Andrew Graham-Dixon says of this picture: 

The train was not just a contraption which moved Turner from place to place more quickly than ever before. It moved him emotionally. It made him see the world as never before. He put this into the very style of his picture, conjuring up effects of blur and rush to celebrate a new speeded up vision. Turner had looked the future full in the face. He had found it beautiful. He had found it exhilarating.

I have stood in front of this painting many times and felt moved, not just by the sensation of speed Turner is able to evoke, but moved emotionally. It’s an odd feeling to be moved by a painting, and it is difficult to say why. Something about a particular arrangement of shape and colour and line. The same way a poem affects you when you don’t always understand its meaning, but the language and imagery strike something subconscious.

The poem that follows (which was published in my last collection, Fetch) is directly inspired by not only Turner’s painting, but the experience of standing in front of it in the National Gallery and being moved, and then watching other people standing in front of it perhaps experiencing the same transformation. I’m a fan of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs observing crowds of people in galleries, and I wanted to capture something of that collective experience of looking at art in a public place (while undergoing some private emotion).

I’m off to Tate Britain in a little while, and although I am not going for the Turners, I feel I will have to call in on them while I’m there, just to say hello.


Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape


They stand, not quite touching,

before a world after storm.


There are drops of moisture in her hair,

in his scarf

                 the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,


while trains depart every minute, steaming

into the future, where the hills


unroll themselves,

vast plains of emerald and gold


            (she undressed for him, slowly,

             her skin like cloud under dark layers)


after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead

against old brocade

                                (their flesh alive in the white sheets).




There are trains departing.

                                        When they part

it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,


        and the sky will be blown with stars,

too dim to see in the glare of neon.


They will stand on concrete and asphalt,

                                    the innocent shining sands


lost. The world tilts to meet her face,

he holds her face close


           and something closes in on them,

the weight of silence in the street,


the winter horizon, bright, huge,

the moment before

                                 the sky opens and it pours.