Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
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.
Yeah, it’s Wordsworth, and I am sure that some of you visibly cringed at the thought of having to read it again. After all, if you have ever had to take a survey of English literature class then you’ve already read it, perhaps even multiple times. It’s not a bad poem and reading it is not torture (English professors use Tennyson for that), but it’s not a particularly exciting poem either. I know that it has significance in the greater history of English literature (what that is, I cannot remember and I’ll be sure to turn in my teaching license later) but to be honest, I think its greater significance is how it epitomizes the experience of reading “Dead White Males.”
Years ago, I had a department chair who hated Dead White Males. Consequently, she also loved daffodils, so when she passed away abruptly we honored her memory with daffodils and by wearing yellow (I still wear yellow once a year in her memory). When I was working with her, I had the fortune of teaching a diverse student population and had a diverse palette of literature to choose from, so I never had to touch Wordsworth or his contemporaries (I also didn’t teach British lit). Over the years, I have come to wonder why the heck we feel the need to have Wordsworth and his daffodils show up in English textbooks and on standardized tests. In fact, I can’t tell you if any of my colleagues even teach this poem anymore. Nevertheless, to use a cliche, it’s like a bad penny.
Like I said, I kind of know why it’s still there because the reason is kind of like why I still insist on teaching Shakespeare. But whereas I still insist on teaching Shakespeare because he is still insightful and still relevant more than 400 years later, I don’t think that poems like “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” turn up because of their relevance. I think they turn up because they are safe.
Case in point, let’s take a look at an excerpt from the poem “Hartley Field” by Connie Wanek:
All our years together—
and not just together. Surely by now
we have the same blood type, the same myopia.
Sometimes I think we’re the same sex,
the one in the middle of man and woman,
born of both as every child is.
The waves came to us, one each heartbeat,
and lay themselves at our feet.
The swelling goes down.
The fever cools.
There, where the Hartleys grew lettuce eighty years ago
bear and beaver, fox and partridge
den and nest and hunt
and are hunted. I wish I had the means
to give all the north back to itself, to let the pines
rise in the hayfield and the lilacs go wild.
But then where would we live?
Read between the lines of these stanzas and behind the poem and you see … okay, maybe I simply have a dirty mind. But I don’t just see sex I see something deeper than that–a sensuality and a maturity done through language both straightforward and metaphorical.
This poem would be tough to teach to students, though. Not every sophomore I’ve taught would understand it fully; then again, there’s a lot about being an adult that you don’t understand at sixteen (and to be honest there are things about being an adult that I still don’t understand twenty years later). Plus, the fact that you’re talking about sex in literature in a classroom might cause some pearl clutching and fainting from parents whose perception of what you’re supposed to read in English class never gets more mature or sophisticated than Johnny Tremain.
Which is why I think Wordsworth and his daffodils live on. It’s the DMZ of literature, a safe choice that has a pretty straightforward meaning and studying his poem won’t make anyone uncomfortable or get anyone in trouble.
I’ve never taught “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” I have used “Hartley Field” in an advanced English class with varying degrees of success. And it’s not like we need to scrub the curriculum completely of the Dead White Males–that’s not what diversity in literature aims to do. I mean, if you look at Yates, Eliot, Whitman, Hemingway, Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and a host of others you will find great works, relevant works, works that are still incredibly important to our culture and to understanding human nature. But we shouldn’t also be afraid to find other voices, especially ones that will be more mature or make us uncomfortable.
Besides, lying down in a field of daffodils might set off my allergies.