Wordsworth, St. Ignatius, and motherhood

Here in California, spring arrives early.  This last week has seen an explosion of petals: pink and white blossoms are everywhere, tulip trees are unfolding their mauve loveliness, and I’m  greeted with daffodils everywhere I go.


I hate to play favorites, but there’s something about daffodils that is utterly irresistible.  Maybe it’s their bright color, which makes them look like sunshine on a stalk. Maybe it’s the fact, being bulbs, they are underground for most of the year, so it’s easy to go months forgetting their very existence.  It makes the annual riot of blooms all the more delightful.

And maybe I like them because they remind me of Wordsworth’s famous poem.

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.

Years ago, I visited Wordsworth’s home in the Lake District.  We weren’t there during daffodil season, but it was still an intoxicatingly beautiful place with mountains and lakes and greenery and open spaces and little copses and small cottages.  If you had me pick the one place I’ve ever visited that felt like heaven on earth, the Lake District wins hands-down.

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.

 When I read this poem with my students,   we always talk about the contrast between the single poet – he who wanders lonely as a cloud – and the ten thousand daffodils, a golden community by the bay.  One is alone; others are together.  And though a daffodil on its own is beautiful too, a whole mass of them together is beyond breathtaking.

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.

 Wordsworth once famously wrote about “emotion recollected in tranquility” as being the basis for poetry.   And I think Mr. W.  put his finger on a powerful spiritual truth there.   This poem is really about the power of time and memory, isn’t it?  The poet enjoys gazing at the daffodils, but can’t begin to imagine how they will enrich his life.  It’s only later, when he keeps seeing the daffodils flash upon his “inward eye,” that he appreciates the power of those flowers.  He doesn’t even have to go out by the bay and look at them again; all it takes is the recollection of them for his heart to fill with pleasure and dance.

It strikes me that there’s something very Ignatian about this.  When you pray the Examen, you review the day and identify where you saw God in your experiences.  Sometimes, it’s only after the fact that you realize how much something – a sight, a sound, an encounter – has impacted you.  And though I doubt Wordsworth had ever studied Ignatian spirituality, he of all people would understand the power of memory, and the way that reliving an experience in one’s inward eye can lead to a sense of peace and understanding that are nearly mystical.

That’s a comforting thought for my life as a mom, too.  I’d never have thought this when the kids were newborns, but I’m starting to get scared about how quickly the days are passing.   Over the last year or so, it feels like time is a rock rolling down a hill, picking up momentum and constantly going faster and faster.  Parenting is easier now, in many ways, but there are certain experiences – the feel of a baby in my arms, the endearing wobbliness of a toddler – that I won’t experience again.  But I have my memories of those times, and every now and then they flash upon my inward eye – often sparked by a photograph, or a conversation with Scott or the boys’ grandparents – and that comforts me.   And there is a certain something I understand now about those moments that I didn’t have as I was living them.  It’s a sense of the big picture, perhaps, a clarity about how those moments made my babies into the boys they are today and made me into the woman I am today — and that clarity has its own sweetness.

It’s a short season, spring.  As I drive past the daffodils on my way to work each day, I know that their bright yellow beauty won’t be there forever.  “Nothing gold can stay,” as Robert Frost wrote, and he’s right.  And yet when you strive to live life as a poet or a saint or a mystic or a mom, you realize that the experience itself is not the end.  It’s a comfort to know that the inward eye will go on seeing, perceiving, and understanding long after the moment has passed.


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