Ego Dissolution and Recuperation in William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud"

by Robert J. Walz

November 1, 2002


Shakespeare represents Prince Hal as a rebellious but charming adolescent who finally turns away from his defiance of authority, undergoes a reformation, and goes on to become England's venerated warrior-king, Henry V. In this essay, I argue that Hal's rebelliousness also is a form of creative play that facilitates his adolescent development by helping him working through family and intrapsychic conflicts. This working-through process then enables him to mature, consolidating both his masculinity and his identification with his father, Henry IV. However, in contrast to the usual benign and, in my opinion, rather indulgent reading of the Prince's adolescent development, I conclude that his final identification with his cruel and ruthless father merely amplifies violent traits already apparent in Hal's adolescence. Thus, Hal's "reformation" from playful prince to predatory monarch is more apparent than real.


    As Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence and Charles Rzepka in The Self as Mind have explicated, a poet is put in a precarious position when attempting to establish his or her poetic self. The poet wants to appeal to the reader's taste by fulfilling traditional expectations, yet at the same time feels an imperative need to be original and independent of these expectations. Rzepka delineates the contextual pertinence of this dilemma for Wordsworth, who greatly wanted recognition and mirroring by the public as an original poet but resented and feared this dependence on the judgment of others:

The Romantic's quest for self-knowledge, then, can best be understood as the quest for an intimate yet authoritative audience: to use Keat's words, it is the search for a proper "greeting of the Spirit" from another or others so as to realize an ideal, interiorized self-image that the poet fears the world will otherwise deny or deface. The dark underside of this anxious investment of power in the Other to bring the self into being is the poet's feeling that he has to a great extent lost control over the self made manifest in any social situation, and that the Other possesses as great a power to rob him of himself, to distort or misinterpret or paralyze the true self, as to bring it to life (Rzepka 27).

Wordsworth negotiated this dilemma, as we have seen, establishing nature as the mirroring other through which he learns about himself. It can be inferred from Wordsworth's description in The Prelude of his loss of needed nurturing upon his mother's death that nature took on his mother's role as a mirroring other. As Onorato asserts in The Character of the Poet, in his act of denying the untrustworthiness of nature in "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth intimates the traumatic sense of betrayal he felt towards the mother who had abandoned him by dying. The convoluted syntax and ambiguity of the statement that nature "never did betray the heart that loved her" represents Wordsworth's repressed and displaced concern with the trustworthiness of the object he was dependent upon as a young child, and in his nature poetry he represents the constancy of a mirroring other that his mother did not provide. Onorato also cites a portion of the "Blest Babe" passage of The Prelude, interpreting it as an indication that Wordsworth found in nature the sense of security from the emotional abandonment he felt when his mother died. The part of the passage that Onorato cites focuses on the infant's relationship to his mother as the foundation of his relationship to the larger world: For him, in one dear Presence, there exists A virtue which irradiates and exalts Objects through widest intercourse of sense. No outcast he, bewildered and depressed: Along his infant veins are interfused The gravitation and the filial bond Of nature that connect him with the world. (Book II, 238-44)

Concerning this passage, Onorato writes: Why does it occur to Wordsworth to put that qualifying phrase in his characterization of perfect belongingness in the world and universe? 'Outcast' means cast out from this relationship into the world. . . . The line, despite its impersonal quality, attests directly to an earlier sense of his own experience, characterizing it by associating it preconsciously with the ideal of which the analogy speaks: Wordsworth, at the death of his mother, felt outcast, bewildered and depressed. . . . The 'soul' entices the dissatisfied self with its unconscious recollections, projecting the beloved Presence into the appearance of the material world. . . (70).

For Onorato, this passage shows Wordsworth discovering, as a child, a more secure relationship to the material world (from which he will not be cast out) than to his mother.Through his relationship to this more constant and trustworthy world, Onorato claims, he can establish a "stronger sense of self" (71). Jonathan Wordsworth corroborates Onorato, noting that in the original manuscript version of this line Wordsworth had written, "No outcast he, abandoned and depressed" (79). In these lines "the filial bond," according to Jonathan Wordsworth, of human relationship is transformed into a "gravitation" or attraction to Nature: "the mother has been replaced, and the child is now a son of Nature" (80). Furthermore he supports Onorato's analysis by asserting that Wordsworth uses the word "interfused" in the "Blest Babe" passage in a sense very similar to how it is used in "Tintern Abbey": And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. (93-102)

In these lines the "presence" is "interfused" in both the external world and the inner self ("the mind of man"). The poet's declaration that he feels this presence in both the whole of the external world and his own mind is in part, apparently, an attempt to achieve an absolute sense of self. Not only particular natural objects, but also the poet's ego shares in the immortality and infinity of the whole. In these lines, nature is not a detached and distant object to the ego; it is an extension of the self's feelings of its own limitlessness and immortality. The presence unifies his inner mind with the vastness of the universe in a pantheistic "One life" and insures that his sense of self is not dependent on mortal creatures. The internal presence can not be disturbed by the vicissitudes of life such as his mother's demise nor by the fickle tastes of his audience--the presence of the other is both everywhere and part of his inner self; he cannot be cast out from it, nor is he in danger of feeling abandoned and depressed by its loss. The poet commemorates the inauguration to his vocation in the lines: "to the open fields I told / A prophecy" (The Prelude, Book I: lines 51-52). The poetic and prophetic self that makes this declaration is one with a nature that often serves as both subject matter and an audience that is both external and internal. As an audience, nature confirms the poet's ambitions and reflects his feelings about his mission:

The earth is all before me. With a heart Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty, I look about; and should the chosen guide Be nothing better than a wandering cloud, I cannot miss my way. (Lines 14-18)

The poet has left the city and its deadening effects upon his soul in order to achieve creative freedom in nature. Like that freedom of the Cumberland beggar, the poet's freedom is commensurate with natural inner impulse. The poet sees the "wandering cloud" as reflecting and confirming the correctness of the direction in which his own feelings lead him. As these lines exemplify, Wordsworth finds confidence and inspiration in the knowledge that his impulses are in agreement with nature. However, as will be shown, some of Wordsworth's poetry also reveals an ambivalence towards such agreement. Various critics have rightly observed that Wordsworth's belief in the "one life" declined during 1798. Hodgson finds this loss of belief in the "one life" to be a consequence of Wordsworth's feeling that pantheism did not offer satisfactory compensation for the death of his loved ones, particularly his sister and brother. In agreement with Coleridge's guess that Lucy is a poetic embodiment of the poet's sister, Hodgson claims that the "Lucy poems" indicate Wordsworth's loss of faith in "one life" as "inadequate to sustain his spirit in the face of inevitable loss" (53):

The eschatological vision of 'A slumber did my spirit seal" . . . accords perfectly with Wordsworth's 'one life' tenets: individual lives must end, but the encompassing and inclusive life of nature continues, and man's death is but a metamorphosis into a different aspect of that 'one interior life / Which is in all things' (Prelude 1850, p. 525). But now Wordsworth is patently disturbed by such a fate, less than wholly consoled by such a vision: 'But she is in her grave, and, oh, / The difference to me!' ('She dwelt among the untrodden ways,' ll. 11-12). The confrontation with mortality which the Lucy poems record unsettles Wordsworth on two particular counts. First, Lucy in death is both insensate and oblivious . . . . Second, Lucy's personality . . . gave her individuality, a uniquely human potentiality and characteristic--so that her death matters, the loss of her individuality produces a significant and permanent void in the world. . . (54).

Hodson's observations are certainly legitimate, but I think it can also be shown that Wordsworth's ambivalence toward the "one life" was engendered not only by a reaction to the mortality of his loved ones, but by his concern about the loss of individual identity when the ego merges with nature in the "one life." Poems such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and "There Was a Boy" show Wordsworth's ambivalence towards a belief in the "one life" based on his fear of ego loss. It can be surmised that Wordsworth's mother's death in 1778 occurred when he was eight-years-old and before he had established a mature sense of an independent self. Wordsworth felt betrayed by his mother's death, and he attempted to satisfy his need for mirroring through a pantheistic identification with nature. Wordsworth wished the internalized object world of nature to serve as a constant "presence" that would reflect his ego and at the same time protect him from dependency on untrustworthy human beings. By internalizing nature as a mirroring other, Wordsworth unconsciously, and paradoxically, hoped to win a sense of absolute self-sufficiency and self-identity independent of the social world. The poet, however, could not fully attain this sense of an absolutely independent ego because at the root of his feelings about the "one life" was an inevitable equivalency between his identification with nature and death. Because ego boundaries were already tenuous for Wordsworth, venturing back to a state of full identification with the object threatened the extinction of an only incipient self identity. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the source of Wordsworth's ambivalence toward pantheism was his anxiety over the possibility of losing the boundaries of his ego, and hence his individual self, by engulfment in the seemingly limitless non-ego of nature. Wordsworth's ambivalence about a relationship in which he is at one with nature can be seen in the poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," which was composed in 1804. From the beginning the poem is shaped by its quality as a past event presented to us through memory, and the rendition of events can be assumed to be influenced by the poet's defenses after the initial experience. What may have been an experience not without some pain, has been converted to a positive and pleasurable experience of the sublime by its reenactment in revery. The poem focuses on the poet's memory of an earlier sympathetic union or dance with nature (i.e., with daffodils) that "fills" his isolated ego with a renovating "bliss of solitude":

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. (Poetical works 149: 19-24.)

There are two natures in this poem, as there is in most of Wordsworth's works: the nature of external phenomena and the nature of the inner object world. These two natures constantly overlap and Wordsworth is able to exploit this ambiguity of inner and outer in his poem. Although the location in time and space of the poem's persona is indeterminate as the poem is spoken, he focuses on his emotional state of mind in two different settings. In one he wanders alone over "vales and hills" and in the other he lies on his couch "in vacant or in pensive mood." The poet initially relates his feelings of loneliness at the time that he encounters a host of daffodils:

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. (Lines 1-6)

It can be surmised that the diffuseness of the poet's ego at the time that he "wandered lonely as a cloud" allowed his mind to be permeated with nature, the experience of which he later recalls with pleasure while on his couch, as his heart "dances with the daffodils." In his reminiscence of this dance, his ego is reinvested with libidinous energy and, it may be assumed, reawakened to a life more "alive" than the one of his actual reality. The psychological strategy of the poem becomes complicated as it progresses, but, as will be shown, its basic dynamic is not difficult to extract: because of his feelings of isolation when "wandering lonely as a cloud," the poet has taken the natural world (symbolized by the daffodils) within himself, and, at a later time when alone on his couch, he is able to view and reexperience this natural world with his "inward eye." This "inward eye" instills "the bliss of solitude" because the internal world of introjected objects is more comfortable, indeed, more pleasurable, than the "real" world of human society. The poet is giving us an ironic idyll of the joy of being lonely, set apart from the social world and alone with nature. However, if we assume that nature in this poem embodies the same "presence" that it does in the "Blest Babe" passage, it is clear that the internalized nature represents an original need for human relationship. Fairbairn notes that the paradoxical reactions of identifying with a love object and at the same time wishing to remain separate is often seen in clinical practice as the individual struggles for individuation. According to Fairbairn "the anxiety attending separation manifests itself as a fear of isolation; and the anxiety attending identification manifests itself as a fear of being shut in, imprisoned or engulfed" (Fairbairn 43). It must be remembered, however, that symptoms such as those delineated by Fairbairn are often manifested alternatively by the same person because they are the two sides of the same coin: "the individual is characterized both by desperate endeavors on his part to separate himself from the object and desperate endeavors to achieve reunion with the object" (43). The patient wishes to be alone because he or she feels engulfed by another; yet, at the same time, because of the fear of isolation, the patient wishes for the very engulfment he or she originally attempted to escape. This paradoxical symptomatology can be traced back to the very paradoxical nature of identification itself:

The process of differentiation of the object derives particular significance from the fact that infantile dependence is characterized not only by identification, but also by an oral attitude of incorporation. In virtue of this fact the object with which the individual is identified becomes equivalent to an incorporated object, or, to put the matter in a more arresting fashion, the object in which the individual is incorporated is incorporated in the individual. This strange psychological anomaly may will prove the key to many metaphysical puzzles (42-3).

Based on the dynamics of this strange "anomaly," the individual who identifies with an object and then desires to become separate from it may fear that he or she has fully incorporated the object and has destroyed it. In this circumstance the individual fears becoming totally isolated if differentiation is attained. In reaction to this fear of isolation, the individual may then turn to an effort to fully merge him- or herself with the object. This explains how an internalized object can alternatively be felt to be an engulfing object. An overwhelming object that has been contained by introjection may remain overwhelming and threaten to incorporate or engulf the individual in whom it is internalized, motivating yet another attempt to achieve total independence and differentiation.

The final stanza of this poem simultaneously embodies images that express the paradoxical feelings of isolation and engulfment, yet also reveal the poet's exultation in having escaped both anxiety-producing situations. The poet is "shut-in" and alone on his couch, but mentally he is out-of-doors and one with the daffodils. At first the poet notes how he often lies in solitude on his couch. In this state he must feel isolated, or cut-off from his objects, for his consciousness feels "vacant", i.e., bereft of its love object. However, immediately upon implying this feeling of isolation, the poet fills his vacant mind by regressing to a memory of being surrounded by nature and retrospectively feeling himself blending into it. At this point the poet is able to deny his feeling of isolation and vacancy, expressing instead how his heart is filled with pleasure because of the "bliss of solitude." These states of isolated selfhood and a self merging into nature are interdependent. The poem fluctuates constantly between feelings of loneliness and feelings of dispersion, of being diffuse and insubstantial and "lonely as a cloud." In compensation for feelings of social isolation and of diminishment of being, the poet begins to establish an aggrandized sense of being through his intimate sensory experience of infinite nature. By withdrawing into revery and losing his identity as a social ego, the poet feels, like the Cumberland beggar, free as a cloud that moves spontaneously with nature. Given his state--insubstantial and diffuse, disassociated from his physically defining body--the poet easily feels himself conform to the shape and motion of the daffodils, eventually in tranquil recollection feeling that his consciousness is dancing in unity with them. Like nature itself, the daffodils seemed to stretch "in never ending line" beyond the grasp of his limited imagination:

Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of the bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. (7-11)

The ubiquitousness of the daffodils, "continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way," must exacerbate the poet's feelings about his own limitations and his sense of dissipation. Although he asserts he is "gay in their jocund company," such gaiety must be qualified by his awareness that the true value or "wealth" that they brought him was not in immediate communion with them but in their internalization in the later "bliss" of solitude:

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 has brought. . . . (15-18)

The "I" of the poem never really asserts feelings of pleasure in relation to the daffodils; rather it is "a poet" who feels gaiety in their company. The inference can be made that the poet feels gay because the intentionality of his consciousness identifies his being with the infinite daffodils. The poet's ego avoids the diffusion it fears from merging with the "one life" of nature by reversing the motion of his identification. Instead of imagining that he has lost himself in nature, he imagines that his ego, through memory, contains the boundless object of nature and is equal to its measure. This defensive reversal implies the exaltation of imagination over nature, for though the poet's heart ends up dancing with the daffodils, it is really the imagination that is the source of pleasure in the poem: it is the "inner eye / which is the bliss of solitude." The poet's dance with the daffodils expresses the sympathetic oneness that his imagination establishes with the object world, thereby defusing its threat as an engulfing other. For him the experience achieves its "wealth," its true significance and value, when he is in his capacity as a poet. He is now able to experience the vastness of nature within his individual and solitary mind, and he is able to express the pleasure that this experience gives him, as he does in this one. Thus, in a dreamlike "pensive mood" he is able to be always at one with infinite nature and at the same time remain absolutely alone in blissful solitude. The infinite quality of the daffodils has been translated into the ego's delightful experience of itself in a manner very close to the bliss of the sublime moment.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. London: The Oxford University Press, 1975.

Fairbairn, W.R.D. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge, 1992.

Hodgson, John A. Wordsworth's Philosophical Poetry 1797-1814. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1980.

Onorato, Richard J. The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in "The Prelude". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Rzepka, Charles J. The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Wordsworth, Jonathan. William Wordsworth: The Borders of Vision. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1982.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert J. Walz "Ego Dissolution and Recuperation in William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 4, 2002, Published: November 1, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Robert J. Walz