Dances With Daffodils

A fanciful form of wordplay known as "N plus 7" can be surprisingly effective at exposing literary pretense

Wordsworth's best-known and arguably most ridiculous poem is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," the one about the daffodils. When daffodils are blooming, it is impossible not to think of this poem—although, at the same time, it is impossible to think of it. The language, with a few exceptions, is forgettable. Students from countries with no daffodils and a history of British rule have come to resent the daffodil poem as an artifact of cultural imperialism. Imagine never having seen daffodils and having to sit in school and mimic enthusiasm about their "fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

My favorite recent commentary on this poem is a version of it presented by the writer Harry Mathews at a lecture on the Oulipo in 1999, in Key West, Florida. The Oulipo, or OuLiPo, which stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), is a French-based group interested in formally generated literature and relatively uninterested in literature that purports to describe the "real" world or that even pretends to be the product of sincere feeling. Oulipians set themselves rules—writing a novel without once using the letter e, for example—and pride themselves on the depth and interest produced despite (an Oulipian would probably say produced because of) the restrictions.

Harry Mathews performed an Oulipian exercise called "N plus 7" on the Wordsworth poem. "N" stands for "noun." To use the method on prose, one locates in the dictionary a noun found in the subject text, counts to the seventh noun from it, and substitutes that for the original. With poetry, especially classical poetry, one may choose to respect the meter and rhyme of the poem being transformed, in which case one would examine every noun (excluding proper nouns) after the seventh one until finding a match. The alphabetical gap between the original and the substitution, therefore, can be quite large. Mathews, who respected Wordsworth's meter and rhyme in his N-plus-7 version of "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," had to traverse many dictionary entries before finding a noun that rhymed with "daffodil" and was, like "daffodil," a dactyl—three syllables with the accent on the first syllable. The word he came upon was "imbecile."

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 imbeciles;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
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.
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 imbeciles.

Some people in the audience, including me, found this so funny that we bent over with laughter even as Mathews, a tall, handsome man with a very grand stage presence, proceeded straight-faced and stately through the poem.

Mathews has no qualms about dissing Wordsworth. Indeed, he can't understand how anyone who takes literature seriously and cares about words can not disrespect Wordsworth. As he told me on the phone shortly after the reading, he holds Wordsworth responsible for the largely mistaken direction of most modern literature. Before Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, he said, personal feelings were just a small part of what literature addressed. Because of Wordsworth, emotions became the subject of literature: sincerity moved to the center of the literary enterprise, and to be morally responsible meant that one had to account for one's feelings. "It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois."

"I also hate him for the hypocrisy of his theoretical positions," Mathews said, warming to his subject. He was thinking especially of Wordsworth's pronouncement, in his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads, that the language of poetry should be the "language really used by men." "'Language that men really use.' What could be more 'poetic,' more literary, than Wordsworth's language? If only he had used simple, unpoetic language. If someone had come along capable of combining the intricacies of Milton's prosody with genuinely simple diction, wouldn't that have been something?"

I tried to perform N plus 7 myself, but I had no print dictionary on hand, and I quickly realized that with an online dictionary the technique is impossible. Without a linear, alphabetically organized text, one can't count seven nouns ahead. The words are all there, but their relationship to one another is that of points in a circle of which the researcher is the center.

Since I could not play Mathews's game, I decided to play what game I could. I looked up "daffodil."

"Daffodil," the online Oxford English Dictionary says, is a variant of "affodill," with the initial d insufficiently accounted for. Perhaps it comes from the French "de," as in "fleur d'affrodille," but it may come from a linguistic tendency for words beginning in a to pick up an initial d or t—as "aunt" becomes "tante." As for "affodill," it is derived from "asphodel," a flower entirely different from the daffodil, which is, unlike the asphodel, a relative of the narcissus. The OED entries read as though we all had affodills and asphodels growing in our gardens, and I found myself feeling as left out and irritated as any postcolonial student. So I looked up "imbecile." It means "physically weak or impotent," and the modern instance ("imbecile" as a noun) is a "nonce-use" from the adjective that has no historical connection to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century usages that are the earliest ones recorded. "Nonce-use?"

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