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?"

While I was playing lexical hopscotch, an e-mail arrived from the thoughtful and generous Harry Mathews containing the entry on N plus 7 from the Oulipo Compendium, a reference work that he edited with Alastair Brotchie. It explained that the results one gets differ tremendously depending on the dictionary used. The smaller the dictionary, the larger the alphabetical gap between word and replacement. Thus the opening of the Book of Genesis, using Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, to replace all the nouns, becomes "In the beguinage God created the hebdomad and the earthfall. And the earthfall was without formalization, and void; and darnex was upon the facette of the deerhair." Using The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is smaller, produces "In the behest God created the heckelphone and the easement. And the easement was without format, and void; and darshan was upon the facial of the defeasance."

The "N plus 7" entry in the Oulipo Compendium included Mathews's version of the daffodil poem, titled "The Imbeciles," and I found there was much more to it than I had recalled. Not just "daffodil" but every noun in the poem had been replaced by another noun at least seven entries along.

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.
Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance,
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.
The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not but be gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:
For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
Which is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.

Langenscheidt's Standard English-German Dictionary, with its compact range of English nouns, was responsible for the especially felicitous gaps between original and substitution, the blissfully ridiculous "Fluttering and dancing in the cheese" and "that inward fly / Which is the block of turpitude."

On The New Detectives, a TV show about forensic scientists to which I am addicted, a substance called luminol often comes into play. If luminol is sprayed on a crime scene and subjected to ultraviolet light, invisible bloodstains become visible. The Oulipian N plus 7, applied to the Wordsworth poem, was like luminol exposing the presence of falseness, banality, poeticism, and sentimentality. How much more provocative, incisive, and flat-out interesting is "never-ending nine" than "never-ending line"? "Markdown of a day" than "margin of a bay"? "Lonely as a crowd" than "lonely as a cloud"? As for "floats on high o'er vales and hills"—please! This is the guy who rejected poetic diction?

The N-plus-7 technique exploits the ability of a language to convey meaning even if we don't know the significance of individual words—a trait that allows us, as toddlers, to acquire language in the first place, gradually enlarging our vocabulary. It also exploits the vulnerability of writing to easy parody through the substitution of nouns. Take "To the Outhouse," the title one of my students gave to a parody of Virginia Woolf. Like many parodies, it seems almost effortlessly to suggest a literary critique, the earthiness of "outhouse" rebuking Woolf's tendency toward highfalutin, bodiless aestheticism. The relationship of noun to noun carries the critique, and because the writer's characteristic sound is embedded in both the syntax and the residual vocabulary, we don't have to make literal sense of the word "wealths" in this context to know that "The wealths beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling wealths in key" is an intrinsically phony line.

One thing N plus 7 teaches us is that nonsense is not silly but pretense is. It's no accident that Lewis Carroll produced work—notably "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky"—in the spirit of the later Oulipian N-plus-7 exercises. Like many members of the Oulipo, Carroll was a mathematician and was uninterested in trying to represent a literary reality. Yet I retain the exact words of "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe," whereas I have trouble remembering "Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance." And if I had the choice, I'd rather gyre and gimble with the slithy toves and slay the Jabberwock any old frabjous day.