Daffodils: A myth and a poem

The world is taking on a golden glow where I am. Bright, sun-colored daffodils are popping up all over the place. Massed in parks and along roadsides, they’re nodding their heads in the breeze to tell us that spring is on the way––and, hopefully, that better times are ahead.

The UK is doing an amazing job with the covid vaccinations, and my husband and I have both had our first dose. We’re feeling optimistic that we’ll soon be out of lockdown and be able to enjoy our summer.

Since daffodils always cheer me up and remind me that winter is nearly over, they’ve always been one of my favorite flowers. When I lived on a large plot near St. Louis, Missouri, I planted hundreds of them. I planted all kinds: yellow, orange, white, small, large… It didn’t matter, I loved them all. I still love them, but now I’m content to look at them in parks and buy bunches of them in the supermarket to fill my vases.

These bright, early spring flowers belong to the Narcissus family and are related by legend to the ancient Greek and Roman myths of that terribly vain boy called Narcissus. The best-known story is of Narcissus and Echo. There are several versions, but they basically go like this…

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903

The Story of Narcissus and Echo

When Narcissus was born, he was the most beautiful little boy anyone had ever seen. His mother (like all mothers) thought her son was destined for greatness, so she consulted an oracle to find out. The oracle predicted that the boy would live a long and happy life––but only if he never saw his reflection. The mother was stunned at this strange prediction, but she banned all mirrors from the house just in case. So, Narcissus grew up to be a strong, handsome young man with a head full of golden yellow hair––who had never seen his own reflection.

On the other side of the forest, lived a nymph called Echo. She got into big trouble when she helped Zeus trick his wife. When the wife found out, she cursed Echo. She said Echo would always have the last word but never the first. From then on, Echo could only repeat the last words she had heard.

Echo Falls in Love

One day when Narcissus was hunting in the woods, Echo caught a glimpse of him. He was so gorgeous that he took her breath away. She instantly fell in love with him and began following him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and called out, “Who’s there?”

Echo could only repeat the last words she heard, so she answered, “Who’s there, there, there?”

“Come out,” Narcissus shouted.

“Come out, out, out,” was Echo’s response. Then, overwhelmed by her love for the handsome lad, she ran out to Narcissus and threw her arms around him. He was shocked and pushed her away. “Stay away,” he shouted. “I could never love you.”

“Love you, you, you,” Echo said as tears streamed down her face. She turned and ran into the woods. The love-sick nymph was so sad and ashamed that she crawled into a cave to hide. She refused to eat and soon withered away. When she eventually died, her voice wandered off on its own and, in certain places, can still be heard repeating the words of others.

Narcissus Falls in Love

One of the goddesses heard about how Narcissus had behaved toward Echo and decided to punish him. It was a hot day and Narcissus was thirsty. She led him to a deep pool, one where he had to lean out far over the side to reach the water. The pool was still, without a ripple, and he saw his reflection for the first time. He didn’t recognize himself and thought it was a water spirit––the most beautiful water spirit he had ever seen. He fell deeply and madly in love.

He stared at his handsome reflection, talked to it, and longed for it. He was so besotted that he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He lay there gazing into his own reflection day after day. He wouldn’t leave to eat or drink, and the other gods became worried that he would starve to death. So, they turned that handsome golden-haired boy into a beautiful yellow flower. It stood rooted beside the pool with its head bowed, looking down into the water at its reflection.

It’s from this story that we get the terms ‘narcissist’ and ‘narcissistic’ used to describe someone who seems to be in love with himself or herself.

Daffodil Poem

Those lovely, narcissistic daffodils––those harbingers of spring have inspired many poets throughout the years. My favorite daffodil poem is the very well-known one by William Wordsworth.

In April 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, went out for a walk in the Lake District of England. As they strolled along, they came upon a few daffodils by a lake. Then more and more flowers appeared. Then they saw a wide, dense swathe of them. William and Dorothy were both moved by the impressive sight of the golden flowers dancing in the wind.

When they returned home, Dorothy recorded the extraordinary sight in her journal:

“I never saw daffodils so beautiful… some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing…”

Cow or Cloud?

A few years later William was looking for inspiration for a poem and the entry in his sister’s journal brought back the memory of the day they had come upon the daffodils.

Legend says that as he was composing his poem and looking for words, Dorothy heard her brother muttering, “I wandered lonely as a cow…”

“William,” she said, “don’t you think cloud might be better?”

I think we can all agree with Dorothy on that one…

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud 

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.

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 daffodils.
–– William Wordsworth

Wherever you live, I hope these lovely spring flowers will brighten your day.

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6 comments

  1. I agree with you about the daffodils, Margo. a place hat had fabulous banks of daffodils when I lived in England was Waddesdon Manor. If they are still there and you can visit, it is not far from Bath. Best wishes, Paula.

    1. Thanks, Paula. I had a look at Waddesdon Manor and it looks wonderful. We’ll have to go there sometime. Right now, the large gardens like this are only open to ‘local’ people to go there to walk for exercise, and you have to buy a timed entry tickets. But I’m hopeful that soon some of our restrictions will be loosening.
      Anyway, there are lots of daffodils in the smaller local parks where we go to walk too. They really brighten things up and make me feel optimistic. I know you are going into autumn, so you will have different natural beauties to look forward to. I hope the covid situation in Australia is improving. The vaccines are making an amazing difference here.
      Wishing you all the best, -Margo

  2. Hi Margo! Good to hear that Spring is arriving there. Same here in Portugal where the winter rains have finally started to give way to warm, sunny days. Good post!

    1. Thanks, Paul. Springtime is always a season of hope and new beginnings. I think it makes everyone feel better.
      All the best to you and Sage.

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