The Curious Meaning of Wordsworth’s ‘They Flash Upon That Inward Eye’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’: this quotation is from one of the most famous poems of the Romantic movement. The lines appear in the final stanza of ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, an 1807 poem by Wordsworth.

But Wordsworth didn’t actually write these words, even though they appear in one of his best-known poems.

Confused? Let’s take a closer look at this famous quotation from what is surely the best-known poem about daffodils in the whole world.

To summarise Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem (which actually has no title at all, officially: it’s usually just known by its opening line, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, or alternatively as ‘the daffodils poem’): Wordsworth describes walking out alone when he sees a crowd of daffodils by a water’s edge.

His mood is lifted by the sight of the flowers, which appear to be dancing in the spring breeze. He goes home and later recalls the daffodils, and the mere recollection of the joyful flowers is enough to raise his spirits and make him feel happy again.

The poem, in other words, is about man’s communion with nature: our mood, our mental well-being, and our emotional state can all be improved by going out among the natural world and encountering sights such as the dancing daffodils.

The quotation in question comes from the poem’s final stanza:

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.

In other words, when Wordsworth is back home and lying on his couch, his mind either empty or thoughtful, he recalls the appearance of the daffodils and he is filled with happiness once again.

But what of those two lines, specifically? What is the meaning of

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude?

That powerful short verb, ‘flash’, recalls the suddenness of the flowers’ original appearance to Wordsworth: then, ‘all at once’ he saw them, while now, in ‘vacant or in pensive mood’, the memory of the flowers comes to him with startling rapidity. He can recall them instantly: he doesn’t have to undertake a conscious mental exertion to summon them to his mind’s eye.

Indeed, it’s more than this: Wordsworth doesn’t have to do anything at all. The daffodils appear to flash upon his mind’s eye of their own accord: he doesn’t reach for them; they reach for him. Nature is so powerful that it can insert itself into our lives without our even being consciously in control of it.

But why is this ‘inward eye’ – i.e., the poet’s ‘mind’s eye’ – described as ‘the bliss of solitude’? Because one of the most precious things about being on one’s own is that one’s imagination can run wild and be at home to all manner of wonderful thoughts and daydreams and memories. That solitude which was the poet’s misfortune at the start of the poem (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’) is now a blessing.

‘They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude’ was pronounced, by Wordsworth himself, to be the best two lines in the poem. Except Wordsworth didn’t write them. His wife, Mary Hutchinson, came up with this quotation, but Wordsworth liked it so much he included it in the poem.

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