Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Wandering lonely as a cloud

Dean Gianakos
Lynchburg, Virginia, US

Hill of yellow daffodils with trees
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
William Wordsworth
Via the Poetry Foundation

There are many people today who are wandering, lonely as a cloud. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 43% of US adults aged sixty and older reported feeling lonely,1 even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness also occurs in the working population, with doctors and lawyers feeling the loneliest of all.2 Socially isolated persons are 50% more likely to develop dementia, and loneliness is a risk for a variety of negative health consequences.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy defines loneliness as “a subjective feeling that the human connections we need in our life are greater than the human connections we have.”3 Given the current epidemic of loneliness, it seems timely to re-examine William Wordsworth’s beloved poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Reflecting on this poem may give physicians new insights into ways to combat loneliness for themselves and their patients, as well as demonstrate the power of poetry to enrich lives.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”—also known as “Daffodils”—was published in its final version in 1815. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy often strolled together in the countryside of England’s Lake District, where they first experienced the dancing daffodils by the bay.4 Wordsworth, one of the great Romantic poets, was overcome with positive emotion at the sight and later put pen to paper. In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, he describes the poetic process this way: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility.”5

The first emotion recollected in this poem is loneliness: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Whether or not the narrator is walking with someone else does not matter: he feels lonely, with no obvious purpose to his thoughts. He is figuratively up in the air, drifting by himself like a cloud, and oblivious to his natural surroundings until he comes across a “host of golden daffodils.” Perhaps Dorothy shakes his shoulder to get his attention: “Look!” Suddenly, he no longer feels alone. He is back to a reality of connection, exemplified by Dorothy’s touch and personified by the crowd of daffodils, a multitude of new friends. If he could participate in their dancing, he would.

Wordsworth’s self-absorption and aimless thoughts dissolve in the moment of discovery. His thoughts are no longer in the clouds, but grounded in the beauty of nature. He observes not only the dancing daffodils, but also the sparkling waves. All of nature seems to be dancing. The narrator feels alive and joyous, basking in the created world. As a poet, Wordsworth the narrator could not be more thrilled by his discovery. He cannot get enough of this amazing dance party. Although he is having a good time in the moment, it is only later in recollected tranquility that he understands the lasting “wealth the show to me had brought.”

Maybe in the solitude of his comfortable study, Wordsworth reflects on the experience by the bay and feels joy, pleasure, and peace. He turns to the daffodils for company and consolation. They soften his sorrows and lift his mood. He sees them with his spiritual, inward eye. As readers, we vicariously experience the narrator’s joy. The vivid images of dancing daffodils become our memories, the good feelings become our feelings. Lyrical poems like this one are good for the soul. Reading poems can change and enhance our lives.

When I was practicing general internal medicine, I frequently advised patients to exercise outdoors. At the very least: get outside to walk around the block, or even around the house. It is good exercise and affords an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of trees, flowers, and the luminous sky. Even better to walk with a friend, who might notice something remarkable that you may overlook. Enjoying nature and engaging in conversation about it are recipes for healing the pain of loneliness.

What about those who live in an urban environment without easy access to green spaces, or who live in fear of crime? Perhaps Wordsworth would respond: “Cherish beauty wherever you find it and cement it into your memory. There it will reside for you to recall in moments of blissful solitude: a bowl of yellow tulips on the balcony of your New York apartment; spring showers splashing off a red city bus; or a stunning poem on the page.”

Yes, cherish beauty. And consider calling a friend to share the lasting wealth of this beautiful poem.


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System.” Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2020.
  2. Wheeler, D. “America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research.” Harvard Business Review. March 19, 2018.
  3. Rashid, R. Brooks, AC. “How to Know You’re Lonely.” The Atlantic. October 12, 2021.
  4. Howard, James. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud Summary & Analysis.” LitCharts. January 23, 2019. https://litcharts.com/poetry/william-wordsworth/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud.
  5. Greenblatt, S. General Editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition, Volume 2. New York: Norton, 2013: 146.

DEAN GIANAKOS, MD, FACP, is Chief Academic Officer at Centra Health in Central Virginia. As a general internist and former faculty member at Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency, he has taught family medicine residents and medical students for over 25 years. He frequently writes and lectures on the patient-physician relationship, emotional intelligence, and the medical humanities. He serves on the editorial board of medical humanities journal The Pharos.

Fall 2022



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