April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring…poetry? May flowers also bring weeds! One of the most common is the dandelion. As a weed and flower alike, the dandelion is a powerful symbol in poetry. As the little yellow flowers begin to dot the lawns all over New England, lets take a moment to appreciate them with the 1848 poem “To The Dandelion,” by Massachusetts native and Romantic poet, James Russell Lowell.
“To the Dandelion” is the longest poem covered in Personal Poetry yet. Therefore, instead of analyzing it line by line as in past posts, the major themes will be grouped together. If you are interested in reading the poem in full, it can be read in The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell available at Project Gutenberg linked in the Further Reading section.
Lowell opens the poem with a statement of the ordinariness of the dandelion, “ DEAR common flower, that grow’st beside the way,/ Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold!” At its most literal, this line describes how the dandelions grow numerous alongside the road that he travels but he still stops to notice and appreciate their presence. This opening line can be further interpreted as the joy one can revel in beholding even the the most ordinary sights in nature. Lowell ends the opening stanza with the line, “thou art more dear to me/Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.” The dandelion may not be the only flower that catches the observant Lowell’s eye, however, it is the most valuable to him. This is explored deeper later in the poem, but even at the beginning he emphasizes the particular significance of the dandelion.
“How like a prodigal doth nature seem When thou, for all thy gold, so common art!” Significantly, Lowell repeats the descriptor, “common” for the dandelion. Readers of poetry should always take note of repetition, because poets are intentional in their choice of diction. Repeated words typically point toward a important theme of the work. It is the simple commonness of the dandelion that makes it important to Lowell. Dandelions are everywhere, and thus can be appreciated and remind Lowell of the modest beauty found in even the smallest cracks of nature.
In addition to Lowell, it is children, he remarks, who appreciate the dandelion. “Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold—High-hearted buccaneers, o’erjoyed that they/ An Eldorado in the grass have found” It was this part of the poem, describing children joyously plucking dandelions from the earth as treasures that held the most personal significance for me. Reading it instantly transported me back to my youth in which I would gather the dandelions and wood sorrell in the yard, delighting in their vibrant yellow hues, and present a bouquet to my mother. Children do not differentiate flower and weed in their identification of beauty. They simply pluck and keep what catches their eye. As with myself, dandelions are also closely tied to Lowell’s memories of childhood. “My childhood’s earliest thoughts are linked with thee” he states in the middle of the poem. The dandelions are a powerful link to Lowell’s own early years and their commonness allow him to experience those memories often.
The ubiquity and unsophistication of the dandelion leads to the most important theme of “To the Dandelion”, the richness of sacred gifts in nature. Lowell often linked nature and spiritualism within his poetry. In the dandelion he sees the virtues of modesty, humility, and innocence.
“To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand; Though most hearts never understand/To take it at God’s value, but pass by/The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.” It is those who take the time to appreciate the unadorned flower who truly experience the majesty of God, according to Lowell. And although these gifts of nature are available to all, rich and poor, it is a rare person who collects the wealth offered so freely and unceasingly. The rare person who allows their heart to be filled with the joy of these humble gifts.
It is in this rarity, that children are the exception, part of the reason Lowell appreciates the link dandelions create with his childhood is that reminds him of when he felt a greater and easier connection to nature. “The sight of thee calls back the robin’s song,/Who, from the dark old tree Beside the door, sang clearly all day long;/And I, secure in childish piety, Listened as if I heard an angel sing/ With news from heaven, which he did bring/Fresh every day to my untainted ears, When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.” To the young Lowell, the birds were angels. Their songs the news of heaven. Notably, he describes his young self as a peer to the birds and flowers, meaning he too was a part of that heaven on earth. As he aged and lost his “untainted ears” he lost that heavenly connection, as well. He loves the dandelions because they remind him that he once felt that fullness of that kinship.
espite the inherent loss of aging, the poem ends on a hopeful message, “Thou teachest me to deem More sacredly of every human heart,/Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam Of heaven, and could some wondrous secret show,/Did we but pay the love we owe, /And with a child’s undoubting wisdom look /On all these living pages of God’s book.” Lowell believes that the dandelions can teach him, and the readers by extension, the value of the humble gifts in our lives. Even if the connection becomes lost in adulthood, it can be regained in “gleams” if we can only remember to look with our childhood wisdom and recognize that the wonder of creation is all around us, even in the humblest weed.
James Russell Lowell, The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell is available to read at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13310/pg13310-images.html
Similar Poets to Discover
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Poems
Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.