they flash upon that inward eye

Petrarch, in his letter called “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” quotes a passage from book ten of Augustine’s Confessions: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

Petrarch cites this passage as he sets his gaze on the wonder of what it means to be human. Augustine is talking specifically about the wonders of human memory (what we might call the subconscious, the heart or the imagination). “Memory” was the fifth canon of rhetoric and Augustine was a master of the complex rhetorical theory associated with it. He conceived of each human mind as an elaborate city (or even universe) of conscious and unconscious thoughts and sensory impressions that maintain a life of their own. Augustine even speculates about how our memories contain God himself (in some incomplete sense, he is quick to point out).

When reading the poem below by William Wordsworth (which is also primarily about the power of memory), it strikes me that he is deliberately referencing this passage from Augustine and Petrarch, comparing these flowers in his mind to the stars and the waves.


William Wordsworth

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 leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but 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.

Spring flowers that I photographed years ago at St Andrews:

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