Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Celebrating Daffodil Day
The start of spring is invariably greeted by the cheerful sight of yellow daffodils popping up in urban gardens and country fields. As we celebrate Daffodil Day, we can draw from both literature and art to explore the role of this humble flower in Western culture.
The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, London, 1889.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
The English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) immortalized the daffodil in his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, most commonly referred to as “Daffodils.” In April of 1802 Wordsworth was walking in England’s Lake District, where he lived at the time, and as he later described it, he came across a 'long belt' of daffodils. The poem was written in 1804 and first published three years later. It is often referred to as one of England's most famous and most quintessentially 'Romantic' poems.

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.
Wordsworth’s description of the seemingly limitless “host of golden daffodils” and the way the memory of the scene filled his heart with joy reflects a feeling of hope that is echoed by flower enthusiasts even today whose spirits are lifted by the sight of the first daffodils in spring.

American poet and writer Adeline Dutton Train Whitney (1824 – 1906) was equally enamored of the daffodil, as seen in her 1887 book of poems with that title. Flowers figured heavily in her poetry for children, and although it may seem sentimental today, it was very popular in her time. Her poem “To the Wayfarer” serves as a counterpoint to the experience Wordsworth describes in his poem; he is the wayfarer who comes across fields of daffodils, while Whitney invites travelers to enjoy the daffodils in her cultivated garden.
A.D.T. Whitney (1824-1906), Daffodils, Boston, 1887 
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
The decorative embossed cover of Whitney’s book with its gilded depiction of a single daffodil typifies the Mercantile’s Book Arts collection that celebrates the history and art of crafting books. As literacy rates rose and printing technologies advanced during the 19th century, books became a largely mass-produced product rather than the hand-made items they had once been. At the same time, these printing advances enabled the book cover to take on a new role. It was no longer simply a protection for the pages within, but an opportunity for expressive design that advertised the contents. The cover of Whitney’s Daffodils is a perfect example of the advancements of 19th century book design. 
Maurice Pillard Verneuil (1869-1942), Etude de la Plante: Son Application aux Industries d'Art: Pochoir, Papier Peint, Étoffes, Céramique, Marqueterie, Tapis, Ferronnerie, Reliure, Dentelles, Broderies, Vitrail, Mosaïque, Bijouterie, Bronze, Orfévrerie, Pairs c. 1903.
St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
The continued role of daffodils in the visual arts is reinforced some 100 years after Wordsworth penned his ode to the daffodil when a leading French artist and designer featured the flower in one of his influential books. Daffodil is the common name for flowers of the genus Narcissus, and this image of the Trumpet Narcissus is from Maurice Pillard Verneuil’s Study of the Plant: Its Application in the Industrial Arts published in Paris around 1903. The book introduced ways to incorporate plant forms in all manner of decorative and industrial arts, from stencils to wall paper, ceramics to bronze, and lace to jewelry. Verneuil was a leading advocate of the Art Nouveau movement, and his book reflects the tendency of both Arts & Crafts and of Art Nouveau to incorporate motifs from nature in the fine and decorative arts. Verneuil was particularly known for his designs based on flowers, as evidenced by this print and the numerous other florals in his Study of the Plant.
These examples from the visual and literary arts are testament to the popularity of the daffodil in England and America. While Wordsworth’s poem certainly contributed to daffodils taking on a symbolic meaning, their appearance just as winter ends has made them a symbol of new beginnings, and because they reliably return year after year, they can also represent resilience. It is natural, then that this springtime garden staple has also become a hopeful and positive symbol for many cancer societies’ efforts to save and celebrate lives affected by that disease – a truly noble purpose for the humble daffodil.
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