Daffodils as Antidepressants (What Wordsworth Knew)

April 16, 2014
Sharon Packer, MD

When Wordsworth rhapsodized about yellow flowers, it is doubtful that he expected his verse to translate into the mental health realm. Yet that is exactly what happened.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"23970","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_7223038005943","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"2009","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"width: 175px; height: 236px; float: right; margin: 2px 4px;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Treatment trends come and go, but nature is forever. Today’s miracle cures may become tomorrow’s poisons-but the allure of daffodils endures. Wordsworth recognized that fact over 2 centuries ago when he penned his poem “Daffodils.”

Written in 1804, and originally titled “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Wordsworth’s daffodils poem became the most read poem in the English language. His words relieved the deep and dark depression of John Stuart Mills (1806-1873), who went on to become the 19th century’s most significant English-speaking philosopher. Wordsworth also influenced asylum superintendents, alienists, and psychiatrists, inspiring 19th-century “nature cures.” Tranquil landscapes were part of the therapeutic regimen at asylums.1

Wordsworth based his praise of daffodils on personal experience. The sight of daffodils sprouting from the soil catapulted him into ecstasy and rescued him from the sadness of solitude. “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills,” Wordsworth writes, “until [he] saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

The poem continues:

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: . . .

When Wordsworth rhapsodized about the yellow flowers, it is doubtful that he expected his verse to translate into asylum treatments. Yet that is exactly what happened. It is even less likely that the poet foresaw Freud’s so-called couch cure, even though Wordsworth concluded:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They [daffodils] flash upon that inward eye . . .
And then my heart withpleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

In other words, Wordsworth has flashbacks of flowers, of delicious yellow daffodils. Unlike trauma survivors who revisit the same painful situations through daydreams and nightmares, Wordsworth conjures up images of beautiful botanicals, when left alone in reverie. He uses his recollections to his best advantage. In contrast to analysts and some insight-oriented therapists, who excavate their patients’ painful recollections, Wordsworth found relief in rejoicing in the rebirth of nature. He regaled in the beauties that spring brings.

Today, we teach related techniques to persons with PTSD. Called “creative visualization” or “imagery rehearsal,” the approaches substitute pleasant and peaceful imagery for unsettling thoughts and distressing memories. This pleasant approach-exposure to delightful daffodils-is far-removed from desensitization that requires reexposure to painful past events (although desensitization has its proponents, especially for the treatment of phobias).

No wonder that New York City officials planted so many daffodils after 9/11. With more than 10 million new daffodils around town, meandering from neighborhood to neighborhood, in search of those specks of gold (gold flowers, that is) is easy. Wordsworth himself spotted only “Ten thousand . . . at a glance.” To soothe the city’s sadness after the Twin Towers tragedy, the mayor made daffodils New York City’s official flower in 2007-but without crediting Wordsworth.

How can daffodils help us today, at a time when psychopharmacological treatments advance by the day, and when more and more high-tech neuromodulators are being brought to market? Returning to the romantic era, and reexperiencing the “natural supernaturalism” espoused by Wordsworth,2 seems strangely out of date, at least on the surface.

Still, some say that flowers boost their moods, sometimes even better than medications or meditation. Gardening therapy is growing, both in popularity and in respect. Some people are willing to dig into the earth, to plant bulbs that bloom in early spring, but many city dwellers have no earth to dig. Most people are spectators, eager to enjoy the sight of their neighbors’ efforts.

Scientific studies from the University of Copenhagen identified chemicals in daffodils that cross the blood-brain barrier, which led to speculations that daffodils may help synthesize better antidepressants at some point in the future.3 It remains to be seen if those studies will be replicated, but, right now, we know that Wordsworth’s wisdom about daffodils persists.

At a time when we are still recoiling from the ravages of nature and recovering from one of the snowiest winters on record, what better time can there be to delight in the goodness of nature, in the form of daffodils? The winds and rains of Superstorm Sandy are barely a year and a half behind us. For many, those recollections remain fresh, especially since some people are still displaced by the floods that followed the hurricane.

Not everyone can enjoy daffodils (or other flowers) first-hand. For those who suffer from hay fever or other allergies, or shun the sun for medical reasons, YouTube offers an abundance of “Daffodil” readings online. World-renowned actors post their poetry performances on YouTube (at no cost to the viewer).4 Many more Wordsworth readings are homespun and heartfelt. Slideshows of photos and paintings add to the listening experience, and allow even the homebound to participate in Wordsworth’s spring ritual of “dancing with daffodils.”

As fond as I am of Wordsworth’s poem, I feel compelled to add a disclaimer: it is entirely possible that Wordsworth was suffering from seasonal affective disorder when he spotted the daffodils. Wordsworth does not mention it, but we know that daffodils are an early sign of spring. They signal the end of winter. Sometimes, they sprout even when snow still covers the ground. Perhaps he incorrectly credited daffodils for the spontaneous remission of his winter depression. After all, he did name his poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” suggesting that he was very sad at the start. Only afterward did his verse come to be called “Daffodils.”

While this explanation is possible, maybe even probable, we must ask ourselves, “Is it important?” Given that we practice in an era of “evidence-based medicine,” when anecdotal reports are less convincing than case-controlled studies, we cannot automatically accept Wordsworth’s words at face value (in theory, at least). Or can we? Perhaps Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” should be grandfathered into our psychotherapeutic armamentarium, since his insights have withstood the test of time. Plus, no adverse effects have been reported.

Disclosures:

A condensed version of this article appeared in Soho News, Chelsea Magazine, and Morningside Heights News, Spring 2013.

References:

1. Hickman C. Cheerful prospects and tranquil restoration: the visual experience of landscape as part of the therapeutic regime of the British asylum, 1800-1860. Hist Psychiatry. 2009;20(80, pt 4):425-441.

2. Abrams MH. Natural Supernaturalism. New York: WW Norton and Company, Inc; 1971.

3. Wood J. South African daffodils may help depression. June 24, 2012. http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/06/24/south-african-daffodils-may-help-depression/40578.html. Accessed March 4, 2014.

4. “Daffodils” read by Jeremy Irons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQnyV2YWsto. Accessed March 4, 2014.