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This article is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Looking Up Vidyan Ravinthiran
There are some things you can look up and others you can’t.

As a schoolgirl, my mother learned off by heart Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud’ – which she, like so many, knows simply as ‘Daffodils’. This was in Trincomalee, a port of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. In this northeastern city whose beautiful name must remain to outsiders a contentless string of sumptuous syllables – though it has the largest number of widowed families in Sri Lanka, and was considered of particular strategic importance during the civil war which claimed those lives – there were no daffodils. And to look up what a daffodil is, in a botanical dictionary (even on the internet, which provides any of us, now, with an instantaneous hyperclear image of what we desire) is of course very different to looking down at the real thing – ten thousand of them, fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

No dictionary, then, could supply the lack; what my mother had never seen could not be synthesised by a definition on the page. You had to have actually witnessed Wordsworth’s flowers to sympathise with him and share, after the fact, in the formidable interior ‘wealth’ of his sense-impression; not the real flowers moving in air but the wonderful mental recreation that, on a rainy day, flashes upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude. Yet the irony is that the poem itself, memorised, was supposed to provide the analogue of that happily internalised flower for those like my mother who would carry ...


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