Friday, May 11, 2007

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood -- a Poetry Friday post

William Wordsworth was a linchpin in the development of modern poetry. Prior to Wordsworth, poets cast about to find a subject. With Wordsworth, in many ways, the subject was always himself. In fact, even during Wordsworth's life, Hazlitt observed that Wordsworth was "his own subject," which was, at the time, an original concept. Wordsworth's poems focused on emotion, ideas and sentiment as much as they did on the natural world, often with some interconnectedness. Even today, Wordsworth's poems tap into the subconcious (or even unconcious) minds of his readers and teach them how to feel, and how to connect with their true, spiritual self.

When I was in high school, one of the poems that had the greatest effect on me was William Wordsworth's Ode "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood". Although the entire poem is fairly long -- eleven stanzas of varying length -- it is worth taking the time to read it in its entirety. First, to read its full content. Second, to bathe in the glorious language of the poem. If you have the time and inclination, I hope you'll follow the above link, and then come back to "talk" about the Ode with me.

The Ode leads off with an epigraph:

The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

&emsp Paulo majora canamus

The first three lines of the epigraph are the last three lines from another Wordsworth poem, "The Rainbow." The complete text of the poem is as follows:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
& emsp Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The last line of the epigraph is a Latin quote from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, and means "let us sing of greater things". Taken together, I believe that Wordsworth took his earlier nature poem about rejoicing in nature, and started thinking more carefully about the two ideas raised in the poem -- rejoicing in nature, and the idea that childhood influences later adulthood. Certainly those are topics explored in "Intimations of Immortality".

The Ode is essentially in three parts. Stanzas I through IV, which were written at least two years before the remainder of the poem, convey the poet's wistful sense that something has been lost. Stanzas V through VIII speak of resistence to the idea of growth or aging. Stanzas IX through XI reflect the acceptance of what remains, that there is still beauty in the world, and "strength in what remains behind": sympathy, empathy, faith and philosophy. Throughout the entire poem, the speaker's emotion is at odds with the joyous, bounteous world around him -- a departure from established traditions. At the same time, this poem can be read as a nature poem -- how children are very connected to nature and the world around them, but adults have dissociated themselves from the natural world, and can no longer feel their correct place in the natural world.

I want to focus in particular on three stanzas from the middle of the Ode, which are the ones that sang loudest to me when I first studied this poem in high school. I should note that these particular stanzas have been interpreted as believing in reincarnation, or at least in the pre-existence of the human soul. Wordsworth issued a denial that the Ode argues for preexistence of the soul, at the same time noting that there is nothing in Christian doctrine to preclude or contradict such a thing. They are stanzas V through VII:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
&emsp Hath had elsewhere its setting,
&emsp &emsp And cometh from afar:
&emsp Not in entire forgetfulness,
&emsp And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
&emsp From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
&emsp Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
&emsp He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
&emsp Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
&emsp &emsp And by the vision splendid
&emsp &emsp Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind;
And, even with something of a Mother's mind,
&emsp And no unworthy aim,
&emsp The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
&emsp Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years' Darling of pigmy size!
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses,
With light upon him from his father's eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learnèd art;
&emsp A wedding or a festival,
&emsp A mourning or a funeral;
&emsp &emsp And this hath now his heart,
&emsp And unto this he frames his song:
&emsp &emsp Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
&emsp But it will not be long
&emsp Ere this be thrown aside,
&emsp And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his 'humorous stage'
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
&emsp As if his whole vocation
&emsp Were endless imitation.

I hope you enjoyed the reference to Shakespeare's As You Like It in the seventh stanza, to the little Actor playing parts on a humorous stage. It's a reference the soliloquy which begins "All the world's a stage", and discusses the roles played by a man throughout his life, from infancy to old age, a "second childishness."

I confess that even now, more than 25 years after I first learned this poem, I still love the idea of little souls streaming to earth, trailing clouds of glory, to be housed in new little people. And I thought of it often when my children were infants, looking into their newborn eyes and seeing in those eyes all the secrets of the universe, or so it seemed. But perhaps I was simply sleep-deprived; who can tell?

In this middle part of the Ode, Wordsworth traces the aging process, and how the soul gets shoved aside gradually by the daily concerns and obligations of life, causing man to lose connectedness with nature and the divine. At least, that's my reading of it. The middle four stanzas deal almost exclusively with the aging process and its effect on the soul. Stanza number 9, the longest stanza of the Ode by far, represents the "turn" in this work, where Wordsworth takes all the "facts" he's presented, and begins to make his "argument", that even with things fallen away, he can raise songs of thanks and praise knowing that somewhere in him is a soul that remains connected to the source from whence it came. Stanzas 10 and 11 return to nature and to appreciation for nature,

One more quote from the poem, the tenth stanza of which includes these lines:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
&emsp Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
&emsp We will grieve not, rather find
&emsp Strength in what remains behind;
&emsp In the primal sympathy
&emsp Which having been must ever be;
&emsp In the soothing thoughts that spring
&emsp Out of human suffering;
&emsp In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Yes, movie-lovers, this portion of the poem is quoted in the movie, Splendor in the Grass, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. It is also, in many respects, the key point Wordsworth makes in the entire Ode.

According to many sources (including Harold Bloom), this poem is one of the most important poems in the English language. At the very least it was tremendously influential over a host of other poets, from Wordsworth's contemporaries like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and George Gordon, Lord Byron to later poets, including W.B. Yeats, and including most American poets from Ralph Waldo Emerson through Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens.

For today, and taking a line from Stanza 10 out of context,I hope that you will "Feel the gladness of the May!"


Michele said...

What a thougtful and thought-provoking post - thanks for sharing...

:: Suzanne :: said...

What a lovely, interesting, informative post on one my my favorite poems. Thank you.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Hi Kelly! I'm catching up on Brotherhood 2.0 posts. John Green said your name on one of his posts! I'm sure you knew that.:)

Robert Zimmer said...

It's okay to believe this poem is about pre-existence -- Wordsworth did, despite what he said in his old age. My book, Clairvoyant Wordsworth, is all about this poem and its heretical (for some people) content. You can read some of it online at