William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is one of the most famous poets to come out of the Romantic tradition in England. More so than an English poet, Wordsworth was a poet of the Lake District and a ‘Poet of Nature.’ Wordsworth’s most famous works include Lyrical Ballads (along with Samuel Coleridge) and The Prelude. He is well known for his radical changes to poetic language and form. Wordsworth is also famous for his personal politics and his transition away from the more radical ideas of his youth.
Wordsworth’s "Ode: Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," was published in 1807 in his work Poems, in Two Volumes, and was titled only "Ode." Wordsworth spent a lot of time trying to answer the question that he left off with at the end of stanza four. He finally finished the work two years later and added a total of eight more stanzas before it was published. This poem is representative of the melancholic tone and sense of loss by which his poetry is known. This poem is a well-studied and well-known text and is often referred to as only the "Immortality Ode" by scholars.
The Immortality Ode tells the story of growing-up and the loss of innocence that is connected with the passing of time. Wordsworth is concerned with not only what is lost, but also what is gained by this experience.
Memory and Sense of Loss
Wordsworth is concerned with the theme of memory and the passing of time in the “Immortality Ode.” In the first stanza the speaker is reminiscing on the times of old when everything seemed to be “appareled in celestial light,/ The glory and the freshness of a dream.” (1:4-5). There is an innocence and beauty in the language, but as the first stanza draws to a close Wordsworth begins to transform this happiness and innocence into a melancholic recollection. Wordsworth counters this supernatural innocence and way of seeing the world with the speaker’s inability to regain those illusions later in life “The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (1.9). There is happiness in the child’s way of seeing and the “glory,” but the speaker is thinking about the fact that everything did not remain as it was in this memory. The childhood illusions cannot be regained. At one point the speaker says that “there hath past away a glory from the earth.” (2.9). The speaker has changed, and something has been lost in the process of growing up. Wordsworth also characterizes this experience as entrapping or limiting. As the boy grows up the “shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy” and eventually his "soul shall have her earthly freight." (5.11-12; 8.19). The boy is young enough to avoid this prison for a while longer, but the impending loss is inevitable.
Wordsworth seems unsure of what exactly has been lost. He ends the fourth stanza with a set of questions: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/ Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” (4.21-22). This “visionary gleam” that he remembers in his childhood is gone, but where does this “glory” go? He is very concerned with not only the origins of this innocence, but also in the disappearance of the “visionary gleam.” Throughout the poem he presents the process as a gradual loss that is hard identify as it is happening, but in recollection it can be discussed to some extent through the memory. Children are made to “Forget the glories he hath known,/ And that imperial palace whence he came,” so that those that are most qualified to understand the origins of this glory are made to forget throughout their life (6.7-8). As Wordsworth works through this origin and loss of innocence he also describes children as superior spiritual, and even philosophical beings.
Children as Religious and Spiritual Beings
Wordsworth characterizes children using spiritual and religious language to talk about them. They view the world as if it was “appareled in celestial light,” and see the sunshine as “a glorious birth” (1.4; 2.7). Words such as “glory” and “celestial” infer that children are somehow closer to the spiritual aspects of life than adults are and have a privileged view of the world. They are able to see the world in a different way because of their connection to a more pure form of nature and being because of their age. Wordsworth is raising many philosophical questions about the acquisition of knowledge. In this poem, the younger children see the world and nature as if they are bathed in an innocent religious glow. There is a power given to the young.
Wordsworth not only describes the way that children view the world as “celestial” and with spiritual imagery; he also uses similar language when writing about the children themselves. He describes “Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might/ Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height” as a “best Philosopher, and a “Mighty Prophet! Seer Blest!/ On whom those truths do rest” (8.14-15; 8.3; 8.7). Wordsworth is experimenting with the perception of knowledge and truth. Maybe as children we are the most knowledgeable philosophers who see the world as it really is. Children, in a pure and innocent form, are privy to knowledge that is lost as they grow up. In their infancy and young life they are closer to Heaven and able to view the world in different ways than adults are capable of. He toys around with this idea of children philosophers, but as the poem progresses he does shift to what the implications are for adults. Wordsworth is also concerned with the consequences of this gaining of knowledge and experience in adulthood.
Wordsworth is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and how this gaining of experience (at the expense of losing innocence) could be positive. Towards the end of stanza eight and the beginning of stanza nine the tone of the poem switches from the weight of the world “heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!” to “O joy!” (8.21; 9.1). There is a sudden shift into the resolution of the poem. The speaker loses some of the melancholic tone of recollection and turns to a hopeful tone of the future, a “new-fledged hope still fluttering” (9.10). There has to be some reason to live and experience the world as we do, and Wordsworth attempts to provide the reader with some consolation. He demands that we "Grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind" (10.12-13). After the majority of the stanzas present a speaker who is recollecting on a childhood that is now lost and is saddened by it, this request to not grieve seems out of place. Why should we not grieve this loss? The speaker begins to look forward to the experience that brings the “philosophic mind,” and an appreciation and respect for nature seems to be one of the reasons that we should not grieve (10.19).Stanza 11 moves on to a description of nature that is more appreciated now that the speaker has lived in the world: "I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,/ Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;/ The innocent brightness of new-born Day/ Is lovely yet;" (11.6-9). This appreciation of a sunrise and the beautiful scene of nature has developed over the years and is a reason to be joyful instead of living in a backward glancing grief. Nature is the great teacher and it can only be learned from and appreciated after one experiences the world.
Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution
William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience
Writing during a time of great industrial and scientific revolutions, many Romantic poets were concerned with the spiritual, and intellectual growth of children into adults. The themes of innocence and experience that are present in Wordsworth's "Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" can also be found in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. In his poetic work, Blake characterizes the two states of the human soul, innocence and experience, as possible at any time and at any age. This is similar to what Wordsworth does when he paints two very different pictures of childhood and adulthood. There is not a direct line where one loses their innocence and becomes 'of the world,' it can be a recursive process. One of the poems from this collection where these themes are explored is in Blake's poem "The Ecchoing Green," from Songs of Innocence. In this poem, the speaker also reminisces on their childhood days of innocence. As Old John watches the children play, the speaker reminds us that "And soon they all say,/ Such such were the joys/ When we all girls & boys,/ in our youth time were seen,/ On the Ecchoing Green." (Blake 179). The poem brings together a older figure looking back (Old John), and younger children running around playing on the Ecchoing Green in a similar way that Wordsworth talks about childhood and adulthood in his work. The sense of loss is also present. The reader of Blake's poem is reminded that even if they are young, they will soon be like Old John, thinking about their childhood past as if it were the most joyful time. This looking back on the past is a theme seen in the poetry of Wordsworth and Blake.
Revolutionary Language and Form
Another way that Wordsworth's poetry is revolutionary, is the way in which he experiments with content, language, and form in his poetry. This is particularly relevant to the "Immortality Ode." Traditional Pindaric Odes were traditionally very formal works written in praise of high and worthy people places, or events. Wordsworth changes this tradition by writing an Ode about a more everyday subject. He writes about one person's recollections and response to an event of their childhood, a "happy Shepherd-boy!" (3.17). Writing an ode on such a 'average' or even 'low' subject matter was not the tradition, and Wordsworth faced many negative reviews at the publication of the Ode. This speaking of a more average person in an ode was subversive at this time, and could be seen as an attempt to make a political statement regarding the exclusive language and nature of the poetic tradition.
Blake, William. “The Ecchoing Green.” The Longman Anthology of English Literature: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 178-179. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Longman Anthology of English Literature: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 553-558. Print.
Painting of Wordsworth:
Ross, Daniel W. “Seeking a Way Home: The Uncanny in Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.” Studies in English Literature. 32.4 (1992): 625-643. Print.