Ode on Intimations of Immortality
Introduction and Appreciation
Wordsworth’s celebrated Ode on Immortality has been widely praised by critics. Emerson, the American critic, for example, regards it as, “the high watermark of poetry in the 19th century.” Wordsworth himself attached great importance to it. He positioned it at the end of his collected poems as if it were the roof and crown of his works and his last word on the central problems of his creative life. Its full title, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood,” indicates its subject matter i.e. memories of childhood visions and experiences are an indication of the immortality of the human soul. Wordsworth began writing it in the spring of 1802 when he was at the height of his power and prosperity. By summer the first four stanzas were completed and the main design conceived. Then, however, there was a break of two to four year; the rest of the poem was completed about the years 1805-1806 and it could be published only in 1807. This long gap explains the abrupt beginning of the 5th stanza:
“Our birth is but asleep and a forgetting.”
Its Three Parts: Development of Thought
The plan of the Ode is simple but majestic. Its thought can easily be divided into three parts. In the first four stanzas, the poet tells of a spiritual crisis which faces him; in stanzas from V to VIII he states the possible causes of that crisis; in the last three stanzas he points out the sources of consolation that still remain open to him. Let us now examine the leading thought of the three parts in some detail.
In the first part (1-4) he tells us that a change has come over his approach to nature and his relations with her. In childhood, every common scene and sight of nature seemed to him, “apparelled in celestial light.” But now in manhood, though nature remains the same as before, he tells us that some glory has gone out of her. The things which he had seen in childhood, he can see now no more. What he finds missing is described as, “celestial light,” “visionary gleam,” etc.
Everything around him is gay, but the poet is sad at heart. The tree, the field, and the flower at his feet, which had played so large a part in his life, are suddenly changed. In poignant, moving tones he asks the question,
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is now, the glory and the dream?
The language used makes it plain that spiritual crisis which the poet faced was a grave one and caused him much suffering.
The Ode has far-reaching autobiographical significance. C.M.Bowra writes, “At the height of his career Wordsworth discovered that nature, in which he had put an unquestioning trust as the inspiration of his poetry seemed to have abandoned by him and this deprived him of his most cherished strength.”
Stanzas V-VIII are devoted to an explanation of the crisis which faced him. He replies to the question with which stanza IV ends. He takes the help of the Platonic doctrine of pre-existence, which shall be presently examined in some detail. We have a prior state of existence in heaven. In our childhood, when we are still fresh from heaven, we have recollections of the divine.
This vision of a blessed divine world makes the child see on earth the light of heaven. Hence nature appears to him, “Apparelled in celestial light.” As the child grows up, the vision of the divine gradually fades away and so the grown-ups do not have the “visions of the divine”. He is glorified as the “best philosopher”, “seer blessed”, the “Eye among the blind.”
Sources of Consolation
The Ode ends with the confidence that the poet still has much to comfort and sustain him. He might have lost, “one delight” but he can still enjoy lasting companionship with nature:
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
Moreover, traces of our divine origin are not wholly lost. The grown-up man may not have visions of a blessed world, but he still has recollections of such childhood visions to console and strengthen him. This recollection breeds in him, “perpetual benediction”. These “shadowy recollections” are spoken of as a “fountain light,” a“master light,” to uphold and cherish him.
The poet is even more grateful for the feeling of the unreality of the outward, which often recurs to us in our highest moods, and tells us of our spiritual origin.
He even draws upon his own childhood experiences. As a child, he often had the awful feeling that he was surrounded with unreality, and had to clutch at a wall or a tree to assure himself of the reality of things.
Old age brings with it other consolations. He can still feel cheerful in nature; for though he has lost the bright visions of childhood, yet this loss is compensated for by the human sympathies which came with maturer years and which enables him to see new and higher meanings in the most commonplace
objects of nature.
Sympathy, faith in the immortality of the soul, and the “philosophic mind” or wisdom that the poet gains with experience, are sufficient consolations for the loss of the visions which the poet as a child had.
The Ode ends on a note of hope and self-confidence which makes us forget for the moment the gravity of the crisis started in the opening stanzas. Thus the Ode is felt to be a personal document which tells us of a grave spiritual crisis felt and surmounted.