By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ is one of William Wordsworth’s best-known and best-loved poems. You can read ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ here before proceeding to the summary and analysis below.
Perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of this long poem is to go through it, section by section. So we’ll offer a sort of combined summary and analysis as we go.
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The paradox of the line ‘The Child is father of the Man’ is that our childhoods shape our adulthoods: the inversion of the usual idea of things (that an adult man is a father to his child) neatly embodies Romanticism’s desire to shake up the way we view ourselves, and to (an idea expressed before Romanticism, notably in Henry Vaughan’s fine poem ‘The Retreat’; but it was Wordsworth and the Romantics who made the idea a central part of their worldview).
These three lines establish the tone for ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’: the poem is about the formative years of childhood and how they helped to make Wordsworth the man, and poet, he became. Wordsworth wrote ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ between March 1802 and March 1804; it was published in 1807.
The three lines from ‘The Rainbow’ (‘My heart leaps up’) were only added as epigraph in 1815; the original epigraph in 1807 was from the Roman poet Virgil, and translates as ‘Let us sing a loftier strain’. In a note to the poem, Wordsworth wrote:
This was composed during my residence at Town-end, Grasmere. Two years at least passed between the writing of the four first stanzas and the remaining part. To the attentive and competent reader the whole sufficiently explains itself; but there may be no harm in adverting here to particular feelings or ‘experiences’ of my own mind on which the structure of the poem partly rests. Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being.
Here is the text of ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ with our own notes, added by way of summary and analysis.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
When he was a child, Wordsworth could detect the heavenly (‘celestial’) magic in the natural world around him: every meadow, grove, and stream seemed imbued with a divine, dreamlike magic. Now he’s an adult, Wordsworth has lost sight of the wonder he used to be able to detect in the world of nature.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Wordsworth acknowledges that nature is as beautiful as it was when he was young; but the ‘glory’ the earth used to contain seems to have passed away.
Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.
Wordsworth now acknowledges that the fault lies within him, rather than in any change that has come over the world. We are not in the realm of social or historical analysis here, but personal, subjective feeling. How many of us feel that the world has changed since we were a child, and that it has lost its way?
It seems less magical; yet to younger generations, it is doubtless filled with the same wonder we once had for it. In response to Morrissey’s question, ‘Has the world changed or have I changed?’ we feel confident answering, in the case of Wordsworth, with a resounding ‘You have’.
Indeed, Wordsworth feels ‘grief’ over the world that surrounds him, even though it is filled with the same signs and sounds of joy and life: birds are singing, young lambs are bleating.
As so often in a Romantic poem – see Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ for another example, where the poet calls upon the lark to sing to him so the poet can be inspired by the sound – the solitary poet wants nature to save him from himself and reconnect him with the majesty of the natural world – even the shepherd-boy tending those lambs can help Wordsworth to recover that lost sense of awe he felt towards the earth (the key word here is boy: the child can help Wordsworth to recall how he felt towards nature when he was young).
Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Indeed, it would be churlish, even perverse, to be ‘sullen’ when everything around the poet is filled with joy and life. Yet Wordsworth knows of a tree and a field which both ‘speak of something that is gone’: something has been lost. What happened to the ‘visionary gleam’ or glow that suffused everything when he was younger? Where has it gone?
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
The sentiment behind these lines is that we are more than just flesh and blood, and that we have a deeper kinship with the natural world, and with God. When we are born, that is not the beginning: we arise from a much bigger, deeper, longer organism that is the world (and, beyond the world, God).
When we are very young, we are surrounded by the divinity of heaven, but the ‘prison-house’ begins to close in on us, even while we are still children, but we keep it in our sight; when we are a bit older, on the threshold between youth and adulthood, we believe in its majesty; but once we arrive at adulthood we lose it altogether.
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,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.
Nature, and the earth, is like a mother (Mother Nature), conspires with this act of forgetting – perhaps because, like any mother, she knows that the young boy will have to grow up into a man who can go out into the world, earn a living, and accept the realities of the world (with all its limitations). We cannot spend all our lives going around gawping at the wonders of the universe, unless we’re Brian Cox.
Wordsworth doesn’t blame the earth for this, or see it as a betrayal: it is ‘no unworthy aim’ because, like a good mother, the earth knows what’s good for the child of nature (even if it comes at the cost of removing this sense of awe from the child’s mind).
Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a 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!
The young child is doted upon by his mother (nature?) and watched over by his father (God?).
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learned art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
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;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.
The Child starts to learn to create things which arise not from nature itself but from more practical concerns: he learns to ‘fit his tongue / To dialogues of business, love, or strife’ rather than praise of the earth. Soon, his ‘vocation’ or purpose seems to be ‘endless imitation’, like an actor: trying to conduct oneself on the ‘stage’ of life correctly, rather than keeping that deep bond with nature.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
Wordsworth addresses nature as the ‘best Philosopher’, praising it for its wisdom and immortality, yet asking nature why it strives to limit man’s understanding of its beauty as the years march on, placing us within a limiting ‘yoke’ like an ox ploughing a field. Why does nature conspire to make us less in touch with it as the years progress, demanding that we devote ourselves to more humdrum things like work?
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Wordsworth delights that there yet remains a glimmer of that childhood wonder in him, despite the marching years. It’s like a few sparks of life among the dying embers of a fire. Its power is ‘perpetual benediction’: an eternal blessing, religious in its power.
Which among us does not, from time to time, visit a place, or smell a smell, or revisit a book or hear a song, which transports us vividly back to our childhood and youth, and allows us to recollect (if only for a short while) how we felt when we were young? (If you’re still young and reading this, then it’s true what people say: cherish these years, even the pain and heartache they bring, for even that will take on importance when recollected years later.)
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Wordsworth says that, good as joy, freedom, and hope are, and nice as it is to remember how sweet they were when we were young, it’s actually the ‘obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things’ which he values as he seeks to reconnect with the earth, and through it, with his own childhood.
It’s those things which fall away from us and vanish, evading our grasp and our understanding, which contain the real power. There is something mystical but also mysterious about the natural world.
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
We now get a sense of the Sublime: that attitude popular with the Romantics which involves not only awe but terror in the face of nature. Our mortality trembles before the immortality of nature, which was here long before we were and will outlast us all.
It is something greater than ourselves, reminding us of how small and insignificant we are. (There’s even an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in ‘like a guilty thing’, used to describe the Ghost in Shakespeare’s play. Nature makes ghosts of us all in that it kills us all and returns us to the earth from which we sprang.)
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
More mystery: we may only have partially understood the earth when we were children, or we may only dimly remember how we experienced it all those years ago, but these recollections are still ‘the fountain-light of all our day’ and ‘master-light of all our seeing’: through those early encounters with the natural world, we learned how to see and read the world we now walk amongst.
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Nature has the power to give our brief, ‘noisy’ lives a deeper purpose and meaning, which nobody – and nothing – can destroy. No matter how far from nature we grow, we can connect spiritually with the immortality of nature far away. (Compare here the poem written by Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge, ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, which expresses a similar sentiment.)
It’s like being able to travel to the sea even when you’re far inland, and ‘hear’ the roar of the waves and the children playing on the beach, even though you’re miles from the coast.
Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
Returning to the birds and lambs from earlier in the poem, Wordsworth now enjoins them to continue their sport and singing, because he has now lifted his mood and discovered that ‘in thought’ if not in reality, he can re-experience nature as he did when young.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
What does it matter that the adult Wordsworth can never fully recover the bright vision of the earth he had as a boy? He can find strength in ‘what remains behind’ to him, that ‘primal sympathy’ with nature.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
Addressing nature, Wordsworth entreats it not to foretell any time when he will become separated from it. He still feels the awesome power of nature in his ‘heart of hearts’ (another Hamlet allusion), and has only given up one delight (his youth and childhood) so that he can continue to enjoy its ‘habitual sway’ from season to season.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Indeed, Wordsworth confides that he now loves the brooks more now he is older, and that dawn, and a new day, still fill him with appreciation of the world and all it can offer. The clouds gathering round the setting sun, foreshadowing the poet’s own decline and eventual death, remind him also that another day has ended and this has brought new glories.
Thanks to the nature of the human heart, which allows us to connect emotionally with the world around us, even the ‘meanest flower’ inspires thoughts in the poet which ‘lie too deep for tears’.
Tears indeed. Philip Larkin once recalled hearing ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ recited on BBC radio while he was driving, and having to pull over to the side of the road, as his eyes had filled with tears. It remains a powerful poetic meditation on death, the loss of childhood innocence, and the way we tend to get further away from ourselves – our true roots and our beliefs – as we grow older.
But it is not merely elegiac: indeed, it becomes celebratory as Wordsworth comes to realise that the advancing years can still provide opportunities to catch some glimmers of that first encounter with nature as a child.