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Ode: Intimations of Immortality

by William Wordsworth

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What are the similarities and differences in Wordsworth's poems, "Ode: Intimation of Immortality" and "Tintern Abbey"?

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The most obvious similarity between these two famous poems is that both focus principally on Nature as the poet's inspiration and as the one element in his life that has the power to keep him going and, to put it simply, to counteract his depression. We do not often think of Wordsworth as a man who suffered with severe emotional difficulties throughout his life, but there is evidence of this in much of his verse and in biographical accounts. He is forever looking back, trying to recapture the

Splendour in the grass, and glory in the flower

that he experienced in his childhood but are gone now. This specific sense of loss forms the core of the "Intimations of Immortality" Ode. In addition, Wordsworth connects his communion with nature to a mystical belief in pre-existence:

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.

Wordsworth links the themes of a prior life and immortality with his sense of being a part of nature. In his boyhood, the communion with the outer, vegetable/mineral world is complete; in adult life, he has lost this connection but reconciled himself to recovering part of it through his recollections of youth, saying,

We will grieve not; rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be.

"Tintern Abbey" expresses a similar enchantment (though the word is perhaps an understatement) with the natural world, but it is less specific in the philosophical conclusions the poet draws. Wordsworth is honest about his battles with depression and his sense that the only remedy for it is the contemplation of the outer world and his remembrance of things past:

. . . when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye!

The Wye River and its surroundings are a therapeutic counterweight to Wordsworth's depression and a vehicle for the continuance of his love for his sister, with whom Wordsworth was extremely close and who was perhaps the most important person for him throughout his life.

A last point about these two poems is that both are written in the unaffected style Wordsworth described in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads as his ideal. Wordsworth writes in a manner that—with the exception of meter, rhyme, and the poetic forms of pronouns—is genuinely like the way people talk in real life. Though others of the Romantic movement, including his friend Coleridge, differed with Wordsworth on the question of "poetic diction," Wordsworth was extraordinarily successful in conveying his deepest thoughts and feelings in the plainest and most natural English.

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The two poems are similar in expressing William Wordsworth’s appreciation for nature as a positive force in human life. The poet also implies that a divine force endows both nature with this quality and humans with the ability to appreciate it. Both poems use a first-person speaker.

These speakers use their memories to pull up past impressions of nature and reflect on those earlier ideas as compared to their more mature reflection in the present. They assert that memory not only brings up the past but also changes or even obliterates it. In “Tintern Abbey,” they phrase this as “I cannot paint / What then I was,” while in the “Ode,” they say that things that were formerly seen, “I can see no more.”

Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798) is apparently more personal to the poet, who seems to be equated with the speaker. The poem is also specific to one location and one incident in the speaker’s life—a visit to the countryside around the abbey, which prompts recollections of a different visit five years earlier. Further, the speaker addresses part of the poem to their sister, wishing to share what they have learned from this visit and recollections.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807) is a more general musing on the phases of life, in which the speaker contrasts the child’s and the adult’s visions of the world. Rather than a presenting specific instance and related memories and recollections, this poem addresses the idea of memory more generally. The speaker also addresses a general, unnamed reader and encourages a general philosophical position of acceptance of suffering and even death. Thinking about mortality, though it may be somber, is associated with becoming an adult, through “years that bring the philosophic mind.”

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Both these long poems by William Wordsworth seek to do the same thing:  express the renewal of youthful joy at rediscovering Nature’s beauty.  The Ode treats the subject generally, musing on the way Nature has preserved its beauty while Mother Earth raises Man from childhood to maturity; Tintern Abbey treats a most recent return, specifically to a church ruin by the River Wye, a visit that renews the blissful feelings that the poet/narrator had on his first visit five years earlier.  (Although the abbey is not technically part of Nature, in this context, decaying under the natural forces of Nature and surrounded by mountain-springs and a landscape “quiet as the sky,” it is more Nature’s purview than Earth’s.)  Both poems express the joy of earlier days, refreshed and renewed after exposure to “the din/ Of towns and cities”.  In both poems, the narrator relates how he has sought solace (“Tranquil restoration”) from remembering the scenes in his mind “In hours of weariness.”  Tintern Abbey is also specific for its reference to his sister, and how he misses her, as part of his younger joyful experiences (“ For thou art with me here upon the banks”), while Intimations does not include any specific reference to other people.  The poetic forms in both (iambic pentameter, unrhymed) are similar, as are the syntax and phraseology.  Tintern Abbey was written first (1798) and in many ways Ode: Intimations of Immortality (1807) is the more philosophical, mature statement of the principles of Romantic poetry.

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