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Ode: Intimations of Immortality

by William Wordsworth

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1391

William Wordsworth was a prolific and controversial poet. A major figure in the English Romantic movement, he was known as the optimistic author of numerous lyrical poems, which were written in a simple language dedicated to a daffodil, a daisy, or a butterfly, symbols of the splendor of all nature (living and nonliving). The famous English poet and critic Matthew Arnold thought Wordsworth’s poetry had “healing powers,” educating people to feel again. Wordsworth’s theory of poetry was based on passion and emotions. He believed that even the thoughts rest in feelings.

Ode treats the preexistence of human life, using the poet’s personal life experience combined with a Platonic concept. Wordsworth first mentioned the lasting importance of childhood memories of nature upon the adult mind in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798). In addition to Plato’s famous theory regarding such memories, another possible influence on the poet may have been the book Silex Scintillans (1650, 1655) by the Welsh-born religious poet Henry Vaughan.

The main concept of Wordsworth’s Ode is based on the poet’s belief that the “Child is Father of the Man” a sentiment taken from John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671) and used by Wordsworth in his short poem “My Heart Leaps Up” (Complete Poetical Works, 1802). In the Ode, he explains that birth is “a sleep and a forgetting,” not the beginning of life. Thus, he believes, children still carry a glorious memory of the “imperial” heaven as their home with God. Innocent babies and children see the beauty of the terrestrial world not only with their physical eyes but also and even more through their hearts and souls, which carry a preexisting sense of the spiritual presence. With an elegiac and definitely a nostalgic timbre, the Ode starts with the poet’s own memory of that blissful place (or state of spirit and mind).

Because of their still recent and fresh memory of the celestial glory, Wordsworth claims, children live in a dream-like world of pure joy and fascination. Gradually, while growing, they start to forget. The bliss fades into the light of ordinary day. Their attention becomes self-absorbed, less dedicated to solitary thinking and curious questioning. They become physically and mentally involved in various activities, in attending school, and in the distractions of crowds. There are prevalent, pressuring, mundane routines to be learned daily. According to the poet’s vision of that stage of life, each individual gradually becomes a “prisoner” and “imitator” of other people and of conventional ways of life. To fill the nagging feeling of innate loneliness, a youth craves to blend in, to be accepted into something larger, to belong. After losing the celestial freedom and the previously owned grandeur of peace and harmony, the individual is absorbed in a constant search for the self and the lost paradise.

The poet laments this loss, but he believes that it is not complete. His acclaimed positivity of outlook is expressed in numerous poems, especially lyrical poetry, and always with a philosophical, sometimes didactic, touch. He combines the ancient, pre-Christian Plato’s view with his own Christian-based theory, adding a personal twist. Wordsworth believes there is wisdom in maturity and a different, truth-seeking joy in the acceptance of the body’s imperfections, weaknesses, and ultimate mortality. After physical death, the soul goes back where it came from. Through the soul, humans live on. That is what Wordsworth sees as immortality.

In Wordsworth’s view, the loss of the splendid memories of the child is compensated for in an adult. He is grateful that, through suffering and pain, his awareness of mortality brings “piety,” “humanity,” greater understanding, empathy, and closeness to others. As a part of nature, human life repeats itself, as do all other forms of life, including plants and animals. Love of nature in all its varieties offers a lasting joy, not only because of nature’s visual beauty but even more because of the deeper meaning behind that beauty. In moments of peace, serenity, quiet meditation, and prayer, sudden intimations visit; moments of revelation surface and reveal a profound spiritual lesson. Many artists, philosophers, and great scientists have tried to express such epiphanic moments and spiritual experiences.

Uniting mind and nature, Wordsworth’s poetry combines beauty with philosophical thought, as do Japanese haiku and other ancient forms. Already, in the poet’s own time, numerous critics considered him one of Britain’s greatest poets, after William Shakespeare and John Milton. Wordsworth’s optimistic spirit affected generations, teaching simplicity, honesty, and often forgotten values. Such values come naturally to those who live close to and observe nature, the silent teacher. Wordsworth’s life and work demonstrate how to find meaning and pleasure in life—in its simpler, purer forms, which may appear ephemeral in an individual life span but which are repeated and as such are everlasting in essence. Such knowledge brings peace of mind and joy to everyday existence, especially as society becomes more urbanized and industrialized, further removed from nature.

The Ode is a masterpiece, linguistically and stylistically unique and complex. The poet’s language and style match the subject, and the rhythm and rhymes change with the mood (from the joy and ecstasy of childhood to mature disappointment, heartache, and final reconciliation). These mood changers are also conveyed through Wordsworth’s masterful use of metaphors, images, and sounds, which alter in ways resembling the movements of a symphony. The Ode is divided into eleven stanzas of iambic lines ranging in length from two to five stressed syllables. It employs variable rhyme schemes, as rhymes are found within the same line, in alternate lines, or in couplets. It is thus an example of anisometric poetry with uneven metric length.

The lasting importance of Wordsworth lies in his introduction of the Romantic movement to English literature. He published Lyrical Ballads (1798) together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who was one of his most accurate and comprehensive critics. Their book became the Romantic manifesto, “cleaning” the English poetry of its artificially lofty eighteenth century diction and installing fresh, new themes, language, and style to express appreciation of common people, their everyday life, and the beauty of nature seen in modest objects.

Many of Wordsworth’s conversational poems, in blank verse, have a natural flow and lyrical intensity, expressing a spiritual message of unity between nature and humanity that remains attractive. His interest in representing an individual consciousness, particularly in deploying a detailed poetic analysis of his own mind’s development, was considered by some contemporary conservative critics to reveal an unusually egotistic streak. It would later be studied as a valuable document of the theory of artistic creation, of the works of the human mind that are influenced by the beauty of nature, memories from childhood, creativity, nature, and a sense of mortality and immortality. Ironically, it would also be criticized by more liberal critics as portraying a conservative model of individuality, in which the individual is formed through personal experiences rather than social forces.

Following his graduation from Oxford University in 1791, Wordsworth visited revolutionary France. The visit had a powerful impact on him, and he was influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the leaders of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror, however, disrupted this influence and complicated the young poet’s intellectual development.

An orphan since early childhood, Wordsworth’s life was filled with poverty and loneliness. His first poetic works were unnoticed by the public, and his passionate revolutionary mission ignited great hostility among rigid conservative critics. His most productive years were from 1797 to 1808. His friendship and collaboration with Coleridge—as well as his close relationship with his sister Dorothy, his “silent partner” and great supporter—stabilized his life and enhanced his works. His political views and writing gradually became more tempered and in tune with the British norms of the era. Dedication, talent, and perseverance brought him success and financial security, especially after 1820. Wordsworth enjoyed a successful marriage, children, great popularity, and veneration of the public and critics, as well as the title of poet laureate from 1843 until the end of his life. These transformed his early, struggling existence into well-deserved success.

Wordsworth’s work is continuously reevaluated and found worth reading and studying in schools and colleges throughout the world. His life’s story is as educational as is his varied and rich opus.

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