In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” William Wordsworth writes in the complicated stanza forms and irregular rhythms that are typical of the ode form. The 205 lines are divided into eleven stanzas of varying lengths and rhyme schemes. In the title, Wordsworth attempts to summarize and simplify the rich philosophical content of the poem.
The poem begins with an epigraph taken from an earlier poem by Wordsworth: “The Child is father of the Man;/ And I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety.” In this section of “My Heart Leaps Up,” the speaker hopes that, in his maturity, he can maintain an intimate connection to the world, similar to the bond that he had in his own childhood. Since the “Child is father of the Man,” people should respect the child in them as much as they are bound to their own fathers.
The first two stanzas of the poem quickly establish the problem that Wordsworth, the first-person speaker, faces: “There was a time” when the earth was charged with magnificence in the poet’s eyes, when every common element “did seem/ Appareled in celestial light,” but that time has gone. The ode begins in elegiac fashion, with the poet mourning because “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.”
Oddly enough, this problem seems almost resolved in stanza 3 when Wordsworth announces that “a timely utterance” (which is never revealed) relieves his grief. Critics have never decided definitively what that “timely utterance” could be, but all agree that Wordsworth seems tremendously healed by it. He boldly predicts that “No more shall grief of mine the season wrong.” The poem, which began in generalizations, becomes focused on a particular day in May, the heart of which makes “every Beast keep holiday.” Stanza 4 continues this celebratory mode for another fifteen lines. The formerly sullen Wordsworth now senses “the fullness of [the] bliss” of the “blesséd Creatures” and the joy of the “happy Shepherd-boy,” the children culling flowers, or the infant “on his Mother’s arm.”
The poem shifts suddenly, however, with the simple connective “But” in line 52. Despite the spring revelry of which Wordsworth says, “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!” the poem shifts into a melancholy mode: “—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.” Wordsworth returns to the elegiac tone of the first two stanzas when he asks, “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” The poem leaves the joyful sounds of May and tries to answer this question by turning to philosophical issues. Stanzas 5 through 9 track the complex musings of Wordsworth as he tries to explain what happens in adulthood to “the glory and the dream” of youth.
Stanzas 10 and 11 return to the natural world and the “gladness of the May,” but in them the reader can see that Wordsworth has been changed by his meditation. He acknowledges that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower” which belongs to the young only. Yet he suggests stoically that “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind.” Wordsworth finally salutes the power of the human heart, “its tenderness, its joys, and fears,” and the poem ends not with the giddy and transient happiness of stanza 3 but with a mature, chastened poet accepting both the pleasures and the pains of “man’s mortality.”
Although, in some senses, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is an extremely abstract, difficult poem, Wordsworth does aid the reader by providing visual images...
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for his philosophical ideas. Figurative language functions in the same way as a parable in the Bible: Concrete images help the readersee the point.
The fifth stanza, which begins the highly abstract and philosophical section of the poem, presents three metaphors that are repeated in later stanzas: God “is our home,” heaven is filled with light, and as an individual grows up “shades of the prison-house begin to close” upon the child. The celestial light, which represents the spiritual realm, eventually fades and dies away as the “Youthfarther from the east/ Must travel.” Literally, the youth, as he grows older, does not travel westward or move into a shady prison-house; Wordsworth uses metaphorical language to help the reader see the change from the liberty of pure spirituality to the gradual imprisonment by matter or the flesh.
In stanzas 6 and 7, Wordsworth adds to the philosophical picture. Nature, or the material world, “with something of a Mother’s mind,” makes “her foster child, her Inmate Man/ Forgetthat imperial palace whence he came.” Nature is figuratively represented as a foster mother, in opposition to God as the true father. The “imperial palace,” or celestial home, is gradually forgotten by the “Inmate Man,” who is Everyman, as he grows accustomed to the “prison-house” of earth.
Another attempt is made in stanza 8 to explain, through figurative language, the journey of the soul. The “heaven-born freedom” that is the infant’s birthright becomes, in time, the “inevitable yoke” of mortal life, an “earthly freight,” or “a weight,/ Heavy as frost.”
This poem does not offer a sustained conceit or extended metaphor but moves somewhat quickly from one image to the next. The relationship between the foster mother and God the Father is pursued for two stanzas and then dropped. The image of the youth moving from east to west appears only once. The contrast between the “prison-house” that holds the “Inmate Man” and the “imperial palace” that lodges the soul, although it is central to the poem, is stated explicitly in only three lines. The home of the soul becomes the “immortal sea” in stanza 9, and what was formerly described as westward movement or a prison-house is visualized as distance from the sea: “Though inland far we be,/ Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea/ Which brought us hither.” One of the joys of the poem lies in this constant shifting as the poet, in a meditative mode, tries to approximate in physical terms the complexity of his philosophy. With its rhythmical irregularities and stanza variations, the ode is particularly well suited to this discursive, expansive style.
Like so many of William Wordsworth’s poems, the ODE illustrates the concerns with childhood and human psychology that were central to English Romanticism. The speaker of the 203-line poem catalogs the gains and losses of growing older, at the same time making some profound observations about the effect one’s childhood has on adult life.
The poem can be divided into three parts. The first (roughly stanzas 1 through 4) details the loss of the glory of childhood. No longer is the poet able to see the earth, as he once did, through the visionary eyes of childhood. While nature still holds wonders for him, he realizes that he can never again behold the life around him as he did in years gone by.
The middle section of the poem (stanzas 5 through 8) elaborates the process by which all human beings suffer this loss as they mature. Growing from childhood to adulthood, says the poet, involves gradually forgetting the glory that we knew in paradise before birth. As the sensory pleasures of earth replace the spiritual pleasures of preexistence, the child gradually forgets the glories that once were his. Thus childhood is a truly blessed state, retaining as it does some vestige of “celestial light.”
The poem ends with a celebration of the recompense that comes with maturity. These new pleasures are the products of what the adult remembers of his early life. Thus, the adult intellect is tempered by recollections of early childhood to remind us of our spiritual nature.
The “INTIMATIONS ODE” is a complicated and highly abstract work, a poem to be read and reread. It probes the very nature of the spiritual plane of human existence.
Sources for Further Study
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1947. See Brooks’s chapter “Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination” for one of the most influential modern readings of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”
Hall, Spencer, and Jonathan Ramsey. Approaches to Teaching Wordsworth’s Poetry. New York: Modern Language Association, 1986. See especially Mahoney’s essay on the connections between Wordsworth’s ode and Coleridge’s answer in “Dejection: A Ode.”
McKusick, Richard. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. McKusick reads Wordsworth, Coleridge, and a number of other English and American Romantics in relation to modern ecological ideas about humans’ relationship with the natural world.
Ulmer, William A. The Christian Wordsworth, 1798-1805. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Ulmer argues that a Christian influence is apparent in Wordsworth’s poetry from the start of his career.