Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 541
Between the third and the ninth stanza, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” seems extremely bleak. Wordsworth suggests that human growth leads downward from the splendor of youth to the emptiness and grief of “palsied Age.” He accepts Plato’s notion that souls exist before as well as after they are joined with bodies. Unlike Plato, however, Wordsworth believes that little children and infants inhabit a world which is full of “visionary gleam” because they have only recently left the “imperial palace” in the spiritual realm and, “trailing clouds of glory,” have entered the fallen world of matter. In childhood, according to Wordsworth, one’s own immortality is intuited and so young people are perpetually joyful; they have a “heart of May” not because their bodies are strong and capable but because of their spiritual health. The bleakness comes when the “yearsbring the inevitable yoke” of customary actions and “endless imitation.” When the “celestial light,/ The glory and the freshness” of youth disappear, what is left?
The final three stanzas answer this question in a hopeful fashion. Memory serves as an important key for a kind of hard-earned happiness, “all that is at enmity with joy” cannot “utterly abolish or destroy” as long as one can recall the “delight and liberty” of childhood when God’s light was all around. As the title explicitly states, in maturity, one garners “intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood.”
Wordsworth finds strength not only in memory but also in “the philosophic mind” that develops over time. In his poem “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” he claims that he need not mourn the loss of youth because he has received “abundant recompense” in his more mature vision of the world and his appreciation of the “still, sad music of humanity.” The same idea is reshaped in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Speaking for all of humanity, Wordsworth admits that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,” but he insists that “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind.” What remains are not only those memories of early childhood but also the “primal sympathythe soothing thoughts that spring/ Out of human suffering.” Wordsworth powerfully suggests that it is sensitivity to others’ suffering and compassion that distinguish the mature person from the youthful one and that provide a “recompense” for falling into the “prison-house” of consciousness. He finally suggests that the mature mind develops, over time, a “faith that looks through death.”
The poet is able to conclude, in stanza 11, that he loves the “Brooks which down their channels fret,/ Even more than when I tripped lightly as they.” There is a sense of reconciliation in these final lines; time is no longer the enemy because Wordsworth recognizes that the “philosophic mind” can develop only as one moves toward death. He loves nature even more than in youth because he has earned a sober appreciation of the human heart, “its tenderness, its joys, and fears.” The false, transient euphoria of stanzas 3 and 4 is gone. Instead, the poem ends with a powerful, if somewhat muted, joy. Through suffering, a “philosophic mind” develops which allows one to endure and keep “watch o’er man’s mortality.”
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
Over the years as well as in Wordsworth’s own lifetime, a number of people have objected to Wordsworth’s apparent adherence in this poem to the idea of “metempsychosis,” or the transmigration of the soul, a notion of the soul’s immortality that seems much more Eastern in its orientation than the traditional Christian formulation. This criticism of the poet’s conception of immortality extends beyond an orthodox Christian audience. According to Richard McKusick, Henry David Thoreau in his journals further complains of “Wordsworth’s assimilation of the Platonic doctrine of the soul’s preexistence to the traditional Christian belief in heaven.” In Thoreau’s mind, Wordsworth seems to be claiming that the soul’s existence before incarnation is not only separate but also superior to earthly life. In line 80, Wordsworth seems to be contrasting “the glories he hath known,” the soul’s experience and remembrance of its heavenly origins, to its mundane existence in this dimmer earthly plane. Elsewhere, in line 86, the poet characterizes the heavenly realm of the soul’s origins as an “imperial palace,” a place far removed and much lamented by the soul now imprisoned in human form. In response to both Wordsworth’s Christian critics and more secular readers like Thoreau, one can reasonably ask if the poem reveals a Christianizing tendency in its treatment of the soul’s origins and immortality—or, conversely, can the ode be viewed in any way as Christian at all?
Wordsworth himself was apparently made aware in his own lifetime of this problem. In response to his contemporary critics, he asserted that he used the notion of the soul’s preexistence in the ode as a poetic idea, not as a statement of belief. Wordsworth wrote that the idea of the soul’s previous existence as portrayed in the poem is “too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith,” that it is only one “element in our instincts of immortality.” However, the poet goes on to say that although the concept of the soul’s existence prior to earthly life is not given by revelation as received in Scripture, it is not contradicted either. According to Wordsworth, the story of the Fall itself provides an analogy to his use of the idea of the soul’s preexistence. As Wordsworth continued to revise and expand on his earlier poetry over the course of a long lifetime, it becomes obvious that his ideas began to tend more toward the conservative orthodoxy of the Victorian period. The so-called Sage of Rydal Mount, admired and revered by the British public of the mid-nineteenth century, came to supplant the radical Romantic poet who wrote his earliest and best-known work in comparative youth amid the heady passions of the French Revolution. Thus, Wordsworth himself may have come to regard his earlier poems through glasses of a more conservative and orthodox tint in his later years.