Analysis of Wordsworth’s The Intimations Ode

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (The Intimations Ode as it is almost always called) is the single central work of British romantic poetry and widely regarded as one of the greatest English poems of any age. It belongs to, and is the greatest example, of the romantic genre called the “crisis lyric”—that is, a poem that articulates and responds to a moment of psychological or subjective crisis in the poet who writes it. The poem does not only record the crisis (although it certainly does that); it attempts to meet and resolve it. What this means is that whatever else the psychological crisis might be, the fact that poetry can address it means that it is a crisis about poetry and about poetic vocation, which is a true vocation, one that calls to the poet’s whole soul. The difficulty is that the crisis is one of deep doubt about vocation, about whether poetry or whatever powers in the soul poetry responds to and expresses can do what the poet wants it to do; and so the poet in crisis begins saturated with doubt about the poetic means by which he or she would combat it.

For William Wordsworth, poetry was the natural expression of the intensity of perception to be found in solitary communion with nature. That intensity of perception fills the mind capable of it, and it increases the depth at which that mind can think. Poetic vocation and thought arise from and cooperate with this deepening effect, so that the poet competes with the philosopher to find the “hiding places” of human thought and the sources of human experience.

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The crisis begins as one of skepticism or doubt. Poetry should be, as it often is in lyrical ballads, sublime in its simplicity, and therefore it should be true to the vivid and fresh perceptions of childhood. For this reason, Wordsworth sets the last lines of “My heart leaps up” as a motto to the Intimations Ode. That poem had claimed a continuity of feeling between the time “when my life began”; the present, “when I am a man”; and the future, “when I grow old”—a continuity that Wordsworth vows to preserve (“or let me die”). The last lines, which also serve as motto, assert that the child determines what the adult will be.

But this is just what the Intimations Ode begins by doubting. Its first words might be truncated to these central movements of thought: “There was a time . . . / It is not now as it hath been of yore.” Everything is lost in that “But now” (much as Lucy is lost between the stanzas of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” in the Lucy poems: “No motion hath she now . . .”). Samuel Taylor Coleridge was so impressed by the opening words, when Wordsworth read the beginning of the ode aloud to him (at the end of March 1802), that he repeated them at the opening of the climactic passage of his greatest crisis lyric, Dejection: An Ode, which should be read in the context of the Intimations Ode. (The original version of “Dejection” was composed in April 1802.)

The time that is lost is one in which the world seemed illuminated by light from the heavens. “Celestial light” is a phrase from book 3 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and also a phrase Satan uses in book 1 to describe what he has lost in falling from heaven. Milton himself, in the invocation to book 3, asserts that he has not lost access to that light, despite being physically blind, because of his own poetic and prophetic vocation. Wordsworth is not blind, but somehow he can no longer see the celestial light that used to seem to cloak the world.

The crucial word in the first sentence is seem. The world seemed appareled in celestial light, but it was not. Everything looks the way it did before, with the same loveliness it once had, but the loveliness is no longer celestial. Even the rainbow, which had been (in “My heart leaps up,” where it provides the poem’s epigraph) the sign of a covenant with himself and his own heart, no longer provides either natural piety nor even continuity, having declined to one of the lovely but essentially prosaic phenomena of the world: “The Rainbow comes and goes” (l. 9). The beauty of the world does not have the force that it did, and he can no longer see the things that he has seen. But the word things here does not mean objects: The objective world is unchanged. It is something more vague, “something that is gone” (l. 53).

However, the vagueness cannot be resolved, since what is gone is not something to be found in the objective world. Rather, it seems to be some capacity of subjective human feeling or responsiveness to the world. At least it seems that way in the first four stanzas of the ode, and in Coleridge’s echo of them in “Dejection.” There Coleridge writes of the lovely sights that surround him, particularly the moon: “I see them all, so excellently fair; / I see not feel how beautiful they are!” (ll. 37–38), which is a recollection of the second stanza of the Intimations Ode, especially “Waters on a starry night / Are beautiful and fair” (ll. 14–15). Grief has blighted the glory and the freshness that Wordsworth had once perceived in nature, and the poem begins with an effort to recover that freshness. Its first response to the sense of loss that it acknowledges is to try to overcome the jadedness of perception that has led to the loss, and stanzas 3 and 4 (until the very end) represent a strenuous effort of will to recover the celestial perceptions of childhood. One can see this in the Now with which stanza 3 begins, a now that is supposed to counterbalance the nows of loss in line 6 and in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” The third stanza is a powerful, vital response to the dejection to which the previous stanzas testify, and it contains some of Wordsworth’s greatest writing as he puts away his grief with an act of poetic will.

Stanza 4, accordingly, should be the stanza announcing recovery. Indeed, it echoes Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner’s salvation begins when he spontaneously blesses the sea creatures he sees following the ship. Wordsworth achieves a moment of complete joy, and we may feel that he has managed to bind his days, each to each again; the act of creative concentration has bestowed this at once on the poem and on what the poem records and celebrates, helping him to weather the crisis and recover the perceptive and expressive responsiveness from which he had felt estranged. But then there comes the great dash that begins line 51: “—But there’s a Tree, of many, one . . .” The tree, the field, the pansy all speak of something gone, and the recovery the poem has attempted is nipped in the bud. That line moved William Blake, who ordinarily distrusted Wordsworth, to tears. We should understand that the tree is a naturalized and completely real version of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The world speaks of what it lacks, and what it lacks is the delusory light of immortality we ourselves lent it in early childhood.

The end of the fourth stanza represents a very significant dead end. Wordsworth composed the first four stanzas of the Intimations Ode on March 27, 1802—the day after he had written “My heart leaps up.” Indeed, we can see the third and fourth stanzas of the poem describing the process of writing “My heart leaps up” the previous day, and we can therefore measure the willfulness and anxiety (“Or let me die!”) that the earlier poem seeks to counter. But the next day the poet acknowledges the failure of that attempt, and it is central to the seriousness of the Intimations Ode that Wordsworth stopped at the end of the fourth stanza and did not return to the poem for nearly two years. The sense of something gone is not momentary but deep, and it threatens to be permanent.

It is helpful to imagine Wordsworth baffled and without being able to make an effort to break through for two years—helpful to think of it as taking two years for him to work his way out of and through the crisis the poem records. When he returns to the poem, he returns from a different perspective to that of his earlier poetry and philosophy of inspiration. The Intimations Ode begins with a complaint that life is not what it was in childhood, with childhood as the ideal. But now in the fifth stanza, even childhood represents a decline: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” (l. 58). When he was much older, Wordsworth dictated comments on his poems to Isabella Fenwick, and in the “Fenwick note” to the poem, he says that he structured the rest of the poem on the Platonic myth of anamnesis (recalling to mind), or potential and partial recollection of a preexistent state. In his middle dialogues, especially The Republic, Plato sought to prove that the soul on earth is imprisoned in a lower and delusory world, and that its home is transcendent, whence it can contemplate the forms or ideas that are the only true reality. This world is an illusion, and all the beauty and order that we see in it or that we love in it is an incomplete survival of what we knew before birth but forgot when we were born. Childhood, then, is the time when we trail clouds of glory from that other world.

The soul that rises with us but has set elsewhere is Venus as the morning star. The morning star and the evening star never appear at the same time of year, and therefore it has set elsewhere, metaphorically by departing heaven. When Venus rises as the morning star, it is quickly overwhelmed by the light of common day, and while the splendid vision may attend us for the very first part of the morning, it will fade away very soon. (See Percy Bysshe Shelley’s extension of this moment in his reworking of the Intimations Ode in The Triumph of Life). The earth looks beautiful to eyes that still reflect heavenly light, and what the opening stanzas of the ode had attested, the celestial light that the earth seemed appareled with, is now explained as light that comes from a source other than the common sun, the star that comes from another world and that is within us as the soul, illuminating what it sees.

But the soul can forget, even if there are still glimmerings of what is forgotten. In particular, what it forgets is that the beauty and freshness it sees on earth does not come from earth. The soul, paradoxically, has the native strength to ruin itself, as the story of the boy who is at strife with his own blessedness shows. (That boy is, in fact, based on Coleridge’s son Hartley Coleridge, also the subject of his father’s Frost at Midnight.) The boy sees light everywhere and so has no idea that he is pursuing a reflection or will of the wisp in giving himself wholly to the pleasures of earthly life. He is both an “Eye among the blind” (l. 111) and “blindly” (l. 125) striving against his own privilege. He is still close to heavenly perception, but he is headed the wrong way, and things are not yet dark enough for him to see that he is headed the wrong way.

Oddly enough, this fills Wordsworth with “joy” (l. 129)—the joy of his own grief at seeing the immensity of the boy’s error. The man can see what the child cannot, which is how much there is to lose. “Something” is gone, but now he can take joy that there is still “something that doth live” (l. 130). They are, in fact, the same thing—a sense of blankness in this world that stands for what has been lost. The discovery of loss is the subject of the poem and also the solution to the crisis. The poem ends on a note of astonishing and difficult triumph, not because it ends in recovery but because it manages a powerful and radical transformation: It turns its original perception of a universal loss of intensity into the even greater intensity that belongs to the perception of loss. That formula—loss of intensity reversed to intensity of loss—is central to romanticism and to the romantic conception of the subject, and the Intimations Ode is both the greatest exposition and the greatest example of this transfiguration.

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