Bruce Seaton
Professor Flynn
ENGL 334- Romanticism
Wordsworth/Coleridge Paper

Children of Joy?

In the first four stanzas of his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood,” William Wordsworth wonders what has happened to the beauty he saw in the world when he was a boy, and if the beauty and wonder he saw then can ever be recovered. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?/ Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” he asks. Both Wordsworth and his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge would attempt to answer this question. It would be two years before Wordsworth would again pick up his pen and continue with the ode, but Coleridge was struck by the opening of Wordsworth’s poem immediately, and began his own work, “Dejection: An Ode,” in an attempt to answer Wordsworth’s question for himself.

There are several important metaphors laid out by the opening of Intimations of Immortality, which are used to some degree in both Coleridge’s poem and in Wordsworth’s conclusion. Coleridge introduces additional symbolic references to aid the message of his work, as does Wordsworth in his own conclusion. Both poems also contain many of the same thematic elements, and deal with the loss of childhood’s natural wisdom and wonder, the frustration that comes when one is emotionally severed from one’s world, and whether or not inspiration is possible to regain once it is lost.

The major motif of Wordsworth’s first four stanzas is the passage from childhood into adulthood, and the indescribable something that is lost in growing up—indescribable because it is not really appreciated until it is lost, leaving only the shadow of a “visionary gleam”—“something that is gone”—but is spoken of by trees, fields, and flowers. The couplet that concludes the fourth stanza of “Intimations of Immortality” is a question so weighty, so distressing, that Wordsworth himself spent two years without an answer for it. Why does imagination shrink as we grow? Why does inspiration become more and more difficult to achieve in our adult years?

In “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge suggests that the reason inspiration is harder to find when we become adults is that we assume that it comes from outside sources. After watching a beautiful sky, and realizing that he sees its beauty objectively, without passion, Coleridge is crushed by his “dull pain,” his “unimpassioned grief,” and his “wan and heartless mood.” Upon hitting bottom, he realizes that he “may not hope from outward forms to win/ The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.” He will later proclaim, “the soul itself must issue forth/ A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud.” For Coleridge, this is where the visionary gleam has fled—deep within the soul. Coleridge also finds a simpler name for this inner light: Joy.

Coleridge feels that at some point he lost this Joy, this inspirational light, which was the source of his “shaping spirit of Imagination.” According to his own definition, what he has lost in the process is his secondary Imagination, the ability to re-create, to dissect and reassemble. After losing this creative spirit, he turned to analysis and criticism, which eventually became his only even marginally creative outlet. Upon realizing that this has happened to him, he turns away from “reality’s dark dream” to listen to the stormy wind—inspiration—that has “raved unnoticed.” Immediately upon hearing the wind, he begins to create again.

Coleridge personifies the wind, making it a “Mad Lutanist,” an “Actor,” and a “Poet.” He imagines in its roar a wild battle-plain, a “rushing crowd,” and finally of a little lost child, calling for her mother. Perhaps this last metaphor is the most important, since it calls to his mind thoughts of childhood, perhaps even a memory of an occasion in which he was himself lost in a wood. By recognizing his current situation and realizing what has happened to him and accepting what is for what it is, he is immediately able to change his situation, and awakens his own inner light. Coleridge’s primary Imagination—that which is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” and which can never be taken away, immediately puts his secondary and creative imagination to work.

It is difficult to say whether or not Coleridge has found joy in this act of creation. He may not even realize that his creative spirit has, at least for a time, returned to him, and he immediately changes the subject to thoughts of hope for Sara Hutchinson, the “Dear Lady” of the poem. It seems he has at least been able to climb out of the pit of egocentric self-pity and self-loathing he has been in, and to turn his thoughts to the welfare of another person.

Wordsworth’s conclusion to “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” also uses the ideas of childhood, joy, and weather, but Wordsworth’s solution to the question of “the glory and the dream” takes a much different course. Section five begins with an assertion:
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
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

This response, which took him two years to work out, gives Wordsworth the hope he so desperately needed at the conclusion to part four. The Joy and inspiration that childhood holds so carelessly and naturally and which adulthood lacks and craves can be regained through rebirth after death. This assertion of reincarnation assures Wordsworth that he will once again know the Joy and light of childhood. He declares that Earth is no more than a nurse or foster-parent to him, trying to make him forget his eternal nature, and his true “imperial” home. Rather than brooding in Coleridge’s clouds and stormy winds of inspiration, Wordsworth imagines himself as a kind of sun, rising and setting on a natural world for all time.

Wordsworth also laments the tendency of children to pretend to and long for adulthood, wanting to grow up, only to find that they have lost something beautiful in the process. For Wordsworth, it is the child, not the wind, who is an Actor, and who can bring him the Joy of memory, which is the remnant “ember” of youth’s blazing “visionary gleam.” This last spark of inspiration is the light by which we can still see the “immortal sea” of our eternal nature.

For Wordsworth, then, the “visionary gleam” has indeed begun to fade into the “years that bring the philosophic mind” of adulthood. That light has not disappeared completely, however, and there is, for him, the knowledge that it will be rekindled by a return to his eternal home. Although he does not see the world around him with the same unclouded eyes, able to see everything wreathed in “celestial light,” he finds peace, knowing he has “relinquished one delight” in exchange for the earthly world, but that he will someday have the chance to see the world again in a new light.

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