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Wordsworth's Intimations Ode as a Path to Self-Discovery

Today, William Wordsworth’s understanding of the human mind seems simple enough to analyze, what with the advent of psychoanalysis and the general Freudian acceptance of the importance of childhood in the adult psyche. But in Wordsworth’s time, his ideas about the visionary qualities of infancy and childhood were different from anything that had been previously suggested.

Because his ideas on the formative qualities of youth were themselves so untested, Wordsworth had the advantage of being able to define his ideas throughout a lifetime of observation, experience, and the questioning of his preconceived notions about the role of childhood in the adult life. His conclusions led to a belief in the self being removed at birth from a Utopian state of creative self-awareness. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath elsewhere its setting” (“Ode” lines 59-61). This belief that he is in the process of losing his prodigious spark of Nature by growing up is repeated multiple times as he moves back and forth between crisis and inspiration.

In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (hereafter referred to as “Intimations Ode”), Wordsworth uses the first stanza to introduce his audience to the sense that all is not well:

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream” (“Ode” lines 1-5).

He provides a glimpse of the “celestial”, and then takes it away. This loss of sight is a core characteristic of his crisis. “By night or day / The things which I have seen I now can see no more” (“Ode” lines 8-9). He suggests that our birth is a removal from the “celestial,” and that as we grow up, we become lesser beings, losing that creative questioning impulse that makes life worthwhile.

In order for this to be a valid argument and to better understand the qualities of his crisis, it is important to be able to interpret the properties of his inspirations. Throughout this poem, Wordsworth shows an almost obstinate hope found exclusively in his brief descriptions of the natural creative world. “The Rainbow comes and goes, / And lovely is the Rose, / The Moon doth with delight / Look round her when the heavens are bare” (“Ode” lines 10-13). It is through these glimpses or memories that he is able to take hold of his emotions, and label them “Dialogues of business, love and “strife” (“Ode line 99). He realizes that these interactions cause him to retreat still further from life: “Full soon they Soul shall have her earthly freight, / And custom lie upon thee with a weight, / Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life” (“Ode” lines 127-129). This realization triggers a new volley of crises that are not fully resolved until line 169.

A good example of this type of thinking can be found in lines 130 through 168 where Wordsworth finally begins to understand his problems, and responds to the paths of maturing out of childhood that he creates in stanza VII: “A wedding or a festival, / A Mourning or a funeral; / And this hath now his heart, / And unto this he frames his song” (“Ode” lines 94-97). Wordsworth thinks little of the person who plays a “part” in life, “As if his whole vocation / Were endless imitation” (“Ode” lines 103-108), but he finds great joy in the idea that some fragment of his founding energy remembers where he came from. “Oh joy, that in our embers / Is something that doth live, / That nature yet remembers / What was so fugitive” (“Ode” lines 130-134).

Wordsworth then shows the child of line 86 that he can escape the monotony of life as a mere role player by giving himself up to the “obstinate questionings” that are a part of his deepest self. By doing this, the child (and Wordsworth) discover that the human nature so studiously outlined in stanza 7, trembles “like a guilty Thing surprised” (“Ode” line 148). They find themselves again able to see clearly, and to interact with the creative spark from which both are come.

“Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that us at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!” (“Ode” lines 156-161).

Wordsworth defines the space and confines of his poem early, setting the scene out in nature and capturing himself as a child at the very dawn of life in stanza I which sets the tone for everything that follows after. Even at the end of the poem where he is looking back at his childhood, it is not the adult life or interpretation of life that he focuses on; instead it is the path of dialectic growth away from glorious infancy to the position of thinking youth. It is with his own youth that he holds imaginary “dialogues,” which leads to the discovery that he is able to appreciate Nature as an adult better than when he was a child, formed in the image of man. “Though nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; / We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind” (“Ode” lines 178-181). It is his own mortality That allows him to appreciate the immortal constancy of Nature in all her unchanging ways.

“I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” (“Ode” lines 193-199)

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Sources:

“Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth
Literature 223 with Robert Baker
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