This blog calls for special introductory material. Wordsworth himself wrote concerning his Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood:
To that dream-like vividness and splendor which invest objects of sight in childhood, every one, I believe, if he would look back, could bear testimony, and I need not dwell upon it here; but having in the poem regarded it as presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence…
There was a time in my life when I had to push against something that resisted, to be sure that there was anything outside of me. I was sure of my own mind everything else fell away, and vanished into thought.
Wordsworth came to believe wholeheartedly in his “inner-sight” over and above anything that the external environment displayed before him, precisely because of the nature of this beforeness that rang so true, something that rises to the fore so brilliantly in this epic poem. It all boils down to that priorness which the poem describes as a living force so true. Coleridge wrote:
But the Ode was intended for such readers only as had been accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel a deep interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet cannot be conveyed, save in symbols of time and space.
Yet, Wordsworth dare defied the odds and translated the ineffable into a lyrical charm that lifts the very soul into areas untouched or unexplored and right into the lap of the Unborn.
Wordsworth prefaces the poem by quoting his own “My Heart Leaps Up“:
The child is father of the Man
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
As the poem marvelously conveys, that vision during childhood is much fresher and crystal clear. When I think back to some portion of a familiar movie, let us say, that impression is actually better than what is viewed a second time… you think to yourself, “what a letdown—it’s not as I had pictured it in my minds’ eye.” While not covering the poem as a whole, those pertinent passages that convey the themes just emphasized will be presented.
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
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.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Ode brings out in those early intimations a prior-origin that is now clouded by the corrupted state of adulthood. The optimism of childhood remembers and recollects it best—that freshness of a dream that is brought to light on celestial wings.
Yea, when we come to see the REAL after we’re gone, all those former life memoirs of later years tainted with the mark of ageing and decaying maturation will become as mere chaff in the wind.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
While his beloved nature retains its magnificent structure the same as when he was young, still a former Luminous Glory is now absent, as if hiding in the splendor of the grass.
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:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
These are my favorite stanzas in the poem. Birth indeed ushers in a lingering sense of an endless array of forgetfulness. It is the nature of Zen and Buddhism itself to wake-us-up from this awful pit of endless oblivion and to Recollect that Priorness, whose endless Glory is, in truth, our very own. One needs to forsake the shades of the prison house that tenaciously clings to the spirit, depriving it of wakefulness and returning to its rightful Unborn home.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave…
For Wordsworth, nature is the best Philosopher since its utter immensity forever illustrates the true and diurnal course. But still, the eternal mind that forever haunts the human condition, coaxes the wayward spirit to rise-up from the darkness of the impending grave. Wordsworth wrote of death:
Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being. I have said elsewhere,
“A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death!”
The eternal child is oblivious and invulnerable to death. If you think this is not the case, consider the Star Child in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Wordsworth proclaims loud and clear that the eternal-child is yet with him still, despite the dying embers of a fading memory. The spirit of that eternal child remembers for him. It’s a perpetual benediction, an Eternal Blessing that knows no bounds.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
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;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
This stanza houses those famous lines splendor in the grass. There was a film of the same name dating back to 1961, featuring a much younger Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; it was about the naiveté of youth and a longing to exorcise sexual repression. Wordsworth’s purpose is to drive home the point that nothing can really bring back the majestic splendor of those sweet days of childhood—of lying down in the splendor of the grass. However, it is during those “years that bring the philosophic mind” when nature itself will never abandon us. Buddhism itself has a heavy philosophic-tone that can lay down a foundation that lessens the effects of perpetual suffering.
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;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
In this final stanza the bubbly-brooks fret down their persistent path towards the sea, and for the now much older poet signals a deeper love for them than when he first contemplated their sight and sounds so long ago when he was equally young at heart and youthfully formed. The clouds gather-round the sun like a group of mourners signaling their loss. They also foreshadow the poets own declining years which leads to the lonely grave. But deeper still is his honoring of the human-heart, which through all its joys and tragedies even the meanest flower can bring a consolation too deep for tears. As the Buddhas teach it is still best and a fortunate event to have taken a human composition in which to work out the final liberation from lamentations.