• By Adam Sedia

Beyond the Lines: Wordsworth’s “Ode” (Intimations of Immortality)


Wordsworth contends with Blake as “the poet of childhood.” His particular strain of Romanticism saw in the innocence of childhood a reflection of the “genuine” person with the external impositions of society and culture stripped away. Thus, much of his poetry examines childhood and the childlike view of the world. In The Prelude, for example, he uses the epic form to describe his own childhood experiences both as he saw them at the time and as an adult reflecting back on them.


Wordsworth’s “Ode,” subtitled “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” was recognized in his lifetime as one of his most important works. While on its surface it seems consistent with Wordsworth’s Romantic fixation on childhood, it is radically different from Romantic poetry. It treats an aspect of childhood, but it is a reasoned, highly abstract philosophical discussion highly uncharacteristic of both Wordsworth and Romanticism more generally. Like the music of Beethoven, which for all its emotional engagement adheres to strict and complex classical forms, the “Ode” is properly viewed as a classically composed poem with a similarly Romantic “feel.”


I


The poem has a rather complex compositional history. The first four stanzas likely date to 1802 and the rest of the poem to 1804. In the 1807 publication of Wordsworth’s poems it appeared titled simply “Ode” and having the Latin epigraph from Virgil. In the 1815 edition, the subtitle was added and substituted a new epigraph. Starting in the 1807 edition, the “Ode” was set apart by placement and typography as the culminating work in Wordsworth’s collection.[1]


The original Latin epigraph comes from the first line of the fourth of Virgil’s Eclogues (also called Bucolics or Pastorals): paulo maiora canamus, or “let us sing a little of greater things.” Dryden translates this phrase more loosely as “begin a loftier strain.” This short text is reminiscent of Beethoven’s own textual preface to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony: “laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen” (“let us sing a more pleasant [tone]”). In both instances, the preface frames the poem as a break from what came before. As we shall see, in Wordsworth’s case, the break is from the physical and mortal towards the eternal and ideal.


Delving into its context reveals the true richness of the epigraph. Wordsworth could not have chosen a work better suited to the character and nature of his ode. The Eclogues, as their alternative titles suggest, are pastoral poems written loosely on the model of the Greek idyll, but deliberately arranged in a cyclical structure and addressing a political theme – what some historians call the “Roman Revolution,” or the transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire that was occurring at the time.


The Fourth Eclogue is perhaps the most well-known of the set. As the opening line used as Wordsworth’s epigraph indicates, Virgil shifts his tone from idyllic to heroic. Apropos of this new tone, the Fourth Eclogue hails the birth of a boy that ushers in a new golden age of peace and happiness. The identity of this boy has never been clear, and later Christian writers saw in it a reference to the birth of Christ some four decades after Virgil wrote the poem. Indeed, Dante in his Purgatorio (XXII:64-81), has the poet Statius credit his own entry into purgatory as a pagan with having read Virgil’s lines and recognized their reference to Christ.


Just like Virgil’s work, Wordsworth uses a pastoral setting to address a larger theme. Though not political in the same sense as Virgil’s work, the “Ode” addresses how childhood’s perceptions reflect a broader universe of ideals. And like the Fourth Eclogue in particular, Wordsworth links a child with a golden age – though, as shown below, the child is an archetype and the golden age is immaterial. Thus, like Dante, Wordsworth draws from Virgil’s example and expressly pays homage to his model. While Dante drew from Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic in which the hero journeys to the land of the dead, Wordsworth, in keeping with his own style, draws from the more “subdued,” lyrical Eclogues, though with no less sweeping a statement.


It is also telling that this Latin epigraph was substituted out in the 1815 edition, replaced with three lines from Wordsworth’s 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.


A common truism holds that the first instinct is always the right one, and we may agree here. While Wordsworth did not alter the sense of the former epigraph in its replacement, he did remove an important component of the poem’s textual richness. Casting aside the words of Virgil and their implied connection to Dante, the poem loses its context in the greater dialogue of ideas through the ages, and instead becomes merely self-referential. This marks a shift in the poem’s outlook from one of Classicism, in which the work consciously places itself into a tradition, to one of Romanticism, where out of a desire to achieve genuineness or sincerity the internal forces of the creator – thoughts and emotions – become paramount. Whatever the motivations for the change, deeper reading of the poem must favor the original epigraph.


II


Turning to the poem itself, it begins with a reminiscence of how the poetic voice saw the world as a child and contrasting it with how he now sees it as an adult:


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 has 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 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 passed away a glory from the earth.


Wordsworth expresses his theme directly in the first stanza: the world seemed to the poetic voice “Apparelled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.” On one hand, the child sees the world as new, as boundless potential, unknown and therefore open to exploration. On a deeper level, too, the world as bathed in “celestial light” speaks to a heightened perception, a vision of the world as more than the mere physical forms perceived. The poetic voice mourns how, as much as it may try, it “now can see no more” of that former vision. Jaded by experience, it sees the world as it is, rather than in the “celestial light” of childhood. The second stanza, almost in anticipation of a reaction, acknowledges that the poetic voice still can see beauty in the world – in the rainbow, rose, moon, and star-reflecting water – but reiterates its initial point: “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.” The beauty the adult eye sees is not the same that the child’s eye perceives – it is lesser.


The third stanza reads:


Now, while the Birds thus sing a joyous song, ⁠ And while the young Lambs bound ⁠ As to the tabor’s sound, To me alone there came a thought of grief: A timely utterance gave that thought relief, ⁠ And I again am strong. The Cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep,— No more shall grief of mine the season wrong: I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng, The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep, ⁠ And all the earth is gay; ⁠ Land and sea ⁠ Give themselves up to jollity, ⁠ And with the heart of May ⁠ Doth every Beast keep holiday;— ⁠ Thou Child of Joy Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd Boy!


Here the poetic voice contrasts its inward “thought of grief” at recognizing the loss of childhood’s heightened perception with the childlike innocence and joy of the birds’ song and the young lambs romping in fields. The voice then suppresses those thoughts upon hearing a “timely utterance.” But it never states what that utterance is, or indeed who spoke it – was it internal or external? The text is not clear. Perhaps, too, it is the distracting scene that follows.


The waterfalls roar (if trumpets seem an unconvincing analogy), and the poetic voice, repeats that he will not allow his grief to “wrong” the season. And again the poetic voice’s attention returns to the scene of bucolic jollity that it first saw in the birds and lambs. This entire episode sounds as though the poetic voice is trying to convince itself to be happy and suppress its melancholy thoughts by diverting its attention outward. Indeed, the voice has to tell itself twice not to feel “grief:” once when it says “And I again am strong” and again when it avers, “No more shall grief of mine the season wrong.”


At the close of this stanza the child appears, here as the object of the poetic voice’s command: “Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts . . . !” Ironically, it is the poetic voice doing all the shouting, commanding the hitherto unseen child to shout – to drown out the thoughts of grief that the poetic voice already said twice it has suppressed.


Who is the child? As with Virgil, it is a potential reference to Christ – the “Shepherd Boy,” perhaps alluding to the Good Shepherd Discourse from St. John’s Gospel (John 10:1-21). At this point the reader does not know enough, but the allusion would hardly have escaped the readers of Wordsworth’s day.


In any event the poetic voice abandons its attention to the child for the moment and returns its attention to the scenes of nature before him, finally arriving at full odic tone, addressing everything around it:


Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call ⁠ Ye to each other make; I see The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee; ⁠ My heart is at your festival, ⁠ My head hath its coronal, The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all. ⁠ Oh evil day! if I were sullen ⁠ While the Earth herself is adorning, ⁠ This sweet May-morning; ⁠ And the Children are pulling, ⁠ On every side, ⁠ In a thousand vallies far and wide, ⁠ Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm, And the Babe leaps up on his mother's arm:— ⁠ I hear, I hear, with joy I hear! ⁠ —But there’s a Tree, of many one, A single Field which I have looked upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone: ⁠ The Pansy at my feet ⁠ Doth the same tale repeat: Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Again, the voice hints that this effusion is nothing more than a heightened effort to convince itself that it is happy. “I feel – I feel,” and “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear,” it repeats. But in the sixteenth line of this stanza, Wordsworth presents a turn: “—But there’s a tree, of many one, / A single Field which I have looked upon, / Both of them speak of something that is gone,” as does “The Pansy at my feet.” After effusive and ineffective self-delusion, Wordsworth returns the poetic voice to the same initial observation: the idealism of childhood is lost. No longer evading the issue, the poetic voice confronts it directly: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now . . .?”


With that question Wordsworth introduces the real substance of the poem in the fifth stanza:


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.


Here the poetic voice at last breaks free from the tension between its inner “grief” and its attempt at self-distraction through the scenes of nature. Now it confronts the reason for the grief at perceiving the loss of childhood’s heightened perception, and at the same time lapses back out of odic voice into abstract reflection.


Wordsworth here discusses the nature of the soul and of consciousness. Birth, taken as the onset of sensation, is a “forgetting.” What it forgets, though, is a preexisting consciousness, for human beings are born neither “in entire forgetfulness” nor “in utter nakedness,” but clothed with consciousness: “trailing clouds of glory . . . / From God, who is our home.” The poetic voice even ponders reincarnation, asking whether the soul “Hath had elsewhere its setting.”


It then traces consciousness as the person grows: the “Shades of the prison-house begin to close” on the boy; the youth who travels “farther from the East” – from dawn – still has something of the infant’s perception; only in adulthood does it “die away.” The turn of phrase “fade into the light of common day” is particularly beautiful and deft, as it captures the idea of the preexisting heightened perception as a supernatural light, brighter than the natural light of day, into which it fades.


In his notes, compiled by Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth explains his conception and use of this idea of preexistence in the “Ode.”[2] He writes:


It is far too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith as more than an element in our instincts of immortality. But let us bear in mind that, tho’ the idea is not advanced in revelation, there is nothing there to contradict it, & the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor. Accordingly, a preexistent state has entered into the popular creeds of many nations, and among all person acquainted with classic literature is known as an ingredient in Platonic philosophy. Archimedes said that he could move the world if he had a point whereon to rest his machine. Who has not felt the same aspirations as regards the world of his own mind? Having to wield some of its elements when I was impelled to write this Poem on the “Immortality of the soul” I took hold of the notion of preexistence as having sufficient foundation in humanity for authorizing me to make for my purpose the best use of it I could as a Poet.[3]


Wordsworth states here that this idea of preexistence is no less than the central theme of his “Ode.” Understanding its implications, therefore, are crucial to understanding the poem. In his explanation, Wordsworth hearkens to Platonic philosophy – the Phaedo providing the most detailed discussion of the topic – as one of the bases for the idea of preexistence and analogizes it to the Biblical Fall of Man, in which humanity’s disobedience to God removes introduces death and separates it from God. To Wordsworth, this preexistence, though “not advanced in revelation,” is nonetheless perceptible in both religious tradition and in the individual’s own interior “aspirations.” Though this note explains the origins of his ideas, it does not describe the exact nature of this preexistence or its effects. For that, we must return to the text of the “Ode” itself.


The next two stanzas delve into the details, describing specifically how Wordsworth sees life’s events wear away at childhood’s heightened perception. It begins in early childhood, with the very nurse diluting the infant’s innate nature by imposing the received strictures of society and culture:


Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own; Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind, And, even with something of a Mother’s mind, ⁠ And no unworthy aim, ⁠ The homely Nurse doth all she can To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man, ⁠ Forget the glories he hath known, And that imperial palace whence he came.


And it only worsens as the child grows and forms relationships with parents, paramours, spouses, business associates, friends, and enemies:


Behold the Child among his new-born blisses, A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size! See, where mid work of his own hand he lies, Fretted by sallies of his Mother’s kisses, With light upon him from his Father’s eyes! See, at his feet, some little plan or chart, Some fragment from his dream of human life, Shaped by himself with newly-learned art; ⁠ A wedding or a festival, ⁠ A mourning or a funeral; ⁠ And this hath now his heart, ⁠ And unto this he frames his song: ⁠ Then will he fit his tongue To dialogues of business, love, or strife; ⁠ But it will not be long ⁠ Ere this be thrown aside, ⁠ And with new joy and pride The little Actor cons another part, Filling from time to time his “humorous stage” With all the Persons, down to palsied Age, That Life brings with her in her Equipage; ⁠ As if his whole vocation ⁠ Were endless imitation.


To Wordsworth, the course of life is “art” to be “learned.” The child is a “little Actor” who “cons” a “part,” as in a play, on the “‘humorous stage’” – a phrase put in quotation marks to acknowledge its borrowing from Samuel Daniel’s dedicatory sonnet to Fulke Greville that prefaces his 1599 poetical essay Musophilus.[4] The sonnet reads in its entirety:


I doe not here upon this hum’rous Stage,

Bring my transformed Verse, apparelled

With others passions, or with others rage;

With loves, with words, with factions furnished:

But here present thee, onely modelled

In this poore frame, the forme of mine owne heart:

Where, to revive my selfe, my Muse is led

With motions of her owne, t’act her owne part;

Striving to make her now contemned Art,

As faire t’her selfe as possibly she can;

Lest, seeming of no force, of no desert,

She might repent the course that she began;

And, with these times of dissolution, fall

From Goodnesse, Vertue, Glory, Fame and all.


It is an appropriate reference for Wordsworth’s theme. Daniel states that in the essay that follows he wishes to strip away everything imposed on him externally and present only where his muse leads him “With motions of her owne,” acting “her own part” and “Striving to make her . . . Art” as true to herself as possible. In other words, he advocates that consummate Romantic value, genuineness. But this genuineness serves a more important purpose: if the muse is not genuine, she serves no purpose. In other words, truth resides in genuineness.


Turning back to Wordsworth, he views the “humorous stage” just as Daniel does: the life onto which external forces make their mark upon the individual personality. For Wordsworth this process not only continues throughout life, but worsens with time and prolonged exposure to those external forces, until it seems as though the individual’s “whole vocation / Were endless imitation.”


In the next stanza, Wordsworth, returning to his odic voice, addresses the universalized Child, echoing Daniel, finding truth in genuineness:


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; Thou, over whom thy Immortality Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave, A Presence which is not to be put by; ⁠ To whom the grave Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight ⁠ Of day or the warm light, A place of thought where we in waiting lie; Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might Of heaven-born freedom, on thy Being’s height, Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke The Years to bring the inevitable yoke, Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife? Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, And custom lie upon thee with a weight, Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!


Wordsworth contrasts the limitations of the physical form – spatial as much as temporal – with “the Soul’s immensity.” Read in light of the preceding stanza, these limitations are not only those of the body itself, but the invisible restrictions on the freedom of the preexisting soul imposed by culture and society. This “little Child” that Wordsworth addresses is the “best Philosopher,” and “Eye among the blind,” a “Might Prophet and “Seer blest” because of its “heaven-born freedom” – the preexisting consciousness that is not only a heightened awareness of reality, but is complete in and of itself. Indeed, the Child already possesses the “truths . . . / Which we are toiling all our lives to find.” The inculturation of the individual into society, then, is not a process of formation but of destruction, and it destroys what already suffices for a complete human existence. The subsequent yearning of the adult for eternal truths is therefore but a search for what the person had as a child and lost.


The tone through this point has been plaintive, first restless at the realization that the adult’s perception of the universe has lost something from the child’s, then mourning the stifling of the preexisting heightened awareness by the strictures of society. Now, however, the tone takes a sudden, almost jarring change, from yearning and dejection to boundless joy, as indicated by the very opening words of the next stanza:


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 benedictions: not indeed For that which is most worthy to be blest; Delight and liberty, the simple creed Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest, With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:— ⁠ Not for these I raise ⁠ The song of thanks and praise; ⁠ But for those obstinate questionings ⁠ Of sense and outward things, ⁠ Fallings from us, vanishings; ⁠ Blank misgivings of a Creature Moving about in worlds not realized, High instincts, before which our mortal Nature Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprized! ⁠ But for those first affections, ⁠ Those shadowy recollections, ⁠ Which, be they what they may, Are yet the fountain light of all our day, Are yet a master light of all our seeing; ⁠ Uphold us—cherish—and have power to make Our noisy years seem moments in the being Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake, ⁠ To perish never; Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour, ⁠ Nor Man nor Boy, Nor all that is at enmity with joy, Can utterly abolish or destroy! ⁠ Hence, in a season of calm weather, ⁠ Though inland far we be, Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea ⁠ Which brought us hither; ⁠ Can in a moment travel thither,— And see the Children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.


Even though the innate heightened perception might be stifled, it is never completely stamped out. Here Wordsworth recognizes and celebrates that, grateful for that recognition: the very thought of childhood’s sensibility “doth breed / Perpetual benedictions.” From this initial superficial observation, Wordsworth delves much deeper.


This stanza may be considered the kernel, or climax of the poem, for Wordsworth here at last describes the exact nature of the child’s heightened perception, up to this point only vaguely characterized as a lost sense of magic that tinged sensory perception. It is not merely “Delight and liberty” or even “new-fledged hope.” Rather, it is “obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things,” the “Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized,” and “High instincts, before which our mortal Nature / Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprized.” The object of this questioning is the “first affections” of the conscious mind in childhood and their “shadowy recollections” later, which “Uphold us.” Much more than comforting thoughts, these “recollections” of “first affections” are the source of reason itself – the “fountain light of all our day,” the “master light of all our seeing.”


From the recollections of childhood’s initial perceptions comes the realization that the “Noisy years” of life are but “moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence” as well as of “truths that wake / To perish never.” As Wordsworth’s notes indicate, this alludes to the Platonic ideal. Here Wordsworth at last discloses his meaning. The singular “tree,” “field,” and “pansy” referenced at the end of the fourth stanza that initiated this discourse are no less than the ideals represented by those objects.


Wordsworth does not take joy in the ideal itself, which remains the distant “ocean.” Instead, the delight of childhood’s perception is the realization that the ideal exists. Wordsworth is writing from the perspective of one chained in the cave glimpsing the shadows on the wall who realizes that an external reality exists, even while he is unable to unchain himself and glimpse it directly. The realization itself is the source of joy, even though physical being itself separates the person from the ideal.


Furthermore, the attachment of the human individual to perception of the Platonic ideal is indestructible, for “neither listlessness, nor mad endeavor, / Nor Man no Boy, / Nor all that is at enmity with joy, / Can utterly abolish or destroy” it. Although “inland” from the “immortal sea” – representing the boundlessness of the ideal state – no matter how stifled the sensibility may be in the adult, it yet remains, always available to channel and thereby perceive the eternal.


Wordsworth then closes by returning to the scene of nature that first stirred the poetic voice towards its meditation:


Then, sing ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song! ⁠ And let the young Lambs bound ⁠ As to the tabor’s sound! We in thought will join your throng, ⁠ Ye that pipe and ye that play, ⁠ Ye that through your hearts to-day ⁠ Feel the gladness of the May! 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.

And oh ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, Think not of any severing of our loves! Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; I only have relinquished one delight To live beneath your more habitual sway. 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.


Wordsworth has the poetic voice once again wax odic, addressing the nature before him at the beginning of both stanzas, but immediately digressing back into its meditation. Though it reaffirms its observation that the “radiance” of the child’s perception is gone forever, no longer is that realization a source of agitation or lamentation, but of comfort. The realization that an eternal ideal exists outside of the physical existence is a “primal sympathy” linking all rational creatures forever, the source of “the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering” (for what but an ideal greater than physical existence could elicit a “soothing thought” from “suffering?”) as much as “the faith that looks through death.”


The final stanza broods on death, introducing the subject almost immediately when the poetic voice begs the natural world to “Think not of any severing of our loves” – all things of this world, after all, must come to an end. Viewing the self in the grander scheme of universals brings an awareness of mortality; therefore the poetic voice observes that it has “relinquished one delight” in the bliss of ignorance in favor of greater perception. Still, the awareness of the initial perception of childhood, even though it cannot fully be recaptured, nonetheless makes the poetic voice “love the Brooks . . . / Even more” than when it observed them as a child. Here Wordsworth introduces a paradox: even though experience of the world stifles the heightened perceptions of childhood, it is only through that experience that the adult can realize and appreciate the true nature of that perception as a sense of the Platonic ideal.


“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.” That is, sensing the nearness of death reveals the world as it really is, particularly as human mortality relates to God. “Another race hath been” – such is the fleeting span of not just individuals, but whole nations. Yet even this realization no longer troubles the poetic voice. Because of “the human heart by which we live” – not just reason, but the bonds of sympathy, the poetic voice is able to derive from “the meanest flower” thoughts “too deep for tears” – that is, philosophical realization.


That famous final line, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,” has become an oft-quoted poetic trope – unfortunately so, for in it Wordsworth subtly draws the distinction between reasoned discourse and sentimentality, and by implication between true poetry and mere effusion. Thoughts that draw tears are superficial; those that go deeper lie beyond the realm of emotion. Similarly, true poetry is reasoned discourse that uses metaphor as its vehicle to convey, rather than simply emotive eruption.


III


Before examining the substances of the poem, two elements of its style are important to note. The first is its form, or rather lack of any formal structure. While the poem, typical for Wordsworth, is both rhymed and in iambic pentameter, it lacks any consistent rhyme or metric scheme between its stanzas. The form is so free, in fact, that this is apparent at first glance, with the stanzas wildly divergent in length, in the length of their verses, and in indentation patterns. There is not a chance that this was a random decision for a poem so deliberate in its construction and discussion.


The stanza lengths are dictated by the discourse. As is apparent by now, the “Ode” is a poem about ideas, and the flow of ideas shapes the verse. Indeed, the analysis above does not break apart any stanzas because each stanza, like the paragraphs of a well-constructed essay, discusses a discreet topic and indeed has its own emotional charge, with the transition between stanzas marking perfectly transitions in the discourse. The line lengths, by contrast, achieve an emotional effect, with a series of longer lines providing a more discursive tone, while the clipped, indented short lines convey a sense of abruptness, contrast, or interjected doubt.


Another feature apparent in the poem is Wordsworth’s idiosyncratic capitalization of nouns. It follows a scheme typical of Wordsworth: not every noun is capitalized, as in German, but only some. This cannot be attributable to Wordsworth’s time; in Britain, capitalization of common nouns had climaxed about a century before Wordsworth, and arrived more or less at modern usage by Wordsworth’s time.[5] Wordsworth’s capitalization, therefore, must be deliberate – and indeed it is, with capitalized words conveying special meaning. This is apparent from the inconsistency in capitalization. For example, “meadows” and “groves,” which are not capitalized in line 1 but reappear capitalized in the first line of the final stanza. Wordsworth also always capitalizes “soul” but never “heart.” In the former instance, the mere physical objects observed at the beginning of the poem are transformed into ideals when seen through the childlike perception by the end of the poem. In the latter example, Wordsworth, for all his Romantic bluster, underscores the primacy of the intellect over the emotions, as emphasized in the poem’s closing line. Overall, the effect of this capitalization conveys a philosophical tone, discussing objects as representing ideals rather than as mere sense-perceptions.


IV


For all its freedom of form and its Romantic quest for genuineness and effusion over raw nature, the “Ode” is at its core a classical poem. Indeed, Wordsworth’s use of Romantic ideals to make a classical point is nothing short of remarkable. What begins as an almost stream-of-consciousness rumination on a pastoral scene of Burkean sublimity ultimately arrives at a reasoned examination of the Platonic ideal, as weighty and abstract a philosophical concept as any. The Dionysian bluster of the Romantic spirit frames the seemingly antithetical Apollonian philosophical discussion.


Yet a keen sense of emotional fluctuation permeates the entire poem, with the poetic voice’s tone ranging from utter despondency to rapturous joy, shifting back and forth several times. The voice also alters between odic tone – and even then it addresses several different subjects as it returns – and inward meditation. Yet despite this emotional and tonal rollercoaster, Wordsworth maintains the clarity and consistency of the poetic voice’s thoughts.


The “Ode” is at its core a poem of paradoxes. Just as childhood’s perception of the ideal can only be understood and appreciated through the experience that stifles it, the classical discussion of the poem is enhanced by the Romantic sense of heightened emotion. When the poetic voice realizes the crisis that leads to its inquiry, it is wistful; when it reflects on how life wears away at the original heightened perception of childhood, it is despondent; when it reaches its conclusion, it is first rapturous then serene. This wide palette of emotions, convincingly conveyed through both the imagery of everyday life and the poetic voice’s internal monologue, is designed to elicit similar emotions in the reader. The resulting emotional engagement transforms what would otherwise be a philosophical treatise more suited to prose into a true work of poetry.

But emotional engagement alone does not make a poem. Metaphor does. Yet what is the central metaphor of the “Ode?” At first blush, that answer seems frustratingly elusive. The poem’s object is much more opaque than Keats’s great odes, which address a well-defined object, such as the nightingale or the Grecian urn, and thus clearly delineate the object being transformed. Even in addressing indolence, melancholy, and Psyche, Keats still isolates and defines his object, abstractions though they be. Here, however, Wordsworth does not clearly address his ode to any object, be it thing, concept, or character, and indeed shifts the addressee of his poem several times: at the end of the second stanza – the first time the poetic voice addresses anything – the object is the “Shepherd Boy;” at the beginning of the third stanza, it is “Ye blessed Creatures;” in the sixth stanza, it is an abstracted child; the seventh stanza begins “O joy!” but this seems less an address than a mere exclamation; and finally the last two stanzas address the scene of nature described at the poem’s beginning.


Can all of these objects serve the metaphor? Of them, though, only one sufficiently pervades the work to contend as the primary object of the metaphor: the child – not any particular child the poetic voice beholds, but an abstracted “Child” that includes everyone’s former childhood self, including that of the poetic voice. Because this Child is explicitly an abstraction, physical and behavioral attributes are meaningless; as an abstraction, it can only have what all real children share: perception.


As for the telos of the metaphor, Wordsworth is surprisingly clearer about that than its object. In yet another paradoxical move, Wordsworth sees the child not as innocent and impressionable, but as possessing a heightened awareness that is lost with experience and can only be realized with the onset of wisdom. The child, in effect, teaches the adult. Thus the Child represents wisdom, the perception of the reality outside of Plato’s cave, of which the rational adult mind can only perceive the shadows. The “Shepherd Boy,” the “Child of Joy” that Wordsworth first invokes at the end of the second stanza – the first mention of any child – is therefore indeed an allusion to Christ, whom St. John’s Gospel (which also contains the Good Shepherd Discourse) calls at its very beginning ὁ λόγος – translated into English as “the Word,” but really with an all-encompassing meaning that includes “truth,” “reason,” and “cosmic order.” By making this allusion – combined with the child of Virgil’s eclogue alluded to in the original epigraph – Wordsworth is connecting his abstracted Child to the order of the universe itself. The preexistence from which the newborn child derives its heightened awareness is no less than the order of the universe itself – put another way, God.


V


The “Ode” is a tough nut to crack for even an experienced reader of poetry, largely because of its initial deceptiveness. Its highly Romantic tone and imagery, particularly at its onset, leads the reader to expect an emotive effusion, but three stanzas in the reader instead finds something quite different: a philosophical discussion. The reader also expects a discourse on the lost innocence of childhood typical for Wordsworth the Romantic poet and instead is taught how the perceptions of the child are superior to and actually serve to instruct those of the adult because they are more temporally proximate to the eternal ideal from which the human soul derives. This is a weighty discussion for any poem.


The only way to make sense of this jarring conclusion is with a knowledge of Platonic philosophy. The Platonic ideal, the senses’ inability to perceive it, and dual nature of man (body and soul) all play parts in Wordsworth’s discussion.


The human child, being yet unformed by the impressions left by the physical world on the senses, instead experiences the world through the purely ideal, which is antecedent to any sensory experience. In this way, the experience of earliest childhood most closely resembles sensation of the divine. The tragedy and the paradox of that situation is that the child’s reason, as yet undeveloped, does not recognize that. It is only long after the adult has fully cultivated its rational faculties and reached a degree of wisdom that the person is fully capable of understanding the meaning of this state, but by then the physical world has all but obliterated that pure state by stamping its sense-impressions upon the mind.


In the end, Wordsworth has the poetic voice resolve this tragic paradox and achieve catharsis by finding the consolation that philosophy provides: meaning. Human existence, then, is a deepening separation from the eternal and paradoxically at the same time a reuniting with that eternal through understanding. The ideal that lies beyond reality allows the poetic voice to see the eternal and true reflected in everything around him, and it is able to realize this only because it understands what the heightened sensation of childhood was attuned to and why it was attuned to it.


In the end, the nut may be hard to crack, but the fruit is entirely worth the labor.

[1] Gill, Stephen, ed. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. Oxford Univ. Press, 1984. 713-14. [2] Gill, supra, pp. 682, 714. [3] Curtis, Jared, ed. The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth. Bristol Classical Press, 1993. 161. [4] Gill, supra, p. 714. [5] See, Crystal, David, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003. 67.


Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.

3 comments