A Textual Analysis of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”
William Wordsworth has said that, “nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being” (552, Wordsworth). In Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” the idea of immortality is not discussed in mortal terms, but in spiritual. What the child perceives intuitively, the infiniteness of the soul, the adult may only perceive through mature contemplation and thought. “Intimations of Immortality” is a philosophic exploration of the soul’s place in nature and in the universe.
In the beginning of the poem, immorality is linked with a closeness to God, of which the child possesses. The poem begins with Wordsworth lamenting the loss of divine light, of his thoughtless exuberance when experiencing nature in youth. In the first stanza he writes, that: “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” (553, Wordsworth). When he was young, “every common sight” seemed to him to be ethereal, and now “in night or day” he feels “That there hath past away a glory from the earth” (553, Wordsworth). The child once felt close to God through nature, but he has lost that “visionary gleam”, his relationship with nature, and his relationship with God as a result of maturation.
Wordsworth believes that when we are born into this world we bring with us a shred of our spiritual reality, a glimmer of a hope for immortality, of light, but this is lost as we descend further away from God into adulthood. He writes, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;/The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star/ [with] trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home” (554, Wordsworth). He then compares maturation and the realization of mortality to a prison: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!/ Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy” (555, Wordsworth). The “shades of the prison-house” are indicative of darkness, of death, but as long as the boy “beholds the light, and wence it flows,/ He sees it in his joy!” (555, Wordsworth). It is not the ignorance to our mortality that allows for that youthful, thoughtless joy, it is the immortality perceived by the youth. As the boy travels “farther from the east”, towards the west with the setting sun, and matures he is forced to confront his own mortality and the dream of immortality “fade[s] into the light of common day” (555, Wordsworth).
In the ninth stanza Wordsworth exclaims his appreciation for his youthful admiration of nature, and there is a shift from lamenting the loss of the youthful joy brought forth by nature, to being empowered by it. He says, “O Joy! that in our embers/ Is something that doth live, That nature yet remembers, what was so fugitive! “(556, Wordsworth). He considers “the simple creed/ Of Childhood” and writes: “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;/ High instincts before which our mortal Nature/ Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:/ But for those first affections,/Those shadowy recollections,/ Which, be they what they may,/Are yet the fountain light of all our day,/And yet a master light of all our seeing” (556-7, Wordsworth). Wordsworth celebrates his youthful years and declares “those shadowy recollections” of his to be a necessary memory, which he will hold dear. But the “thoughtless youth” only comprises a portion of the soul that Wordsworth believes to be so infinite. Immortality means something different to the child than the adult. Immortality, the infiniteness of the soul, is an idea that the child beholds inherently. “The experiences of Wordsworth’s childhood serve not as intimations of immortality, or as intimations of infinity, but as psychological illusions which the poet outgrows” (863, Rayson). For the “visionary gleam” that once was supplied by nature to poet, no longer is.
In the tenth stanza Wordsworth celebrates the “philosophic mind” that can only be born from maturation. He states, “What though the radiance which was once so bring/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,/…We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind;/…In the faith that looks through death,/ In years that bring the philosophic mind” (557, Wordsworth). The immorality Wordsworth discusses is not “the theological term which signifies endlessness of life, but the infiniteness of the human consciousness” (862, Rayson). Both the child and the adult arrive at the realization of the soul’s immortality, although for the child it is realized intuitively, and for the adult it is realized through introspection and mature thought.
In the end, Wordsworth is grateful for the loss of his child-like zeal in nature, for he believes he has been given “abundant recompense” for the loss of it—he has gained a “philosophic mind”. He writes that although “The innocent brightness of a new-born Day,/ Is lovely yet”, he must give “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”, because it is it’s very mortality that gives way to the immortality of the soul (557-8, Wordsworth).
Raysor, Thomas. “The Themes of Immortality and Natural Piety in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode.” PMLA 69.4 (1954): 861-75. JSTOR. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
Wordsworth, William. “William Wordsworth.” The Longman Anthology: British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2012. 410-558. Print.