ODE: INTIMATIONS OF IMMORTALITY AND NATALIE WOOD
“Well when we’re young we look at things very idealistically, I guess, and I think Wordsworth means when we grow up that we have to forget the ideals of youth.”
My professor said that if you don’t like Wordsworth now try him again in five years. Wordsworth’s poetry is like wine, but rather it becomes better as I age. The first time I watched the 1961 film Splendour in the Grass was approximately five years ago (give or take). I remembered it as a tragic story between high school lovers, but then I watched it again and it wasn’t the story I remembered. The film stars Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty as Deanie Loomis and Bud Stamper. The two high schoolers are caught up in a passionate relationship and struggle with parental and societal approval of their desires. Undoubtedly this is a love story, but in my recent viewing more layers emerged that embody the words of Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
The film draws direct parallels from the text and as a whole reflects Wordsworth’s ruminations concerning innocence and youth. In the third stanza of the poem the narrator is looking upon a lovely natural scene but is overcome by a “thought of grief” (22). The only relief the narrator can find that will restore his strength are the sounds of nature, “The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;” (25). In the opening scene of the film the young couple is engaged in an intimate moment parked in front of a beautiful waterfall. In this moment, Deanie experiences an apprehension too, she is torn between her sexual desire for Bud and the society’s pressure to maintain her purity till marriage.
In the seventh stanza, of Wordsworth’s poem the narrator is struggling with the idea of conformity. That, as humans, from a young age we begin to imitate the lives of the people surrounding us. In this way, all of our existence is but a copy of someone else’s. The narrator feels that childhood is when we are closes to our true selves, because as we develop into adult, as we form our “philosophic mind,” we are influenced by societal norms of appropriate behavior that puts boundaries on our personalities. Deanie and Bud share a common flaw: they both desire a life that differs from the life their parents want from for them. Bud’s father wants him to make a name for himself through earning a degree from Yale. It is less important to Bud’s father that his son is happy and engaged in academics that will further his understanding of the world, rather it’s the image of a degree from a well to do school that he desires instead. Bud conforms to his father’s wishes, but still yearns for a simpler life as a rancher. Similarly, Deanie’s mother has an image built in her mind of what her daughter ought to be, and that includes a well-off husband and a college experience. While Deanie isn’t opposed to this idea, she isn’t open to marrying for the sake of marrying. She desires a relationship that is passionate and free, where she marries for love rather than reputation.
As Bud becomes overwhelmed by the pressure of his father’s expectations he breaks things off with Deanie. She is not only stunned by his decision but becomes erratic. During class she is asked to read lines from Wordsworth’s Ode, “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;” (175-80). In this moment, she is overcome with the sense of loss that the blissful happiness of her relationship with Bud has reached its extent. Deanie is devastated and has a mental break down following this experience. But is the root of her instability the collapse of her relationship, or the realization that the overwhelming feelings induced by a first love, or a first anything are fleeting? That there is only one first of everything and all that follows may just be an imitation of what has already been felt.
This seems to be juxtaposed against what the narrator in the poem is feeling. The stanza continues, “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.” (181-6). Here the narrator is experiencing a loss, like Deanie, but the glory and splendor of the lost object or idea doesn’t produce devastation, rather the narrator finds a peace, a sort of negative capability concerning the subject. The narrator, though sad that the wonderment of youth is behind him, is also grateful that time has given him the capacity to reflect, to form the poem itself. In the last scene of the film, Deanie and Bud are reunited after two and half years of being apart. Over the course of that time Bud’s father dies and he leaves school, marries and becomes a rancher. Deanie spent the years in a mental hospital and meets the man she will marry. After the former couple’s brief reunion, her friends ask if she still loves him she doesn’t reply, rather she repeats Wordsworth’s lines with a tone of acceptance and understanding unlike the first time she read them. In this moment, Deanie understands Wordsworth’s intention and her attitude aligns with the narrators, she embraces the “philosophic mind.”
This poem and film are narratives of loss and recovery. John K. Mathison states, “The Ode may be considered the representation of the condition of the mind of the poet in a particular reverie on a particular May morning, the reverie being introduced by certain memories stimulated by the beauty of the morning and the realization of a difference between his present and past reaction to nature.” While this true for Wordsworth and the narrator of the poem in relation to nature, it is also true for the characters in Splendour in the Grass. Both Deanie and Bud realize a difference within themselves after their departure and return. It’s not that time revealed a shallowness of their affection, rather what was felt was real but cannot be revisited. This idea is the center of Wordsworth’s Ode and this film is the embodiment of its ideals.
Mathison, John K. “Wordsworth’s Ode: ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.’” Studies in Philology, vol. 46, no. 3, 1949, pp. 419–439., http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172896.
Wordsworth, William. Ode: Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. 1807-1815. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. New York; Longman, 1992. 553-558. Print.
Splendour in the Grass. Directed by Elia Kazan, performances by Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Warner Bros, 1961