In studying the Romantics of Great Britain and those who are still remembered today, I found myself wrapped up in the idea of immortality, and how everyone was, and still is, so captured by its meaning. Translating the hardships of human experience into written form is not an easy task, but poetry has the ability to grasp it so elegantly and soothe the aching of confused human heart. In the period of the Romantics, the average person rarely saw the age of forty (Longman, 3). A British man or woman of this period (1800-1850) lived in a time of social strife, human rights debate, and class struggle. Along with all the historical turmoil, there was a surge of the written word by many poets we still read today, poets like William Wordsworth.
Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (National Portrait Gallery).
Wordsworth was born in 1770 and lived to be 80 years old, a triumph of this time period. Literature brewed in the turmoil, like it always has and always will, and the complacency of individuals in society began to be explored, and deemed dangerous. The Romantic period was as good as any for humans to reflect on their individuality and their existence in the natural world. The power of imagination is boundless and it flourished in the eighteenth-century, combining with philosophy, theology, medieval stories, and scientific truths. People became increasingly interested of the concept that we all perceive our own realities, and, if we want, we can try to write it down for others to comprehend.
The first four stanzas of William Wordsworth’s 1804 “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” describe a state we’d diagnose today as depression. Written in 1802, these stanzas end with a profound question of sadness, in reference to his love for nature that has seemed to be lost,
“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
Wordsworth did not return to and finish the “Intimations of Immortality Ode” until his colleague, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, replied with his own “Dejection: and Ode” as a reply and an encouragement. Wordsworth sets out to depict the struggle of the human experience with morality and develops a tone of the “common man” so that other might read his Ode and be comforted. Like most works that dive into the narrative of human life, the ode starts with the topic of children (the stage we all start our lives as) and weaves it throughout. Right away, in the epigraph, we get the paradoxical notion that “The Child is Father of the Man” (Longman, 553) implying that who we are as children determines who we are as adults. Wordsworth accounts for the importance of childhood in human development with this, “The Child is Father of the Man”, belief that he illustrates. To expand on this notion, Wordsworth believed that the soul predated the body, and that the more we live in the natural world, the more we forgot the divine world. That is, the more we get caught up in worldly anxieties, the farther we stray away from our intrinsic compassion for others and the delicate world around us. But, we cannot reach this compassion without embracing the idea of an immortal soul.
Wordsworth’s ode is filled with “shadowy reflections” and fleeting dreams as he, the writer, questions why he is upset with his depressed circumstance and uninterest in life. In 1802, Wordsworth ended the poem with a grieving question about the gleam of life and how it had escaped him (ll.56-57, Longman) but then, picks it back up and spends the rest of the ode answering his own question. I believe Wordsworth ultimately came to conclusion that joy within the human heart, the tenderness of compassion, and the excitement of fear, is what makes the “glory and the dream” of human mortal life worth experiencing. He comes to formulate this opinion, with the help of Coleridge, by use of figurative language and a change in mindset. He comments of the mental ability to remember things that make you happy, like childhood and how they aid us in curating a more appreciative, loving perspective of the natural world. The reader themselves undergoes this shift as we travel with Wordsworth’s narrative of human life and its relationship with the divine. Wordsworth is looking upwards at “the Soul that rises with us” (ll.59, Longman), no longer in his depressive episode and ready to try to find our human glory that we are given as children, but smother with adult life and custom. While painting the picture of this concept, Wordsworth compares and contrasts the fear or death with the freedom of embracing morality. In a typical Wordsworthian fashion, nature is beautifully incorporated, first with anguish and resentment. As “Intimations” movings along, the active voice calls up nature to help him rejoice in his newfound hopes for “primal sympathy”(ll.181, Longman) , including birds, lambs, meadows, and hills.
Wordsworth’s poem “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” could be viewed as a man trying to ease his personal fears that turned into a poem that eased the fear of a society. When it comes to the concept of immortality, especially in a time when people were trying so desperately to understand the divine, we usually outright fear human morality. This notion can lead us to depressive episodes like Wordsworth’s; the longing to understand and extended beyond our mortal life is human, and Wordsworth knows this.
With “Intimations: An Ode” a reader can be comforted by the power of memory a “faith that looks through death” (ll.185, Longman) to get them through the darkness of human life. In the end, we are presented with a stoic character, not afraid that the children can play by the shore, but comforted that he can still hear its waves.
Damrosch, D. (2003). The Longman Anthology of British Literature (The Romantics and Their Contemporaries). New York: Longman.