Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood - Summary and Critical Analysis

This poem is apparently and mainly about the loss of the intuitive powers of perceptions and joyful existence in childhood, but it turns out to be more important about growing up and developing the poetic, moral and philosophical faculties in the process of losing the primal powers of the child.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The ode can be divided into three sections for analytical convenience: in the first four stanzas, the poet mediates on the loss of the divine original vision that the child (Wordsworth) was born with; the second section from 5th to 8th stanza is an attempt to explain the nature and causes of the loss; the third section from 9th to 11th deals with the compensating gain of another type of vision, namely the philosophical vision by the grown-up man or poet. The first stanza begins with a nostalgic meditation on the loss.

But the poet, while lamenting the loss, describes the childhood world, creating a beautiful image of childhood life. He used to perceive everything as if they all had “the glory and freshness of a dream”. But now, the poet says he cannot see anything covered in that heavenly light, and there is nothing glorious and dreamlike about the world that the grown-up poet lives in. The rainbow does come and go, and the rose does blossom in as lovely. He changes the subject, with a change in tone, in the next stanza. He hears all those sounds of the birds and the lamb. But grief comes to his mind when he hears them. However, there is a thing of reassurance in this stanza: ‘a timely utterance’ of the feeling whether of grief or joy gives him some consolation, to make the poet somewhat strong to go on with life. When he is reflecting on the nature with a newly gained mature understanding, he almost feels that the ‘earth is gay’ once again. Each of the first three stanzas has a mixture of joy and grief, but after having found a compensation for that loss, the poet is now able to celebrate the spirit of May. He will not fail to appreciate whatever he can perceive of the nature, which has not changed. The poet sees a tree and a field; the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge, which speak of something that is gone. The poet makes his best attempts at regaining the same powers of perceptions in these first four stanzas, but he fails to do so. He can no longer command the beauty-making power form within to go forth from him and clothe every common sight in celestial light. The first four stanzas are full of agonized questions and frantic exclamations in the desperate attempt to regain the original powers of intuitive perceptions of the spiritual aspect of the nature. Stanza four is the climax of this dramatic tension in the mind of the poet. In short, the feeling of irrecoverable loss predominates this section, despite the outbursts of momentary joy; the recovery of another mode of experience is yet to be made.

This second section is a brief account of growth of man and the loss of the vision; it is based on the Platonic philosophy of pre-existence and the realm of the pure idea. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”, because the soul has its source outside our individual being, and it becomes less and less accessible to the child as he grows up. We come in a kind of trailing clouds of glory from God, who is our home: this idea is, however, a rather Christianized version of the Platonic idea of soul. The poet says that “heaven lies around us in our infancy!” But the shadows of the “prison-house”, or reason that limits feelings and experience, begin to close upon the ‘growing boy’. Wordsworth says that the earth (nature) is filled with some blissful pleasures, but it is the grown up man who is incapable of experiencing and appreciating it fully. The nature, in the sense of ‘the formative influence’ of the natural process of life, also makes man forget that ‘imperial palace’ from where he came. The next stanza justifies with the illustration of the child that children have much of the spiritual vision so that they experience life and nature so fully an intuitively. The child is seen in his own world, living in imagination and in harmony with all the things of the nature; he is vexed by the kisses of his mother. Indeed, the child’s world of imagination and intuitive relation with everything is enviable. In stanza 8, the poet addresses to the child himself and appreciates its powers and greatness, in an almost envious way. He is only trying to ask him a question: why is the child always trying to grow up? It is indeed true that the child struggles always to grow up, acting as he does, like adults, imitating whatever frets and furies of life, not understanding the burden of it all. The poet laments: for soon the child’s soul will have the unbearable burden and the heavy frost (coldness) of custom or habitualized behavior will fall on him. And it will overpower his capacity for living through the original vision, and seeing and enjoying the celestial life on all the common sights around him.

The very first line of the 11th stanza is an exclamation: “O joy! That in our embers…”. The poet is able to exclaim with a sudden realization that in our embers there is something that does live, that nature which yet remembers what was so fugitive. Even in adulthood we can if we want and try to, retain or still cultivate some vision. The adults are also conscious of the fall from the bliss of childhood; they are always anxious about the vanishing of it and have misgivings about the invisible things, rather than feel being protected by them. Wordsworth adds other reasons about why he writes these poems: besides writing about the loss of childhood, he also writes to remember those experiences and to revive them. The shadowy recollections of childhood life are the fountain light of all our life; though the fountain light or vision is now not the primary mode of perception, the poet affirms that it is the inner light of ‘all our seeing’. It is that light, however much is retained, that sustains us, and it is that light that makes our ‘noisy year’ (adult life) seems like moments in the being of eternal Silence. That light reveals the eternal truths of life, which noting in adult life can destroy. The truth intimated by the celestial spirit of the nature in our childhood is so persistent that neither society, adulthood, custom and the culture of reason not grief can abolish or destroy. Thus, in the season of calm weather in old age or moods of tranquility, even if we are far inland away from the sea of spirit, our souls can see that immortal sea, from which we came into this world. At such age or mood, we can still travel into the sea of the original spirit; there we can see the children play on the shore and hear the mighty waters moving in waves forever. The end of his stanza is all symbolic; it is perhaps thematically the most condensed part of the poem. The poet is saying that he writes of two kinds of purposes: one is to praise the child, as he has done in the previous stanza, and the other is to muse about the loss of the vision and thereby to glorify the remaining lights of the spirits which do still allow us to revive some powers to see and hear the children enjoying the spiritual world near the sea.

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Sharma, K.N. "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood - Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 20 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/ode-intimations-of-immortality.html.