William Wordsworth on Human Mortality and Immortality
Ode to Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
First Published 1807
By Mirjana N. Mataric
One of the leading English Romantic poets, William Wordsworth, was born in Cockermouth, English Lake Distict, in 1770 as the second of five children. Both parents had died while children were young, so they lived with different relatives, impoverished by the fact that their inheritance was greatly delayed in coming.
William and his brother were sent to the same school and received good education. The poet graduated from Oxford. He traveled to France during the French Revolution. That, with his love for a French woman, Annette, with whom he had a daughter Caroline, must have influenced his interest in simple, working people, brotherhood and equality. The war between England and France kept them separated, so they never married but stayed friends and William took care of his daughter's welfare. Meanwhile, William lived with his sister Dorothy, his "silent partner"- ever present in his poetry. Later, he married a schoolmate and friend, Mary Hutchinson, and had five children, of whom two sons died early and a daughter in 1847. When his financial difficulties were finally removed, in his later years, he was free to dedicate himself to a quiet domestic life and more writing. His most productive years were between 1797 and 1807 (known as “the golden decade"). Close friendship with Samuel Coleridge proved beneficial for both and resulted in publishing Lyrical Ballads. Although a modest looking volume, it marked a new age in English poetry.
Wordsworth's early poetry employed a flourishing, somewhat artificial language like in his first role models. Later, he influenced the course of English poetry with a change to simple, clear poetic diction and humble, everyday themes of nature, domestic landscapes and scenes characteristic to the English Romantic Movement. Wordsworth was very prolific and fame came slowly but steadily. He was generally recognized as England's greatest living poet during the 1820-1830, received honorary degree from Oxford in 1839, and was appointed Poet Laureate after Robert Southey's death in 1843. Matthew Arnold ranked him only after Shakespeare and Milton, and praised him as an optimistic poet of nature and joy, especially in times of fear and doubt. Although widely remembered as a poet of humble themes and language, he often turned to more elaborate style while treating philosophic, ethic, patriotic, political and religious topics. In both cases, his language and style were true to the content, successfully blending mind and nature. His whole theory of poetry is based on passion and feelings; with the assumption that thoughts rest in feelings too. This notion came as a reaction to the dispassionate classicism of the seven-teenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only prolific but diverse as well, Wordsworth's verses reflect many aspects and components of human nature, condition and experience. Although a highbrow, he dedicated his work to the welfare of all people, especially caring and protective of the poor and uneducated, hoping that his poetry might be successful in "making them wiser, better, and happier." With William Blake (1757-1827), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and John Keats (1795-1821) Wordsworth revolutionized the poetic style and the whole poetic ideology at the birth of the nineteenth century, breaking with the classicism of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), characterized by elegantly restrained and disciplined verse. With the Romantic Movement the value of emotions entered the scene together with the new heroes: innocent children, orphans; beggars, half-witted, shepherds, sailors and thieves; common folks with their legends and anecdotes, and everyday life scenes (The Idiot Boy, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Lucy Gray, The Solitary Reaper). The ideas brought in with the French Revolution resonated through his poems. Wordsworth was the voice of those ideas, values and spirit.
Ode on Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood has been one of the most discussed and controversial poems of its time, placed immediately after Milton's Lycidas and undoubtedly highly influential upon the poets after Wordsworth. It was written while the poet lived at Town-end, Grasmere (1802-4, 1807). The first four lines waited over two years to be completed with the rest.
In the preface to the Ode, Wordsworth asserts that nothing was more difficult than admitting the notion of his own death, especially the death of the spirit. This notion he expressed in the poem "We Are Seven"(written in 1798 and published in Lyrical Ballads). That idea unavoidably led him to the conviction that upon death he would be transmitted to heaven. Also, he assumed, that inanimate objects had internal life like he. Through that spiritual bond he communicated with them.
The Ode leads itself to various interpretations and conclusions, the notion of existence of previous life, for one. Although it discusses the stages in man's life (like in Shakespeare), the poem is not so much about aging but about growing up, maturing and weighing the pain of losses and the wisdom in the gains. The arguable part has been over mortality and immortality. The poet explicitly denies any intention to instill it as the belief in pre-existence of life and calls it a "far too shadowy a notion" and more of an "element in our instincts of immortality." He reminds, however, that "although the idea is not advanced in revelations, there is nothing to contradict it" and "the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor". Another proof is that the same idea has entered into the popular faith of various other lands and is also known as an ingredient in Platonic philosophy."
The Ode has a twist diverging from the Plato's concept: the soul already knowing at birth all which it will encounter in the life ahead.
"Our birth is but a sleep and 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 entire nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home…"
At this point Plato's idea has a different twist and Wordsworth’s turns to Christianity. There is sadness in these lines, sadness coming from the knowledge of the lost splendor, not only from the Heaven of our origin but also from the magic beauty of the physical world that disappears with a new worldly experience. That represents an individual repetition of the initial Fall of Man.
From there comes the famous, often quoted: "The Child is Father of the Man". Wordsworth masterfully paints the child's vision of the physical world as clothed in celestial light, with the glory and freshness of a dream. It is a symbol of the ideal nature. That vision weakens and changes as the child grows, gradually fading "into the light of common day" of an adult. The poet reminds us of many beautiful gifts life offers through the beauty of the nature around us, but wherever the poet may go, he knows "there has past away a glory from the earth." With a profound feeling of loss, he asks, "Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" In the quiet moments, he still remembers childhood with thankfulness primarily for those "obstinate questionings" and "shadowy recol-lections" that permanently stay with him. Although nothing can bring back the "splendor in the grass" and the spiritual glory present in the physical world, instead of grieving, the poet finds strength in that which is still left behind: the original sympathy, or gained by the growth: the soothing thoughts resulting from human suffering, the faith that looks through death, and maturity that brings in reconciliation. The primal ideal is recaptured after death again. Wordsworth is popular for his love of Nature. A single daffodil or daisy, a butterfly, cuckoo or a linnet, serve as a symbol of Nature in its glory. That notion is ever present in his poetry and the Ode too; however, here it is used to support the primary, guiding idea presented in the title:
Being one with nature or even in the midst of all the noise of the civilized world and our daily existence, the moment of silence and meditation brings back memories of "the truths that will never perish". That is when "Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea which brought us hither."
In conclusion to the Ode, Wordsworth says he still enjoys nature and its beauty, now fully aware of human mortality, goodness and tenderness of the human heart, its joys and fears, finishing with
"To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
Like with any great man ahead of his time, Wordsworth's poetry is closer to us and easier to under-stand now, because of the wider spread knowledge of Eastern philosophies that promote meditation, silence, unity of the body, mind and spirit for a complete feeling of well being in the middle of everyday stress and turbulence, even greater today than in Wordsworth's time.
A kind, introspective man, William Wordsworth, in his youth, was against England's war with France and rejoiced in French success, passionately believing in the ideas of the Revolution. Matthew Arnold emphasized the healing power of his poetry and the fact that he "taught people how to feel again", which is one of the enriching outcomes of the Romantic Movement in general. For Wordsworth, poetry is the most philosophic of all writing. The poet is an individual who has more passion and zest for life and its pleasures and joys. He contemplates the passions in the Universe and tends to create them where they are nonexistent. His poetry seeks the unity of mind and nature, it deconstructs metaphysics, humanizes and demystifies romance, as J. Hillis Miller pointed out. His use of nature is less for aesthetic delight and more as an active agent that embodies all living and non living, visible and invisible objects.
It is justified and well deserved that Wordsworth be remembered as a "nature" poet on more than just one level. It is not only for the powerfully inspiring aesthetic pleasure he derived from it (and we from his poetry), but even more because of the impact it has on human mind and soul, inspiring us with a feeling of unity with each other and the whole universe (living and non-living). Wordsworth comprehended not only the visible, physical beauty of nature but its "higher intelligence" (in today's terms) with all the law and spirit impacting human actions as massive as the French Revolution. Aware of evils in human nature from individual to mass action of violence and pollution of the environment, he offered poetry as an educative means of possible salvation (Beauty will save the world, believed Fyodor Dostoevsky, another Christian fighter for enlighten-ment).
Nature inspires faith and changes the dullness of everyday urban life filled with robot-like mechanization, repetition and life-stifling monotony, pollution and other even more pronounced side-effects of technological advancement of our times compared to Wordsworth's.
That is why Wordsworth is still alive for the contemporary reader.
The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. Cambridge Edition. Boston. Houghton Miffin Company, 1982. p939
J. Bronowski: The Poet's Defence. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1939
J. Hillis: Miller: The Linguistic Moment
Critical Survey of Poetry. Book 7. Edited by Frank N. Magill. Salem Press, 1982.
The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Vol. II. 1800- to Present. New York: Oxford University Press. 1973. p. 175
Dr. Mirjana N. Mataric was born in Novi Sad, lived in Beograd, Serbia, later Kansas and California in the United States of America. She holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and world literature. She is a poet, writer, translator and interpreter. Her work has been translated into English, Serbian, Rumanian, Hindi, Swedish and French.