In this essay I want to come to terms, in a limited and provisional way, with the vast and complex movement in art and history which we call Romanticism by examining in detail one of Wordsworth’s poems, his Ode: Intimations of Immortality, with a view to understanding the truths about human existence embodied in it.1 This topic arose from my initial skepticism that the meaning of Wordsworth’s Ode could be made to apply to human life in general, whether analogous experiences could be found in the ordinary reader’s life that correspond to those embodied in the poem. It seemed to me that the experience Wordsworth’s Ode depicts was the special preserve of the poets; and this fact made his wide appeal in the English-speaking world puzzling. For, indeed, at first glance it appears that this poem, like many of Wordsworth’s poems, even those which are ostensibly about non-poetic figures, is merely about the spiritual development of the poet; and, indeed, it has been understood as such by many critics, who have taken it to be either a record of Wordsworth’s own autobiography—which indeed it is on one level—or about the problem of the imagination which so preoccupied Wordsworth’s musings on art and life—which indeed it is, as well.2 H.W. Garrod, for instance, in an old but very fine essay on the Ode, writes, “So far as we can judge, so far as general report can be trusted, Wordsworth’s experience in this particular [its visionary character] is not that of ordinary men.”3 Moreover, seeing as Wordsworth himself worried nervously about the status of his poetic gift—whether he still had it, what it was, where it came from, whether it would return, why it was he had been chosen to receive it—there seemed to me still further proof that Wordsworth himself was simply poeticizing about his own poetic development in the Ode. These observations, then, seemed to warrant my skepticism and my impression of the poem as an autobiographical document about his own poetic development, which of course might be of some value to other artist’s suffering a similar predicament, but could not be of much use to the rest of humankind—those ordinary readers who do not read poetry out of curiosity about the lives of artists but for the sake of delight and illumination.
This interpretation of the Ode, however, came to seem unsatisfactory for several reasons. First, the myth of the child-philosopher which forms the core of the poem seems at once a subtle allegory of the poet and a figurative manner of expressing a universal truth about human life. This section of the poem in particular contains details of structure, psychology, diction, and imagery which function both as means of generalizing the experience of the myth and of pointing to its particular connection to the life of a poet; which is not to say that the rest of the poem lacks any such universalizing devices. Secondly, lyric poems in general, as Helen Vendler argues,4 make utterances which presume not an “absolute resemblance” between writer and reader, but an analogous or symbolic one. Lyric poems figure forth experiences which can be analogized by any reader who in his own life has passed through metaphorically similar experiences. In other words, lyric poems, like all literary works of art, tell universal truths by analogy. Indeed, the value of literature to human life depends on the fact that there is a literal difference and metaphorical sameness between the experiences of different human beings. And thus we may be right to see a meaning in this lyric poem which is applicable and important to non-poets. Thirdly, Wordsworth himself, as we see in his Prefaces and letters, intended that his poetry would serve to benefit the common man and not just a coterie of friends or other poets. As Wordsworth himself says in one of his letters,5 his poetry is intended to make men more virtuous. Wordsworth wrote poetry for a humanitarian purpose, to make men and society better. Though his poetry was about himself in large part, his purpose was altruistic. And thus it would seem odd, for a poet with such lofty intentions as these, to be writing his great poems so exclusively about the fate of a special class of persons, that is, about experiences so restricted in their application.
For these three reasons, I think, we are justified in seeing the poem as an effort to express something universal, and thus in attempting to see what universal truth or truths about human experience it is trying to embody. To that end in this essay I shall endeavor to expound the content of the central experience embodied in this poem and to defend the claim that Wordsworth sees human life as having what might be called a lyric rhythm or form, and that he sees this rhythm or form as the basis not just of the life the poet, but of any genuinely good life.
Before proceeding to a close consideration of the Ode, however, it is not unimportant to note in passing that the Ode occupies a key position in any study of Wordsworth’s vision or spiritual development in part because of the special importance Wordsworth himself gave to it. As F.W. Bateson points out, in both Poems of Two Volumes (1807) and his Poems of 1815, Wordsworth placed the Ode at the end, the position of greatest emphasis and honor, and distinguished it from the preceding poems by means of special typographical effects.6 He seemed to regard the Ode as a kind of summative statement of the central theme of his vision. This is one reason it should be studied carefully by any student of Wordsworth. Another is that, excepting perhaps the final version of The Prelude, it gives his most mature and philosophical expression of the experience in question, despite the fact that Tintern Abbey illuminates the some aspects of Wordsworth’s view of it more clearly.7 Some of his dramatic poems in the Lyrical Ballads deal with the same experience, but indirectly and in less explicit and philosophical terms. Therefore, the Ode seems a good place to study Wordsworth’s view of human existence intensively.
The Ode, like Wordsworth’s great early lyric Tintern Abbey, has a triadic arrangement. The three parts of the poem correspond to three different stages of perception that bear a very complex relation to one another. One notices that the two modes of perception described in the first two parts of the poem become involved with each other in the final section, and a new kind of perception emerges, that of the speaker at the end of the poem. So what exactly is the relationship of the three modes? What pattern do they form? The best explanation of that pattern is M.H Abram’s description of what he calls the “greater romantic lyric.” The Romantics, according to Abrams, invented a new type of lyric poem, with its own unique style and structure, which is somewhat difficult to characterize definitively. He describes its general characteristics succinctly:
They [these types of poems] present a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation.8
Applying this description to the Ode, we might say that Stanzas i-iv contain the description of a landscape and the interior process it provokes; Stanzas v-ix contain an elaboration of that interior process in the form of a mythic evaluation or interpretation of that process; and Stanzas x-xi present the insight achieved and the return in an new mood to the outer scene. The only stanza whose function within this movement is vague is Stanza ix, which could belong to the second stage of the poem in the way of explicit dialectical comment on the myth; or it could express the new insight produced by the myth and thus in some sense belong to the final stage. It seems most reasonable to assign it to the second stage since the opening of the ninth stanza is linked structurally to the opening of the third stanza in that it repeats the opening lines of the third stanza almost exactly; and thus the ninth stanza appears to commence a fresh stage in the progress of the poem.
This explanation of the structure elucidates the style and formal movement of the poem and indicates in a general way its content.9 It contemplates the essential movement as that of passing from ignorance to knowledge, or shallow perception to depth of insight, or emotional problem to emotional resolution. The important point for our purposes here, however, is that, viewed according to this analysis of its structure, the poem is seen as tracing the stages in a drama of the mind, a journey of the interior, what Dante called a movement of spirit, with a very specific shape. The poem starts with a sensitive but shallow perception of nature and then moves to a process of deeper reflection on the meaning of human experience. From this reflection, with its great depth and universal scope, a new perception emerges, and on that basis a new assessment of the original perception is made and a wholly new approach to life and nature is adopted. This movement, or lyric rhythm of action,10 underlies the pattern and meaning of the poem as a whole. For convenience, we might designate the three moments in the overall action Initial Perception, Reflection, New Perception (or Insight). In order to illustrate this movement in more detail, let us turn to a close analysis of the poem.
In the Ode, a speaker meditates on his loss of insight. Indeed, insight may be regarded as its central theme, with memory perhaps composing the secondary theme. In the first section, the speaker remembers the former intensity of his response to nature, then observes his presently deteriorated, albeit sensitive, emotional and intellectual response to nature; in the second section, he explains his changing consciousness in terms of a short story or myth illustrating the development of the mind from birth to manhood; then, at the end, in the final section, applying the pattern of the story to his own situation at present, he regards his interior decline with a new awareness of its meaning.
The image of light and the image of seeing control the thematic progress of the poem, as Cleanth Brooks has ably shown.11 They mark the stages of development of the consciousness of the speaker. Thus Stanzas i and ii express his situation in terms of images of the sun, moon, heavenly light, and the way in which the speaker responds visually to these things. As the poem opens, the speaker remembers the special quality nature once had for him. The “earth” once seemed “appareled in celestial light,” for it possessed the quality which he repeatedly calls “glory.” This glory is precisely what he can no longer see: “the things which I have seen I now can see no more.” But this does not mean he no longer takes pleasure in the earth, nor that he is without sight altogether. On the contrary, the earth still seems beautiful to him, and he still responds to it with pleasure. Like the moon in Stanza ii, the speaker still “with delight / Looks round” him. Nevertheless, no matter what he does, he cannot see things as he once did.
Though the meaning of the opening stanzas seems straightforward enough, a number of ambiguities arise if one examines the diction and imagery carefully. In the first place, it is unclear whether the glory spoken of is a quality which belongs to things or whether it is projected on to them by the speaker’s own vision. The latter is suggested by the word appareled, a word indicating that the light may not be an inalienable property of things, but rather something capable of being added to or removed from them. The word celestial complicates the problem further. Does it mean that the light comes from the heavenly bodies? This reading is at least partly supported by the imagery of the heavenly bodies in the second stanza. Or does it mean that the light is a reflection of the “eternal deep” referred to in Stanza vii? For two reasons, I think this the more likely meaning, or at least the primary one, even though Wordsworth may be drawing on both.
First, the word glory carries a religious connotation in the Western tradition, upon which Wordsworth may be drawing, and of which he could not have been unaware. In the Bible, for example, glory has several meanings: the totality of God’s beauty; the act of homage due to God from men; the state of the blessed in heaven. But it also has a meaning which is most relevant here: the reflections of God apprehensible in natural things. Wordsworth may have something like this Biblical meaning in mind. He may also be thinking of the more Hellenic valence of the word. Glory referred, at least in Homer and Pindar, to the “flame off exploits,” to use a phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins, projected by the achievement of a hero. Glory was the honor due to a hero for his extraordinary achievement. In both Homer and Pindar, such achievement is not the work of a human being alone, however, but depends on the help of the gods. So the meaning of the word, even for the Greeks, had some connection to the divine, and it may that Wordsworth also has this meaning in mind. In any case, given the word’s history, and the fact that Wordsworth was no doubt aware that his use of the word would evoke the notion of divinity, it is likely that the glory referred to in the opening stanzas refers to the traces of some divine or transcendent reality inscribed on earthly things and apprehensible by human consciousness.
The second reason for thinking that Wordsworth uses the word glory to suggest the natural reflections of supernatural realities is that this is the power that the child possesses later in the poem. The child lives in the presence of supernatural realities. He does not see them exactly, but he knows and feels them more deeply than others nonetheless. The child has the vision of glory which the speaker has lost, and this vision obviously includes some comprehension of divine or transcendent realities. Thus we can suppose that the speaker, at the beginning of the poem, though still able to perceive the inner glory of natural realities, is now unable to see the greater reality which natural realties somehow reflect.
In Stanzas iii and iv the speaker turns to a detailed description of his present state by attending closely to his response to the natural scene immediately before him. The time of day and the season—a morning in spring—indicate that this is a moment of regeneration, or should be. The speaker is walking out in the natural world, and in the course of the stanza registers a healthy response to it; by the end, however, he realizes that his present response to nature lacks the quality of his earlier experiences. The oddity about the stanzas is that they are not a lamentation over his state, but a celebration of it. Even though he has lost the earlier vision, he still rejoices in nature. His present response is expressed through images of festivity; and the main action of the speaker in the stanzas is the effort to participate in the feast of nature he feels is taking place at this moment. The speaker manages to experience the great festival of nature in full except for one brief moment when he is beset by a “thought of grief.” He dispels this spell of sadness easily, however, by “a timely utterance,” which probably means that the sounds of nature have healed him of his sadness In this connection, it is important to note that the speaker’s contact with things in stanzas three and four is no longer through the sense of seeing, but mainly through the sense of hearing. His hearing of nature, however full it may be, does not, however, give him access to the lost glory. Hearing nature is a tremendous pleasure, but it is not as exalted an experience as that which he has lost.
The feast of nature at which he is present includes all of being. The speaker imagines children all over the world picking flowers, mothers playing with their children, “land and sea” and all the “blessed creatures” observing a holiday. The upshot is that this is a moment of complete accord in the world, of harmony between man and man and man and nature. And yet to see the world as a great feast, to see its wonderful harmony, is still to fall short of the highest vision. Returning to the sense of sight, the speaker again laments the absence of the “glory and the dream” which he had known in childhood. But now he also uses another phrase to express his loss which anticipates the “myth” that he will tell in the middle stanzas of the poem: he says that things have lost “the visionary gleam.” This phrase stresses the contrast, which will become more evident in the story of the child, between pleasure and vision. The speaker presently enjoys a great amount of pleasure in nature, but he has no genuine vision of it, or perhaps we should say through it. Pleasure and vision are incompatible states in the poem, and nature herself, as the middle stanzas show, conspires to lead one away from vision through the enticements of pleasure. Of the two, pleasure is perhaps the more common response to the world, but it is the less exalted one.
After the description of the great feast of being, the next section begins, occupying the middle five stanzas. These stanzas present the story of the child and the speaker’s application of that myth to his present situation. They constitute the core of the poem. They depict, symbolically, the progress of human consciousness in time as a process of diminishment through development, or subtraction by addition. As the ego grows and experiences more of the world, it loses its openness to the transcendent; it loses its vision of glory. The self reaches its climax at the beginning and is gradually ruined through its encounter with the earth and human society. The world in Wordsworth’s, or the speaker’s, view is not the “vale of soul-making” as Keats would later describe it, but the vale of soul-destroying.
Before passing on to examine the myth in detail, we should observe that it is the element in the poem which most emphasizes the universality of the experience it embodies; it is, as it were, the technique by which the speaker’s experience is identified with that of all human beings. The speaker does not just represent the poet, or some obsessive introvert, but man himself. And the child’s life typifies the human condition in one of its most important dimensions, namely, the condition of being an incarnate soul living in time and growing intellectually. This universality is made especially clear through the diction of the narrative: the birth of the child is “our birth”; God is “our home”; the child becomes “the Man”; the foster-child of earth is “her Inmate Man”; the early vision survives in “our embers.” And this use of the first person plural personal pronoun continues after the completion of the narrative, when the speaker applies the lesson of the myth explicitly to the life of humankind in general. For instance, he says that the recollections of the vision are a master light of “all our day” and “all our seeing.” The terms of the myth thus become the terms of human life in the poem.
Moving on the details of the myth, then, we observe at once that it obviously employs the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis.12 The birth of the soul into the world is “a sleep and a forgetting.” Before entering the world, the soul existed in complete awareness of the “eternal deep.” When it comes into the world, it retains some awareness of this transcendent reality. Its birth does not cause “entire forgetfulness.” But very soon, as the result of a natural process, it begins to forget the heaven which lay about it in its infancy. The vision fades gradually though, and for some time after it is born, even into his youth, the soul “beholds the light, and whence it flows.” And as it grows it moves away from the original light, which is gradually replaced by another light: the “common light of day.” The Platonic trope of the myth, it should be noted in passing, also stresses the universality of the speaker’s experience: through a Platonic myth, the speaker comes to understand his experience as that of the human soul in general. And like a Platonic myth, the story of the child expresses truths about the invisible part of man, which Wordsworth following Plato calls the soul.
The experience of the child obviously parallels that of the speaker, especially in contrasting pleasure and vision. The earth remains a pleasure to the boy even as he loses the vision of glory, just as it does for the man. What the myth tells us is that this process is natural and inevitable. The experience of moving from a visionary sense of nature to mere pleasure in nature is the ordinary course of development. The speaker uses the trope of “mother-earth” to communicate this fact. Earth herself arranges life so that the soul forgets “the glories” it knew at birth and in infancy and becomes content with the more “homely” pleasures which she has to offer. Pleasure in nature is a good thing—it is “no unworthy aim”—but it is not the best thing; in fact, it occludes man’s perception of the highest realities.
The contrast between pleasure and vision is sharpened by the description of the child’s growing-up in Stanza vii. The tone of this stanza is more humorous and playful than that of any of the other stanzas, but its subject is perhaps the most serious. The speaker sees the child as becoming more and more disingenuous as he grows older. Using the Renaissance trope of life as a stage,13 the speaker depicts the child’s progress from natural simplicity to artificial complexity. It is hard not to see the ideas of Rousseau lurking in this passage. Rousseau was the first philosopher to see individual life and the history of society as an almost inevitable movement away from an original perfection. To live in time was to decline. Before him, the accepted pattern of life had been defined by the Aristotelian idea that life was a process of self-perfection through the acquisition of good habits; nature, in other words, was made perfect by being shaped into second-nature. But the pattern depicted in this stanza is Rousseauian, not Aristotelian. Indeed, there may be a subtle critique of the Aristotelian notion of imitation in the last line of the stanza. Aristotle attributes the phenomenon of poetry to two psychological causes: the fact that humans are imitative animals, which is evident from childhood, and the fact that people delight in imitations. For Aristotle, following these inclinations of human nature would be considered part of human perfection, a part of the development of human culture toward actualization. But for Wordsworth, the imitative instinct is the source of human corruption.
The description of the child’s entry into the world of society and practical affairs in Stanza vii merits some special attention because it touches at once the political dimension of the poem’s meaning and marks a significant point of difference between the terms of Wordsworth’s understanding of human life and those of the Renaissance authors to whose writings these lines seem to allude. Without magnifying the importance of these lines in the poem, we might still see them as exemplifying a kind of paradigm shift, to use a phrase from another discipline, in that they locate the source of human flourishing not in practical or political activity but in the quality of the interior life of the soul. This shift is indicated by the obviously derogatory use of the common Renaissance trope of life as a stage-play in which human beings assume a role. Such an image of life contemplates the essential function of man as mimetic and political. Engagement in political activity demands the assumption of artificial roles; participating in “dialogues of business, love, or strife” forces a person to use speech—“to fit his tongue”—that perhaps belies his actual thoughts and feelings, and thus causes a person to be false to his true nature. But this life drives a growing soul farther away from its true source until it is almost entirely cut off. In so far as a growing soul engages in this political life, it drifts farther away from the warm source of original vision, of genuine human flourishing, till it is buried in “custom” which lies upon it “heavy as frost.” In other words, it becomes out of harmony with nature’s source.
Thus the interior life of the soul essential to human flourishing is contrasted to the life of political engagement, which is associated with artificiality and spiritual insincerity, and the cause of the transition the one to the other is understood to be the mimetic instinct. Now, the description of how the mimetic instinct first begins to manifest itself in the child’s life expresses another significant semantic dimension of the story of the child, namely, his symbolic connection to the poet. The most prominent fact about the child’s life is that he is a maker. His “dream of human life,” his poetic vision, obviously echoes the speaker’s lost dream; his shaping and framing of his vision, occasioned by various events, into artworks and songs, obviously alludes to the work of a poet. Thus even though the child’s development is universal, it is also particularly related to the experience of the poet. The universal history of humankind is perceived through particular history of the speaker, who might reasonably be supposed to be a poet, and to some extent to represent Wordsworth himself. Wordsworth, through the story of the child, is trying to understand his poetic experience as the universal experience of humankind.
If the myth of the child is the core of the entire poem, Stanza viii is the core of the myth. Since it is easy to get lost in a forest of abstractions when dealing with this stanza, let us simply rest content with noting a few of its crucial aspects. The form of the stanza is that of an apostrophe to the child; its content deals with the characteristics of the child’s original experience of that transcendent reality from which it was separated at birth and further alienated by its passage through time. In the course of its development, the stanza develops a contrast between two modes of vision.
The first is that of the child’s ecstatic vision of the eternal, of which the child is a sort of passive recipient. The supernatural is simply present to him, surrounding and enveloping him like the air, so that he is not even really conscious of it. He takes it for granted, living and moving in its presence. He senses “the Divine in Nature”14 as an impersonal force which pervades the world, not as a personal being with a name. The child’s experience of the divine exemplifies Wordsworth’s typical idea of how we encounter the divine. As J. Robert Barth has recently written: “In passages where the real encounter with God takes place, God is not named, analyzed, nor theologized, but simply encountered as a mysterious and transcendent force touching the poet’s life, symbolically, in and through his experience of the world around him.”15 Or, to use Geoffrey Hartman’s more idiosyncratic terms, in these encounters “apocalypse becomes akedah” when the transcendent is experienced as the immanent.16
The second mode of vision is that enjoyed by the rest of world, the sort of perception earlier referred to as “the light of common day.” It is the sort of perception which the speaker presently has, limited, purely natural, and estranged from the primal ground of being. The speaker, paradoxically, calls those who see all things in this light “the Blind;” the child, who cannot hear or speak yet, sees (“read’st”) the “eternal mind” as if effortlessly; the eternal truths which everyone is seeking in life simply “rest” on him.
But, of course, this vision cannot last, and for this nature herself is to blame. The child, blindly following the natural course of things, endeavors to leave his “blessed” state, eventually becoming the slave of “custom” like everyone else. This is simply the nature of things and nothing can stop it. For this reason, the speaker pities the child, who in his own unwitting “blindness” strays away from his own happiness and loads his soul with “earthly freight.” The child, we might observe in passing, possesses that natural instinct that Rousseau paradoxically called perfectibility, which impels people to leave the perfect state of nature and to found those associations and institutions which are the source of human misery.
Of the last three stanzas of the poem, much could be said that cannot be said here. Above all, all the many connections between them and Wordsworth’s statements elsewhere, in prose and in verse, about poetry, the technique of recollection, and the importance and nature of “spots of time,” could be drawn. But these things cannot concern us here, since we must attend only to the main lines of the development of the poem.
The last three stanzas apply the explanation furnished by the myth of the child to the life of humankind in general, and then to the situation of the poet. They are meant to be an encomium, not for the ecstatic vision of the child, but for its persistence in time through memory. In these stanzas the speaker’s admiration is not caught nearly so much by the glory of the child’s vision as it is by the way in which that vision sustains the human being in time, even makes his life in time seem insignificant by comparison with eternity. As he says, it makes “Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence.”
The burden of these stanzas is that the splendor of the original vision, of the “primal sympathy,” somehow remains throughout life, as if just beneath the surface, quietly shining even beneath our dulled perception of things and manifesting itself through our bewilderment at the natural world. It is what we might call a master experience, that is, an experience which somehow defines and directs the whole of someone’s existence, like first love, the meaning of which a person spends his whole life trying to understand. Accordingly, there is nothing in life, not even the most seemingly insignificant moment, which is not affected by the experience and which cannot be understood in relation to it. It sheds its light into every corner. The speaker thinks doubt itself, “those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things,” a sign of the presence of the vision, perhaps because it signifies that we do not regard nature herself as final. The original vision cannot be “utterly abolished” by time, but is always some there, as a “master light of all our seeing,” as a source of “strength,” which “having been must ever be.” And it does not matter how far we seem to be from the vision, it can still be recovered through recollection in a moment of tranquility. “Though inland far we be,” he says, “Our souls have sight of that immortal sea.”
In the final two stanzas, the speaker returns to the present time and place, only to find that somehow, after all, his delight in nature is even greater than it was when he had the true vision. He loves nature even more than when he was a boy. The poem ends on a sober note, however, with the speaker a sadder and wiser man as he contemplates the fate of the true vision in time and the harsh realities of human life. The intoxication of the opening stanzas has disappeared, despite what the speaker says about being more delighted by nature now, and the speaker seems to have gained in depth and wisdom from his acknowledgement of mortality and human suffering. His distress over the loss of the true vision has been mitigated in the course of the poem by a realization that the vision endures and informs his consciousness even now, and that it remains as a source of wisdom and strength from which he can draw faith; now even the “meanest flower” can occasion depth of thought and now those distressing thoughts which he had wanted to escape in Stanza II are accepted with a kind of stoical calm.17 The difference between his present state and the state of the child, he sees, is simply that now the vision can only be consciously recovered intermittently, though it is somehow faintly present at all times. The vision now furnishes, in other words, intimations of immortality through recollection; whereas then, in childhood, when he lived beneath “its habitual sway,” it was constant and immediately present.
One response to this analysis of the poem might well be to suggest that even considering the universalizing devices within the poem, the experience it embodies cannot possibly be construed as applying to each human life18, but, rather, much more obviously is about the special and extraordinary experience of a poet. And yet I take it that Wordsworth himself did view all of human life in precisely the terms of this poem. In addition to all the indicators of this within the poem, this fact seems borne out by several other considerations. First, there is the fact that the poem’s structure is based on a peculiarly universalized version of Hartleian epistemology. As James Ralston Caldwell, in discussing the effect of the Hartley’s psychology on Wordsworth, and Wordsworth’s modifications of it, explains:
Wordsworth also introduced the concept of the three ages of man. Hartley, in classifying mental activity as sensation, simple ideas of sensation, and complex ideas, had intimated that these three kinds of mentation are characteristic of different periods of life. This suggestion Wordsworth developed into a definite theory of three ages of man-in-nature: childhood, the age of sensation; youth, of ideas of sensation; and maturity, of complex ideas…In Tintern Abbey, the Ode on Intimations of Immortality…and elsewhere, he comments on the divinely ordered progress from the child’s vivid and unconscious delight in sensation, through the passionate and imaginative response of youth, to the contemplative and sensorially dim operations of the mind in maturity. For the loss of the warm senses of childhood and the rapt delight in Nature of youth, he finds ample recompense in “the years that bring the philosophic mind.19
The Wordsworthian view of human life, then, stems from his conception of the evolution of human consciousness in time. He does not think of life in terms of the growth of the virtues, or the imitation of Christ, or the meeting and overcoming of obstacles. No. He thinks of it as a process of mental growth through inevitable stages of different kinds of mental activity. And if there is any end to the process, it is the gaining of insight.
Secondly, the Wordsworthian view accepts no distinction between the moral and imaginative, the aesthetic and the spiritual. He does not divide the inner life into its traditional compartments, but views it holistically. David Bromwich, in a recent study, says simply: “I do not think Wordsworth accepted any division between the moral and the imaginative.”20 Hence each human life can be understood in terms of its cognitive or imaginative development: this is the preponderant characteristic of life, which takes primacy over everything else; indeed, somehow includes everything else. Wordsworth says at one point, commenting on his “Ode to Duty,” that the poet must contemplate “all modes of existence as subservient to one spirit.”21 This is why Wordsworth’s view of the moral life is so connected to his view of sensory response to nature: the one is entirely dependent on the other.22 The proper experience of nature is the source of all his moral being.23 As Geoffrey Hartman rightly says, “Failure or access of emotion (inspiration) vis-à-vis nature was the basis of his spiritual life: his soul either kindled in contact with nature or died. There was no such thing as a casual joy or disappointment.”24
So, given that it seems to be the case that Wordsworth views the whole of life according to the character ascribed to it in the Ode, the question naturally arises: what are the central characteristics of the Wordsworthian view? I think we can observe two.
First, each human life is understood as progress through long periods of spiritual and emotional dryness marked by spontaneous and intermittent moments of intense sensation and illumination which then in turn form the basis of similar future moments and which sustain a person during the dry periods. These moments are spontaneous, not stable like habits, but can be recollected for the sake of strength and consolation and light in the dry times. Hence, insight and memory are the foundation of human flourishing; and the life of the senses and the life of the mind must be cultivated in order to live well. The loss of insight, such as is depicted in the Ode, is thus the loss of something at the very center of human happiness. Insight, or receptive contemplation of ultimate reality, has an absolute value in this view of existence. To the extent that one has it, or can access it through memory, one is spiritually fulfilled. Above all, a person is fulfilled through a kind of responsiveness to being; virtue, classically understood as “the utmost capacity of what a man can be,” consists in a certain mode of interaction with the external world.
Secondly, the source of human flourishing is communion with external nature and with God through nature. Life in society is inherently dehumanizing, as Wordsworth argues in the Preface of 1800. A good human life is one lived close to the natural order and in harmony with it. Without direct contact with nature, life becomes false and inhuman. Of course the child is most in contact with the “Divine in Nature” and thus perfection of spirit is found in its purity in the child. Life is, to some extent, a process of diminishment, since the original vision can never be fully recovered.
In view of all this, we can see how the Ode, far from simply describing his own artistic development—though it does that, too—maps the stages of the whole spiritual life; it is a comprehensive mimesis of the human psyche moving through time, like Dante’s Comedy. Just as ancient tragedy did for the Greeks, Wordsworth’s Ode embodies the shape of each human life. And just as the Greek view of life found its natural literary form in tragic drama, so Wordsworth’s view finds its natural form in what M. H. Abram’s, as mentioned above, calls “the greater Romantic lyric.” This type of lyric, for Wordsworth as for many of his contemporaries and for many later poets, captures the central characteristics of human life and agency. Life itself is understood as a specific kind of psychic experience with a lyric character or rhythm. To what extent this idea of human life reflects the spirit of the age—whether it is an accurate mirror of the age’s tendencies toward emotivism, subjectivism, and an aesthetic appreciation of human life, as opposed to an objective, logical appreciation—cannot be discussed here. Suffice it to say, in this connection, that the author of this essay wavers between two responses to Wordsworth’s poetry: on the one hand, there are moments when we share Keats’s wariness about Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime,” and judge that his poetry is simply too subjective to be considered great poetry, or even valuable to future generations. On the other hand, more frequently, we see his poetry as a wise and sensitive voice testifying, in a busy and overly pragmatic age, to the central place which contemplative activity ought to occupy in a genuinely human life, to the need for a deep interior life. If we hear this in Wordsworth’s voice, then his poetry should be cherished, for then it is fulfilling the proper function of poetry, which, as Michael Oakeshott says,25 is always to witness at the same time to the primacy of contemplation among human activities and to the inevitable transience of contemplative moments.
- Abrams, M.H. The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. New York: Norton, 1984.
- Barth, J. Robert, S.J. Romanticism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003.
- Bateson, F.W. English Poetry: A Critical Introduction. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966.
- Bromwich, David. Disowned by Memory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.
- Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. San Diego: Harcourt, 1975.
Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. All references to Wordsworth’s poetry will be taken from this text. One need not be a specialist to want to come to terms with the phenomenon of Romanticism. Indeed, Romanticism is one of those problem areas in history, especially in literary history, that every discipline, and every student of every discipline, specialist or no, must seek to address, for the questions it poses remain important questions, remain our questions, and it is in answering these questions that we define our own lives. The importance of understanding Romanticism to understanding ourselves may seem like a rather mundane point to make at the beginning of an essay on Wordsworth. Of course it is important. Yet this importance is precisely what the dominant mode of literary criticism, New Historicism, wishes to deny, or at least to question. According to the approach of New Historicist critics, Romantic poets wrote what they did because they could not have written anything else, since all texts are determined by their cultural context. Wordsworth is simply the name of a particular amalgamation of determinant forces concentrated in a human biological organism. Thus, texts written two hundred years ago do not touch on any realm of “permanent things,” to use T.S. Eliot’s fine phrase, but merely express a radically contingent perception in the life of one person living at a particular moment in history and in a particular place in which certain economic, cultural, religious, moral, philosophical, material, and personal conditions obtain. The only reason to read texts from the past, then, is to encounter alien attitudes, ideas, emotions, and so on, which cannot possibly be shared by the reader, except through a certain distant sympathy or an effort of historical imagination, for the reader is just as locked in to his particular circumstances by historical forces as the writer of the text.↩
Cleanth Brooks, for instance, believes the poem is about “the paradoxes of the imagination”; F.W. Bateson, and many others, believe the poem is an autobiographical record.↩
Garrod, p. 119↩
Vendler, pp. 183-4↩
Bateson, pp. 137-8↩
See F.R. Leavis’s chapter on Wordsworth in Revaluation for a good discussion of this point.↩
Abrams, p. 77↩
Conversely, however, there is a way of viewing the poem which posits a movement in the poem which is the obverse of progress toward knowledge, or which at least casts doubt on the coherence of this movement. F.W. Bateson, in his work English Poetry: a Critical Introduction, claims that the Ode presents a speaker suffering from a spiritual problem in the first part; then in the second part it offers a theoretical solution to this problem in the form of a myth which solves the problem by showing that it is simply in the nature of things; in the third part this solution is applied to the speaker’s situation and the speaker reflects on its meaning for his present life. Bateson believes that the third part contains a note of insincerity or is perhaps a subtle expression of the self-deception which Wordsworth practiced upon himself in order to maintain his self-esteem. Quoting lines 193-4, “I love the Brooks which down their channels fret, / Even more than when I tripped lightly as they,” Bateson emphatically states:
It is quite impossible to accept this statement at its face-value. All the evidence of the other autobiographical poems confirms the account of his development that Wordsworth gave in the Lines composes a few miles above Tintern Abbey. There was a time when the cataract had haunted him ‘like a passion,’ but that was from about 1786 to 1793. By 1803 the “Nature’s Priest” had become the “Man” living in “the light of common day.” The two lines are in reality the merest wishful thinking. They are almost the first indication of the indifference to fact in the later Wordsworth that was to startle Hazlitt and Shelley. p. 144-5
If we discount the claims of the third stanza as symptoms of spiritual factitiousness, as Bateson does, the movement of the poem is reversed: instead of presenting a speaker passing from a negative state to a positive one, it presents a speaker moving in the opposite direction, away from insight and wholeness and toward loss and diminishment.↩
For a discussion of a similar phrase and a similar idea as it applies to Greek tragedy, see Fergusson p. 18 & pp. 35-40.↩
Brooks, p. 124-50↩
For Wordsworth’s famous note on his use of the Platonic myth, in which he explains its use as a trope, see Wordsworth, The Major Works, p. 714. Also, for a good discussion of the differences between the significance of the myth for Plato and its significance for Wordsworth, see Garrod p. 116-9.↩
Anne Righter examines this trope as treated by Shakespeare with great insight. Her basic contention is that Shakespeare portrayed human life in dramatic narratives because he thought human life had a dramatic pattern.↩
Grierson & Smith pp. 324-5↩
Barth, p. 24↩
Hartman, p. 225↩
John Jones asserts on p. 142 that in the decade between the Ode and The Excursion Wordsworth came to know Seneca as he knew no other philosopher.↩
For a good discussion of this point see MacIntyre pp. 143-4.↩
Hartley, p. 80↩
Bromwich, p. 93↩
Major Works, p. 713↩
Though there is no space to discuss it in the essay, the influence of the Earl of Shaftesbury is probably evident in Wordsworth’s view of the relation between sensation and morality. For a good, succinct overview of Shaftesbury’s ethics, see Marias p. 254. Marias makes the relevant point that the Earl’s ethics of the moral sense are “tinged with aestheticism.”↩
On this point, see Trilling 243, who calls this aspect of Wordsworth’s vision his “quietism.”↩
Hartman, p. 5↩
see Oakeshott’s long essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” in Rationalism in Politics for a penetrating discussion of place of poetry in the “map of human activities.”↩