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The intelligible ode.

                         An auxiliar light
Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendour.
                      William Wordsworth (1)

THIS PAPER IS PREPARATORY TO A READING OF THE ODE. It tries to clarify the two principal ideas, or forms of experience, that Wordsworth believed made the Ode intelligible--the idea of immortality, and the relation of that idea to certain recollections of early childhood. The incomprehension and ridicule with which the Ode was first read moderated into a perception of its failure to reveal any recognizable form of immortality. How Wordsworth understood that term forms the first part of this paper, and attempts to reinstate his more complex insights, which later readings buried beneath simpler notions of physical resurrection and survival of the self. Unless we can look beyond those conventional ideas of immortality we will tend to ask the wrong questions of the poem, fail to see what Wordsworth was getting at, and so assert, mistakenly, I believe, that he could not substantiate his later subtitle, nor resolve the problems the poem raises.

The second part considers what one reader called "the very mysterious and idiosyncratic experiences that lie at the heart of the poem," the remembered glories of childhood. But as the same reader adds, the difficulty is that although he "tries to do this with great precision and scrupulousness, both of argument and vocabulary... his articulation is ultimately unfathomable, because what he's attempting to express lies beyond the scope of words." (2) Eliot, in describing his own poetry as "a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling," (3) unwittingly typified the struggle Wordsworth himself acknowledged in such phrases as the "sad incompetence of human speech," and in the need to "make / Breathings for incommunicable powers" (1850 6.593; 1805.3.187-88). Both poets believe that the attempt to articulate the inarticulate is at the center of their work. That persistence suggests they believe that words can be used to convey what they cannot express precisely. Are critics not bound, therefore, in some way or other, to follow these "raids," to tie them together, to set them in a context that may render them a little more fathomable? Wordsworth is a poet particularly open to such a process, because he goes over similar ground in different ways, at different times, and in very different kinds of poems. If critical discourse abandons the attempt to follow him in this respect, then we may understand variously the political Wordsworth, or the elegiac Wordsworth, or the pastoral Wordsworth, and so on--in general the materialized Wordsworth--but not the kind of poet Wordsworth thought himself--the poet trying to apprehend experiences on the margins of conscious articulation, which he believed inform our being. And so we should avoid taking refuge in supposing Wordsworth's experience "unfathomable," or hiding behind the term "idiosyncratic." To put it another way, "Meanings beyond words are a fraught business because they cannot be shown (proven); those who do not hear can only be adjured to listen more closely." (4) To encourage a closer listening is part of the purpose of the second part of this paper, putting Wordsworth's experience in the context of a tradition originating in the seventeenth century, particularly the work of Thomas Traherne--who in his intellectual and spiritual sympathies was aligned to the Cambridge Platonists, a tradition resonant in Wordsworth's poetry. (5)



1807--Paulo majora canamus

With what is now known as "The Immortality..." or "The Intimations Ode," Wordsworth concluded the Poems in Two Volumes of 1807, and later, from 1815 onwards, his complete published works, bar The Excursion. In 1807, entitled only "ODE," it was further distinguished from all the other poems by means of a three word epigraph from Virgil, "Paulo majora canamus," or "Let us sing of things a little greater." Thus it is evident that from its first publication he set considerable store by the poem. (6) In Wordsworth's final arrangement of his poems, described in the Preface of 1815, Douglas Bush notes that "one passes from the poetry of old age to the poetry of death and finally to the poetry of life after death." (7)

Early readers who tried to follow the path of Wordsworth's greater song, both advocates and enemies, found themselves confused, and the following are well-known examples from a substantial stock. James Montgomery, a poet able to say of Wordsworth, "I feel the pulse of poetry beating through every vein of every thought in all his compositions," (8) noted the effective absence of a title and declared that "the reader is turned loose into a wilderness of sublimity, tenderness, bombast, and absurdity, to find out the subject as well as he can." (9) Southey identified an aspect of the Ode, but not its subject, when he wrote to Walter Scott in 1807, "The Ode upon pre-Existence is a dark subject darkly handled. Coleridge is the only man who could make such a subject luminous." Unfortunately Coleridge had his blind spots--and upon one of those the poem depends: the child as "best Philosopher." Francis Jeffrey felt unable to read the Ode at all, describing it as "the most illegible and unintelligible part of the publication. We can pretend to give no analysis or explanation of it." That is severely put, but the poem's genuine difficulties are evident in the fact that there are no intelligible readings for several years following its publication.

1815--The child is Father of the man

Thus the first readers asked the first question of the poem--what is its subject? In 1843, talking to Isabella Fenwick about what the Victorians by then called "the Great Ode," Wordsworth said, "To the attentive and competent reader the whole sufficiently explains itself." (10) Those are the words of a man nettled by many of the reviews the poem had received since its appearance some 35 years earlier. That the whole did not sufficiently explain itself, even to sympathetic readers, is probably why, in 1815, encouraged by Henry Crabb Robinson, Wordsworth had added the subtitle "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," "to guide the reader to a perception of its drift." (11) Paul Magnuson points out that at the time of its writing Wordsworth and Dorothy had referred to the poem as an "ode" without other title or indication of subject matter. (12) Wordsworth gave most of his poems titles, such as the "Ode to Duty," and therefore identifiable topics, even if they proved complex on reading. Perhaps that initial absence, followed years later by a lengthy subtitle, suggests that Wordsworth himself wasn't easily able to formulate his subject. But the subtitle is definitive, and if the whole still isn't easy to understand, the subject matter is surely no longer in doubt. It is not about preexistence itself, but what might constitute the nature of immortality, and Wordsworth "plans to argue for it from some aspect of the recollected memories of early childhood." (13) Note the precision with which Wordsworth guides readers to perceiving the poem's drift: "intimations"--not a declaration--therefore hesitant, suggestive, undogmatic; "recollections," distinguishable from "memories" as having some added quality, realized through reflection or meditation, as he distinguishes the memory of, say, crossing the Alps or climbing Snowdon, from his subsequent reflections on those events; (14) and not just "childhood," but "early childhood," the time of "primal sympathy."

And so, as an unintended consequence, Wordsworth raised the second major question about the poem: what constitutes, or where in the poem is, the "immortality" of the subtitle? How do we render the term "immortality" intelligible? And this question continues to create major difficulties in our reading. In 1991 John Hayden updated Russell Noyes's 1971 biography of Wordsworth and began his analysis of the Ode by claiming, "Wordsworth's great 'Ode on Immortality' is not easy to follow nor wholly clear. A basic difficulty of interpretation centers upon what the poet means by 'immortality.'" (15)

Wordsworth must have hoped that his 1815 subtitle left no room for doubt. He also removed the original and allusive epigraph, and replaced it with the last three lines of "My heart leaps up" or "The Rainbow." Those lines begin, "The child is father of the Man"--thus hammering home his idea of the subject--that man will discover his immortality by remembering aspects of his childhood. And that poem is emphatic: the third line begins not with a peaceable "so it was when my life began," but with a vigorous "so was it when my life began" and goes on through the tenses, "so is it now I am a man," "so be it when I shall grow old," and concludes with the passionate and unexpected "Or let me die!" (16) The first six lines are a determined statement, which the final three seem to summarize. But summarize what? The concluding "Or" suggests a preceding, though implicit, "either": either my heart leaps up, or I die. Alan Grob writes that "retention of the childhood response to the rainbow emerges as a spiritual necessity of such magnitude that death looms as the sole alternative to failure." (17) Life and death are thus opposed: life lies in the ability to respond simply, but profoundly, to the rainbow; and death is the absence of that response, the absence of "natural piety"--which is not the piety of nature, if there is such a thing, but the natural piety of the human being. (18) And note "behold," a biblical injunction often introducing the revelatory: Wordsworth's beholding is more than just a seeing, and his heart leaping up more than just a sensation of excitement; he is beholding something akin to a revelation or a vision. (19) And that capacity for vision is what he is praying that he can maintain in old age. "Or let me die" suggests that if he does hold onto that power, he won't die: that the act of beholding is a mode of immortality--is to experience "bright shoots of everlastingness" as Vaughan put it. Just as Wordsworth himself addresses the rainbow, the Wanderer addresses the spirit of Nature, declaring, "Thy bounty caused to flourish deathless flowers, / From Paradise transplanted: wintry age / Impends: the frost will gather round my heart; / If the flowers wither, I am worse than dead!" (20) The immortal things of Paradise transplanted into this world can only live in a living heart; but the living heart can also render the flowers of this world, like the rainbow, deathless, so re-creating a paradise. Its three-line epigraph is thus the Ode's first intimation of the nature of immortality and how this might be disclosed. Peter Manning regards the 1815 epigraph as "an act of interpretation," in which, by replacing the Virgilian motto, "Wordsworth under-represents the pathos of change and separation in the Ode itself." (21) This view arises in part because Manning identifies the poem as a pastoral elegy, a poem of loss, not recovery, and his reading depends on a closer comparison with Virgil's Fourth Eclogue than I believe is merited by Wordsworth's selection of just three, unattributed, words. Nonetheless, the 1815 epigraph walks a fine line between an act of interpretation and an act of clarification.

Mortality and "the malice of the grave"

Despite Wordsworth waving all these semiotic flags, some Victorian readers were determined to go on being inattentive and incompetent. Ruskin thought Wordsworth "content with intimations of immortality such as may be in skipping of lambs and laughter of children--incurious to see in the hands the print of the nails." (22) This passing reference to Doubting Thomas (John 20, 24-29), reinforced by Ruskin's knowledge of resurrection art, articulates the most familiar, if least credible, understanding of immortality. But throughout his work, it is precisely that false hope of physical resurrection which Wordsworth tacitly distinguishes from his idea of immortality: if there was one way of "looking through death" that he was not talking about, it was physical or personal restoration, a conjuring trick with bones. Wordsworth is reluctantly absolute when it comes to death: it is the end. Even for those he loves most dearly, he doesn't fudge it. Like the rest of us, he yearned to see again those whom he had lost, but he knew, in his loss of Catherine for example, that "my heart's best treasure was no more; / That neither present time, nor years unborn / Could to my sight that heavenly face restore" ("Surprised by Joy"). His poetry of this kind is elegiac because it is infused with the melancholy that arises from that longing set against the certain knowledge that never again will the person lost be "seen by my eyes or clasped in my embrace." Or as the Pedlar advised the poet, "We die, my Friend, / ... and very soon / Even of the good is no memorial left." (23) Thus Wordsworth could even say of his drowned brother: "The meek, the brave, the good, was gone; / He who had been our living John / Was nothing but a name" ("I only looked for pain and grief"). Of Matthew, fondly remembered, his name memorialized among a list of past schoolmasters, Wordsworth asks, "can it be / That these two words of glittering gold / Are all that must remain of thee?" ("If Nature, for a favorite Child"). However gloomy and despondent it makes him, Wordsworth always recognizes the impossibility of anything like physical or personal resurrection, quite reasonably refusing that form of immortality, though the struggle with conflicting impulses educes some of his most beautiful and tender poetry. In that he can be compared and contrasted to Browning, a fierce sceptic vis-a-vis the transcendental and mortal resurrection, who nonetheless, against the grain of his poetry, but deep in the throes of love, persuades himself that after the "black minute" of death he shall see his wife once more, and "O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again" ("Prospice"). I think Wordsworth more honest in refusing that hope, and his "handful of silver" much less of a betrayal than Browning's kowtowing to the incredible. As his 2006 title suggests, "'The Sunless Land': Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Virgil and Ossian," this unrealized longing is, for Richard Gravil, the only substantial intimation of immortality in Wordsworth's poetry:
The closest he ever gets to affirming the notion of recognizable
personal survival is in his numerous anxiety-laden versions of the
failure of Virgilian and Ovidian heroes and heroines to "clasp" their
deceased spouses, versions which begin in childhood and climax in the
remarkable "Laodamia." (24)

But whatever constitutes immortality, Wordsworth knew it was not to be found in an after-death embrace. As Gravil acknowledges, Laodamia is punished for her presumption that Protesilaus should "elude the malice of the grave," which though the most human of hopes, is nonetheless seen by Wordsworth as out of the order of things--"Jove frowned in heaven." It is Protesilaus who offers correct counsel:
This visage tells thee that my doom is past:
Nor should the change be mourned, even if the joys
Of sense were able to return as fast
And surely as they vanish. Earth destroys
Those raptures duly...

Learn, by a mortal yearning, to ascend--
Seeking a higher object. Love was given,
Encouraged, sanctioned, chiefly for that end;
For this the passion to excess was driven--
That self might be annulled: her bondage prove
The fetters of a dream opposed to love.-- (67-71, 145-50)

"That self might be annulled"--personal survival, or the survival of "the joys / Of sense," is "a dream opposed to love," which seeks "a higher object." Immortality and resurrection are not coordinate terms in Wordsworth's lexicon; "resurrection" is a word he rarely if ever used; and if its implicit absence in the Ode is considered a failure, that is to criticize Wordsworth for not discussing an archaic idea he refuted, for not answering a question he wasn't asking. (25)

Body, Self, and Soul

So how does Wordsworth "look through death," what is his "higher object"? If not the articulation of bones, what else? In the latter part of the Fenwick note Wordsworth, merely in passing, speaks of being "impelled to write this Poem on the 'Immortality of the soul'" (FN 62). In the seventeenth century, from which much of Wordsworth's intellectual energy seems to spring, the idea of a physical resurrection was already outmoded, if not openly dismissed, and the task ordinarily undertaken was to demonstrate the immortality of the soul. Seventeenth-century titles show how common this idea was: Richard Baxter, Immateriality of the Soul; John Smith, A Discourse Demonstrating the Immortality of the Soul; Henry More, The Immortality of the Soul; Sir John Davies, Of the Soul of Man and the Immortalitie thereof--a platonic poem, from which Coleridge quotes (BL 2.17), substituting imagination for soul, in order to demonstrate its ideal function, turning "bodies to spirit by sublimation strange."

Wordsworth believes that it goes without saying that the Ode's subtitle refers to the soul, which he consistently differentiates from "self"--for instance, the phrase "The Soul that rises with us" distinguishes "soul" and "us." Or, as he observes in "Lines Written in Early Spring," "To her fair works did nature link / The human soul that through me ran." It is the soul, some aspects of which will be discussed below, and not the self, that is the subject of immortality. (26) To suppose, therefore, that he was offering intimations of physical immortality, personal survival, bodily resurrection, or anything like, is to misread the label he'd attached to his tin. (27)

As Coleridge remarked, not to read a book or poem in the spirit in which it is written is to risk reading a sundial by moonlight. (28) However, understanding the spirit in which the poem was written remains as difficult now as it did then because neither "immortality" nor "soul" are words that point to distinct ideas for us. So we tend to avoid giving a specific meaning to Wordsworth's subtitle--indeed the absence of the word "soul" allows us to read it with what might be called a determined linguistic indeterminism, at best refusing to think in either material or spiritual terms, or in Richard Gravil's words, "Intimations... avoids giving any particular characteristics to its ostensible subject"; and as Daniel Robinson puts it, "the emphasis [has] shifted from reading the poem as the... "Immortality Ode" to admitting its metaphysical ambiguities as... the "Intimations Ode." (29) Thus, wavering as to the subject matter, we end up in a no-man's-land of meaning, acknowledging it as one of Wordsworth's greatest poems, admiring the rhetorical grandeur, entranced by its music. But, untouched by the truths it would point to, we are finally puzzled by its impetus, and both intellectually and emotionally confused by apparent conflicts in its rhetoric. As a critical community, we therefore risk returning to the kind of judgments visited upon the poem by its first readers. It is, I think, a common experience to feel that we understand the poem as we read it, but to find that when the music stops that confidence fades, and then we struggle to say what we have understood. Thus, depending on one's degree of skepticism, the poem remains either enigmatic, or inscrutable, or simply unintelligible. Towards the conclusion of his 2006 paper, first asserting that we can no longer read the poem as Coleridge read it, Richard Gravil reaches for the far end of that spectrum in a striking peroration:
Without [Coleridge's] particular confidence in things unseen, the
fugitive argument of the Ode, like that of the Extempore Effusion,
rests upon clouds and waves careering towards a nothingness crowned
with darkness, as the poetic brothers pass in that gloomiest of
valedictions, "from sunshine to the sunless land." (30) ...What Carlyle
sardonically referred to as "transcendental life-preservers" have been
decommissioned. Without them, for all its rhetoric of compensations,
the only heaven Intimations can truly envisage... is that of infancy.
Compared with its argument for pre-existence--which is overt, emphatic
and (we are told) no more than a poetic idea--its argument tor
immortality was never more than implied. Consequently, for a reader who
lacks such instinctive pre-assurances, it is no longer there.
   But it seems not to matter. Nowadays, for most readers, the poem's
consolation derives from nature and nature's continuities... This poet,
after all, never lyeth because he nothing affirmeth. As an expression
of an ability to take disinterested pleasure in the sound of "mighty
waters rolling evermore"--... the Ode somehow crosses the bar between
comforting faith and stoical unbelief. Neither those mighty waters nor
"the clouds that gather round the setting sun" have any bearing on
personal immortality. Least of all does the poem's terminal memento
mori, "the meanest flower that blows." (31)

I presume that Gravil believes that it is of immortality that Wordsworth "nothing affirmeth"; yet, though full of doubt, Wordsworth's poetry is also diversified by a faith, which he does affirm under the "banners militant" of extraordinary experience. But what he affirms, in such phrases as "our home, / Is with infinitude and only there," is indeed never "personal immortality," for as we have seen in "Laodamia," the self must be annulled in the quest for "a higher object"; and so to look for evidence of individual survival is to ask the wrong question of the poem. But surely those great affirmations are not disconnected from the idea of immortality, and "the mighty waters," and "the meanest flower that blows" do have some bearing on that "higher object"; (32) they should not be taken just as a pleasurable synthesis of images by which the poem "somehow crosses the bar between comforting faith and stoical unbelief"--that "somehow" slipping past any insight as to how comforting faith is transformed into stoical unbelief, or vice versa. As will become clear in the course of this paper, I do not share Gravil's view that the only heaven affirmed is that of infancy; nor that the argument for immortality, "only ever implied," is "no longer there." Though I have learnt much from his papers on the Ode, (33) I see Gravil's conclusion as an example of where we may end up if we are unwilling or unable to read a work in the spirit in which it was written: the language is different, but the tone and the conclusion are reminiscent of Francis Jeffreys "illegible and unintelligble."

And one thing more: "it seems not to matter... the poem's consolation derives from nature and nature's continuities." I think this natural form of consolation has little to offer--for what are "nature's continuities"? Michael O'Neill has suggested a distinction between "Earth" and "Nature" in Wordsworth's idiolect; (34) and perhaps the former only becomes the latter when contemplated by an empowered mind or heart. Otherwise Earth--that Earth which duly destroys all other raptures--remains the earth, rolling round, for example, Lucy's dust with "rocks and stones and trees." Without force or motion, Lucy has become "nothing but a name," and the poet uses that diurnal continuity as the symbol of his loss, not as a pantheistic form of immortality. His heart or spirit was silent, sealed, disempowered, and faced with Lucy's insuperable death; all he knows is loss, and the awful difference between death and life. Unvisioned Earth teaches us about mortality, not immortality, and it has no consolations, only lessons. Although Margaret, as another example, lived amidst nature and its continuities just as much as the Pedlar, to all intents nature didn't exist for her, and all her holds on life are relentlessly destroyed by the "touch of earthly years." Not until she is given a power of a kind with the Pedlar's power of meditation does she find any form of consolation. And wouldn't it be truer to say that Nature, in the sense that it was salvational or consolatory, was in fact very discontinuous for Wordsworth? It was around him all his life, he was "beset with [its] images," but think how often, in various and very diffent poems, he complains that "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." There is no consolation where there is no vision--where the heart does not leap up. The aesthete's gaze is no substitute for visionary power. So it does matter. Wordsworth denied he was a worshipper of nature--"A passionate expression, uttered incautiously in the poem on the Wye," led, he says, one of his early readers into that mistake, and we may add, many others since (LWDW 2.617). The Ode's intelligibility does not depend upon our belief, upon our sharing that confidence in things unseen; but unless we achieve some kind of insight into Wordsworth's understanding of the idea of the soul and of immortality, we will find ourselves reading a sundial by moonshine.

Reason and the Soul; The Abyss and the Infinite

Of the various seventeenth-century texts on the immortality of the soul, that of Sir John Davies is the one Wordsworth is most likely to have read. Although there are clear differences between each man's conception, both begin with the notion that the life of the soul is independent of that of the body. "Yet she survives, although the body dies," says Sir John, or, as the next section title asserts, "the soul is a thing subsisting by itselfe, without the body," (35) just as Wordsworth suggests that the soul lives free of sense when the child, "deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep"; or, when haunted by a consciousness of immortality, the grave, "without sense or sight," is no more threatening than "A place of thought where we in waiting lie." Sir John and Wordsworth share a sense of the soul's origins--"she is a spirit, and heavenly influence, / Which from the fountaine of God's Spirit doth flow," says Sir John (41), with Wordsworth agreeing that "The Soul that rises with us" comes "From God, who is our home"; and both see the world as a place of distraction:
So while the virgin Soule on Earth doth stay,
She woo'd and tempted is ten thousand waves,
By these great powers, which on Earth bear sway;
The wisdom of the world, wealth, pleasure, praise:

With these sometime she doth her time beguile,
These doe by fits her Fantasie possesse;
But she distatestes them all within a while,
And in the sweetest finds a tediousnesse. (89)

What is assertion in Sir John derives from experience in Wordsworth, originating in his childhood. If as an adult Wordsworth confronted mortality head on, as a child he resisted the notion of death, not only as all children naturally resist the notion, which Wordsworth illustrates by his reference to We Are Seven, but with a separate spiritual force that would mature into a concept of immortality:
it was not so much from [feelings] of animal vivacity that my
difficulty came as from a sense of the indomitableness of the spirit
within me. I used to brood over the stories of Enoch and Elijah &
almost to persuade myself that whatever might become of others I should
be translated in something of the same way to heaven (FN 61). (36)

There are two telling phrases here: "the indomitableness of the spirit within me" (another implicit distinction of self from soul) and "whatever might become of others." His sense of immortality comes not from "animal vivacity," but from the indomitability of the spirit, a carefully made distinction, also evident in "Tintern Abbey," when he is laid asleep in body and becomes a living soul. That spirit will survive and he will somehow or other be translated, like Enoch and Elijah (perhaps in the manner imagined by Sir John Davies, turning "bodies to spirit by sublimation strange") to that heaven which is our home. In his brother's Memoirs, Wordsworth is recorded as saying that in the Ode he was not making generalizations about the moral being of children, but only recording "my own feelings at the time--my absolute spirituality, my "all-soulness," if I may so speak" (PTV 429) That "all-soulness" resolves the reality of the physical world into thought, or as he later put it, "I was sure of my own mind; everything else fell away, and vanished into thought" (PTV 430).

But he cannot see this indomitability, this "all-soulness," in others; and the implication is that their existence, like that of Margaret, will end in the grave, becoming "nothing but a name." This distinction informs his elegies, as he imagines a state for himself he tacitly admits he cannot imagine for others. Paradoxically, though, unless a reader had "a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind in childhood" (LWDW 2.619), he or she could not understand the Ode--that is, in some way Wordsworth expected everyone to have this divided view of death--as applying to others but not to themselves. In 1810, in The Friend, he had offered a fuller description of what he means by "an indisposition to bend to the law of death...." Not a denial of mortality, but "an intimation or assurance within us, that some part of our nature is imperishable... If we look back upon the days of childhood, we shall find that the time is not in remembrance when, with respect to our own individual Being, the mind was without this assurance" (F 2.337). Neither that vague phrase, "some part of our nature," nor Wordsworth's reliance on childhood as providing "an intimation or assurance" of our immortality are, in themselves, very reassuring. But wisely ignoring Coleridge's scornful rhetoric, Wordsworth declared childhood recollections his sine qua non, the base upon which he stands not only the Ode, but his conception of the greatness of our humanity. (37) The phrase "not in remembrance" is particularly significant, given the struggle Wordsworth has in finding adequate words to look behind his early memories; for it indicates that the feeling of imperishability, which fades into a continuity with the time before memory can exist, is connected to a quality which, for him and Coleridge, is itself the mark of our humanity--"the faculty of reason which exists in Man alone," that faculty to which I think "some part of our nature" is referring:
if we had no direct external testimony that the minds of very young
Children meditate feelingly upon Death and Immortality, these
enquiries, which we all know they are perpetually making concerning the
whence, do necessarily include correspondent habits of interrogation
concerning the whither. Origins and tendency are notions inseparably
co-relative. Never did a child stand by the side of a running stream,
["sport upon the shore"?] pondering within himself what power was the
feeder of the perpetual current, from what never-wearied sources the
body of water was supplied, but he must have been inevitably propelled
to follow this question by another: "Towards what abyss is it in
progress? what receptacle can contain the mighty influx?" And... though
the word might be Sea or Ocean... the spirit of the answer must have
been as inevitably, a receptacle without bounds or dimensions;--nothing
less than infinity. We may, then, be justified in asserting, that the
sense of immortality, if not co-existent and twin birth with Reason, is
among the earliest of its' Offspring. (F 2.337-38)

The connection between the letter or image, and the spirit or idea, so succintly made here, informs our reading of those images in the Ode. In Wordsworth's analogy, "the perpetual current" is something like the soul, or the power of Reason, and the watching child the individual self; the recognition or acknowlegement of that power is distinct from the observing self, and the implicit suggestion is that the power survives the self--which is consistent with what he says in "Laodamia." (38) But to observe is also to experience that power, for in the Ode, it is the adult's separation, "though inland far we be," that indicates loss, and the ability "in a moment [to] travel thither," that enables a recovery of power. This sense of observing in oneself what is not self is epitomized in Wordsworth's summary of the course of The Prelude, which begins "we have traced the stream / From darkness, and the very place of birth / In its blind cavern, whence is faintly heard / The sound of waters" and concludes with "from its progress we have drawn / The feeling of life endless, the one thought / By which we live, infinity and God" (1805 13.172-84.) The detachment is evident--what is happening in the individual is not a creation but a discovery of power, and yet that discovery or recognition enables in the self the "feeling of life endless," the idea of infinity, which is coordinate with the idea of immortality. Contemplating his own death ten years before he died, Wordsworth remained true to his imagery: "I am standing on the brink of that vast ocean I must sail so soon; I must speedily lose sight of the shore; and I could not once have conceived how little I now am troubled by the thought of how long or short a time they who remain on that shore may have sight of me." (39) Like Eliot, he saw mortal life as a "temporal reversion."

Wordsworth was defensive about his use of the idea of the preexistence of the soul, but the sense of its mysterious origins is part of his experience, as he tells us early in The Prelude: "Hard task to analyse a soul, in which / Not only general habits and desires / But each most obvious and particular thought--/ Not in a mystical and idle sense, / But in the words of reason deeply weighed--/ Hath no beginning" (1805 2.232-37). Individuals recgonize birth as the origin of self, but Wordsworth identifies a power which precedes and succeeds the life of the individual, a power both he and Coleridge call "Reason." And, according to Coleridge, Reason has its source and origins in God--the fire or nous of our humanity--the ground of his magnificent essay on Aeschylus. (40) Logically preceding sense experience, and therefore preceding memory, the close connection between reason, infinity, and immortality is part of the constitution of Wordsworth's mind, appearing at critical moments in his poetry, as in his experience in the Alps--"That awful Power," the imagination, "reason in her most exalted mood," rising "from the mind's abyss," and on Snowdon--"a blue chasm... / Through which the homeless voice of waters rose / That dark deep thoroughfare" which is "the imagination of the whole" (1850 6.594; 1805 13.56-64). Reason, not having its source in us, yet integral to our humanity, is perceived as flowing through us from abyss to abyss, from the unknowable to the infinite, as if we were a point in the landscape through which the river passes, the "strong brown god" which is part of us and yet more than us, its source and destination invisible; or as Eliot clarified in a way Wordsworth would have approved, "The river is within us, the sea is all about us." The "whence' and the "whither" are thus tied together. The connection between origin and tendency enables Wordsworth to presume that his childhood experience, his past, speaks for his future. Helen Vendler puts it aptly when she says, "the faith that looks through death could only occur in a poem that had already looked back through birth...." (41) John Smith has a beautiful passage on the relationship of mortality, the soul, and eternity, which is in effect an explication of Wordsworth's thinking, and speaks of the soul flying
upwards from one heaven to another, till it be beyond all orbe of
Finite Being, swallowed up in the boundless Abyss of Divinity... Those
dismall apprehensions which pinion the Souls of men to mortality,
churlishly check and starve that noble life thereof... when once the
Soul hath shaken off these, when it is once able to look through a
grave, and see beyond death, it finds a vast Immensity of Being opening
it self more and more before it... when it can rest and bear up itself
upon an Immaterial centre of Immortality within. (42)

If John Smith's implicit metaphor is a flight to the empyrean, Wordsworth's, here, is that of a river flowing to a limitless ocean; given that difference, there is a remarkable similarity of idea, in that the soul is shaking off sense, by "sensible impressions not enthralled," is looking through a grave, or death, seeking the boundless "Abyss of Divinity," in which there is "an Immensity of Being" or "endless occupation"; and those to whom this power is disclosed "are caught / By its inevitable mastery, / Like angels stopped upon the wing by sound / Of harmony from Heaven's remotest spheres." In both men, this power originates from "an Immaterial centre of Immortality within." In sum, Wordsworth's idea of immortality is a consciousness of power, a consciousness which is elusive, enabling him only to "see by glimpses" as he grows older. (43) But such ideas and feelings of immortality are the premises of the Ode, and its intelligibility depends upon readers both suspending their rejection of them and understanding how Wordsworth used the words "soul," "infinity," and "immortality."

In the Fenwick note Wordsworth described this inner life, his "all-soulness," as an "abyss of idealism," which at first appeared to undermine the sense of an outer world, and as a result he was, as a schoolboy, "often unable to think of external things as having external existence," believing them to be not separate from him, "but inherent in, my own immaterial nature"--indistinguishable from John Smith's "Immaterial centre of Immortality within." (44) However odd, this is the germ of Wordsworth's principal belief that the "Mind of Man, / My haunt and the main region of my Song" will, "When wedded to this goodly universe," disclose "Paradise and groves / Elysian" as "A simple produce of the common day." (45) When a child, or even an infant, he "wedded" or invested the external world with that glory without conscious effort, a glory which faded as the external world began to assert its separate reality in the mind of the growing boy. His need to acknowledge its separateness came upon him as a schoolboy, a youth travelling daily "farther from the East," not as a child. (46) Whatever the status of its reality, it is the "dreamlike vividness and splendor" of the child's visible world that he regards "as presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence" (FN 61), because those objects already seem to be invested with the "communications with our internal Being... anterior to all these experiences... with which revelation coincides...." These are, presumably, the communications of Reason, coincident with revelation, which Wordsworth declared counteract "the impression of Death" that we receive from "the outward senses" (F.2.338).

Beauteous objects and unimaginable things

Paul Magnuson suggests that if we translate the words of the original epigraph, "Paulo majora canamus," as "Let us sing a loftier song," the Ode is informed by lines from the 1798 Prelude in which, describing how Nature "peopled first / My mind with beauteous objects," Wordsworth nevertheless declares that he will not
Forget what might demand a loftier song
How oft the eternal spirit, he that has
His life in unimaginable things
And he who painting what he is in all
The visible imagery of all the worlds
Is yet apparent chiefly as the soul
Of our first sympathies-- (47)

There is very little cause to think that Reason and the eternal spirit are different entities, and "first sympathies" are surely akin to both the "first affections" and the "primal sympathy" of the Ode. This passage is central to its intelligibility because it makes clear that though nature may people the mind with beauteous objects, nonetheless there is another anterior life, that life which Wordsworth can only describe here as located in "unimaginable things"; a life which, if painting itself into "visible imagery," and so making itself known through that imagery, nonetheless remains separate, and seeks to be acknowledged in a loftier song--possibly the song of "Reason in her most exalted mood"; and the "unimagineable things" of the life of Reason may be comparable to those ideas, or informing powers, that are the educt of Coleridge's primary imagination. That life is a "Presence which is not to be put by," deeper than all knowledge derived from sense, and partially disclosed by "those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things"; a life which can call the grave "A place of thought" because what Wordsworth is trying to describe has no need of "sense or sight / Of day or the warm light"; a life "not from terror free," the awful power of the numinous making its presence felt through "unknown modes of being," a life peopled by huge and mighty forms that do not

live like living men; a life of "high instincts" inspiring guilt and fear in our mortal sense-burdened nature, a life which the adult experiences only through "shadowy recollections," but which the child knows immediately, "Haunted for ever by the eternal mind," a life so puzzling that Wordsworth is constantly battling to find ways of expressing it throughout the Ode, The Prelude, and The Excursion. And as we will see, Traherne also struggles to articulate a comparable kind of experience.

And it is a life, not just a memory. The inexactitudes, particularly of stanza IX, by which he recalls this life are a problem to us, as they were to Wordsworth, but here, and throughout his poetry, he refuses to replace visionary confusion with fraudulent precision:
I deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadowy exultation: not for this,
That they are kindred to our purer mind
And intellectual life; but that the soul--
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not--retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, to which
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing...
                     (1805 2.331-39) (48)

The fleeting moods of shadowy exultation, "kindred to our purer mind / And intellectual life"--again, surely akin to Reason--visited Wordsworth less and less, the recollections diminished, and increasingly he remembers "how," but not "what" he felt--itself a precise distinction. But the final declaration in this passage also helps render the Ode intelligible--the memory of that past life guides aspiration, an aspiration to be realized through the still-growing, if undefined, faculties; that is, Wordsworth here acknowledges that the possible sublimity is to be achieved not by a return, but by the growth of faculties undeveloped in the visionary child. The Ode is not an elegy, and, though much is lamented, there is a looking forward, a determination to discover new powers. (49) The lost celestial light of childhood is to be replaced by an auxiliar light generated by the philosophic mind.


Wordsworth's Originality?

Thus Wordsworth looked forward, but what he looked forward to he validated by looking back, or in his words, "I look into past times as prophets look / Into futurity...". (50) The rest of this paper takes a look at the quality of consciousness informing the Ode, principally derived from distinct experiences during childhood, and continuous with Wordsworth's idea of immortality. One peculiar feature of this consciousness is that it appears unprecedented. Henry Vaughan's "The Retreate" is often taken as a likeness, and a link to the seventeenth century, but the association more or less stops there--except for noting a comparable theme, there's not much more to be said. In 1922, L. R. Merrill drew out most of such links as remained. (51) None of the Ode's early readers seemed able to place it as arising from any tradition, except a loose platonism or neoplatonism, which tells us little more than does Wordsworth himself, that he was aware of the idea of the soul's preexistence. However, apart from Vaughan, Wordsworth has at least one other substantial predecessor, who was unafraid to claim the strange thought "that an infant should be heir of the whole World," and that "all Things seem'd to end in Me alone." Although none of his poetry and prose, except a couple of polemical works, were published until the 20th century and thus there is no question of direct influence, Thomas Traherne's intellectual and spiritual impetus is close to that of Wordsworth, and based on comparable forms of experience. The Ode centers around the vision Wordsworth ascribes to the young child, the fulcrum of the poem. (52) And Traherne begins exactly where Wordsworth begins--"Heaven lies about us in our infancy." It is not only a beginning in the sense that it is his founding vision, but poems describing his childhood experiences are placed at the beginning of the carefully structured Dobell manuscript. The second poem in the volume is entitled "Wonder" and opens, reminiscent of Wordsworth's "trailing clouds of glory,"
    How like an Angel came I down!
    How bright are all things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
    O how their GLORY did me Crown?
  The World resembled his Eternitie,
      In which my Soul did Walk;
    And evry Thing that I did see,
        Did with me talk. (53)

In the Third Century, he records and puzzles over his curious state of mind:
I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their
splendour and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden... All Time was
Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant
should be heir of the whole World, and see those mysteries which the
books of the learned never unfold? (54)

"Thou best Philosopher"

Strange indeed, and too strange for some. Coleridge, taking Wordsworth to task, considered it more or less impossible that the child has a kind of wisdom lost to the adult. He is particularly, perhaps professionally, irritated to find the child addressed in phrases Traherne would understand, such as "Thou best philosopher," "Mighty Prophet!" "seer blest!" The passage from the Biographia (BL 2.138-39) is a powerful piece of rhetoric, almost two pages of sustained derision, but Coleridge has momentarily forgotten his own principle, that a man is right in what he asserts, wrong in what he denies. (55) Wordsworth was very sensitive to Coleridge's criticism, and omitted the passage about the grave as a lonely bed, which was Coleridge's next target; but he stood by the divine visions of the child, and the language with which he is described, because he had experienced what Coleridge had not, and was confident enough not to doubt his own memories. As some manuscript lines declare, even though in the published poem he chose to speak of the child in the third person, this was a personal experience, and the title given to the child carefully considered:
I speak not in delusion--but from a feeling
Of my past self, an insight, revealing
And trusting to the same
Child as Thou art I give thee highest name
Thou best Philosopher
                              (PTV 397)

Coleridge's remarks, however mistaken, open the door to doubts about the validity of this sort of childhood vision, and briefly I would like to consider two other views. (56) Jerome McGann rejects Wordsworth's vision as one member of the "body of illusions" that he believes constitutes Romantic ideology; (57) a tragic illusion, in which Wordsworth turns away from the real world of discharged soldiers, politically created poverty, and the hopes accompanying the French Revolution; or as Marjorie Levinson rephrases McGann's thought, one of the chief illusions of the Romantic ideology is "the triumph of the inner life over the outer world". (58) For better or for worse, all agree: Wordsworth retires. Haunted by "thoughts of a more deep seclusion" he sought a "sublime retirement," which is part of the process by which Traherne advocated the recovery of his lost vision. And that is what McGann cannot tolerate--"Between 1793 and 1798 [he] lost the world merely to gain his immortal soul". (59) Indeed--but in valuing "world" above "soul" McGann has inverted the spirit in which Wordsworth wrote--"The world is too much with us"--asserting his ideology, or quality of consciousness, in preference to Wordsworth's--thus reading an immortal sundial by material moonshine.

"the mighty waters"

However, a thinker who does not reject childhood experience of this kind, even though alien to him, seems to provide a much more worrying critique of the basis of Traherne's and Wordsworth's poetry. The first chapter of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents is devoted to a discussion of what he calls the "oceanic feeling," which Romain Rolland, a friend who experienced what Freud did not, "would like to call a sensation of 'eternity,' a feeling of something limitless, unbounded." Freud questions whether this experience is being correctly interpreted, as it fits so badly, he feels, "with the fabric of our psychology." (60) Romain Rolland is not a figure we remember now, but he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, and differ though they did, Freud had a deep-seated respect for Rolland, and their friendship was not disturbed by their differences.

What is particularly telling in Freud's reading is that though his starting point is Rolland's immediate sense of eternity, he goes back to early childhood in order to explain it. Rolland himself does not suggest that it had anything to do with childhood. In Freud's reading, the oceanic feeling belongs to the time before the ego has distinguished itself from the world, before the reality principle has taken hold. Thus, for Freud, "Our present ego-feeling is... only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive--indeed, an all-embracing--feeling." He certainly doesn't deny the validity of that kind of consciousness, but thinks that it is something the adult ought to have grown out of. In a poem called "Dumnesse," Traherne remembers a time before "the accursed Breath" of language, had poured into him society's "infected Mind"--or, in the comparable words of D. H. Lawrence, "I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education" ("The Snake"). What Traherne then describes seems an exact account of the oceanic feeling:
Then did I dwell within a World of Light
Retir'd and separat from all mens Sight,...
There I saw all the World enjoy'd by One;
There all Things seem'd to end in Me alone.

It would be difficult to imagine Freud not latching onto that last line, which asserts the perfect union of the self and the objective world, what Wordsworth perhaps meant by "the primal sympathy." This is an idea, originating in his childhood, that can be seen in all parts of Traherne's work and is often focused through God's original placing of Adam alone in Eden, in which the world is seen as a gift to just one man. Thus he writes, "Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child" (Centuries 3.1). (61)

"Disowned by memory"

Interestingly, Freud, like Traherne, believed that this experience belonged to the preverbal period of childhood development--in "Dumnesse" Traherne writes, "I then my Blisse did, when my Silence, break," just as in the Ode, "the eternal Silence" is viewed positively, making our "noisy years" intelligible, that silence an informing power. And Wordsworth is conscious that his story goes back further than he can remember:
                          I began
My story early, feeling, as I fear,
The weakness of a human love for days
Disowned by memory
                         (1805 1. 640-43)

It is a curious paradox that both poets look back to a time that cannot normally be remembered. How can days disowned by memory be known or loved? How does that kind of experience come into our consciousness? Is this what Wordsworth was struggling with in his description of "shadowy recollections, / Which, be they what they may, / Are yet the fountain-light of all our day"? Or when he speaks of "obscure feelings representative / Of joys that were forgotten" (1805 1.634-35)? Or what he meant by "those first-born affinities that fit / Our new existence to existing things, / And in our dawn of being, constitute / The bond of union betwixt life and joy" (1805 1.582-85)? Or, to make a comparison with the spots of time, when he was struck by "a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being" (1805 1.419-20)? To criticize, with Lionel Trilling and others, the vagueness of phrases such as "be they what they may" is surely not to recognize the difficulty Wordsworth and Traherne both have in describing either the variety of memories from "our dawn of being" or experiences such as the spots of time, puzzling in their depth, variety, and inarticulacy.

There is no substantial difference between Freud's understanding and the insights that belong to Traherne and Wordsworth. Freud does not describe or classify the oceanic feeling as pathological or illusory, as do Coleridge, McGann, and Levinson, but as developmental or phylogenetic: that condition in which a child's consciousness makes no distinction between itself and the world, or as Shelley put it:
Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and
intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves.... We less
habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves....
There are some persons who in this respect are always children... [who]
feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe,
or as if the surrounding universe were dissolved into their being. (62)

That Freud described as a "limitless narcissism." But what he saw as a distinction necessary to establish a stable relationship between the ego and the external world, Wordsworth and Traherne, if not Shelley, saw as a fall, tragic but remediable. (63) Wordsworth defended the notion of the soul's preexistence at some length, not as a theologian reacting to accusations of heterodox opinions, but as a poet trying to explain his sense of remembered perfection. Of preexistence, Wordsworth says, though "not advanced in revelation, there is nothing there to contradict it, and the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor" (FN 61). Those two ideas--the soul preexisting in a state of perfection, and a fall from that perfection--but not a fall of moral failure (64)--which mark the soul's arrival in this, the very world--two ideas, theologically speaking, neither necessary nor orthodox companions--are linked together by Wordsworth because they offer him an entirely satisfactory explanation of his experience, of the quality of his consciousness. (65) Freud used a different idea to explain the same experience. You pays your money and you take your choice.

The Fall

Traherne, who is always more forthright, if less subtle, than Wordsworth, describes exactly how he thinks this process happens. In a poem entitled "The Apostacy," the very business of childhood, life among his peers, expunges "the Shining Skies":
... and when I once with blemisht Eys
Began their Pence and Toys to view,
Drown'd in their Customs, I became
A Stranger to the Shining Skies,
    Lost as a dying Flame;
And Hobby-horses brought to prize.
                         (TPW 121)

At the beginning of the Third Century he tells Susanna Hopton that "The first Light which shined in me in my Infancy... was totally eclipsed... If you ask me how it was eclipsed? Truly by the customs and manners of men, which like contrary winds blew it out" (Centuries 3.7). In the Ode, Wordsworth reflects his loss indirectly, or vicariously, by describing the the key stages of the growing up of a small child. As an inmate here, of this world, his "six years Darling of a pigmy size," is looked after by parents who are blind to his "soul's immensity," and the whole vocation of his childhood becomes the endless imitation of these people and their society, at the expense of his divine insights. So the charming picture of the little actor conning part after part is nothing but a drama of distraction.

And as Wordsworth laments that custom will come to lie as heavy as frost on his once-visionary child--perhaps that frost withering the flowers transplanted from paradise (Excursion 4.55-6)--so Traherne frequently resorts to the word "custom" when analyzing his loss: "... our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom than from any inward corruption or depravation of Nature: And that it is not our parents' loins, so much as our parents' lives, that enthrals and blinds us" (Centuries 3.8), thus agreeing precisely with Wordsworth. Though both poets take on an idea of a Fall, neither think original sin the cause: our apostasy is our willingness to conform to the dictates of the respectable world--which, in Freud's terms, may be nothing but the reality principle kicking in. Therefore that fall is not an irreversible condition: restitution comes within the ambit of the will. Traherne provides a radical solution to what he sees as a radical problem:
For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our
souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and
clear;... Ambitions, trades, luxuries, inordinate affections, casual
and accidental riches invented since the fall, would be gone and only
those things appear, which did to Adam in Paradise, in the same light
and in the same colours. (Centuries 3.5)

Or as he put it in the opening lines of "Blisse," which also appear in "The Apostacy": "All blisse / Consists in this: / To do as Adam did" (TPW 69). This retiring from the world and returning to Paradise is grounded on Christ's injunction that we should be as little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven: "... I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again! That I may enter the Kingdom of God" (Centuries 3.3). (66) And Traherne did retire--from the honors, riches, and beauties of courtly life, from what he called "the cream of earthly delights"--and went back to Herefordshire, and became, at least for a period of time, a local parish priest in the same spirit as George Herbert. In the Third Century, he speaks of coming into the country, and "being seated among silent trees, and meads and hills" resolving to spend all his time "in search of happiness, and to satiate that burning thirst which Nature had enkindled in me from my youth." That sounds very Wordsworthian, but there are no apparent marks of retirement in the Ode; quite the contrary, there is a continuous transition from the child arriving in clouds of glory, to the Youth "who daily farther from the east / Must travel," to the Man who perceives his vision die away. Retirement is not proposed as a means of recovery.


However, that retirement is required to recover the vision was an idea as deeply embedded in Wordsworth as it was in Traherne; but by the time the first part of the Ode was written, it was a condition achieved, not a condition sought--though establishing a pattern of daily life did not prove easy--"something must be done, / I must not walk in unreproved delight / These narrow bounds and think of nothing more" (HG B.876-78). Home at Grasmere records his wrestlings with the hopes and problems of retirement six years earlier. As a schoolboy, Wordsworth had stood on Loughrigg Terrace looking down into Grasmere, and thought
What happy fortune were it here to live!
And if I thought of dying, if a thought
Of mortal separation could come in
With paradise before me, here to die.
                          (HG B.8-12)

In 1798, he and Dorothy had deliberately made their way back to this paradise--and a cold coming they'd had of it--"Bleak season was it, turbulent and bleak, / When hitherward we journeyed, and on foot, / Through bursts of sunshine and through flying snows" (HG B.218-20). "Paradise" is no casual metaphor, but an idea and a hope that pervades the poem in all its strange seriousness. His retirement is accompanied by a vivid, even occasionally bizarre, thankfulness for having overcome the temptations of the world:
But I am safe; yes, one at least is safe;
What once was deemed so difficult is now
Smooth, easy, without obstacle; what once
Did to my blindness seem a sacrifice,
The same is now a choice of the whole heart.
                                (HG B.74)

A choice of the whole heart: but a particular sensation makes this place of retirement distinctive: having described Grasmere's local features, some in common with other places, he then asserts:
                            'tis here,
Here as it found its way into my heart
In childhood, here as it abides by day,
By night, here only; or in chosen minds
That take it with them hence, where'er they go.
'Tis (but I cannot name it), 'tis the sense
Of majesty and beauty and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual Spot,
This small abiding place of many men,
A termination and a last retreat,
A Centre, come from wheresoe'er you will,
A Whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself and happy in itself,
Perfect Contentment, Unity entire.
                       (HG B.154-69)

The qualities that make this Paradise are both at one with what he knew as a child, and yet not easily described. Having said, of "the one sensation," "I cannot name it," his attempted definition is replete with significant capitalization--Centre, Whole, Contentment, Unity--the overall impression of which is that he has found refuge from the world's peripheral and distracting activities, and here he knows the One Life, the experience of his childhood. Wordsworth went back to Grasmere in the very spirit that Traherne went back to Herefordshire.

Having long harbored "thoughts of a more deep seclusion," in Home at Grasmere Wordsworth decides that his task, in lines that became the Prospectus to The Excursion, is to sing "Of the individual Mind that keeps her own / Inviolate retirement." Both Wordsworth and Traherne felt that the mankind-ordered world was an apostasy from a more perfect God-given state, and a violation of the condition known to the child. How profoundly Wordsworth took on that vale as another Eden is evident in other lines from Home at Grasmere:
In this majestic, self-sufficing world,
This all in all of Nature... In the daily walks
Of business 'twill be harmony and grace
For the perpetual pleasure of the sense,
And for the Soul--I do not say too much,
Though much be said--an image for the Soul,
A habit of Eternity and God.
                              (HG B.204-15)

The Ode was written in the light of this belief--that the majestic, self-sufficing world all around him in Grasmere was, in that curious but telling phrase, "A habit of Eternity"--for the soul, not for the body--which however would die happily in such a place. This world, the all in all of Nature, self-presented in its simplicity, bears the stamp of Paradise: the immediate is the eternal; or, in the words of Traherne, "the World is a place of Eternal Joys, a Region of Heavenly light, a Paradice of Glory, and all Kingdoms every mans Possessions, that to retire to them is to enter into Heaven...." (67) All Wordsworth needed was the power to see the heaven he knew was around him, and recording first that loss of power and then its tentative recovery is the purpose, the progress and the envisioned immortality of the Ode. Or as Raymond Carver wrote, "I had to will / myself to see what I was seeing / and nothing else."


My thanks to Paul Cheshire for many suggestions and rearrangements that clarified the argument of the first part; to James Vigus, a reader of the early drafts; and to my wife, Perdita, for many improvements throughout. My principal text is that of 1807 from William Wordsworth, Poems in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 1800-07 (PTV), ed. Jared Curtis (Cornell U. Press, 1983).

(1) All quotations from Wordsworth's The Prelude are from The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (London: 1979), given by date, book, and line number; here 1805 2.387-89.

(2) The reader is David Hopkins, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Bristol University, who has provided substantial advice, criticism, and commentary on this paper. What worries me is not his conclusion, as not all poetry speaks to all minds alike, but the danger of allowing such terms as "unfathomable" and "idiosyncratic" to enter critical discourse, which less thorough minds might use as an excuse to set aside the more difficult aspects of Wordsworth's work.

(3) T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," The Four Quartets, V. 8-10, The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (Faber and Faber, 1969), 182.

(4) J. C. C. Mays, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016): 58-59.

(5) I have established some connections in a paper entitled "'A track pursuing not untrod before,' Wordsworth, Plato and the Cambridge Platonists," provisionally accepted for Revisioning Cambridge Platonism: Sources and Legacy, ed. David Leech and Douglas Hedley (Springer, forthcoming).

(6) Richard Matlak, in his edition of the Poems in Two Volumes (Ontario: Broadview, 2015), notes that "Wordsworth said that he gave a great deal of attention to arranging and grouping short poems so that they would gain a cumulative weight in the context of their sections" (15). Consistently placing the Ode last of all his works might indicate that Wordsworth believed it was the culmination of all that preceded it. If so, it is best read in the light of those works, rather than in the isolation afforded by its reputation.

(7) Douglas Bush, "Wordsworth: A Minority Report," in British Romantic Poets, Recent Revaluations, ed. Shiv K. Kumar (U. of London Press, 1966): 51.

(8) William Wordsworth: The Critical Heritage, Vol. 1 1793-1820, ed. Robert Woof (London, 2001), 205; all following quotes in this paragraph are from this edition--serially: 213, 237, 199.

(9) Montgomery didn't indicate where he found the bombast, but Coleridge defined "mental bombast" as "a disproportion of the expressions to the thoughts" and, among others, selected as an example the passage from the Ode beginning "Thou best Philosopher..." See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (BL), 2 vols., ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton U. Press, 1983): BL 2.136-38.

(10) The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (FN), ed. Jared Curtis (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 61.

(11) Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson with the Wordsworth Circle, 1808-1866 ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford U. Press, 1927), 2:838-39.

(12) Paul Magnuson, Coleridge and Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue (Princeton U. Press, 1988), 178-79.

(13) Anya Taylor, "Religious Readings of the Immortality Ode," Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 26.4 (Autumn 1986): 633.

(14) See Jared Curtis, Wordsworth's Experiments with Tradition: The Lyric Poems of 1802 (Cornell U. Press, 1971), 49, on "To a Cuckoo": "it records one of those 'spots of time' that take on meanings during the very process of recollection."

(15) Russell Noyes and John Hayden, William Wordsworth (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 110.

(16) Emphases added. Geoffrey Hartman, The Unremarkable Wordsworth (U. of Minnesota Press, 1987): 157, calls this phrase "a "true fit of passion... one of those Wordsworthian moments where feeling seems to overflow and be in excess of its occasion." Not "in excess" if this is Wordsworth's way of "looking through death."

(17) Alan Grob, "Wordsworth's Immortality Ode and the Search for Identity," ELH 32 (1965): 35.

(18) See Florence G. Marsh, "Wordsworth's Ode: Obstinate Questionings," Studies in Romanticism 5 (1966): 225: "This piety has little to do with external nature. It has to do with human nature, with the divine spark still alive in the heart, with the memory of the fugitive glory."

(19) See Curtis, Wordsworth's Experiments: "The frequent use of imperatives in the little poems ... and the consistent use of the formal 'thee' and 'thou,' signal the weight the poet makes these poems bear" (33).

(20) The Excursion (Excursion), ed. Sally Bushell, James A. Butler, and Michael C. Jaye (Cornell U. Press, 1997), Excursion 4.53-56.

(21) Peter J. Manning, "Wordsworth's Intimations Ode and Its Epigraphs," JEGP (82.4): 539-40.

(22) John Ruskin, Art: A Ruskin Anthology, ed. William Sloane Kennedy (New York John B. Alden Publisher, 1886), 509.

(23) The Ruined Cottage and The Pedlar (RC), ed. James Butler (Cornell U. Press, 1979), RC D.68-72.

(24) Richard Gravil, "The Sunless Land": Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Virgil and Ossian," Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s. 136 (October 2006): 116.

(25) Or as Wordsworth put it in respect of style in The Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, "that I may not be censured for not having performed what I never attempted."

(26) This difference between self and soul is implicit in many passages which make no deliberate distinction--e.g., "Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear" (1805 1.305-6). In a letter of 1814, he writes, "The soul, dear Mrs. Clarkson, may be re-given, when it has been taken away." The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years (LWDW), 2 vols., ed. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford U. Press, 1937), LWDW 2.619.

(27) One article which resists the gradual shading of Victorian literalism into historical materialism is Thomas Raysor's "The Themes of Immortality and Natural Piety in Wordsworth's Immortality Ode," in Kumar, British Romantic Poets, Recent Revaluations, 45-62.

(28) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marginalia (M), 6 vols., ed. George Whalley and Heather Jackson (Princeton U. Press, 1980-2001), M 2.561.

(29) Gravil, "The Sunless Land," 113; Daniel Robinson, "William Wordsworth: Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," 1,

(30) Richard Gravil tells me that although this is what he wrote, a word proceesing error effected a transposition of text, and that he intended not to conflate but to distinguish the two poems: in the Ode a compensation is enabled through images of natures fragile syntheses, whereas there is no such form of compensation in the Extempore Effusion.

(31) Gravil, "Sunless Land," 129-30.

(32) For "the meanest flower that blows" as pointing towards an idea of immortality see Graham Davidson, "Wordsworth's Wasteland or The Speargrass Redemption," in Romanticism 20.1 (April 2014).

(33) See also Richard Gravil, '"Intimations' in America," in The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, ed. Richard Gravil and Daniel Robinson (Oxford U. Press, 2015).

(34) Michael O'Neill, '"The Tremble from It Is Spreading': A Reading of Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality,'" The Charles Lamb Bulletin 139 (2007): 77. O'Neill distinguishes "Earth" from "Nature" in order for "Nature" not to meet the strictures applied to "Earth," possibly a synonym for "world," or even "society." See also 1805 3.178-88: "O heavens, how awful is the might of souls, / And what they do within themselves while yet / The yoke of earth is new to them...." Earth, our "homely Nurse," is a place of distraction, but envisioned as Nature it becomes a form of Paradise.

(35) Sir John Davies, The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies, ed. Rev. Alexander B. Grosart (London, 1876), 29.

(36) He makes a similar distinction between animal vivacity and the sense of immortality in his essay on epitaphs, contributed to Coleridge's The Friend on 22 February 1810; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend (F), 2 vols., ed. Barbara E. Rooke (Princeton U. Press, 1969): F 2.337.

(37) See 1805 12.328-31.

(38) See Letters, Conversations and Recollections of S. T. Coleridge, ed. Thomas Allsop (London 1864): "Philosophy... began with Pythagoras. He saw that the mind... was itself a fact, that there was something in the mind not individual; this was the pure reason, something in which we are, not which is in us" (74).

(39) Christopher Wordsworth, Memoirs of William Wordsworth, 2 vols. (London, 1851), 2:352.

(40) See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shorter Works and Fragments (SWF), 2 vols., ed. H. J. Jackson and J. R. de J. Jackson (Princeton U. Press, 1995): "Reason is from God, and God is reason, mens ipsissima," SWF 2.1281.

(41) HelenVendler, "Lionel Trilling and the Immortality Ode," Salmagundi 41 (1978): 79.

(42) John Smith, Select Discourses, ed. John Worthington (London, 1660), 124-25. In the Ode Wordsworth also uses a metaphor close to Smith's: "that imperial palace when he came." Helen Vendler, "Lionel Trilling," 72, thinks that "imperial" suggests "empyrial."

(43) Quotations in this paragraph: 1850 14.106; 1850 14.119; 1850 14.97-9; 1850 12.281.

(44) See Jared Curtis's comment on Wordsworth's conflation of internal and external: "This trait, or power as Wordsworth saw it, was one of the intimations of immortality he sought to sustain when upon him, to recover when lost" (Wordsworth's Experiment, 77).

(45) William Wordsworth, Home at Grasmere (HG), ed. Beth Darlington (Cornell U. Press, 1977), HG D.793-802.

(46) In 1805 2.367-71, he remembers such occasions without anxiety: "Oft in those moments such a holy calm / Did overspread my soul that I forgot / That I had bodily eyes, and what I saw / Appeared like something in myself, a dream / A prospect in my mind."

(47) Magnuson, Coleridge and Wordsworth, 280-1, who quotes from William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1798-1799, ed. Stephen Parrish (Cornell U. Press, 1977), MS JJ.122-29. See also 1805 3.182-88: "This is in truth heroic argument, / ...--but in the main / It lies far hidden from the reach of words. / Points have we all of us within our souls / Where all stand single; this I feel, and make / Breathings for incommunicable powers."

(48) Note the construction: "not for this" followed by "but that the soul...," similar to the Ode's "Not for these..." followed by the repeated "But for those..."

(49) See Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814 (Yale U. Press, 1964): "His questionings, more explicit in the Intimations Ode and The Prelude, are as to whether the "marvellous Boy" in him can survive being changed into the "philosophic mind," whether poetry must die with maturation" (203). However, Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), seems to concede that the Ode is an elegy in saying, "Wordsworth raises his "song of thanks" for the infant's doomed resistance to mortality" (171). Alan Grob, "Wordsworth's Immortality Ode" makes a comparable distinction when he states that the two main orthodoxies are that the poem is either about "the loss of a vital imaginative faculty" or "the enlargement of natural and moral awareness" (32). He quotes Trilling's distinction between "growing up" and "growing old."

(50) Quoted from Curtis, Wordsworth's Experiment, 42.

(51) L. R. Merrill, "Vaughan's Influence Upon Wordsworth's Poetry," MIN 37.2 (Feb. 1922). "Childhood" is another poem by Vaughan not mentioned by Merrill that bears on the Ode; it begins: "I cannot reach it and my striving eye / Dazzles at it, as at eternity." M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 383, notes further parallels in seventeenth-century sources, and this paper later uses some of the same material. But a question no one seems able to answer is how Wordsworth came to hold views so like those of Thomas Traherne, whom he could never have read. In contrast to the perceived originality of the substance of the Ode, Wordsworth's debt to the style and form of Elizabethan and Jacobean poets has been noted by Jared Curtis and before him Helen Darbishire in her edition of Poems in Two Volumes (Oxford U. Press, 1952).

(52) This truth is not universally acknowledged. Marjorie Levinson, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems (Cambridge U. Press, 1986), whilst agreeing that the Ode "is about that inevitable loss of celestial light," nonetheless sets out her stall in a different way: "I propose only that the archetypically radiant state of Innocence remembered and recreated in stanzas 1-4 ... was embodied for Wordsworth and his readers in the memory of a briefly enlightened epoch in human history" (85). A few pages later, she consolidates her position, nudging "the work toward a less literary register" (100), which empties the memories of personal significance, by paraphrasing the first four stanzas: "There was a time when Nature, conceived as a goddess of the Revolution, was instinct with providential omens signifying human fulfillment in time" (90). All she has to say follows from these insights. There is no doubt that Wordsworth saw in the Revolution a potential political realization of his early visions, that there was an earthly paradise to be regained. But the failure of the Revolution did not lead to the collapse of those hopes, and so it was not "embodied" at all. What is surprising is how easily he was able to shut the door on those political hopes, and seek to realize them in another form--by retiring to Grasmere, where he really believed he could enter into the paradise he had discovered there as a boy--a process celebrated in Home at Grasmere.

(53) Thomas Traherne, Poetical Works (TPW), ed. Gladys I. Wade (London: 1932), 5.

(54) Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations (Centuries, cited by book and section) (London: Dobell, 1908), Centuries 3.2.

(55) See Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-1971), 4:567: "But I always admired the following Aphorism of Leibnitz--J'ai trouve, que la plupart des Sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce quelles avancent, mais non pas tant en ce qu'elles nient."

(56) Matthew Arnold, Selected Poems of William Wordsworth, ed. H. R. Steeves (New York: Harecourt Brace, 1922), held a view not dissimilar to Coleridge's: "In general we may say of these high instincts of early childhood, the base of the alleged systematic philosophy of Wordsworth, what Thucydides says of the early achievements of the Greek race--'It is impossible to speak with certainty of what is so remote; but from all that we can really investigate, I should say that they were no very great things'" (16).

(57) Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: 1983), 12.

(58) Levinson, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems, 82.

(59) McGann, Romantic Ideology, 88.

(60) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. David McLintock intra Leo Bersani (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 253.

(61) Simon Jarvis, Wordsworth's Philosophic Song (Cambridge U. Press, 2006), 204, asserts that Wordsworth's insight in to the nature of Paradise is "singular."

(62) Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), 477. My thanks to Timothy Michael, of Lincoln College, Oxford, for bringing this passage to my attention.

(63) Not a view shared by Peter Manning, who believes that "Wordsworth... survives to speak the elegy over his own youthful narcissism" ("Wordsworth's Intimations Ode," 532).

(64) O'Neill, "The Tremble from It Is Spreading," 78.

(65) "Now that the thinking part of Man, i.e. the Soul, existed previously to it's appearance in it's present body, may be very wild philosophy; but it is very intelligible poetry, inasmuch as Soul is an orthodox word in all our poets; they meaning by 'soul' a being inhabiting our body, & playing upon it..." (Coleridge to John Thelwall, 17 Dec 1796, Collected Letters, 1:288). Coleridge is defending a sonnet written after the birth of Hartley (PW 1.135). Lucy Newlyn, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Language of Allusion (OxfordU. Press, 2004), 148, suggests that possibly a memory of some conversation with Coleridge catalyzed and validated Wordsworth's use of the idea.

(66) A point Abrams also makes (Natural Supernaturalism, 382).

(67) Thomas Traherne, "Inducements to Retirednesse," The Works of Thomas Traherne, vol I, ed. Jan Ross (London: D. S. Brewer, 2005), 26.


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Title Annotation:Intimations of Immortality
Author:Davidson, Graham
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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