Ode: Intimations of Immortality Summary & Analysis

william wordsworth
william wordsworth

Ode: Intimations of Immortality Summary

In the first stanza, the speaker says wistfully that there was a time when all of nature seemed dreamlike to him, “apparelled in celestial light,” and that that time is past; “the things I have seen I can see no more.” In the second stanza, he says that he still sees the rainbow and that the rose is still lovely; the moon looks around the sky with delight, and starlight and sunshine are each beautiful. Nonetheless the speaker feels that glory has passed away from the earth.

In the third stanza, the speaker says that, while listening to the birds sing in springtime and watching the young lambs leap and play, he was stricken with a thought of grief; but the sound of nearby waterfalls, the echoes of the mountains, and the gusting of the winds restored him to strength. He declares that his grief will no longer wrong the joy of the season, and that all the earth is happy. He exhorts a shepherd boy to shout and play around him. In the fourth stanza, he addresses nature’s creatures and says that his heart participates in their joyful festival. He says that it would be wrong to feel sad on such a beautiful May morning, while children play and laugh among the flowers. Nevertheless, a tree and a field that he looks upon make him think of “something that is gone,” and a pansy at his feet does the same. He asks what has happened to “the visionary gleam”: “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

In the fifth stanza, he proclaims that human life is mere “asleep and a forgetting”—that human beings dwell in a purer, more glorious realm before they enter the earth. “Heaven,” he says, “lies about us in our infancy!” As children, we still retain some memory of that place, which causes our experience of the earth to be suffused with its magic—but as the baby passes through boyhood and young adulthood and into manhood, he sees that magic die. In the sixth stanza, the speaker says that the pleasures unique to earth conspire to help the man forget the “glories” whence he came.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker beholds a six-year-old boy and imagines his life, and the love his mother and father feel for him. He sees the boy playing with some imitated fragment of adult life, “some little plan or chart,” imitating “a wedding or a festival” or “a mourning or a funeral.” The speaker imagines that all human life is a similar imitation. In the eighth stanza, the speaker addresses the child as though he were a mighty prophet of a lost truth, and rhetorically asks him why, when he has access to the glories of his origins, and to the pure experience of nature, he still hurries toward an adult life of custom and “earthly freight.”

In the ninth stanza, the speaker experiences a surge of joy at the thought that his memories of childhood will always grant him a kind of access to that lost world of instinct, innocence, and exploration. In the tenth stanza, bolstered by this joy, he urges the birds to sing, and urges all creatures to participate in “the gladness of the May.” He says that though he has lost some part of the glory of nature and experience, he will take solace in “primal sympathy,” in memory, and in the fact that the years bring a mature consciousness—“a philosophic mind.” In the final stanza, the speaker says that this mind—which stems from a consciousness of mortality, as opposed to the child’s feeling of immortality—enables him to love nature and natural beauty all the more, for each of nature’s objects can stir him to thought, and even the simplest flower blowing in the wind can raise in him “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

william wordsworth
                          William Wordsworth

Form

Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, as it is often called, is written in eleven variable ode stanzas with variable rhyme schemes, in iambic lines with anything from two to five stressed syllables. The rhymes occasionally alternate lines, fall in couplets, and occasionally occur within a single line (as in “But yet I know, wherever I go” in the second stanza).

Analysis

In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” William Wordsworth writes in the complicated stanza forms and irregular rhythms that are typical of the ode form. The 205 lines are divided into eleven stanzas of varying lengths and rhyme schemes. In the title, Wordsworth attempts to summarize and simplify the rich philosophical content of the poem.

The poem begins with an epigraph taken from an earlier poem by Wordsworth: “The Child is the father of the Man;/ And I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety.” In this section of “My Heart Leaps Up,” the speaker hopes that, in his maturity, he can maintain an intimate connection to the world, similar to the bond that he had in his own childhood. Since the “Child is the father of the Man,” people should respect the child in them as much as they are bound to their own fathers.

The first two stanzas of the poem quickly establish the problem that Wordsworth, the first-person speaker, faces: “There was a time” when the earth was charged with magnificence in the poet’s eyes when every common element “did seem/ Appareled in celestial light,” but that time has gone. The ode begins in elegiac fashion, with the poet mourning because “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.”

Oddly enough, this problem seems almost resolved in stanza 3 when Wordsworth announces that “a timely utterance” (which is never revealed) relieves his grief. Critics have never decided definitively what that “timely utterance” could be, but all agree that Wordsworth seems tremendously healed by it. He boldly predicts that “No more shall grief of mine the season wrong.” The poem, which began in generalizations, becomes focused on a particular day in May, the heart of which makes “every Beast keep holiday.” Stanza 4 continues this celebratory mode for another fifteen lines. The formerly sullen Wordsworth now senses “the fullness of [the] bliss” of the “blesséd Creatures” and the joy of the “happy Shepherd-boy,” the children culling flowers, or the infant “on his Mother’s arm.”

The poem shifts suddenly, however, with the simple connective “But” inline 52. Despite the spring revelry of which Wordsworth says, “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!” the poem shifts into a melancholy mode: “—But there’s a Tree, of many, one/ A single Field which I have looked upon,/ Both of them speak of something that is gone.” Wordsworth returns to the elegiac tone of the first two stanzas when he asks, “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” The poem leaves the joyful sounds of May and tries to answer this question by turning to philosophical issues. Stanzas 5 through 9 tracks the complex musings of Wordsworth as he tries to explain what happens in adulthood to “the glory and the dream” of youth.

Stanzas 10 and 11 return to the natural world and the “gladness of the May,” but in them the reader can see that Wordsworth has been changed by his meditation. He acknowledges that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower” which belongs to the young only. Yet he suggests stoically that “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind.” Wordsworth finally salutes the power of the human heart, “its tenderness, its joys, and fears,” and the poem ends not with the giddy and transient happiness of stanza 3 but with a mature, chastened poet accepting both the pleasures and the pains of “man’s mortality.”

 

Although in some senses, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” is an extremely abstract, difficult poem, Wordsworth does aid the reader by providing visual images for his philosophical ideas. Figurative language functions in the same way as a parable in the Bible: Concrete images help the reader see the point.

The fifth stanza, which begins the highly abstract and philosophical section of the poem, presents three metaphors that are repeated in later stanzas: God “is our home,” heaven.

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