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Analysis and Interpretation of Wordsworth's Immortality Ode

[In the following essay I attempt an analysis of Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. If you
have any query or it helps you in any way, please send me an email at ttm1974 AT gmail
DOT com] It is a not at all a mere coincidence that Wordsworth’s poetic presentation of
the theme of human life on earth—in terms of the journey of the human soul from heaven
down to the earth—tallies exactly with two of the 19th century American painter, Thomas
Cole’s trilogy of paintings, Childhood and Youth and Old Age. In the first picture Cole
depicts a child on a boat, who, accompanied by an angel, can see the radiant light of God
in the eastern sky, and in the second one he presents on a boat a lone young man, to
whom the light is no longer visible. In this connection it can be said that when
Wordsworth embarked on the problem of the loss of childhood vision of divine splendour
in adulthood, he took up a theme, which is very much archetypal in nature. This is
archetypal in the sense that throughout the idealistic European intellectual tradition--
right since Plato through the Bible to Wordsworth-- human life on earth has been viewed
in terms of a separation from the supposed divine world of all-perfection. Wordsworth
credit, however, lies in the poetic treatment of the profound ontological problem, and in
the discovery of its solution in his own characteristic Romantic philosophy of Nature
rather than in some ‘dry’ philosophical theory. In so doing, however, the poem also
becomes a celebration or rather a glorification of childhood, which becomes ultimately a
surrogate light for the lost divine radiance of childhood.
Wordsworth begins the poem by remembering the heavenly state of mind during the
childhood, but the purpose is to put the experiences of childhood as an antithesis to those
of present adulthood:
“The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
As the poet looks on the beautiful natural objects and festivities going on there in a May
morning, he understands that,
“There hath past away a glory from the earth.”
He continues his lamentations in the same rhythm of possession and loss to the fourth
stanza, at the end of which he is confronted with the agonizing questions:
“Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream.”
It is important to note that Wordsworth considers childhood vision “a dream”. The
greatness of his poetic insight is that what he speaks of ‘dream’ even in agony goes to
conform to the Freudian and Jungian psychological theories of the mind. Freud says that
babies at first remain in the primary process of thinking, a state that can be compared to
dream. As it grows up into the waking state, ego comes forward to censor the fantasies
and there occurs a cognisance of space and time, of cause and effect. Still it at times
regresses into the primary process of thinking while taking refuge in fantasy from the
complexities of the world of reality. Gradually the attention to the outside world comes to
dominate the conscious waking mind and the dreamlike condition disappears:
“Shades of prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy...” But he beholds the light,
and whence it flows: “He sees it in his joy…”
But eventually the man perceives the light, “…fade into the light of common day.”
At the time of writing Wordsworth remembered “that Golden past” and there had been a
great possibility of his falling victim to regression like Vaughan in the Retreat. But he had
accepted the fact philosophically and did not succumb to despair. As he reflects, he finds
that his imagination had developed from the dreamlike and visionary to a philosophical
stage. But the problem was profound one and after writing the first four stanzas he left
the remaining part unfinished nearly for two years. It seems that for quite sometime he
groped for the answers to the agonising questions, with which the fourth stanza ends. It
must have anguished Wordsworth to find that adult experiences provided no further
confirmation of his faith. He believed that the source of his imaginative power was in
those boyhood experiences when “Nature spake rememberable things.”
Primarily Wordsworth found the explanation in Platonic theory of anamnesis of the soul,
which he got perhaps from Coleridge, who was well conversant in the idealistic
philosophies. Plato propounded that before birth the human soul in the world of Supreme
Idea or God. As it is transmuted into corporal frames on earth, it forgets its previous
existence in heaven and along with this all about the world of Ideas, of Beauty, Goodness
and Truth. Then when the soul comes in contact with the beautiful objects of the earth, it
begins to gather a consciousness/idea of the things. Thus finally it succeeds in
remembering the world of Universal Idea in a graduation from the particular to the
general. Wordsworth takes up only the process of anamnesis from Plato and puts this
poetically,
“The soul that rises with us our life’s star Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh
from afar.”
The child is conscious of the world of divine beauty because the memory is
comparatively fresh in it:
“But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God… Heaven lies about us in our
infancy.”
But though Wordsworth had to resort to Plato for an explanation, he was never satisfied
with this theory. Even he is said to have commented, “It was too far shadowy”. That is
why he prefers giving a mundane and poetic explanation for the forgetting. According to
him, the earth acts as a foster mother and diverts away his attention from the heavenly
radiance. Wordsworth, however, does not negate the possibility of redemptive power of
imagination as he believes that at some moments even the mind of an adult can in
imagination can travel back to childhood and “…see the children sport upon the shore.”
But this is not the only recompense that Wordsworth finds as resolution. He finds
resolution in two-fold facts: first, recollections of childhood teach him to view human life
in its totality as he understands “Child is the father of the Man”; secondly he believes in
the evolution of the mind, which has now attained a philosophical stage in his mature
adulthood. Now he finds Nature in perfect harmony with the human world and can look
to her providing joys and, especially, solaces for the human tragedies. We may conclude
with a few lines from Gray’s Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude:
“The nearest flower of the vale The simplest note that swells the gale The common sun,
the air, the skies To him are opening paradise.”