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The Immortality Ode: Its Cultural Progeny Author(s): Barbara Garlitz Reviewed work(s): Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 6, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1966), pp. 639-649 Published by: Rice University Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/04/2012 01:41
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The ImmortalityOde: Its CulturalProgeny



far more profound influence on nineteenth-century thought than is generally realized. Although we willingly acknowledge the enormous shaping influence of philosophers and scientists, like Bentham, Coleridge, and Darwin, we are reluctant to concede that a poem could have more than a literary effect. And yet the Ode was to the first half of the nineteenth century what The Origin of Species was to the last half. In fact, the Ode had as powerful an influence on nineteenth-century ideas of childhood as Freud has had on present-day ones. No one can deny the Ode's popularity. The nineteenth century believed that it was the best poem its century had produced. Again and again the Ode is held up as "the finest poem of the greatest poet within our times," as "the high-water mark the intellect has reached in this age," as the "divinest utterance of modern poetry."l In letters, in journals, in reviews one repeatedly finds such statements as, it is "his best poem, as it is the most famous of his verses," or "every passage and every line of it has been received into the poetical heart of this country," or "all lovers of Wordsworth know it by heart," or, it has taken "the deepest root in the national mind."2 How deep a root it took in the national mind has been in part revealed by the many studies of Wordsworth's literary influence. Albert Turner in his articles on Thomas Campbell and Hartley Coleridge has shown the Ode's marked influence on their poetry of childhood. In an unpublished study of Wordsworth's influence on the verse of the Oxford movement,
1John Keble, Lectures on Poetry, 1832-41, tr. E. K. Francis (Oxford, 1912), II, 453; Ralph Waldo Emerson, English Trcaits (1856), The Complete Works, ed. E. W. Emerson (Boston and New York, 1903-4), V, 298; Margaret Oliphant, The Literary History of England (London, 1882), I, 328. "Bronson Alcott, 8 Jan. 1876, The Journals, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston, 1938), pp. 463-4; Sara Coleridge, in a letter to Henry Reed, 19 May 1851, Memoir and Letters of Sara Coleridge, ed. by Her Daughter (New York, 1874), p. 492; Temple Bar (1872), XXIV, 326; W. J. Courthope, The Liberal Movement in English Literature (London, 1885), p. 104.





Eleanor Doherty concludes that there is not one of the Tractarians who does not reveal that he has read and been deeply influenced by the Ode. Robert Lovelace, in another unpublished dissertation, finds himself speaking of "the ubiquitous influence" of the Ode on the early Victorians. "Evidently," he says, "no poem by Wordsworth so inevitably seized the imagination of the early Victorians as did the Intimations Ode."3 If anyone ever does a study of nineteenth-century poems about childhood, the study will in large part concern itself with the Ode's influence. It is, perhaps, not sufficiently well known that childhood was one of the most popular subjects for poetry in the century and, in fact, that the child as a theme in literature is in the main a nineteenth-century innovation. Among the thousands upon thousands of poems that were written on the subject of childhood or that refer to childhood, there were few that were entirely free of the Ode's influence. To give just a few examples. In 1812 John Wilson writes of the "visions high" that bless "an infant's sleeping eye." In 1819 Samuel Rogers refers to the child as moving at first "as in a heaven on earth!" and he then goes on to say that the light the child brings with him dies away so that the child must journey on in growing darkness. In 1826 Thomas Hood regretted that he was "farther off from heav'n" than when he was a boy. In 1838 a dying child in a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning has "a vision and a gleam" and sees "celestial places." In 1841 Christopher Cranch says that at the beginning of life "our home was near the sea ;/'Heaven was round our infancy'." In 1847 James Russell Lowell says of his dead child that "the light of the heaven she came from/ Still lingered and gleamed in her hair." In 1888 Swinburne declared that "Babes at birth/Wear as raiment round them cast... Tokens left of heaven."4 Among the truly minor poets, borrowings from the Ode were
'Albert Turner, "Wordsworth's Influence on Thomas Campbell," PMLA, XXVIII (June 1923), 253-66 and "Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge," JEGP, XXII (Oct. 1923), 538-57; Eleanor Doherty, "The Influence of Wordsworth on the Verse of the Oxford Movement," unpub. diss. (Radcliffe, 1934); Robert Lovelace, "Wordsworth and the Early Victorians: A Study of his Influence and Reputation, 1830-1860," unpub. diss. (Wisconsin, 1951), p. 215, et passim. 'John Wilson, "To a Sleeping Child"; Samuel Rogers, "Human Life"; Thomas Hood, "I Remember, I Remember"; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Isobel's Child"; Christopher Cranch, "The Ocean"; James Russell Lowell, "The Changeling"; Swinburne, "Olive".




shameless. In 1862 R. Williams Buchanan in his poem "Baby Grace" says: How strangely the little ones feel their way From the silver edge of the soundless sea Of eternity, Into the light of the common day. In 1867 another minor poet, Stephen Jenner, gives another child an origin and infancy a la the Ode: The glory whence He came-the sheen Of the bright palace where had been His home ere down to earth He flew, Made all around look fair and new; Fresh with the glow of Nature's morn As when creation first was born: Nor did its freshness ever fade away, And die into the dull of man's blind day.5 What is interesting about this poem is that the child who is being described is the Christ child. Jenner, who was a minister, meant no sacrilege; it was just that the language and ideas of the Ode had achieved the sanctity of the Bible. By the late 1820's "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" had become another way of saying "of such is the kingdom of heaven." For the nineteenth century the Ode became a gloss on Jesus's words and Wordsworth himself a second Christ who had come again to teach mankind the proper attitude toward children. Said the Christian Examiner of Wordsworth in 1850: "A legitimate successor of his spiritual master, you see him with that patriarchal form and benignant countenance calling to childhood, and pleading on its behalf. 'Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me.' "6 For the vast majority of nineteenth-century theologians the Ode became another New Testament, and its philosophy of childhood a powerful challenge to Calvinism. If, as was common in the eighteenth century, a theologian could hotly insist, as the Reverend Samuel Spring did in 1783, that "Even little infants, that appear so innocent and pretty, are God's little enemies at heart,"-if this was common in the eighteenth century, by the late 1820's theologians were as hotly insisting that "Heaven lies about" children "in their infancy; the heaven
5The Reverend Stephen Jenner, The Holy Child (London, 1867), p. 72. 6A. B. M., "Wordsworth the Christian Poet," Christian Examiner, XLIX (July 1850), 104.





of innocence."'7 This theologian, the Reverend F. W. P. Greenwood, was typical of many other preachers who, when they decided to deliver a sermon on childhood (and childhood became a more and more frequent subject of sermons) could not seem to help quoting or echoing the Ode. For example, in the 1850's the Reverend Mr. Furness lamented that the "depraving influences" of the world lure the young "out of the bright heavenly kingdom which lay around their infancy." In 1872 the Reverend Brooke Westcott declared on Holy Innocents' day that "heaven lies about us in our infancy" was affirmed by the fact that "many very precious truths are clearer to children than to men." And in the same year, the Reverend Stopford Brooke, in a sermon on "Child Life," preached that "It is a happy thought that the children who climb upon our knees are fresh from the hand of God, living blessings which have drifted down to us from the imperial palace of the love of God."8 Even John Newman himself when he preached on children echoes the Ode. In the 1830's in a sermon on "The Mind of Little Children," Newman describes the child as a being come "out of the hands of God, with all lessons and thoughts of Heaven freshly marked upon him," as one who seems "not to understand the language of the visible scene." Newman then goes on to assert that "What we were when children is a
blessed intimation .

. a foretaste of what will be fulfilled in

heaven. And thus it is," he concludes, "that a child is a pledge of immortality."9 Although Newman, when he preached about children, often seems to forget about the doctrine of original sin, he rebuked John Keble for his poems on infants in Lyra, Innocentium in which Keble failed to make clear that the holiness of infancy follows, not precedes, the rite of baptism. For example, in Keble's poem, "Holy Baptism," he describes children in gen7The Reverend Samuel Spring, Three Sermons to Little Children (Boston, 1783), pp. 23-4; The Reverend F. W. P. Greenwood, "Children Taken to Jesus," Sermons (Boston, 1844), pp. 100-1. The sermon was delivered in the late 1820's. 'The Reverend W. H. Furness, "Jesus and Little Children," Discourses (Phil., 1855), pp. 238-42; The Reverend Brooke Westcott, "The Ministry of the Weak," Peterborough Sermons (London, 1904), p. 353; The Reverend Stopford Brooke, "Child Life," Christ in Modern Life (London, 1872), p. 275. 9John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (London, 1924), II, 65, 67.




eral, not just newly baptized children, as tender gems and full of Heaven! Not in the twilight stars on high, Not in the moist flowers at even See we our God so nigh. The fact was that, as Eleanor Doherty has pointed out in her study of Wordsworth and the Oxford movement, all the Tractarians accepted so unquestioningly the ideas about childhood in the Ode that they often seem to forget their belief in a contrary doctrine. Even when they do remember original sin, Keble, Newman, Pusey, and the other Tractarians tend to hurry over the unregenerate state of the child before baptism and dwell on the child's heavenliness after baptism. In so doing they were, at the time, committing what seemed to be heterodoxy. For in the 1830's the baptismal service was still given a Calvinist interpretation. That means that the regeneration of baptism was believed to be conditional on later conversion and grace. When it was originally formulated, however, the baptismal service had what is called a Lutheran bias, which means that baptism was believed to wash the infant clear of original sin and give him a regenerated character. Such had been the influence of Calvinism, though, that the original meaning of the baptismal service had been lost. About 1827 Thomas De Quincey was so certain that the baptismal rite did not work the effect of regeneration that he accused Wordsworth of heterodoxy in that passage of The Excursion in which the Solitary describes baptism as regeneration.10 In 1835 Edward Pusey, in numbers 67 to 69 of the Tracts for The Times, urged the church to return to the original meaning of the baptismal service, arguing that the child, after the mystic grace of baptism, was redolent of heaven. Considering the influence of the Ode on the Tractarians, it seems clear that Pusey revitalized the Lutheran interpretation of the baptismal service at least in part because he had been influenced by Wordsworth. Therefore, it does not seem too much to say that the Ode was partially responsible for the change in the meaning of the baptismal service which, as an effect of Pusey's tracts, did occur. The Ode not only affected theologians' views of child
'"Protestantism," The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson (Edinburgh, 1890), VIII, 290-293.






nature, it had a similar effect on laymen. There is ample evidence to prove that because of Wordsworth the middle and upper classes, especially parents, began looking at children with new eyes. In 1827 Julius Hare asked, "Do you not, since you have read Wordsworth, feel a fresh and more thoughtful
delight whenever . . you play with a child?" In 1834 the

mathematician, Sir William Rowan Hamilton, used to repeat "portions of the Ode on Intimations of Immortality" to his two-months-old son. In 1848 Nathaniel Hawthorne, looking at his two-year-old son sitting on the floor and staring into space, wonders if he is having "Recollections of a preexistence."11

In 1841 Henry Tuckerman said that he believed Wordsworth had rendered "a high moral service" to mankind by teaching parents to regard their children in a different light. "A reader of his poetry," Tuckerman said, "can scarcely look upon the young with indifference. The parent must thence derive a new sense of the sacredness of children, and
learn to reverence their innocence . . . and to yield them more

confidently to the influence of Nature." Tuckerman hoped that Wordsworth's "true and feeling chronicles of the 'heaven' that 'lies about us in our infancy"'"would help bring about a revolution in education and child-rearing.12 There can be no doubt that Wordsworth had his share in the revolution that began to occur in the nineteenth century. It is almost unknown that article after article on the "Rights of Children" was published throughout the century, articles that are very much alike. They begin with a Wordsworthian premise and proceed to a Wordsworthian conclusion. They may well start by observing, "Truly has the poet said, 'Heaven lies about us in our infancy'."'3 Or, if Wordsworth is not quoted, there is a statement that indicates the writer's belief in the divinity of childhood, a statement such as, children "come to us fresh and pure from the hands of the Almighty, leaving on their souls the impress of His signet."14
"Julius Hare, Guesses at Truth (London, 1827), I, 80-1; R. P. Graves, Life of Sir Rowan Hamilton (Dublin, 1885), II, 97; see Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks, ed. R. Stewart (New Haven, 1932), p. 195. "Southern Literary Messenger, VII (Feb. 1841), 108. "Anon., "Babyolatry," Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, CXIII (Feb. 1846), 129. "Mrs. Emma C. Embury, "The Rights of Children," Godey's Lady Book, XXVIII (Feb. 1844), 80.




Because these writers believe that children come fresh from God, they quite logically conclude that it would be a kind of atheism not to grant the child greater liberty. The writers, therefore, advise parents to adopt a laissez-faire policy in child-rearing, one that would infringe as little as possible on, as one writer said quoting the Ode, "the simple creed of childhood, delight and liberty."'15 When the nineteenth century is thoroughly studied, it will be discovered that there are, to balance the parents who, like Mr. Pontifex, sternly repressed their children, ones who, on Wordsworthian principles, granted their children freedom. Certainly, one such parent was Bronson Aleott, who was so firm a believer in the child's divinity that he allowed little Louisa May the freedom of the Lady in Comus. Almost as soon as Louisa could walk she was allowed to roam freely about Boston, begging for her lunch, sleeping on doorsteps, and in large measure doing and learning what she chose to.16 It is fair to attribute the eccentricities of Louisa May's upbringing to the influence of the Ode because there is hardly a man in the century who was more influenced by it than Bronson Alcott. It became a gospel to him from the time of his acquaintance with it in 1827 until his death. In 1835 he discussed the poem with his pupils at the Temple School in Boston and in 1879 at the Concord School of Philosophy he was still defending "the sentiments of the Ode."17Indeed, he took the Ode so seriously that he tried to prove its theory of the heavenliness of infancy by systematically studying his children from birth on. Starting on 25 March 1831, nine days after the birth of his first child, Alcott began taking notes on his children's development, notes which he continued to make for the next five years and which fill five volumes and over 1800 pages. One of the most interesting things about these notes is that Alcott's accurate and realistic observations of his children's behavior did not succeed in making him lose his faith in the truth of the Ode. From the first volume
"For two typical articles, see Paul Siogvolk, "The Rights of Children," Knickerbocker, XXXIX (June 1852), 487-91; Kate Douglas Wiggin, "Children's Rights," Scribner's Mag., XII (Aug. 1892), 242-48. 6See Louisa May Alcott, "Recollections of My Childhood," Youth's Companion, 24 May 1888, pp. 519-23. "The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston, 1938), pp. 463-4, 506; [Elizabeth Palmer Peabody], Record of A School (Boston, 1835), pp. 110-13.





through the fifth he continues to quote lovingly from it. On the fifth birthday of Anna, his first child, after having throughout the volumes expatiated on her willfulness, her appetites, her propensity to hit the younger children, Alcott, in spite of such evidence to the contrary, reasserts his faith on the original nature of man by repeating: Not in entire forgetfulness Nor yet in utter nakedness; But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God-who is our home.l8 It would be easy to account for Alcott's indestructible belief in the Ode's philosophy of childhood by remembering that he was one of the most extravagant of the Transcendentalists. Yet to do so would be unfair to him, for even the men and women who worked with child criminals or with the children in slums had a faith in childhood similar to his. Mary Carpenter, the woman who established the first reformatories in England, reverenced every child as Christ's image. What right, she asked, have we to call children juvenile delinquents, "young beings but recently come from the hands of their Maker, of whom the Saviour has said, that 'of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.'"? Benjamin Waugh, the first secretary of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, wrote in one of his hymns for children, "Shut within the souls of children / Jesus makes His home." Thomas Barnardo, who devoted his life to providing homes and education for thousands of the waifs and strays who used to roam London streets, believed that there was always "something
beautiful in the little ones .. . something that. . . fills one with

reverence for childhood. It may be as the poet Whittier sings, that the young child is 'latest from God's hand and nearest unto Him.' "19 Whittier's poem, "Child-Songs," incorporates the philosophy of the Ode, and Wordsworth himself was the favorite poet of many of these philanthropists, just as he was the favorite poet of most people in the nineteenth century. The Ode then had far more than a literary influence. Indeed,
1From the mss. of Alcott's journals at the Concord Free Public Library. Used by permission of Mrs. Frederic Wolsey Pratt. 1Mary Carpenter, Juvenile Delinquents, Their Condition and Treatment (London, 1853), p. 15; Rosa Waugh, The Life of Benjamin Waugh (London, 1913), p. 103; Thomas Barnardo, "Some Queer Children I Have Met," Mrs. Bernardo & James Marchant, Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo (London, 1907), p. 356.




it would have been strange if the many people who read, memorized, and cherished it had been unaffected by its philosophy of childhood. The ideas in the Ode that the child is fresh from God and still remembers his heavenly home, that the aura which surrounds childhood fades into the common light of adulthood, that the child has a wisdom which the man loses-these ideas became the most important and the most common ideas about childhood in the nineteenth century. They attained the status of facts. Just as writers nowadays speak of the child's development from the oral to the genital stage, so writers in the nineteenth century spoke of the child's journey from the heaven of infancy to the prison-house of adulthood. When Thackeray said of the twelve-year-old Pendennis that he still had remnants of the innocence "which he had from 'Heaven, which is our home,' " but that "the shades of the prison-house" were "closing very fast over him"-when Thackeray said that he was not quoting a poetical fancy of Wordsworth's but was repeating what was believed to be a scientific fact. When, late in the century, Darwinism began changing man's attitudes toward children, it was the Wordsworthian view of the child that was challenged. Critics then attacked the Ode because it did not conform to the latest facts. "Modern science," said one critic, "discovers the child 'trailing' quite other and more definite qualities than 'clouds of glory' from arboreal quadrumanous ancestors."20 I do not want to suggest that Wordsworth alone was responsible for the reverence for childhood that distinguishes the nineteenth century. Interest in childhood began several decades before the Ode was written. The first scientific observations of children can be found as early as the late eighteenth century; the breakdown in the belief in original sin and the beginnings of a belief in original innocence can be observed by the mid-eighteenth century; Rousseau's Emile was published in 1762 and Blake's Songs of Innocence in 1789. Wordsworth's Ode was in itself a culmination of eighteenth-century attitudes. And yet, at the same time, it seems to have been the catalyst, the agent that precipitated the nineteenth century's inordinate worship of childhood. For child worship and the popularity of the Ode went hand in hand.
20Laurie Magnus, A Primer of Wordsworth (London, 1897), p. 82.






Perhaps the Ode proved to be the catalyst of child worship because it incorporated an archetypal idea of childhood. It has often been pointed out that the ideas about childhood in the Ode and even its very language are not especially original. The Ode is frequently compared to Vaughan's "The Retreat" and parallels are found in the Hermetic Books, Boehme, Swedenborg, and other mystic works. Parallels can also be found in primitive societies, where a belief in the child's preexistence', of his descent from a spirit world, is almost universal. According to anthropologists, this widespread belief developed from the fact that for eons man did not understand the relationship between sexual intercourse and impregnation and consequently assumed that children owed their origin to some god or spirit. The Ode may have had so powerful an appeal because it drew upon one of man's oldest ideas about children. And yet at present, although we are as much the heirs of the collective unconscious as the nineteenth century and almost as deeply interested in children, the Ode no longer has a powerful influence. The idea of the child as having come fresh from God no longer appeals to us. Perhaps it had so great an appeal to the nineteenth century because it was able to blend or, to use a biological term, to crossbreed with many aspects of the culture. For the idea of the heavenliness of infancy could be utilized by both the secular and religious, and the reactionary and progressive elements in nineteenth-century culture. If interpreted (as it often was) as a comment on the child's moral nature, it could appeal to those who believed in man's natural goodness. Conversely, the picture in the Ode of the child descending from his heavenly home could appeal to those who, in opposition to the new science, continued to believe in man's divine origin. But if the idea of the heavenliness of infancy could lend support to those who looked backward to an era of a simpler and more primitive faith, it could also lend support to those who looked forward to a new era. For the idea of the heaven of infancy can be blended with one of the most progressive impulses of the nineteenth century-its egalitarianism. Paine in The Rights of Man had argued that all men are born equal because parents of no matter what class are merely the agents through which God creates, that is, that "every child born into the world" derives its existence ultimately




from God.21The nineteenth century, because it believed we are all equally God's children, strove to insure that no child's heavenly patrimony would be nullified by excessive labor, inadequate education, poor housing, etc. It is in accord with nineteenth-century thought to say that most of the century's social reforms were the result of an effort to preserve the heaven that lies about each and every man's infancy.

'1The Political Writings of Thomas Paine (Boston, 1859), II, 71.