Commentary

If “Tintern Abbey” is Wordsworth’s first great statement about the action of childhood memories of nature upon the adult mind, the “Intimations of Immortality” ode is his mature masterpiece on the subject. The poem, whose full title is “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” makes explicit Wordsworth’s belief that life on earth is a dim shadow of an earlier, purer existence, dimly recalled in childhood and then forgotten in the process of growing up. (In the fifth stanza, he writes, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.../Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, /But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home....”)

While one might disagree with the poem’s metaphysical hypotheses, there is no arguing with the genius of language at work in this Ode. Wordsworth consciously sets his speaker’s mind at odds with the atmosphere of joyous nature all around him, a rare move by a poet whose consciousness is so habitually in unity with nature. Understanding that his grief stems from his inability to experience the May morning as he would have in childhood, the speaker attempts to enter willfully into a state of cheerfulness; but he is able to find real happiness only when he realizes that “the philosophic mind” has given him the ability to understand nature in deeper, more human terms—as a source of metaphor and guidance for human life. This is very much the same pattern as “Tintern Abbey” ’s, but whereas in the earlier poem Wordsworth made himself joyful, and referred to the “music of humanity” only briefly, in the later poem he explicitly proposes that this music is the remedy for his mature grief.

The structure of the Immortality Ode is also unique in Wordsworth’s work; unlike his characteristically fluid, naturally spoken monologues, the Ode is written in a lilting, songlike cadence with frequent shifts in rhyme scheme and rhythm. Further, rather than progressively exploring a single idea from start to finish, the Ode jumps from idea to idea, always sticking close to the central scene, but frequently making surprising moves, as when the speaker begins to address the “Mighty Prophet” in the eighth stanza—only to reveal midway through his address that the mighty prophet is a six-year-old boy.

Wordsworth’s linguistic strategies are extraordinarily sophisticated and complex in this Ode, as the poem’s use of metaphor and image shifts from the register of lost childhood to the register of the philosophic mind. When the speaker is grieving, the main tactic of the poem is to offer joyous, pastoral nature images, frequently personified—the lambs dancing as to the tabor, the moon looking about her in the sky. But when the poet attains the philosophic mind and his fullest realization about memory and imagination, he begins to employ far more subtle descriptions of nature that, rather than jauntily imposing humanity upon natural objects, simply draw human characteristics out of their natural presences, referring back to human qualities from earlier in the poem.

So, in the final stanza, the brooks “fret” down their channels, just as the child’s mother “fretted” him with kisses earlier in the poem; they trip lightly just as the speaker “tripped lightly” as a child; the Day is new-born, innocent, and bright, just as a child would be; the clouds “gather round the setting sun” and “take a sober coloring,” just as mourners at a funeral (recalling the child’s playing with some fragment from “a mourning or a funeral” earlier in the poem) might gather soberly around a grave. The effect is to illustrate how, in the process of imaginative creativity possible to the mature mind, the shapes of humanity can be found in nature and vice-versa. (Recall the “music of humanity” in “Tintern Abbey.”) A flower can summon thoughts too deep for tears because a flower can embody the shape of human life, and it is the mind of maturity combined with the memory of childhood that enables the poet to make that vital and moving connection.