Analysis and Interpretation of Wordsworth's Immortality Ode
Drawing upon the personal experiences of his own life and the Platonic theory of anamnesis, Wordsworth in his ode "On Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" presents such a typical theme, which can easily be generalized as a Romantic cry over the loss of innocence, and of the splendour that goes with the vision of innocence. Wordsworth’s originality lies in the poetic transformation of the theme, and the poetic treatment also gives human touch to a deep philosophical problem. While discussing the process of the birth of Particular (human) Soul from the Universal Soul, Plato said that the human soul undergoes a change, and that there occurs the forgetting (anamnesis) of the Supreme Beauty and Goodness and Truth of the Universal Idea, which it descends from.
Wordsworth’s approach to the problem is, however, different. He begins in a tone of profound regret at the loss of visionary splendour, which seemed, in retrospect, to have invested so many scenes of nature in his childhood. He says that during his childhood the world appeared to him,
“Apparelled in celestial light
The glory and freshness of a dream.”
Here it should be remembered that dreams are precious evidence of an activity, which is now impossible in the normal condition of adult wakefulness. Wordsworth’s insight here is in complete accord with Freudian and Jungian psychological theories of the mind. They insisted that in the waking state the ego’s censorship of fantasy takes over there a cognisance of space and time, of probability and of cause and effect. According to Freud, dreams can involve a considerable degree of “primary process of thinking”. This kind of mental activity can be found in the babies who are not where their own selves end and the outer world begins. As he develops into an infant and changes to “secondary process of thinking”, the small child still has the regression into “primary process of thinking”, taking refuge in fantasy form the realities of the world. Gradually the attention to the outside world comes to dominate the conscious waking mind in a process exactly traced by Wordsworth:
“Shades of prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy...”
At the time Wordsworth began the Ode, he had on several occasions recalled “that Golden past”. But instead of wishing to “travel back”, like Vaughan in the 'Retreat' , he had accepted his lot philosophically. Reflections showed him that his childhood experiences were not lost, and that his imagination had developed from the dreamlike and visionary state to a philosophical stage. He could now feel,
“My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal…”
But the problem was profound one and until it was solved Wordsworth could not resume the 'Recluse' confidently, as the main idea in planning it had been the belief that man could be redeemed only by holding “fit converse with the spiritual world” through Nature. 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:
“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is now, the glory and the dream?”
Wordsworth found the answer in Plato’s theory of transmutation of the soul. Platonic theory of pre-existence is, however, fanciful and possibly a borrowing from Coleridge. According to this theory, the soul can vividly remember its prenatal existence in heaven during childhood because its separation from heaven is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The best that can be said about this Platonic theory is that it provides a logical explanation that integrates the poem, and that he gave great imaginative appeal to it. But he was never happy with it and said, “It is far too shadowy”. The mundane answer that follows is reasonable though rather commonplace. It suggests that the child gradually becomes part of the world as a foster nurse slowly but surely wean him away from heaven. The child travels the further from heaven the more he begins to imitate the elders. But Wordsworth, while criticising the child’s habit of imitating and thereby inviting the weight of custom, “Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life”—also asserts that in moments of calm even the mind of an adult can in imagination travel back to childhood, the fountainhead of all our light, and
“…see the Children sport upon the shore
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”
But this is not the recompense, which reconciles Wordsworth to the loss of childhood vision. The recompense that he speaks of is two-fold: recollection of childhood, which proves that man’s life is all of a piece, and that “The Child is father of the Man”; and the “philosophical mind”, which can look on Nature with an awareness of human life, especially its tragedies. That is why he finally pronounces:
“Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
Wordsworth means that to a mature and philosophic mind actually conscious of the transience of earthly realities even the slightest object becomes a precious and cherished possession.