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Intimations of Immortality
A Poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
A Study Guide
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Title Information
Type of Work
Publication
Summary
Complete Text, Notes
Interpretation
Themes
Meter, Feet, Line Length
Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Questions, Essay Topics
Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010
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Title Information

.......When Wordsworth completed this work in 1804, he called it simply "Ode," and the poem carried this title when it was published in 1807. In 1815, when the poem was republished, Wordsworth expanded the title to "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." Intimations means hints, inklings, or indirect suggestions. Most readers and critics today use the title "Intimations of Immortality" when referring to the poem.

Type of Work

......."Intimations of Immortality" is a lyric poem in the form of an ode. A lyric poem presents deep feelings and emotions rather than telling a story; an ode uses lofty language and a dignified tone and may contain several hundred lines. 

Composition and Publication Information

.......Wordsworth completed the first four stanzas of "Intimations of Immortality" between March and April of 1802. He completed the rest of the poem by early 1804. Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme published the poem at Paternoster Row, London, in May 1807 as part of a collection of Wordsworth's works, Poems, in Two Volumes.

Summary of the Poem

.......The entire earth—all its fields and streams and trees—seemed like heaven to me when I was a child. Now, however, as spring begins to unfold its splendor, I no longer perceive the world this way. True, there is much beauty around me: rainbows, roses, moonlight, sunlight, the reflection of the stars on evening waters. But these sights, magnificent as they are, lack the full glory of what I once saw. 
.......At this moment, while the birds sing and the lambs frolic, my inability to perceive the fullness of this glory makes me sad. But the sounds of nature—the wind and the waterfalls—cheer me as I realize all the earth is happy, land and sea. Even the beasts revel in the spirit of spring. Shepherd boy, let me hear your shouts of joy!
.......You creatures of the forest, I hear the calls you make to one another, and I hear the heavens laugh with you in your joy. I feel your happiness—all of it. How could I be sullen on such a fine May morning. Children are picking fresh flowers in a thousand valleys, the sun shines brightly, and babies leap in their mother's arms. But even amid all this joy and wonder, there is a tree and there is a field that speak to me of something that is missing. So, too, does the pansy at my feet. Where is that heavenly glory I once perceived?
.......When we are born, our souls—which previously existed in the celestial realm—go to sleep momentarily. When they awake to the new world around them, they forget almost everything about their heavenly existence. But a hint of that existence remains in our souls even though the world begins to enclose us, like prison walls. Still, a growing boy can perceive heavenly light. But when he becomes a man, the light fades. Earth, without malice, further blinds him to the fullness of the glory he once knew by exhibiting its own glory. However, although the glory of nature is not equal to heavenly glory, it is a reflection of it 
.......A child of six, while enjoying the kisses of his mother and the admiring gaze of his father, already begins to plot out the life he will lead and the events he will take part in—a wedding, a festival, a funeral—and prepares himself for business, love, and strife. He may foresee himself in many roles in imitation of others, even down to the time when old age overtakes him.
.......The outward appearance of a child belies the immensity of his soul within. That soul, that inner light, still perceives something of the heavenly presence, still fathoms something of the eternal deep, even as we adults labor in darkness to discover the truths of the eternal realm. You, child, are the best seer, prophet, and philosopher. But why do you, with the memory of the glories of heaven within you, press on so urgently toward adulthood, which dims your inner light and lays its earthly burdens upon your back? 
.......But how heartening it is to know that at least a glimmer of celestial light yet lies within us as adults and manifests itself in our natural surroundings. I give thanks for my knowledge of how things are and that nothing can entirely eliminate the awareness in us of the immortal sea that brought us to the shore of life. So sing, birds, a joyous song of May. Though the time will come when the glories of spring's fields and flowers will be forever gone from us, we will not grieve; for we know that greater glories await us beyond death. 
.......I love the fountains, meadows, hills, and brooks—the brilliance of a morning sun and the beauty of a flower. But I know that the flower is only a hint of what is to come.
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Ode: Intimations of Immortality
From Recollections of Early Childhood
By William Wordsworth
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The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

This quotation from another Wordsworth poem, "My Heart Leaps Up," appears before the first stanza of "Intimations of Immortality." It expresses the view that a child is superior to an adult in his or her appreciation of the beauty of nature as a reflection of the celestial realm.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
    The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light, 
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;— 
        Turn wheresoe'er I may, 
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. 

      The rainbow comes and goes, 10
      And lovely is the rose;
        The moon doth with delight 
    Look round her when the heavens are bare; 
     Waters on a starry night
        Are beautiful and fair;   15
    The sunshine is a glorious birth; 
    But yet I know, where'er I go, 
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth. 

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song, 
    And while the young lambs bound   20
    As to the tabor's sound,1
To me alone there came a thought of grief: 
A timely utterance2 gave that thought relief, 
        And I again am strong: 
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;   25
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong; 
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng, 
The winds come to me from the fields of sleep, 
        And all the earth is gay; 
  Land and sea 30
    Give themselves up to jollity, 
      And with the heart of May 
    Doth every beast keep holiday;— 
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy   35
    Shepherd-boy! 

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call 
    Ye to each other make; I see 
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee; 
    My heart is at your festival,   40
      My head hath its coronal, 
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all. 
      O evil day! if I were sullen
        While Earth herself is adorning, 
            This sweet May-morning,   45
        And the children are culling 
On every side,
        In a thousand valleys far and wide, 
        Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm, 
And the babe leaps up on his mother's arm:—   50
   I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
        —But there's a tree, of many, one, 
A single field which I have look'd upon, 
Both of them speak of something that is gone: 
  The pansy at my feet 55
       Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam? 
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:3
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,   60
        Hath had elsewhere its setting, 
   And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness, 
        And not in utter nakedness, 
But trailing clouds of glory do we come   65
     From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 
Shades of the prison-house begin to close 
       Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,   70
        He sees it in his joy; 
The Youth, who daily farther from the east 
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest, 
      And by the vision splendid 
      Is on his way attended;   75
At length the Man perceives it die away, 
And fade into the light of common day. 

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own; 
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind, 
And, even with something of a mother's mind,   80
        And no unworthy aim, 
    The homely nurse doth all she can 
To make her foster-child, her Inmate Man, 
    Forget the glories he hath known, 
And that imperial palace whence he came.   85

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses, 
A six years' darling of a pigmy size! 
See, where 'mid work of his own hand he lies, 
Fretted by sallies of his mother's kisses, 
With light upon him from his father's eyes!   90
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart, 
Some fragment from his dream of human life, 
Shaped by himself with newly-learnèd art; 
    A wedding or a festival, 
    A mourning or a funeral;   95
      And this hath now his heart,
    And unto this he frames his song: 
     Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues4 of business, love, or strife; 
        But it will not be long  100
      Ere this be thrown aside,
   And with new joy and pride
The little actor cons another part; 
Filling from time to time his 'humorous stage' 
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,  105
That Life brings with her in her equipage; 
        As if his whole vocation 
        Were endless imitation. 

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie 
        Thy soul's immensity;  110
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep 
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind, 
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep, 
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—5
    Mighty prophet! Seer blest! 6...115
      On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find, 
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave; 
Thou, over whom thy Immortality 
Broods like the Day, a master o'er a slave,  120
A presence which is not to be put by; 
To whom the grave
Is but a lonely bed without the sense or sight 
      Of day or the warm light,
A place of thought where we in waiting lie;  125
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might 
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height, 
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke 
The years to bring the inevitable yoke, 
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?  130
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight, 
And custom lie upon thee with a weight, 
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life! 

     O joy! that in our embers
        Is something that doth live,  135
        That nature yet remembers 
        What was so fugitive! 
The thought of our past years in me doth breed 
Perpetual benediction: not indeed 
For that which is most worthy to be blest—  140
Delight and liberty, the simple creed 
Of childhood, whether busy or at rest, 
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:— 
   Not for these I raise
        The song of thanks and praise;  145
    But for those obstinate questionings 
    Of sense and outward things, 
    Fallings from us, vanishings; 
    Blank misgivings of a Creature 
Moving about in worlds not realized,  150
High instincts before which our mortal Nature 
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised: 
        But for those first affections, 
        Those shadowy recollections, 
      Which, be they what they may,  155
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day, 
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing; 
  Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make 
Our noisy years seem moments in the being 
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,  160
To perish never:
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour, 
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy, 
Can utterly abolish or destroy!  165
    Hence in a season of calm weather 
     Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
        Which brought us hither, 
    Can in a moment travel thither,  170
And see the children sport upon the shore, 
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. 

Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound! 175
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright 180
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind; 185
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death, 190
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, 
Forebode not any severing of our loves! 
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might; 
I only have relinquish'd one delight  195
To live beneath your more habitual sway. 
I love the brooks which down their channels fret, 
Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they; 
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day 
Is lovely yet; 200
The clouds that gather round the setting sun 
Do take a sober colouring from an eye 
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality; 
Another race hath been, and other palms7 are won. 
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,  205
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. 

Notes
1. as to the tabor's sound: Like the sound of a small drum.
2. timely utterance: The sounds of nature, such as wind and waterfalls. 
3. Our birth . . . forgetting: At birth, humans close their eyes to the heavenly world from which they came and begin to lose their memory of their pre-existent abode. 
4. fit . . . dialogues: Speak.
5. eternal mind: God.
6. Mighty prophet! Seer blest: The little child of line 126.
7. palms: Palm leaves worn as symbols of victory. 

Interpretation

.......Wordsworth's poem expresses the view that the human soul exists first in heaven. When united at birth with a body, it brings with it impressions of heaven, as the following passage from the poem indicates: 

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory
These “trailing clouds” remain in a growing child as “intimations of immortality,” or memories of his celestial abode. However, when the child passes into his adolescent and teen years, his increasing exposure to the material world and the beauty of nature dims his memories of his heavenly beginning. By the time he enters adulthood, all but the merest recollection of his previous existence disappears. (In the ancient world, Plato believed that the human soul existed before birth in an incorporeal realm. Although it possessed vast knowledge, its memory of this knowledge failed after it united with a body at birth. A human being then occupied himself with restoring this knowledge through education.) Nevertheless, this faint memory is enough to light for him the path back to heaven:
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing

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Themes

Children See the Light

.......The speaker of the poem maintains paradoxically that the more a person ages—the more educated and experienced he becomes—the less he knows about heaven and God. A very young child, on the other hand, is a fountain of insight and enlightenment about the supernal world. After all, says the poem's speaker, a child's soul is a recent arrival from paradise. Memories of his heavenly abode are still vivid to him. He still sees the light of the eternal God.

Faith

.......There is in all of us a heavenly spark that can ignite the fire of faith to support us through troubled times, keeping alive the thought of reuniting with the Creator in the celestial realm. 

Ennui

.......Humans become jaded and world-weary after losing their childhood innocence and enthusiasm. 

Meter, Feet, and Line Length

.......Wordsworth uses iambic feet throughout the poem. An iambic foot (or iamb) consists of a pair of syllables, the first one unstressed and the second stressed. For example, in the fifth line of the first stanza, the first two syllables (The GLOR) make up the first iambic foot, and the second two syllables (y AND) make up the second iambic foot. The meter of the poem varies from dimeter to hexameter. (A line with two iambic feet makes up a dimeter; three feet, a trimeter; four feet, a tetrameter; five feet, a pentameter; and six feet a hexameter.) 
.......Below is a graphic illustrating the iambic feet and meter of each line in the first stanza. Numbers appear above each iambic foot in the lines on the left. On the right is the name of the meter. Line 1 is in iambic pentameter, line 2 in iambic tetrameter, line 3 in iambic dimeter, and so on. 
 

.........1...............2.................3.....................4......................5
There WAS..|..a TIME..|..when MEAD..|..ow, GROVE,..|..and STREAM,
Pentameter
.........1................2...............3................4.
The EARTH,..|..and EV..|..ry COM..|..mon SIGHT,
Tetrameter
.....1..............2
To ME..|..did SEEM
Dimeter
......1..............2.............3...............4
Ap PAR..|..elled IN..|..cel EST..|..ial LIGHT,
Tetrameter
........1..............2.................3................4.................5
The GLOR..|..y AND..|..the FRESH..|..ness OF..|..a DREAM.
Pentameter
..1.............2.............3.............4..................5
It IS..|..not NOW..|..as IT..|..hath BEEN..|..of YORE;
Pentameter
........1....................2.............3
Turn WHERE..|..so E'ER..|..I MAY,
Trimeter
.......1..............2
By NIGHT..|..or DAY,
Dimeter
..........1...............2.................3................4................5..............6
The THINGS..|..which I..|..have SEEN..|..I NOW..|..can SEE..|..no MORE.
Hexameter

Rhyme

.......The poem uses end rhyme and internal rhyme. The pattern of the end rhyme varies. Note, for example, the difference between the rhyming pattern of the first stanza and that of the second.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;— 
        Turn wheresoe'er I may
By night or day
The things which I have seen I now can see no more

      The rainbow comes and goes,   10
     And lovely is the rose
  The moon doth with delight
    Look round her when the heavens are bare
      Waters on a starry night
        Are beautiful and fair;   15
    The sunshine is a glorious birth
    But yet I know, where'er I go, 
That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth

Wordsworth uses internal rhyme sparingly but to good effect. Following are examples:
But yet I know, where'er I go (line 17)
Fallings from us, vanishings; 147 (line 147)
Which, be they what they may, (line 155)
Though inland far we be (line 167)


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Figures of Speech

.......Examples of figures of speech in the poem are the following:

Alliteration
Repetition of a consonant sound

From God, who is our home (line 66)

Behold the Child among his new-born blisses (line 86)

See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life (lines 91 and 92)

Anaphora
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
Ye that pipe and ye that play, 
Ye that through your hearts to-day (lines 177-178)
Apostrophe
Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent, or addressing an absent person or entity
And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, 
Forebode not any severing of our loves! (lines 192-193)
Metaphor
Comparison between unlike things without using like, as, or than
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep (line 25)
(Comparison of waterfalls to musicians)

The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star (line 60)
(Comparison of the soul to a guiding star)

Paradox
Contradictory statement used to express a truth
Those shadowy recollections
Which, be they what they may,  155
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day, 
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing
(Shadows are a source of light)
Personification
Comparison of a thing to a person
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare (lines 12-13)
(These lines compare the moon to a person experiencing delight)

Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity (lines 30-31)
(These lines compare the land and the sea to jolly persons)

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own; 
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind, 
And, even with something of a mother's mind, 
And no unworthy aim, 
The homely nurse doth all she can 
To make her foster-child, her Inmate Man, 
Forget the glories he hath known, 
And that imperial palace whence he came. (lines 78-85)
(This stanza compares earth to a womanin particular, to a mother and a nurse)

Synecdoche
Substitution of a part to stand for the whole, or the whole to stand for a part
thou eye among the blind (line 112)
("Eye" represents a child who guides adults)
Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Have you ever had "intimations of immortality"? If so, explain the nature of them.
2. The poem says a child is a "Mighty prophet" (line 111). What does a child foretell? 
3. Is conscience a form of inborn knowledge?
4. In an essay, compare and contrast Plato's belief in the pre-existence of the soul with Wordsworth's belief on the same topic. 

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