January 17, 2018
On this day in 1802 William Wordsworth began writing "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." The poem contains some of his most well-known lines and ideas -- that "the child is father of the man," that "birth is but a sleep and a forgetting," that "trailing clouds of glory do we come," however these must fade:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
This is stanza one of what would eventually be eleven stanzas, but in 1802 Wordsworth broke off after the first four stanzas, at "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" He did not return to the poem for several years, some critics reasonably concluding that he had asked a question for which he had no adequate answer at the time, or answer which intimated considerably less than immortality. In his recent biography, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (1998), Kenneth Johnston describes the "Intimations" ode, and other verse written about this time, as indicative of both Wordsworths, the dark and the sunny:
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
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....
If people left notes saying why they had decided not to commit suicide lying next to the suicide note of their original impulse, we could say that [the poem] combines both macabre genres.
Johnston's book makes many controversial speculations along the lines indicated by his subtitle -- speculations so contested, in fact, that the paperback edition dropped the subtitle. In the paragraph following the passage above, he adds this to his description of the suicidal element in Wordsworth's poems:
A week later he and Dorothy [Wordsworth's sister] re-created the mise-en-scene of this poem. They climbed up into John's Grove and lay down next to each other in adjoining trenches, imagining they were lying in their graves. The singularity of this behavior is not lessened by our knowledge that they had often done it before. It seems to have been a form of therapy for subduing their strong erotic attractions to each other.
Still, Johnston is conservative compared to the recent film about Wordsworth and Coleridge, Pandaemonium. One reviewer said this was "Cliff's Notes on Acid"; another said it should come with a disclaimer aimed at students: "This Film Will Seriously Injure Your Examination Prospects." Or just take time away from the poetry, such as this from later on in the "Intimations" ode, also borrowed by the movies:
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;
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,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.