Thursday, February 26, 2009

Intimations Ode, st. 5

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
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 do we come
From God, who is our home[.]

Wordsworth's awkwardly titled "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is one of a handful of absolute canonical standards from the romantics. The lines quoted above come from the beginning of the fifth stanza, immediately after the speaker's troubled question about the loss of "glory": "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" In essence, we have a speaker who recalls a time when he was charged with a spiritual energy by gazing on and interacting with a beautiful natural world, but now, as he says at the end of the first stanza, "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." Indeed, the opening four stanzas repeatedly express the speaker's distress at his lost vision culminating in the questions about the fate of the "visionary gleam," the "glory," and the "dream."

The lines at the top of this post present Wordsworth's answer to these questions in the notion of a pre-existent soul. An explication of the passage might go something like this: While we typically think of birth as a kind of awakening, Wordsworth here calls it a "sleep and a forgetting." Why? Well, waking up (e.g. being born) into this natural, physical world is a matter of temporarily leaving behind some realm where we existed before being embodied here in nature. Using the metaphor of a sunrise (that is, the rise of our "life's Star"), Wordsworth suggests that our emergence into this physical natural world means that we had our "sunset" in some previous existence. For the most part--and certainly as adults--we forget this pre-existent condition. But when we are still young, we still can recall a few things about our original home. In other words, birth may be a "forgetting," but we haven't forgotten everything just yet; on the contrary, we come into this world "trailing clouds of glory" from our still recent contact with "God, who is our home." As the stanza continues Wordsworth describes how these youthful recollections of the Divine are eventually forgotten as the youth grows into full maturity and becomes ever more thoroughly incorporated into a natural life.

Especially relevant here in relation to the speaker's initial distress is the word "glory." In the previous stanza, the speaker wondered where the "glory" went. Now he knows. He had initially thought that nature itself was "glorious" but that he could no longer perceive that glory. Hence, the distress of the opening stanzas. Now he recognizes that "glory" was not an aspect of nature, but rather a way of perceiving nature when looking through those "clouds of glory" whose origins are in God rather than in nature. This may seem to be small comfort--after all, forgetting one's divine origins may be even worse than feeling unable to interact in meaningful ways with nature. But for Wordsworth, this is sincerely comforting--if he can recall a time when he did perceive this divine glory, that means that the glory still exists! It is not an aspect of nature and thus subject to time, mutability, mortality; instead, glory comes "From God, who is our home," and God, presumably, is beyond nature, beyond the vicissitudes of time, change, and loss.

A moment's reflection on an analogy will clarify the point: Consider the statement "Ahh! I remember the days when I had an immortal Soul. That was great while it lasted, but now I'm sad." Such an argument is, of course, absurd--one does not, by definition, "get over" being immortal. This is something like the speaker's condition in the Ode. He recalls a day when the objects of nature seemed glorious, as though "Apparelled in celestial light," but now he's gloomy, thinking that the glorious celestial light is for him extinguished. In fact, if he can recall a time when he was confident in the existence of such glory, then such glory must still exist. And this observation serves to explain Wordsworth's clumsy title--his recollections of the "clouds of glory" of early childhood are intimations of the immortality of the now rational, mature, adult speaker's soul.

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