Much of the debate surrounding Wordsworth’s Ode, has to do with the overall meaning Wordsworth was trying to communicate. On one side, there are those who follow Lionel Trilling’s belief that the poem represents the path a child takes on his way to maturity and adulthood. Although similar, the other side contends that the ode is, instead, a sad remembrance, during an older age of worldly obscurity, of a younger, purer state of self. The most prominent division between the two opposing sides stems from the way each of them angle their view of how to interpret the poem itself.
For instance, some see that the interpretation of the whole ode is reliant upon Wordsworth’s own beliefs at various points in time because it would render certain parts of poem unbelievable if Wordsworth no longer believed it himself. Then again, there are those who see the interpretation of the poem as a reliable, complete thought on its own without the changing personal views of the author coming into play and therefore the meaning is immutable and is reliant on all parts of the poem.
John Mathison in his “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” wishes to support the controversial position that in Wordsworth’s Ode there is an acceptance of “the pre-existence of the soul” (419). In quoting the ideas of Professor Hoyt Hudson, Mathison criticizes those who would the opposite of his position as abstract readers (420) who treat lines of poetry “in isolation and are unwilling to accept it as true, they either abolish Wordsworth the philosopher to keep Wordsworth the poet, or attempt to justify the possibility of his believing it for a variety of reasons” (421). To the majority of Wordsworth’s critics, any one of his poems is a document which helps us in our understanding of Wordsworth” (421) Mathison writes, and actually concedes that “for some purposes this is … the most valuable approach” (424), but warns that it is not the only one (424). He then goes on to argue that the same people who are concerned with the idea of “each of [Wordsworth’s] poems as a great document in Wordsworth’s creed” (424) are the same people who “slur” (424) over and “direct attention away from” (424) various stanzas.
Mathison recognizes that the chief argument lies in the inability of the other side to “admit the middle stanzas” (425) and goes on to cite the explanation H. W. Garrod, an excellent example, in Mathison’s own words, of one who doesn’t “skim over the offending stanzas” (425), that “Nothing that [Wordsworth] says anywhere suggests that he entertained the doctrine [of anamnesis] otherwise than seriously” (426).
Garrod’s belief, however, Mathison criticizes because it falls short when one considers the middle stanzas and Garrod’s opinion that “the conclusion of the Ode to be inadequate” (427) brings back into consideration the “concern, not finally with the nature of the poem, but with the man Wordsworth” (427) again, when considering the middle stanzas.
In addressing the opposition, Mathison states that the “difficulty results from failing to remember that the meaning of each part of a poem depends on all the rest, that as much as the reader may like to enter the world of a poem, he cannot very well carry isolated pieces of it” (428) and comments that “it is Wordsworth and not the Ode which finally interests” (430) them. Aspiring to be what Hudson would describe as a “concrete reader” (433), Mathison walks through the poem giving explanation that could only be found if one had read the poem and excluded Wordsworth’s personal views.
In stanzas one and two, Mathison comments that there is little room for interpretation besides that they are simply descriptions of the beauty of nature (435). Moving on to stanzas three and four, Mathison notes that the “discussion changed” (436), “the delightfulness of the scene has reminded him vividly of the greater delight now lost, and he cannot but keep asking about the loss and trying to account for it” (436).
Mathison continues by stating that “we have been prepared by our response to the first fours stanzas of the poem” (437) to “assent to the appropriateness of the concept to the situation which brought [the stanzas five through eighth] to mind” (437). To answer his opposing critics, Mathison comments that “after the poet says that the true explanation of these things is not important, becomes clear that the hypothesis of pre-existence need not be permanently retained” (438).
Therefore what was once seen as contradictory or out of place, is now an understandable train of thought which leads to the “representation of the condition of the mind of the poet in a particular reverie … and the realization of a difference between his present and past reaction to nature” (439). John Rea, who holds a unique middle-of-the-road position which has attributes of both sides of the argument, in his “Wordsworth’s Intimations f Palingenesia,” uses the “abstract reading” qualities of Trilling to draw an unnoticed connection in a segment of Wordsworth’s Ode to come to a conclusion that is more in line with Mathison’s. Rea’s passage of particular focus is lines 134-137: O Joy! that in our embers Is something that doth live, That nature yet remembers What was so fugitive!
Rea claims that most readers miss the real meaning behind the passage because it is not well known that Wordsworth “had in mind the stories of the alchemists, that flowers may be re-created from their ashes and made to glow with all their pristine beauty of color and form” (82). My authority for this connection is Coleridge himself” (83) Rea asserts, and then goes on to mention Coleridge’s Essay XI of the Second Section of The Friend, wherein “Coleridge gives his own philosophy of many matters dealt with by Wordsworth in the Ode” (83). Of the subject matter that Coleridge comments on, Rea stresses the importance of Coleridge’s quote that “If we may not rather resemble them to the resurgent ashes, with which (according to the tales of the later alchemists) the substantial forms of bird and flower made themselves visible” (84) in relation to the following passage of Wordsworth:
On some gilded cloud or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity. Coleridge’s comment thus brings us to Robert Southey’s Omniana where Southey “gives accounts from various authors of such palingenesia … not merely of plants but of animals” (84) of which is seems very probably Wordsworth had read some of the original sources of these stories considering Southey and Coleridge had (83).
Rea finishes his argument by noticing Southey’s quote of Abbey de Vallemont where a dead bird rises from its own ashes to live again and states that “It is but a step from this account of the joy of seeing a dead bird re-created from its ashes to thoughts of human palingenesia” (85) as in Wordsworth’s line 134 of his Ode: “Oh joy! that in our embers. ” It is ronic to see how singling out a specific passage as the “abstract readers” do, Rea is able to come up with an overall meaning so similar to Mathison’s: “Just such an intimation of future life from embers Wordsworth, too, found in memory—the memory of moods of our own past childhood” (85).
Blank, Kim. Wordsworth and Feeling: The Poetry of an Adult Child. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1995. Print. Fry, Paul. Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. New Haven,CT: Yale University Press, 2008. Print. Gray, Erik. “Nostalgia, the classics, and the Intimations Ode: Wordsworth’s forgotten education. ” Philological Quarterly 80. 2 (2001): 187+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
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