I’ve been teaching Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” for the first time since my grandchildren Alban and Esmé were born. Suddenly the poem’s references to children take on a whole new potency.
Much of the poem is a lament for our loss of connection with the “Eternal Mind” out of which we were born. Our birth, Wordsworth explains, “is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Babies and even children still have a connection with that soul, which Wordsworth also describes as “the eternal deep,” “that immortal sea,” and “that imperial palace.” We enter the world “trailing clouds of glory”:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home . . .
This means that a young shepherd functions as a kind of conduit. We may lose connection with the eternal Mind as we get older—“Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing boy”—but through the sight of shepherd boys calling joyously to each other, the poet is able to recall what he has lost:
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy
Ye blesséd 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,
My head hath its coronal,
The fullness of your bliss, I feel–I feel it all.
Because I experience such fullness as I gaze upon Alban and Esmé, I am open to the idea that I am having “intimations of immortality.” Certainly my heart feels like a festival and I sense something deep at work. Perhaps Wordsworth is right and each of my grandchildren is a “best philosopher” who functions as an “eye among the blind.” Perhaps each is a “mighty prophet” and a “seer blest” who has access to truths that we adults “toil[ ] all our lives to find.” Given the intensity with which my grandchildren engage with life—they are open to every dimension of their surroundings—it is indeed as though they are surrounded by “a Presence which is not to be put by”:
Thou whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity;
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,–
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths 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,
A Presence which is not to be put by . . .
But I also think of them differently than Wordsworth. It’s as though the poet cares more about himself than about the children he is watching. When he laments that they will grow up as he did, it is William that he mourns for.
Whereas when I am watching Esmé and Alban, I don’t see a loss but a building towards something. They are learning machines, absorbing everything around them, and I imagine what they might do with that knowledge, just as I remain excited by what their fathers are doing with their knowledge. Wordsworth complains that, as we get older, the glorious sun loses its luster and fades into the light of common day, but I continue to see Darien and Toby throw themselves into projects with something of Alban’s and Esmé’s enthusiasm. I don’t associate growing up with prison houses, earthly freight, and “heavy as frost.”
And, in the end, Wordsworth also comes around, acknowledging that adults have something special. When we grow up, we develop a reflective awareness of the human heart. Children may remind the poet of his direct connection with the Eternal Mind, but the experiences of life deepen his soul. This leads to the poem’s justly famous conclusion:
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.
So Alban, Esmé, Darien and Toby, thanks for the constant reminders of the soul’s immensity. In loving you, I find myself sporting on the shore of that immortal sea and hearing the waves rolling evermore.