There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light … It is not now as it hath been in days of yore … The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
William Wordsworth opened thus his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” “There was a time” as a child when the world’s wonder glistened on his face, but he “can see no more.” He later says that, while he can now see delightful moons and rainbows, “there hath passed away a glory from the earth.”
The poet’s longing seems characteristic of his Romantic age: the vernal imagery, the ideal of youthfulness, the worship of innocent delight. Wordsworth, though, has a different conclusion, and a different philosophy, than you might expect. The “Ode” is strongly Platonist, with repeated invocations of Immortality and a moving panegyric on the pre-existence of the soul.
I am running ahead of myself, though. It is easy to bedeck the past with glittery ornamentation, seeing the best in an epoch lost – thereby highlighting in the present calamity, immorality, or ennui. More than a psychological justification for moaning, this view of the past can also be seen as an articulation of the soul’s longing. That is, regardless of whether the “golden age” depiction is correct, its reference to the present is one way to express the feeling of disconnect between one’s ideals and desires, versus the present reality.
And all the more with our childhood! How easy is it to fall into conversations that amount to “Remember Saved by the Bell?” and “My Mom used to put little notes in my lunchbag, too!”? Now, this kind of longing is hard to distinguish from whining. It is a longing for a perceived freedom we no longer have, and a delight we find hard to experience so directly.
And this is exactly where Wordsworth goes deeper.
The thought of our past years in me doth breed Perpetual benediction: not indeed For that which is most worthy to be blest: Delight and liberty, the simple creed Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest … But for those obstinate questionings Of sense and outward things … Moving about in worlds not realized, High instincts, before which our mortal nature Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised
It would appear that Wordsworth is an old-fashioned Cynic, staring baldly at man-made conventions. Unlike the Greek Cynics and the Nietzschean modernists, though, Wordsworth is not looking to flaunt this in people’s faces. Rather, he feels some trepidation about this situation. And unlike modern materialists, Wordsworth doesn’t think human conventions are any kind of opiate. He longs for childhood – but not for the sheer delight or the unconstrained liberty. He longs
… for those first affections, Those shadowy recollections, Which, be they what they may, Are yet the fountain light of all our day
Intuition, visceral attractions, immediacy – these are the goods of Wordsworth’s Romantic heart. Upon that, the child slowly builds and plans, setting his reason to work, “filling from time to time his humorous stage” in the drama of a life that is actually a show.
In Wordsworth’s Platonism, God is the real home of the soul. Now, Augustine made the same (Platonically-informed) point in a Christian context. However, the poet makes clear his philosophical underpinnings by further saying that Earth makes “her inmate, Man, forget the glories he hath known.” He later describes Immortality as an ocean from whence we came, from which we are far inland, and children nearest the shore.
This point should finally illuminate Wordworth’s fascination with childhood. But what then should he do? Relive his youth? No, the truly surprising conclusion is his reflection on what can be done with these ruminations.
What though the radiance which was once so bright 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.
Why is this shocking? At least to modern ears, we must notice that this is an incomplete solution. The former is not restored, the circle is not closed, the defeat is not vanquished – the past is not returned to. Its losses are neither forgotten, nor used as a lesson. The past is, rather, an accumulated experience which is what it is – and we are bound never to reinterpret it, and never to bask in its light while the present slips away.
Wordsworth holds this tension, where the psyche seeks to escape it. The strength that remains behind, to the poet, includes “soothing thoughts” that come from suffering, faith that can see past death, and the philosophic thoughts of senescence. Each of these combines a negative experience (suffering, death, aging) with a positive complement that will not whitewash or erase. Without endorsing the philosophy of Wordsworth, we must uphold his conclusions in the face of a society that runs on soullessness, and a mind often too weak to bear reality, past or present.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.