Too deep for tears

7 months ago 78

Stimulating, stylish and meticulously researched, Graham Davidson’s latest book offers new ways of reading William Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, a poem central to his poetic oeuvre, but often wildly misread or simply misunderstood. Francis Jeffrey, an unsympathetic reader, termed it “illegible and unintelligible”; T. S. Eliot dismissed it as “verbiage”. Published in 1807, the last poem in Poems, in Two Volumes, and republished in 1815, with a new subtitle, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, the Ode has disconcerted readers and critics alike, lauded for the astonishing musicality of its verse and traduced for its seeming lack of clarity. What, for instance, is the meaning of the “Immortality” of the poem’s subtitle? Eschewing literary theory and sidestepping the misleading critical comments that have bedevilled the poem since its publication, Davidson attempts to answer the many questions that the poem raises, offering fresh insight into the Ode, Wordsworth’s other major poems and the ideas that inform his work, central to which is the relationship between mind, nature and God.

Unlocking this relationship is key to the poem’s intelligibility and to Wordsworth’s poetry in general. The key lies with an obscure group of seventeenth-century theologians, the Cambridge Platonists. There is no evidence that Wordsworth read the work of this now largely forgotten group, but they seem to have had a remarkable influence on his poetry and ideas. They both shared the same concern: to heal the division between mind and nature formalized by Descartes. The Cambridge Platonists saw a mind separate from nature as leading to a nature at odds with the power they attributed to God. Reason became the root of spiritual truths in accord with divine revelation. “Highest Reason”, as Wordsworth called it, is “always a power and never a state”, however, and never wholly within the control of the individual. As soon as Wordsworth ceases to experience this power, to “feel” its presence, the relationship between mind and nature breaks down and nature becomes unintelligible. By contrast, when mind and nature are one, Paradise is regained and nature becomes intelligible.

The Ode pivots on the dislocation between mind and nature, a unity the adult speaker once enjoyed in childhood and that he now seeks to recover. The poem begins with the speaker lamenting his loss of childhood power – of an earth “Apparelled in celestial light” – a valorization of the child paralleled in the work of the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne, himself a follower of the Cambridge Platonists. The origin of the child’s power – in the mind or in nature – is unclear throughout much of the poem until a discovery, or recovery, is made in stanza IX. A sudden, joyful celebration of the fugitive, shadowy recollections of childhood – “O joy! that in our embers / Is something that doth live” – forms a bridge to the “faith that looks through death” and in turn to the “years that bring the philosophic mind”. Past, present and future combine. At the close of the poem thoughts “too deep for tears”, themselves an echo of the “philosophic mind”, encapsulate Wordsworth’s hard-won sense of immortality – adult and child bound to nature by love and natural piety.

Davidson speculates about how Wordsworth’s aesthetics and his poetry, and indeed the Ode, might have been received if his great autobiographical poem The Prelude had been published in 1809 instead of 1850. Would its publication, combined with the publication of some version of Home at Grasmere, have enabled Wordsworth to make a more significant impression on later poets? The Victorians largely turned away from the Poems of 1815, understanding neither what Wordsworth meant by the “Imagination” nor its relevance to his aesthetics. Eliot as a result saw Wordsworth as sentimentalizing nature. With a different publication history, a different Wordsworth and a different Ode would have been mediated to the twentieth century and beyond, a Wordsworth genuinely engaged with healing the division between mind and nature.

The premiss of The Intelligible Ode is ambitious, although the repetition of ideas and quotations across chapters can be tiresome, even if evidence of a mind constantly grappling with Wordsworth’s complex ideas. The sections on the minor poems of 1802 add little overall. But the book, much of it written during the lockdowns of 2020–2, without access to a library, is an extraordinary achievement, shedding new light on Wordsworth’s poetry and thinking.

Jayne Thomas is the author of Tennyson Echoing Wordsworth, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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