A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.
Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:
Liberty must raise
Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;
Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–
Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!
Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire
Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:
Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;
As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!
–All cannot be: the promise is too fair
For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:
Yet not for this will sober reason frown
Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;
She knows that only from high aims ensue
Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.
Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.
The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.
Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:
Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.
In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’ which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to
elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life
One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.
In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.
Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.
Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.
The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence. At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.
One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.
Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.
Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.
Postscript, or, what’s the point?
This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.
Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.