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Analysis of Poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth and a Summary Analysis of Ode Intimations of Immortality

Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood is a poem that focuses on human feelings, time and the inevitable change from childhood perception to that of adult reasoning.

As Wordsworth himself wrote in a letter to his friend Catherine Clarkson:

The poem rests entirely upon two recollections of childhood, one that of a splendour in the objects of sense which is passed away, and the other an indisposition to bend to the law of death as applying to our own particular case. A Reader who has not a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind cannot understand that poem.

So here is Wordsworth stating quite clearly that the ode is based on dual facets of memory ('poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility' from the preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798) which he attempts to interpret and reconcile through his powerful poetic imagination.

Many scholars and critics over the years have questioned whether or not certain lines in the poem suggest a belief or curiosity in the pre-existence of the human soul.

The fifth stanza in particular reflects the ideas of Plato, those of the soul existing beyond death and before life as an intelligible entity, continually reborn. The question is often asked: Did Wordsworth, the romantic poet, actually believe in this philosophical/esoteric theory or did he use the idea poetically?

In a note dictated late in life (1843) to his young friend Isabella Fenwick, Wordsworth worried that the "presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence contained in these lines might have misled good and pious people to conclude that I meant to inculcate such a belief."

There's little doubt on this evidence that the poet used the Platonic idea of soul not because he believed in the theory, but because it suited his poetic ambition. As he himself stated in his prose writings:

"a pre-existent state has entered into the popular creeds of many nations; and, among all persons acquainted with classic literature, is known as an ingredient in Platonic philosophy."

"I took hold of the notion of pre-existence as having sufficient foundation in humanity for authorising me to make for my purpose the best use of it I could as a poet."

At the time of writing, 1802 - 1804, he must have felt a need to take stock of his creative life. He had married childhood friend Mary Hutchinson in October 1802, she bearing five children in total, John and Dora being born in the years this poem took shape.

Earlier in 1802 he had visited Annette Vallon in France who he had met in 1791 during the French revolution. Their love-child Caroline was born in 1792, the poet meeting her for the first time during this what must have been a highly charged few weeks and months.

Wordsworth, encouraged by Mary, gave payments to Annette Vallon over the years for Caroline's upkeep. The relationship seems to have been an amicable one.

Meanwhile the poet kept on writing. Sonnets and other short verses appeared during this dynamic period. Poems such as The Rainbow (aka My Heart Leaps Up):

My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a Man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

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The last three lines of this poem were used as the epigraph to the Ode when it was published again in the book Poems, in 1815.

This extract from Wordsworth's prose writings again underlines his premise, that children are naturally born with a 'sense of immortality' and that as human beings the older we get the more distant from that source we become.

Forlorn and cut off from communication with the best part of his nature must that man be who should derive the sense of immortality, as it exists in the mind of a child, from the same unthinking gaiety or liveliness of animal spirits with which the lamb in the meadow, or any other irrational creature is endowed; who should ascribe it, in short, to blank ignorance in the child.

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Reading Through Ode : Intimations of Immortality

The Ode is a long poem, 206 lines in total, split into eleven varying stanzas each with its own complex rhyme scheme.

It is not an easy read at first but, once the initial rhythms and pace are established, and the reader at home with the rhyme and the sense and the syntax, the magic begins to work.

Perhaps the best approach is a slow read through stanza by stanza, taking note of archaic language, bearing in mind always that Wordsworth, as a true romantic and astute observer of nature, mixes thought and feeling, literal and figurative language, like no other.

Look out for the archaic and challenging language:

yore - former times

doth - does

hath - have

thus - therefore

tabor - small hand-held drum

Cataracts - waterfalls

throng - dense crowd

ye - you

blessed - holy/truly happy

coronal - crown

whither - to what place/ to which/to where

cometh - come

beholds - sees or observes

whence - from what place/from which place

pigmy - smaller version/tinier

fretted - worn away

sallies - energetic bursts

unto - to/until

Ere - before

palsied - paralysed/trembling uncontrollably (the palsy)

Equipage - carriage, horses, liverymen/all the equipment needed

belie - fail to fulfil/fail to give the truth

dost - doth/does

blest - blessed

whom - who

yoke - wooden beam covering necks of animals/forced to live unhappily with

thee - you

Hence - from now on/as a consequence

hither - to this place

thither - to that place

thou - you

thy - your

Wordsworth's Intimation Ode - Summary of Each Stanza

Stanza 1

There was a time...

The speaker looks back to a time when all things, especially in nature, seemed full of glory and freshness, as in a dream. Childhood is idealised, romanticised - the present is not so enlightening.

Stanza 2

The Rainbow comes....

This idea of essential loss is reinforced. The speaker, now fully in the present, an adult, acknowledges sun, moon and rose but also feels that something is missing - glory.

Stanza 3

Now, while the Birds...

The speaker as an individual feels sad and weakened because of this loss but something, a sound (utterance), perhaps birdsong, a voice, brings relief. There is a change - a realisation that grief shouldn't prevail when all around nature is awakening in the month of May.

Stanza 4

Ye blessed Creatures....

Again, the natural world is extolled and generally praised but the nagging feeling of loss persists. The speaker is still very much tuned into bird and flower and babe, with head and's just that essential something, factor X, that is lacking.

Stanza 5

Our birth is but a sleep...

The most famous and oft quoted stanza. If the first four stanzas repeat the theme of blissful childhood visionary gleam versus thoughtful adult inability to dream, stanza five is a philosophical attempt to sum up the spiritual life of a human on planet earth.

And in it is contained the kernel of Platonic thinking - that every human has a soul - and when born this soul enables us, as children, to experience the world anew.

Wordsworth is giving credibility to his feelings - the recollections of childhood when the soul brings the 'visionary gleam' into the eyes - by underpinning it with philosophy for poetical gain.

Stanza 6

Earth fills her lap...

With a focus on the role of the Earth, metaphorically seen as a Mother and Nurse, the speaker widens the perspective of our life on the planet, suggesting that this material plane, over time, gradually undermines the soul.

Stanza 7

Behold the Child...

The speaker introduces us to a child, six years old, and how family life starts to shape the little human's mind. Loved and cared for, this child grows up and learns how to communicate, how to act.

Echoes of Shakespeare's All The World's A Stage (from the play As You Like It) here perhaps, the child's fragment from his dream taken on into adult life, time and again repeated.

Stanza 8

Thou, whose exterior...

The child is addressed personally as Thou...the speaker delving deeper into the soulfulness of the child, praising the prophetical qualities a child possesses. Note how the child is a male, the soul a female.

Life, seen as a yoke or weight, will inevitably encumber the growing child as time passes.

Stanza 9

O joy! that in...

The speaker re-focuses on the self and in this the longest stanza makes a statement of joyous intent, taking into account the journey of the soul as it experiences all that life can offer on earth.

Yet for all the life lived there is recognition that other worlds exist beyond perception, where truths lie in a great Silence. The immortal sea awaits, is always there, from which the soul returns to and then re-emerges.

Stanza 10

Then, sing ye birds...

The optimism reaches a new high as the speaker realises that, yes, that childhood soulfulness which brought such vision and freshness may have dissipated, faded over time but that is no reason for depression or sadness.

Nature is fully expressing, with song and movement, and the philosophical approach to these pleasures is justified - even death can be faced, or the death of past glories can be celebrated, new strengths found.

Stanza 11

And oh ye Fountains...

This is the culmination, the conclusion, the speaker announcing simply and wholeheartedly that the beauty and depth of the landscape and the living things within it still bring delight and emotional response.

Even an insignificant flower can inspire the mind, which is deep, and the creative mind can always find a way out of sadness.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality


Analysis: Stanza 1 of Wordsworth's Ode

The recollection begins. Here is the speaker looking back to a time when nature and everyday things were clothed in a special light. It's a very personal involvement. Yet, things have changed, time has altered the perception. There is a loss. What could that loss be?

This long and complex poem, with varying length of line, begins simply enough with a classic iambic pentameter line, split into five feet:

  • There was / a time / when mead / ow, grove / and stream,

Wordsworth keeps this basic metrical rhythm, the iambic foot, dominant throughout but does vary the metre considerably in certain lines. This helps break the monotony of the daDUM daDUM iambic beat, and together with punctuation, brings subtlety, texture and altered pace.


Analysis of Stanza 2 and Stanza 3 Wordsworth's Ode

Stanza 2

In a similar tone the speaker again remarks on the beauty of nature - from rainbow to rose, from moon to sun, water to star - so there is awareness of the aesthetic still, yet the doubt persists.

With a mix of trimeter: The Rainbow comes and goes - and tetrameter - But yet I know, where're I go - Wordsworth shortens line length to counterbalance the pentameter and the final hexameter (what's known as an Alexandrine line, with six feet).

This challenges the reader, who has to pause, reflecting the transitory nature of rainbow and the blooming rose despite the use of enjambment in two lines.

The rhyme scheme differs from the opening stanza's, that word go half-rhyming, not quite dovetailing to the full.

Stanza 3

Seventeen lines in this stanza, nearly double the first two, and an even more complex rhyme scheme, albeit one with six couplets, bringing a solid feel to the lines.

The first three lines are all positive: the birds sing, the lambs bound, but the fourth line comes as something of a surprise as the speaker experiences a thought of grief followed immediately by relief due to a call or a voice that comes just in time to stall sadness.

The reader isn't told what this timely utterance is, - could it be the sound of the Cataracts (waterfalls) as they tumble noisily down? Suffice to say that the speaker regains optimism and vows not to undermine the season's positivity.

In fact, this stanza ends with the speaker in a state of near ecstasy as he notes that even every Beast is on holiday and the Shepherd Boy (could his timely utterance have saved the speaker?) is encouraged to shout. Is this an actual Shepherd Boy or the speaker's child within?


Analysis of Stanza 4

Stanza 4

Twenty two lines this time, with couplets and tercets (three rhyming lines together), which reinforces the togetherness of those lines for sure.

This stanza like the three preceding is both praise and doubt, gain and loss, with a bit of regret thrown in. The speaker goes further in his recognition of and involvement in nature, this time focusing on the blessed Creatures (both wild and domestic?).

He feels their bliss as they communicate and go about their business at one with the world. He regrets being sullen when spring is in the air and children are picking flowers and a mother and baby are out in the warm sun.

The sense here is that the speaker doesn't want to admit there's something wrong when there's so much positive energy around.

But there is a loss, he cannot refute or ignore it. A tree, a field and a pansy - is it they who have lost this magic? Or him? It has to be the speaker, something amiss within the speaker, because tree, field and pansy are the same, being tree, field and pansy, nothing more nothing less.


Analysis of Stanza 5

Stanza 5

The best known stanza, often quoted. The speaker refers to the Soul and our physical birth, how we each carry our life's Star (perhaps from a former life?) and as infants are fresh from God.

As we grow up the glory, the natural joy we experience as youngsters, starts to fade until it becomes a part of everyday life.

This is the pre-existence stanza based on Platonic thinking and esoteric philosophy, whereby the soul, which is everlasting, is born into us as the immortal part, beyond rational understanding.

Iambic pentameter dominates these 19 lines, the end two lines being classical five feet:

  • At length / the Man / perceives / it die / away,
  • And fade / into / the light / of com / mon day.

Analysis of Stanza 6 and Stanza 7

Stanza 6

The earth is metaphorically a Nurse and we humans foster-children, Inmates no less, which echoes with the earlier reference to the prison-house. This is a curious stanza, it's the shortest in the poem and suggests that there is a conscious effort on the earth's behalf to make the human (soul) forget the previous glorious life.

That is, as humans, with new souls, we've come from the heavenly plane to work out our lives on the earthly plane.

Stanza 7

There is focus on a six year old child, loved by mother and father, who continues to grow and love life, working out the patterns from a set template, like an actor in a play who stays in character yet has to day by day, year by year adjust to circumstances.

Interestingly this stanza, which is full of iambic pentameter lines, ends on a trimeter couplet, the short lines repeating the seven syllable beat.


Analysis of Stanza 8

Stanza 8

This stanza now addresses the child directly in 24 lines, the longest stanza yet in this deep exploration of the soul. The speaker is basically calling the child a Mighty Prophet! a Seer blest! which is taking the idea of the child as visionary, with heaven-born freedom to the limit.

Adults toil to find the truth - the little child is born with it - courtesy of the eternal mind which instils a kind of instinctive philosophy.

Yet the child cannot escape the burden of life on earth, yoked to time. So it seems that the speaker is implying that earthly existence affects the purity of the soul.

Again, iambic pentameters play a big role in this stanza, contrasting with the shorter trimeter lines and one dimeter, two iambs: To whom / the grave...


Analysis of Stanza 9

Stanza 9

This is the longest stanza of the poem, 39 lines, with as complex a rhyme scheme as you could wish for, with no less than nine couplets, two tercets (triple rhyming lines) and plenty of alternating rhyme.

The speaker is thankful for his childhood and the fact that still, inside, despite life's distractions and alienations, he's able to cling on to the truths that wake no matter the adversity, no matter the noisy circumstances.

Through it all the Soul persists, the speaker retains that sense of eternal bliss, that immortal sea which is indestructible and goes on forever.

The last two lines return the reader to the familiar iambic pentameter and iambic hexameter:

  • And see / the Chil / dren sport / upon / the shore,
  • And hear / the migh / ty wat / ers roll / ing ev / ermore.

Analysis of Stanza 10

Stanza 10

The first three lines echo those of stanza 3, the true lyrical nature of the poem coming through strongly with full rhyme and iambic (and trochaic) beats.

So, let the adult human join with the birds and lambs this May, despite that profound loss of childhood vision, there is still so much to savour and be happy for. If that primal sympathy existed back then in childhood it must go on into adulthood.

This is the essence of being human - that the Soul can never be extinguished. From suffering comes healing, soothing, while faith faces death straight on, and thinking through life can be its own reward.


Analysis of Stanza 11

Stanza 11

The final stanza - we've come almost full circle, with the speaker addressing the natural landscape (Fountains, Meadows, Hills and Groves) as an adult, suggesting that there is no loss of the loving bond established in childhood.

The speaker, Wordsworth, is now content. He has established a new harmony with nature, come through, and his experience of life means that he feels victorious because he retains his feelings (and positive emotions) towards everything.

This is the man declaring himself ready to live a heartfelt life in the sway of the seasons, in the natural environment. He knows his place, he can find even the meanest flower a source of inspiration, a key focus for his innate sensitivity.

Rhyme Schemes in Ode : Intimations of Immortality

Each stanza has a different rhyme scheme, most of the rhymes being full, but check out the occasional near rhymes:

1. ababacddc (9 lines)

2. aabcbcded (9 lines) goes/rose/go

3. abbccadaadeffeegg (17 lines) jollity/May/holiday

4. abbaaacdddeeffghhhiijj (22 lines) sullen/pulling & warm/arm

5. ababccddefgfghhiijj (19 lines) come/home & splendid/attended

6. abbcddac (8 lines)

7. abbabcdceecffdfggchhhii (23 lines)

8. abcdcdeedbfafggagghhijji (24 lines) belie/immensity

9. ababccdcddeefffghghiijjklklmmnnnoppooqq (39 lines) weather/hither

10. abbacccddeeffgghhif (19 lines)

11. aabbcdccdeffeghgh (17 lines) Groves/loves & eye/Immortality

Wordsworth's Ode Inspired By Coleridge's Sonnet?

Wordsworth's close friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and essayist, wrote an earlier sonnet on the birth of his son. In it he puts forward the idea of human pre-existence as a spirit.

The Author Having Received Intelligence of the Birth of a Son, Sept. 20, 1796.

OFT o’er my brain does that strange fancy roll

Which makes the present (while the flash doth last)

Seem a mere semblance of some unknown past,

Mixed with such feelings, as perplex the soul

Self-questioned in her sleep: and some have said

We lived, ere yet this robe of flesh we wore.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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