Ode: Intimations of Immortality - Background


A divine morning -- at Breakfast Wm wrote part of an ode -- Mr Olliff sent the Dung & Wm went to work in the garden we sate all day in the Orchard.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal, Saturday 27 March 1802

In 1802, Wordsworth wrote many poems that dealt with his youth. These poems were partly inspired by his conversations with his sister, Dorothy, whom he was living with in the Lake District at the time. The poems, beginning with The Butterfly and ending with To the Cuckoo, were all based on Wordsworth's recalling both the sensory and emotional experience of his childhood. From To the Cuckoo, he moved onto The Rainbow, both written on 26 March 1802, and then on to Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. As he moved from poem to poem, he began to question why, as a child, he once was able to see an immortal presence within nature but as an adult that was fading away except in the few moments he was able to meditate on experiences found in poems like To the Cuckoo. While sitting at breakfast on 27 March, he began to compose the ode. He was able to write four stanzas that put forth the question about the faded image and ended, "Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" The poem would remain in its smaller, four-stanza version until 1804.

The short version of the ode was possibly finished in one day because Wordsworth left the next day to spend time with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Keswick. Close to the time Wordsworth and Coleridge climbed the Skiddaw mountain, 3 April 1802, Wordsworth recited the four stanzas of the ode that were completed. The poem impressed Coleridge, and, while with Wordsworth, he was able to provide his response to the ode's question within an early draft of his poem, Dejection: an Ode. In early 1804, Wordsworth was able to return his attention to working on the ode. It was a busy beginning of the year with Wordsworth having to help Dorothy recover from an illness in addition to writing his poems. The exact time of composition is unknown, but it probably followed his work on The Prelude, which consumed much of February and was finished on 17 March. Many of the lines of the ode are similar to the lines of The Prelude Book V, and he used the rest of the ode to try to answer the question at the end of the fourth stanza.

The poem was first printed in full for Wordsworth's 1807 collection of poems, Poems, in Two Volumes, under the title Ode. It was the last poem of the second volume of the work, and it had its own title page separating it from the rest of the poems, including the previous poem Peele Castle. Wordsworth added an epigraph just before publication, "paulò majora canamus". The Latin phrase is from Virgil's Ecologue 4, meaning "let us sing a somewhat loftier song". The poem was reprinted under its full title Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood for Wordsworth's collection Poems (1815). The reprinted version also contained an epigraph that, according to Henry Crabb Robinson, was added at Crabb's suggestion. The epigraph was from "My Heart Leaps Up". In 1820, Wordsworth issued The Miscellaneous Poems of William Wordsworth that collected the poems he wished to be preserved with an emphasis on ordering the poems, revising the text, and including prose that would provide the theory behind the text. The ode was the final poem of the fourth and final book, and it had its own title-page, suggesting that it was intended as the poem that would serve to represent the completion of his poetic abilities. The 1820 version also had some revisions, including the removal of lines 140 and 141.

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