Ode: Intimations of Immortality - Critical Reception

Critical Reception

The Ode: Intimations of Immortality is the most celebrated poem published in Wordsworth's Poems in Two Volumes collection. While modern critics believe that the poems published in Wordsworth's 1807 collection represented a productive and good period of his career, contemporary reviewers were split on the matter and many negative reviews cast doubts on his circle of poets known as the Lake Poets. Negative reviews were found in the Critical Review, Le Beau Monde and Literary Annual Register. George Gordon Byron, a fellow Romantic poet but not an associate of Wordsworth's, responded to Poems in Two Volumes, in a 3 July 1807 Monthly Literary Recreations review, with a claim that the collection lacked the quality found in Lyrical Ballads. When referring to Ode: Intimations of Immortality, he dismissed the poem as Wordsworth's "innocent odes" without providing any in-depth response, stating only: "On the whole, however, with the exception of the above, and other innocent odes of the same cast, we think these volumes display a genius worthy of higher pursuits, and regret that Mr. W. confines his muse to such trifling subjects... Many, with inferior abilities, have acquired a loftier seat on Parnassus, merely by attempting strains in which Mr. W. is more qualified to excel." The poem was received negatively but for a different reason from Wordsworth's and Coleridge's friend Robert Southey, also a Romantic poet. Southey, in an 8 December 1807 letter to Walter Scott, wrote, "There are certainly some pieces there which are good for nothing... and very many which it was highly injudicious to publish.... The Ode upon Pre-existence is a dark subject darkly handled. Coleridge is the only man who could make such a subject luminous."

Francis Jeffrey, a Whig lawyer and editor of the Edinburgh Review, originally favoured Wordsworth's poetry following the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 but turned against the poet from 1802 onward. In response to Wordsworth's 1807 collection of poetry, Jeffrey contributed an anonymous review to the October 1807 Edinburgh Review that condemned Wordsworth's poetry again. In particular, he declared the ode "beyond all doubt, the most illegible and unintelligible part of the publication. We can pretend to give no analysis or explanation of it;-- our readers must make what they can of the following extracts." After quoting the passage, he argues that he has provided enough information for people to judge if Wordsworth's new school of poetry should be replace the previous system of poetry: "If we were to stop here, we do not think that Mr Wordsworth, or his admirers, would have any reason to complain; for what we have now quoted is undeniably the most peculiar and characteristic part of his publication, and must be defended and applauded if the merit or originality of his system is to be seriously maintained. In putting forth his own opinion, Jeffrey explains, "In our own opinion, however, the demerit of that system cannot be fairly appretiated, until it be shown, that the author of the bad verses which we have already extracted, can write good verses when he pleases". Jeffrey later wrote a semi-positive review of the ode, for the 12 April 1808 Edinburgh Review, that praised Wordsworth when he was least Romantic in his poetry. He believed that Wordsworth's greatest weakness was portraying the low aspects of life in a lofty tone.

Another semi-negative response to the poem followed on 4 January 1808 in the Eclectic Review. The writer, James Montgomery, attacked the 1807 collection of poems for depicting low subjects. When it came to the ode, Montgomery attacked the poem for depicting pre-existence. After quoting the poem with extracts from the whole collection, he claimed, "We need insist no more on the necessity of using, in poetry, a language different from and superior to 'the real language of men,' since Mr. Wordsworth himself is so frequently compelled to employ it, for the expression of thoughts which without it would be incommunicable. These volumes are distinguished by the same blemishes and beauties as were found in their predecessors, but in an inverse proportion: the defects of the poet, in this performance, being as much greater than his merits, as they were less in his former publication." In his conclusion, Montgomery returned to the ode and claimed, that "the reader is turned loose into a wilderness of sublimity, tenderness, bombast, and absurdity, to find out the subject as well as he can... After our preliminary remarks on Mr. Wordsworth's theory of poetical language, and the quotations which we have given from these and his earlier compositions, it will be unnecessary to offer any further estimate or character of his genius. We shall only add one remark.... Of the pieces now published he has said nothing: most of them seem to have been written for no purpose at all, and certainly to no good one." In January 1815, Montgomery returned to Wordsworth's poetry in another review and argues, "Mr. Wordsworth often speaks in ecstatic strains of the pleasure of infancy. If we rightly understand him, he conjectures that the soul comes immediately from a world of pure felicity, when it is born into this troublous scene of care and vicissitude... This brilliant allegory, (for such we must regard it,) is employed to illustrate the mournful truth, that looking back from middle age to the earliest period of remembrance we find, 'That there hath pass'd away a glory from the earth,'... Such is Life".

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