Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Garden of May: A Setting for the 'Immortality Ode

The best of poets have always philosophized over flowers. Spring, perhaps the month of May especially, is as good a time as any to consider the mysteries of birth, time, and decay.

Where do we come from? And the equally fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

William Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest of the English Romantic poets, also known as a poet of Nature par excellence, considered these questions in his  celebrated Immortality Ode (full title: "Ode: Intimations of Immortality").

Like the works of Shakespeare, the poem is full of phrases that step out of their original context to find a life of their own in common language (sometimes in an ironic fashion). Ever hear, or read, "trailing clouds of glory"? Here's the sentence in which it appears in the Ode. We are born into this world, the poet says,  

                      Not in entire forgetfulness, 
                      And not in utter nakedness

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

        From God, who is our home:

 Heaven lies about us in our infancy.

The poem appears to say that when a new "soul" is born into this life, it carries some initial remembrance of the eternal realm from which the child came. That remembrance, or "glory," trails some ways through our childhood on imperfect earth, this realm of growth and decline, birth and death: "...he beholds the light, and whence it flows,/ He sees it in his joy." 

          Which (to me) glances at that sense new parents sometimes have of the otherworldly aura of a newborn. What are those eyes looking at that we cannot see?
            For Wordsworth, it's that special connection with the higher realm from which we are "thrown" at birth that cements a young child's oneness with nature. In this poem, the poet conjoins his 'religion of nature' -- his belief in nature as the source of human goodness -- with the orthodox Christian faith that was the be and end all of religion in his society. Not to believe in this orthodoxy was to be damned as an atheist, the charge Shelley and other English "free thinkers" would face. Wordsworth bows openly to orthodoxy in his reference to God as "our home."
            But the poem's assertion of the that infantile apprehension of the holy, of "heaven" lying about one, is pure Romantic. It's akin to Rousseau's belief that children are born not in sin, but in purity -- anathema to the religious in his own country. To Wordsworth, those God-given 'clouds of glory' empower the child's love for the physical world, the unself-consciousness embrace of nature often noted in very young children. Rolling in the grass, playing in the mud, carrying bugs around in a pocket, delighting in the presence of animals. The heavenly "light" the child beholds in nature, the poem continues, transforms him into "Nature's priest."
            In those early years of mortal existence, Wordsworth writes, he "still is Nature's priest/ And by the vision splendid/ Is on his way attended..."
            The Immortality Ode is Wordsworth's fullest statement of reconciliation between his belief in goodness of nature and the facts of life. Those infantile heavenly clouds dissipate in the full light of day -- the mortal, material world that Wordsworth says in a much quoted phrase from another poem "is too much with us" as we grow into our mature lives. We're no longer one with nature, no longer its devoted  priest, as the demands of 'real life' rub their daily erasures over the magic of the wonder years.
             And yet, and here is the poem's great and moving attempt to reconcile transcendent belief and sad experience, as the poet wrestles with the Romantic problem of mortal life -- how to accept that youthful "light" (vigor, hope, optimism) grows progressively dim as we mature and age and suffer losses. In short, if what Wordsworth has told us about the human state in the early part of this poem (and the best of his other poems) is true, then life inevitably goes downhill.
            The ode turns then to what we might call 'the consolations of philosophy.' (A phrase not invented by Wordsworth, or Shakespeare, but by a Saxon forebear named Boethius.) When -- and this is where I began this consideration, with the special appreciation of May as the most transformational, generative, birth-happy month -- the Immortality Ode stages the reconciliation of mortal man with the inevitable loss of exaltation and ecstasy (whether spiritual or poetic or simply 'natural'), he chooses May for his epiphany.
            "Then sing, ye birds," the poet writes, invoking the spirits of the season, then adds bounding lambs, and the music of the "tabor" to summon those those able to perceive through the "heart" (that most poetic organ):

Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
        And let the young lambs bound
        As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
      Ye that pipe and ye that play,
      Ye that through your hearts to-day
                                    Feel the gladness of May!

            (And indeed the month of May has been unusually birdful around these parts. We've had a mockingbird camp out for half-days at a time. The cardinal and the other songbirds have been spring-singing steadily, and some little creature chirped for days on end in the tree or the telephone line above the driveway, seldom taking wing for more a half dozen feet.. though I suspect the burden of his song might be something like "I am so lost." )
             In what would later be called the confessional mode, Wordsworth then speaks in the first person to acknowledge the "lost" radiance even a fulltime poet must acknowledge as mortal's fate.

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
    Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

How about "splendor in the grass"? Have you heard that one; the title of a book (and soon after a major movie) that 60 years ago made bold to treat the sex motive in human conduct. As for the absence of "glory in the flower," don't take this too much to heart, as we will see.

      We will grieve not, rather find
      Strength in what remains behind;
      In the primal sympathy
      Which having been must ever be;
      In the soothing thoughts that spring
      Out of human suffering;
      In the faith that looks through death,

The consolation appears to lie in improved morals, plus some wisdom. We find "strength in what remains behind," in sympathy, in the hard to buy notion that "soothing thoughts" that spring from suffering are a source of strenght, and in a faith stronger than death.

              And then, at the end, if all else fails -- to pierce the shell we necessarily thicken around ourselves to defend against "human suffering" and, I suspect, the growing awareness of oncoming death  ... there are flowers.

             However tepid some of these prior consolations may appear to us, the last stanza pays for all. After the tone of these rationalizations ("which having been must ever be"), what bursts forth is tried and true lover's love song.Wisdom colors the poet's vision, but an aging, studied, lived passion is even more passionate, these lines tell us, even more life-affirming. How about that little phrase "too deep for tears"? Heard that one? Here it is, fully earned. And you can't miss the blossom in this final vision:   

And O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,

Forebode not any severing of our loves!

Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;

I only have relinquish'd one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.

I love the brooks which down their channels fret,

Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;

The innocent brightness of a new-born Day

            Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun

Do take a sober colouring from an eye

That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;

Another race hath been, and other palms are won.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.