A Comparative Study on Wordsworth's Ode On Intimations Of Immortality & Coleridge's Dejection

When Wordsworth arranged his poems for publication, he placed the Ode entitled "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" at the end, as if he regarded it as the crown of his creative life. 

The three parts of the Ode deal with a crisis, an explanation, and a consolation, and in all three parts Wordsworth speaks of what is most important and most original in his poetry. The Ode's unusual form is matched by its unusual language. The stately metrical form is matched by a stately use of words. Wordsworth seems to have decided that his subject was so important that it must be treated in what was for him an unusual manner, and for it he fashioned his own style. Because the Ode lies outside Wordsworth's usual range, it doesn't perhaps realize its ambitious aims. He, who had known moments of visionary splendor, found that he knew them no more, and that is a loss which no poet can take lightly, or however comforting his consolations may be, accept in a calm, philosophic spirit. But Wordsworth was so determined not to surrender to circumstances that he made his Ode more confidant than was perhaps warranted by the mood which first set him to work.

Wordsworth lost something very special in his whole approach to nature and his relation with it. At the height of his career Wordsworth discovered that nature, in which he had put on unquestioning trust as the inspiration of his poetry, seemed to have abandoned him and deprived him of his most cherished strength. Tintern Abbey anticipates the Ode in distinguishing between two periods in Wordsworth's life. In his youth he throve on a visionary power which worked through nature; later he found a living presence which inspired him with devotion and was the "soul of all his moral being." This difference and this contrast run through the Ode. Wordsworth needed time and tranquility to absorb his experiences and transform them into poetry. When we look at the circumstances in which the Ode was begun, we notice that something had recently happened to Wordsworth and that an old problem had developed a new seriousness and insistence. Wordsworth began the Ode at a time when he was exercised by two different ideas about nature. In the first place, the fitful returns of his youthful vision made him ask why they were not more frequent and more secure. This made him anxious and uneasy. In the second place, he believed that in the moral inspiration of nature he had found something to take the place of his visions, and the discovery gave to the Ode its positive and consoling character. Such, no doubt, was his state of mind when he conceived the outline of the Ode. Wordsworth found that his visionary gift was not so dead as he had thought, but still at times returned to him. He saw more clearly how much comfort was to be found in his moral conception of nature.

He was thirty-two years old and found that his inspiration was not what it had once been, that it didn't work so readily or come in the same way as of old. He built his poetry on nature. It was the source of his creative strength and opened worlds of the imagery to him. It was therefore a matter of anxious concern when he realized that this source was in some ways drying up. Nature might fail him in one way but it still supported him in another, and he was more than content with that.

Wordsworth, then, seems to have begun his Ode because of some deep trouble which he had brought to the surface by his affection for Coleridge. The problem which concerned both friends was that of poetical inspiration. Wordsworth faced the problem in the first three stanzas of the Ode and then abandoned it for at least two years; Coleridge, slower perhaps to start but quicker once he had started, told of his crisis in the poem which he called "Dejection". Wordsworth's Ode, at least in its eight last stanzas, is a kind of answer to Coleridge's "Dejection". The two poems are concerned with central problems in the Romantic outlook and show to what different conclusions two men could come who shared their inner most thoughts, and followed, as they believed, very similar aims. Both poets share a common crisis, but each interprets it in his own way. When Coleridge examines himself and speaks with fearful candor of his inner being, he sees nothing but an empty, lifeless depression. At some moment, Wordsworth felt something like this, but he has conquered and suppressed it. In the Ode, almost as if in answer to Coleridge, he stresses his own confidence and the delight which he still takes in nature, despite his loss of something most valuable. There was in Wordsworth something tough which Coleridge lacked. Coleridge's sensitiveness was part of a gentle nature. When things went wrong with him, he didn't know what to do and was prone to lament defeat. Wordsworth was made of harsher stuff and sought for a new scheme of life to replace the old.

The differences between the two men is well illustrated by the different scenes which they describe. While Wordsworth speaks of a fine mourning in spring, Coleridge speaks of a stormy night with the moon shining between clouds. What should fill him with inspiring joy leaves him cold. There was one thing which touched Coleridge more than anything and it was the moon. He saw in it a symbol of the poet's power to transform the material world into a world of the imagination. In "Christabel" the hidden moon serves to emphasize the helpless state of the heroine, and in the Ancient Mariner, the moon increases the mystery of a spirit-haunted world. It is appropriate to use it to illustrate his dejected state. Wordsworth was inspired not by vague forms and definite contours, but by the stirring of light and life, the budding of flowers, and the sunshine on the meadows. While Coleridge was at his best among dimly described shapes, Wordsworth moved happily and confidently among solid forms.

This contrast shows the more delicate nature of Coleridge's genius and illustrates why when his crisis came, it was more fearful and more final than Wordsworth's. The differences of personality which are illustrated by the "Ode" and by "Dejection" are raised by differences of outlook on the task of poetry and the place of imagery in life. 

In the first place, the double crisis shows how differently Coleridge and Wordsworth reacted to the external world. As a poet Coleridge was an idealist who believed that the mind fashions the universe for all purposes that really matters. His present grief has come because he feels that he has lost his power to create through the imagination that he can no longer shape experience into beauty and impose his will on nature. Because he has lost his inner joy, he has lost his gift of imaginative creation, and he can't but lament the circumstances which are responsible for this. He has lost not only his poetical gift but what makes life worth living. With Wordsworth it is quite different. For him nature exists independently and needs only to be used and interpreted. He stresses this independence and this essential joyfulness of nature as he develops his poem. Whereas Coleridge puts all his trust in his own imagination and is in despair when it fails him, Wordsworth continues to believe that nature stands outside himself and has still much to give him, if he will only be ready to receive it. 

A second point of contrast revealed by the two poems is between the different ways in which Coleridge and Wordsworth were inspired to write poetry. On his own experience, Coleridge is empathetic. For creation he needs joy. It may not be all that he needs, but so far as it goes, it is indispensable. This pure joy is the "strong music in the soul" which enables Coleridge to create, and this is what he has lost. Without it he feels helpless and miserable. What stirred Wordsworth's creative energy was not joy, as Coleridge describes it, but something more complex. Nature might delight him, but it also did something else. It woke hidden powers in him by a process which was not always enjoyable. For him, beauty and awe were closely mingled in any keen appreciation of natural things, and each contributed to his conception of his task. When he talks about his childhood, he gives a correct account of his spiritual development. If he was sometimes assailed by fear, it was not a deadening emotion but something which enriched his nature through the awe with which it struck him. Wordsworth saw that some kinds of fear are good and that a man does well to be afraid before the mysteries of life and death. Fear bred surprise, and from surprise Wordsworth derived a special exaltation, a sense of enhanced life, a keener vision and a greater power to create. His childhood had moments of anguish and terror, and he was more grateful for them than for its hours of happiness. When he wrote the Ode, he saw that his moments of awful vision were responsible for the best things which he did or knew. In comparison with the strange workings or Wordsworth's creative faculty, those of Coleridge were indeed frail, since they were founded in a joy which he lost early and never regained.

A third point of comparison between Coleridge and Wordsworth turns on their conception of the world which the imagery finds beyond the senses. Through the exercises of the imagination the "inanimate cold world is transformed into something real and living. The imagination creates reality by absorbing the given into the world of spirit. This is the only reality for Coleridge, but this is not Wordsworth sought or found. There were moments when by some mysterious and magnificent process he passed beyond the visible world into some other order of being, vaster, and more wonderful. Instead of examining nature with a close observant eye and extracting all that he could from it, he found himself unaccountably transported into another sphere of being, shapeless, and frightening and beyond the reach of exact words. He seemed then to lose all ties with common life and to be absorbed in something much wider and more majestic. Physical nature ceased to count for its own sake and became the entry into another world. While Coleridge seeks to transform the given world through the imagination, Wordsworth knows moments when he passes beyond it to something else, and he believes that this task is essentially one of the imagination.

The Ode, then, is a kind of answer to Coleridge's "Dejection" or at least to the doubts and anxieties which prompted it. Wordsworth lived not only with but on nature, and what he prized most in it was its capacity to open to him another world through vision. It is this which he lost, perhaps not entirely, but enough to cause him a deep anxiety. There is Wordsworth's conviction that at times he was in another world which was more real than that of the senses, a world not of sight but of vision. His entries into this world were closely connected with his creative and imaginative faculties. And when he had this experience, he felt that he passed outside time into eternity. He was then so unaware of the common ties of life that he had a timeless exaltation. 

Wordsworth devotes some stanzas in the Ode to his special idea of childhood as time when "the vision splendid" is normally with us, and to his explanation of this by a theory that a child has memories, which he gradually loses, of a blessed state in another world before birth. Of course, he has his own childhood in mind. Now, on looking back over the years, he sees what childhood was and finds in it an explanation of his early visions. Indeed, we can almost see why his mind turned to childhood and children in this way. In the first version of "Dejection", Coleridge complained that his children had become for him a cause for regret and anxiety which only made his situation more painful. In answer to this, Wordsworth puts forward his belief that in childhood we see a celestial state which explains much that we most value in ourselves. He contradicts Coleridge's complaint and to say that instead of children being an occasion for lamentation, they should be an occasion for joy. In childhood Wordsworth sees the imagination at work as he has known it himself in his finest, most creative moments. To explain the presence of this power in childhood and its slow disappearance with the coming of maturity, he advances his account of recollections from a celestial state before birth.

Wordsworth was not a man to put ideas into poetry merely because they were suitable for it, nor was he capable of saying as a poet what he didn't believe as a man. When he said a thing, he did so because he believed it to be true and to need saying. It is impossible to read the Ode without seeing that, when he wrote it, Wordsworth was convinced of pre-existence and of recollections from it in childhood. The theory of recollections from it in childhood. The theory of recollection goes back to Plato, but Wordsworth didn't take it from him, nor is his application of it Plato's. His sources are Coleridge and Henry Vaughan. Coleridge had played with the idea of pre-existence as an explanation of a feeling that we have in a previous existence done something or been somewhere. Wordsworth picked up the idea because it helped him to explain his own visionary moments. He is concerned with the loss not of imagination but of innocence. From Coleridge Wordsworth took the idea of pre-existence and from Vaughan that of a slow decline in celestial powers, and from this combination formed his own original theory. Wordsworth's theory of recollection enabled him to put into a single consistent form the three matters which most concerned him.

 In the first place, he had known a vision of another world, and he couldn't but believe that this was both real and divine. He saw that his moments of intimacy with it were close to something which he had enjoyed in childhood and which other children enjoyed. In the child's vision of another world Wordsworth saw something very like his own visions, and he could not but connect the one with the other. 

Secondly, Wordsworth knew that this visionary power was closely connected with the imagination and the creative process. Indeed, he hardly distinguishes between the two, so convinced that the act of creation in the highest sense involves a special insight into the nature of things. In children he sees this creative power in its purest form. The child fashions his own little worlds of the mind because he is divinely inspired by heavenly memories.

Thirdly, through vision Wordsworth found what he called eternity. The idea is too vast for analysis, but we can at least say that when he felt himself in its presence, Wordsworth believed both that he had transcended his temporal being and that he was at the heart of reality. Wordsworth found his explanation of imaginative power in the capacity of children to create and to imagine and while doing so, to have no sense of time or of the limitations of our human state. In the visionary experience which Wordsworth once knew so well and now knows only rarely and fully, he feels that he passes to eternity, and this is what his theory expresses. 

Wordsworth believed himself to be immortal because through the objects of sense he had known a lofty exaltation in which he passed beyond time. He enjoyed the companionship with nature and believed to be more lasting and less intermittent than his vision. In the presence of nature his human emotions were stirred and enhanced in a peculiar way. His feelings for the fellowship of natural things was so instinctive and so powerful that he was almost more at home with them than with human beings, and among human beings he preferred on the whole those who were closest to nature. He believed that life in town corrupts and deadens the finer instincts of men and that they find their true selves only in the presence of natural things. He found it hard to release his feelings except with a very few intimate friends and relations. But in the presence of nature his feelings were set free and felt no shyness afterward in writing of them. In him nature awoke especially those emotions of sympathy and affection which he felt for his sister and his wife and a few chosen friends. Under his impenetrable exterior he concealed a real need for giving and receiving affection and when he was among his mountains and trees and flowers, he allowed this to rise to the surface and express itself in poetry.

In analyzing his creative powers, Wordsworth distinguishes between his moments of vision and the more enduring effect which nature had on his affections. Thus, he believed, it remained with him when his visions had departed. Wordsworth's happiness came from living close to nature. In it he found a calm and a contentment. He who had once put his trust in visions now put it in a religion of nature and thought that all would be well with him. Before long it was clear that the religion of nature was not enough, and Wordsworth abandoned it for a more orthodox faith. Wordsworth's belief in natural religion began to wane soon after the completion of the Ode. Its decay almost inevitably followed his loss of visionary power. But what mattered most in him was gone - the creative imagination which carried him beyond the bounds of space and time into some vast order of things, where, in almost losing his individuality, he saw in impassioned vision the power which sustains the universe and gives meaning to life. And when he lost this, it was not long before he lost his secondary but hardly less remarkable gift of feeling himself so close to nature that in its presence he was able to understand the tender movements of the human heart and to enter into full sympathy with them.