Creative process in poetry: Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode: What is its meaning?

Of all of the varying interpretations of Wordsworth’s Great Ode (1) there are two major diverging viewpoints.

Some say the poem is a lament, or in Lionel Trilling’s words *, “a farewell to his art, a dirge song over his departing [poetic] powers,” a view of the poem which Trilling rejects. (2)

Others consider it to be a poetic description of Wordsworth’s feelings about losing the magical perceptions of the world, which people, including Wordsworth himself, have of the world when they are children.

Trilling suggests that the “lost powers” interpretation stems from certain “unexpressed assumptions  readers have about the nature of the mind…I refer to the belief that poetry is made by means of a particular poetic faculty, a faculty which may be isolated and defined.”

Further Trilling says, “I will therefore say at once what I think the poem is chiefly about. It is a poem about growing; some say it is a poem about growing old, but I believe it is about growing up…It is concerned with ways of seeing and then with ways of knowing. Ultimately it is concerned with ways of acting… ”

Three of the key lines in the poem are:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

And, earlier in the poem:

The things which I have seen I now can see no more

Of these and similar lines, Trilling concludes, “…The interpretation which makes the Ode a dirge over departing powers and a conscious farewell to art,  takes it for granted that the visionary gleam, the glory and the dream, are Wordsworth’s names for the power by which he made poetry…Wordsworth tells us how he made poetry; he says he made it out of the experience of his senses as worked upon by his contemplative intellect, but he nowhere tells us that he made poetry out of visionary gleams, out of glories, or out of dreams.”


(1) The full title of the poem is :
Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood

(2) From a section of Lionel Trilling’s work, The Liberal Imagination, published by the Viking Press Inc., and reprinted in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, Edited by M.H. Abrams, (Cornell University) , Oxford University Press, New York, 1960.
All quotations of Trilling or paraphrasing of his words are directly from or based on his words in this work.

* About Lionel Trilling
Lionel Trilling, (born July 4, 1905, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died Nov. 5, 1975, New York, N.Y.), American literary critic and teacher whose criticism was informed by psychological, sociological, and philosophical methods and insights. Educated at Columbia University (M.A., 1926; Ph.D., 1938), Trilling taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin and at Hunter College in New York City and in 1931 joined the faculty of Columbia, where he remained for the rest of his life — Encyclopeadia Britannica 

— Dennis Mellersh

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
This entry was posted in Creative process in literature, The creative process in Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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