March 27: On this day in 1802 William Wordsworth began writing “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The poem contains some of his most well-known lines and ideas — that “the child is father of the man,” that “birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” that “trailing clouds of glory do we come,” however these must fade:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more….
This is stanza one of what would eventually be eleven stanzas, but in 1802 Wordsworth broke off after the first four stanzas, at one of the most famous double-questions in Romantic literature: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” He did not return to the poem for several years, some critics reasonably concluding that he had asked a question for which he had no adequate answer at the time, or an answer which intimated considerably less than immortality. Biographer Kenneth Johnston (The Hidden Wordsworth, 1998) describes the “Intimations” ode as posing a question that went beyond unanswerable to intolerable: “If people left notes saying why they had decided not to commit suicide lying next to the suicide note of their original impulse, we could say that [the poem] combines both macabre genres.”
But Wordsworth did return to the poem, facing down his famous questions with an equally famous affirmation:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
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,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.