Imagery and Symbols in Ode: Intimations of Immortality
Wordsworth is a direct poet. He does not generally employ images to communicate his thoughts to the reader. He says plainly what he has to say. But the Immortality Ode abounds in images. The reason is not far to seek. The Ode deals with a spiritual crisis which cannot be adequately conveyed except through images.
The poem deals with the divine radiance that a man sees shine on all the objects of nature, and its gradual fading away from his sight with his growth in age. So ‘light’ which suggests the divine radiance occurs throughout the poem. The first stanza has three significant images- apparel, dream and light. The divine light (i.e. radiance) is like an apparel. ‘Apparel’ suggests that the divine light is not visible to the common eye and can be taken off in course of time. Dream suggests the splendour and immaterial character of the divine light. There are many images in the second stanza-rainbow, rose, the moon and stars. These images brings out the loveliness of the divine light. The rainbow suggests the unearthly character of the divine light which seems to invest all earthly things in one’s childhood. The moon is a very meaningful image. Just as it shines most brightly in the sky free from clouds, so the heavenly light appears to be most glorious when the mind of man remains free from material considerations.
The second and third stanzas give a picture of nature leaping in joy. This happiness of nature has been nicely brought out by a host of images-birds, lambs (bounding), cataracts, winds, holiday, shepherd-boy (Child of joy), heavens (laughing), coronal, children (culling), Babe, etc. The cataracts coming hurling down the rocks and the lambs bounding to the accompaniment of the tabor suggest tempestuous joy, while heavens, children shepherd-boy etc. the innocent and pure nature of the joy. Coronal is a common image of joy. One crowns oneself with a chaplet of flowers when one gives oneself up to jollity. The Babe is an image for the abounding vitality of life as revealed in joy.
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The middle stanzas (V-VIII) describe the nature of soul, the divine light man sees in his infancy, and the gradual disappearance of this light. The images are suited to this theme. Star is a significant image. The pole-star guides the mariners on the seas. Similarly, the soul we are born with guides us in our earthly life. The image of “trailing clouds” suggests that we come to this world accompanied with a long line of radiance from God. The use of “the prison-house” as the image of human body is an apt one. A prison- house shuts us out from the light of the world; our material body shuts us out from the light of heaven. Earth is regarded as a man’s foster-mother (nurse) looking after him since he is born. Earth is the image for nurse (foster- mother). “Imperial palace” is a happy image. It conjures up the picture of the mighty palace (i.e. heaven) where God, the emperor of the universe lives. In stanza VII the poet relates how the child imitates the ways and habits of the grown-up man. He describes the process of imitation through the image of the “humorous stage.” Like an actor the child imitates all the different parts, from that of a boy to that of an old man struck with paralysis. Wordsworth describes the child’s divine heritage through a host of images.
The images of “eye” and “blind” suggest that the child can see the celestial radiance to which grown-up people are blind; those of “deaf” and “silent” suggest that the child is deaf to earthly cries and silent in the presence of his divine perception. There are significant images in the line, “Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave.” Just as day hangs close over night, so immortality hangs close over the child. Immortality dominates the child as a master controls the slave. These images convey the sense that the child is completely over-powered and controlled by the consciousness of his spiritual life. The images of yoke, freight, weight, frost suggest the heavy burden of customs and conventions that hang heavily upon the child’s soul.
The stanzas IX-XI speak of the compensations for the loss of the vision of celestial radiance. The images used in these stanzas are profound in significance. The image of “embers” is poetic. It suggests the remnants of childhood memory of divine heritage burnt to ashes by social customs and conventions. The image of light recurs in the lines,
“Are yet the fountain light of all our day.
Are yet a master light of all our seeing”
This light, this spiritual revelation, can to the end give us sight of the eternal life. Then the poet brings in a fine poetic image to suggest how a grown-man continues to have glimpses of eternity in manhood:
“Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”
The image here has a magic and a sensuous beauty rare in Wordsworth. It brings together the peaceful remoteness of life inland and the stirring sight and sound of the open sea. It touches the homely vision of children playing on an earthly shore with the mystic radiance of the spiritual world. The images of the “clouds” and the “setting sun” in the closing stanza suggest the sufferings and mortality of life.
The images of the poem are closely related to the theme. The theme is the immortal nature of the human spirit, intuitively known by the child, partly forgotten by the growing man, but to be known once more in maturity through intense experience of heart and mind.
“The imagery in which the theme is unfolded is inseparable from it-so much one with it that it may be said to be the theme as truly as the underlying thought.”