“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…
The innocent brightness of the 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…
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.”
The eloquent words penned above were composed between 1802-1804 by the famous Romantic Period poet William Wordsworth. He was born on April 7, 1770 to John and Ann Wordsworth of Cockermouth; but in contrast with this initial normalcy, in 1778, after the death of his beloved mother, Wordsworth was entrusted to the care of Hugh and Ann Tyson in Hawkshead. His closest sibling, Dorothy, was also separated from him and he would not reunite with her until 1794 after his attendance at Cambridge.
With such an unsettling past, Wordsworth’s description of his childhood as the “hour / Of splendor in the grass” is puzzling (180-181). Adding to this confusion, his preference for the youthful past is reflected in many of his other poetic works (e.g., “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798,” and “The Two-Part Prelude”).
In Beth Lau’s article “Wordsworth and Current Memory Research,” memory is explained as a most subjective asset: “…we do not remember everything we experience. Instead, we remember only what we encode of any given scene and event” (676). Moreover, Wordsworth’s own “beliefs, concerns, and expectations” (677) would have colored his view of past experiences.
In other words: Wordsworth’s third-party biographies, although factual, do not necessarily provide an accurate depiction of Wordsworth’s own perception of his childhood.
From his poems, we learn that he saw the dreamlike state of childhood as superior to adulthood, or “The years [which] bring the inevitable yoke” (127), and when “custom [lies] upon [us] with a weight” (130). He believed “Heaven lies about us in our infancy” (66) and we come “trailing clouds of glory” (64). What a contrasting view from the outsider’s perspective of his young life!
Even so, his words are deeply relatable for many readers in that he reveals his disappointment with unmet expectations. Who of us has not lost hope, at one point or another, when what we expect fails to materialize? Wordsworth’s loss of faith and hope in his later works has attracted students and scholars alike.
Yet, perhaps the more inspiring takeaway from his poetry is that in spite of confusion and disillusionment, Wordsworth continued to believe in the “human heart” with all its “tenderness” and “joys” (202-203). He tried to find the gains in the “philosophic mind” (189) which reasons and questions in adulthood.
By focusing on the gains we receive as life progresses, instead of so easily relying on the memories of loss, perhaps we can combine the “glory” of who we were in childhood, with our capable adult selves (64)—a powerful synthesis indeed! And then, just maybe, we can heal ourselves of those troubling “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (206).
Word Count: 460
Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth: A Life. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Lau, Beth. “Wordsworth and Current Memory Research.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 42, no. 4, 2002, pp. 675-692.
Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth: A Biography, The Early Years 1770-1803. Oxford University Press, 1969.
Moorman, Mary. William Wordsworth: A Biography, The Later Years 1803-1850. Oxford University Press, 1965.
Wordsworth, William. “Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Romanticism: An Anthology 4th Edition, edited by Duncan Wu, Wiley Blackwell, 2012, pp. 549-554.