“The homely Nurse doth all she can”: Gender and Personification in Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Rebekkah Frisch McKalsen

Abstract


The greater Romantic lyric, defined by M. H. Abrams in his famous essay, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” (printed in The Correspondent Breeze, 1984), is a poetic form following a three-part structure: the speaker describes a landscape or specific objects in a natural environment, sparking a “process of memory, thought… and feeling” (The Correspondent Breeze 77) tied to the outer scene. The speaker comes to a moral decision, faces tragedy, or achieves insight, then the poem “rounds upon itself” (77) to end where it began, altered by the speaker’s change.

Given the normative gender relations of the 1790s (established by Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), I argue that the diction in Wordsworth’s famous greater Romantic lyric, Intimations Ode (1807), creates an inversion of those relations: the personified Earth changes the spiritual nature of the masculine Child into a more pragmatic one like that of the feminine Earth, during which process the Child loses his spiritual immortality. I contextualize my close reading of the poem in terms of both contemporary scholarship (none of which addresses personification’s function in the ode) and Wordsworth’s literary polemics in his “Preface to The Lyrical Ballads” (1802). Because Wordsworth states therein his aim is to “adopt the very language of real men” and thus avoid personification in poetry (Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period 297), his characterization of an agential Earth in Intimations Ode not only contradicts his theory but also engages with early nineteenth-century proto-feminist debates about women in order to suggest a gendered and unsolved divide between immortality of the body and the soul.


Keywords


Wordsworth; Personification; Gender

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