Our Birth is but a Sleep and a Forgetting: Sublimity and Childhood in William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations,” and Samuel Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”

In William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and Samuel T. Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the poets explore themes of childhood development while considering the sublime natures of the natural and the divine. Both poets suggest that, as children grow older, they move further away from both nature and the divine, and thus become less and less attuned to the sublime.

In his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Wordsworth presents the issue of sublimity: “The sunshine is a glorious birth;/But yet I know, where’er I go, /That there hath passed away a glory from the earth” (Wordsworth 16-18). While he recognizes the immense beauty of nature (the sunshine’s “glorious birth”), Wordsworth also acknowledges that something is missing. This missing glory that has “passed” can be interpreted as the sublime, that “infinitude – the inability to grasp the immeasurable combined with the awareness of one’s inability to grasp it” (Carson 79), as Jamin Carson discusses in the article, “The Sublime and Education.” Carson also explains that “the sublime is mostly associated with nature… and the sublime experience is a sense of the immeasurable or infinite in the presence of nature” (Carson 91).  Wordsworth continues to expand on the idea of sublimity in the lines:

The Pansy at my feet

Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star. (Wordsworth 54-59)

Again, his experience of nature (“the Pansy at [his] feet”) instills in him a sense of awe and leads him to question where the glory has gone. However, Wordsworth does not necessarily suggest that this unexplainable Glory has left us so much as he suggests that we have left it. To be born, Wordsworth claims, is to fall asleep, and forget—forget the sublime, that is – and lose that otherworldly connection to what is divine. Wordsworth goes on to express that in infancy, we are still somewhat connected to this “glory”: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” (Wordsworth 64-66) But as children, Earth makes us “forget the glories [we] hath known,  / And that imperial palace whence [we] came” (Wordsworth 83-84). Thus, as we move further from our birth, we become less and less aware of the glory we have left behind, and in turn, less connected to the sublime.

Coleridge presents a similar idea in his poem, “Frost at Midnight.” However, he portrays nature not as a reminder of our loss, of the glories that we have forgotten, but as a tool we can use to reconnect to and regain knowledge of those glories. Coleridge does so through reminiscing about his own childhood. He laments that, as a child, he was raised and educated in the city, and thus grew disconnected from nature: “[I] saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. / But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze” (Coleridge 53-53). His disconnect from the natural world led him away from the sublime. He watches his sleeping infant and comes up with a solution, a promise to his son, that he will raise him in nature, in the countryside (they’ve moved to a cottage) and that he will be taught by the wild world around him:

shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God

Utters, who from eternity doth teach

Himself in all, and all things in himself.  (Coleridge 58-62)

Coleridge’s son will be more connected to the nature and in turn, to the divine. By keeping his child connected to nature, Coleridge will perhaps be able to keep him longer in a state of childlike innocence and keep him close/perceptive to the sublime.

While both poets express sadness at the disconnection with the sublime that comes with growing older, they both present ways to combat that despair, and to remain connected. Coleridge suggests a kind of vicarious reconnection through one’s own children, and Wordsworth suggests we immerse ourselves in nature, leaving us with the hopeful message:

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. (Wordsworth 180-183)


Works Cited

Carson, Jamin. “The Sublime and Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 40, no. 1, 2006, pp. 79–93. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4140219. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Frost at Midnight.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, vol. 4, ed. 3, 2019, pp. 562-563.

Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, vol. 4, ed. 3, 2019, pp. 412-415.


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